Tales from Paris: Sacre Coeur

A mother seeks out the holy; in a way, so does her son.

In our first "Tales" series, columnist E.R. Pulgar reflects on his mother's first time in Paris.

For Laura Arroyave.

My mother's first day in Paris was spent going to Mass. Her excuse was the rain, but I knew it was her dream to hear one in French, to go to confession. I sat with her at Notre Dame, and then asked her to climb to Montmarte. I remember her eyes glinting, child-like in their wonder, their readiness.

I took her up the hill to the Sacre Coeur. After so many steps, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the old city below: children riding the carousel at sundown, didgeridoo players on the steps of the basilica, hipsters in berets running through the cobbled streets, shiny round shades glistening in the light rain. We entered the sprawling structure, me worshipping the marble, the Roman columns, the stained glass of the Sacred Heart of Christ my mother worshipped in silence. We lit a candle for my grandmother.

Mass started, and as my mother sat down I quietly saw myself out. I walked out into the monsoon that had developed as night fell, unable to listen to another litany in a language I did not understand.

The air was thick with musk and lamplight. My fingers were shaky with cold, my lips cut from the wind. I remembered watching Paris fester below and, stereotype that I am, craving a cigarette.

A group of strangers with cameras were nearby, shooting footage of the view of Montmartre from on high, laughing and crying in the forbidden language.

E.R. Pulgar

"Pardon, monsieur," I said in broken French. "Could you spare a cigarette?"

The man laughed, and took out a pack: Red Lucky Strikes. As I put the cigarette in my mouth, and he sparked me up, I thanked him. He asked where I was from, and we began to talk about Miami, about New York City, about why I was outside smoking cigarettes during Mass. I lied on the steps of the cathedral that, until him, I had been unsuccessful at bumming from strangers. Him and his friends laughed, and he embraced me. Suddenly, we were all huddled in a circle of laughter and smoke.

"We're at the Sacre Coeur; and charity is a virtue, yes?"

I nodded, and we laughed into the night. Paris continued to glisten. The priest inside droned on, a litany lost amid the incense smoke, amidst the echoes of my devout mother traipsing about the statues of the saints, amidst the candle for my dear grandmother.

She joined me outside an hour after they had left. I saw, in her eyes, something holy, and knew mine reflected the sentiment.


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