Let me begin by stating that there is no physical or genealogical connection or relationship between Bėatrice and Alphonsine. In fact there is no connection at all other than the very tenuous one depicted in the “miracle” I am about to relate here. If you do not believe in miracles than – of course – there is absolutely no connection whatsoever. I feel I had to clarify this at the outset, as there are a lot of people out there in the big wide world who either do not believe in miracles at all, or tend to look at all events and phenomena with highly analytical and critical eyes. For those who belong to this group of people, I suggest you stop reading here and now, for I do not wish to waste your time.
For the rest of you… hold my hand and I will lead you to a gentle miracle… A miracle that only occurs if you allow it to happen, if you look around you with an open mind and open heart and let all your senses – including that often questioned sixth one – function unhindered.
So… relax and follow me…
From time to time my wife generously indulges my little foibles. She knows about my love for Paris, which goes back a long-long way into my childhood, when I spent many happy holidays there with my aunts, uncles, and my cousins who were residents in that wonderful city. She also knows about “my favourite girlfriend” who is also a resident there. She therefore decided to give me a birthday treat and arranged a trip to Paris. Her generosity did not stop there; she also escorted me to the residence of “my favourite girlfriend”. Now, that is what I call a truly understanding wife. To appreciate just how understanding she is, you must also realise that she is fully aware of my “girlfriend’s” less than illustrious past. She is also more than aware that this lady is well known for her generous and all-giving nature towards men. And when I say all-giving, I mean exactly that.
Well, my wife is also big-hearted, but not over-generous and certainly not totally mad. She knows full well that my “favourite girlfriend” is dead and has been buried for over a hundred and fifty years. That makes my “affair” with the “lady” if not fully acceptable, but at least safe.
Now, before you accuse me of indulging in necrophilia, let me assure you, my admiration for this lady of past and long faded pleasures of the flesh is a purely nostalgic and harmless affair.
I admit, that in many ways, I am still an incurable romantic. My “love affair” with the lady started way back in my early youth when I fell under her spell in Verdi’s tragic opera La Traviata. It was through the music that the “lady” entered my heart in a big way and stayed there.
Her name in the opera was Violetta Valėry and the story of the opera was based on The Lady of the Camellias, (La Dame aux Camėlias) a stage play by Alexander Dumas Fils, derived from his own novel of the same title that depicted his own love affair with the “lady”, a brilliant young courtesan of his time. In the novel and the play, which is based on facts but where some events and all the names are fictionalised – presumably in order to protect some prominent people and to prevent a major scandal in “better circles” – her name was changed to Marguerite Gautier. It was simply not “gentlemanly” to speak, let alone write publicly about ones illicit affairs, even though – in true French fashion – all of Parisian society was busy constantly nattering about everyone else’s.
The real person behind the legend was a young woman called Marie Duplessis, nee Alphonsine Plessis a girl from Normandy, who was abused as a child by her father and sold into prostitution at the age of 14.
By age 16 she moved to Paris, where she first worked as a seamstress, soon to become the most sought after courtesan of contemporary Parisian society. Her beauty, natural wit, elegance and generosity became legendary. Countless men sought her favours and became her lovers, including Dumas and the famous pianist-composer Franz Liszt. By the time Dumas met her she was desperately ill. Their affair was short lived and soon after it ended she married the Comte de Perregaux and thus for a very brief period she also became known as the Comtesse de Perregaux. Tragically she died of tuberculosis in 1847 at the age of 23. She is buried in the Cemetery of Montmartre in Paris. Her tomb is preserved in perpetuity and there is almost always some fresh flower adorning her grave, giving testimony to the fact that she is not forgotten.
I don’t suppose that there are many men who would chose to visit a cemetery on their birthday. Especially not on their seventieth. On their seventieth birthday most men would not even wish to think about, let alone wish to visit a cemetery. If you feel like, you may call me crazy. My wife certainly did. Nevertheless she accompanied me and stood back while I paid my silent homage to Alphonsine Plessis. I have been here before at least twice. Once in my childhood when my mother dragged me through the cemetery on her visit to the famous but ill-fated lady, and a few years back when I was working on my memoirs and needed some inspiration to recall – and perhaps to lay to rest - a painful past. I have many graves in my heart, but only one single physical one to visit. All those I ever loved and lost with the exception of two aunts and one uncle – two of whom are buried in the U.S.A. - are in unmarked graves somewhere in Europe. As a rule I don’t visit cemeteries. The lady’s tomb is an exception to my own rule. Here I can focus silently for a few minutes and put life in a proper perspective, without disturbing too many ghosts. Feeling a strange kinship with the “lady” takes away the focus, the edge and the pain of loss I would feel for all those I loved and lost and whose graves I could never ever visit. Visiting a place like Auschwitz would be far too painful… and I am definitely not a masochist… more like a coward… A visit to the Cemetery of Montmartre on a sunny February day, paying homage to a once beautiful, vivacious, delightful and tragic young woman induces a touch of gentle melancholy, which is far easier to bear than the pain of loss of those I loved and lost, mostly under horrendous circumstances.
Standing there for a few minutes in the gentle February sunshine, thinking about her brief life and her legendary beauty gave me inspiration to write a poem about her later that evening. And for a brief moment I felt that she was smiling at me. It made my birthday more meaningful by giving a sense of continuity to her existence with my own brief presence at her resting place. There was a connection, however brief and however transitory. It gave me a sense of relief and a feeling of being at peace with myself and with the rest of the world. In the hustle and bustle of every day modern life it is a moment of gentle miracle.
That night I had a vivid and colourful dream of a beautiful young woman, dressed in a white silk dress, approaching me with a broad smile on her face and handing me a single red flower. I would like to believe that it was the living spirit of the Lady of the Camellias visiting me. But that would be too great of a miracle… or would it?…
The following day was St Valentine’s Day. This Parisian trip was sandwiched close between a skiing trip to the Tyrol and a much longer round the world trip yet to follow very shortly. For the past fifty plus years my life had been governed by a tight schedule embodied in an appointment diary. In my working life I never had a holiday longer than maximum three weeks duration… and that only happened twice… Normally holidays lasted no longer than two weeks. This round of “constant holidaying”, three different trips very closely together, caught me on the hop. The significance of St. Valentine’s Day completely slipped my mind.
I went to Paris – the city of romance and love – with the woman I had been married to for forty-nine years utterly unprepared. Not even a card in my suitcase for the occasion. The fact that this trip came about because of her generosity made my omission that much more unforgivable. Something drastic had to be done to remedy my omission and to redeem myself.
There is a famous restaurant at the Gare de Lyon - called Le Train Bleu - an integral part and a major feature of the railway station, built and completed for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The most striking manifestation of the style of what is called the “Belle Epoque” has been preserved inside the dining rooms of this famous Station Buffet. It has large ornate rooms with many statues and large brightly coloured paintings, velvet curtains, huge chandeliers, shining brass ornaments, all carefully and lovingly preserved,
giving an overall effect, which is a harmonious tribute to the distinctive style of the “Belle Epoque” period.
The charm and ambiance of the atmosphere inside is captivating… and the food is sumptuously excellent.
We enjoyed a memorable meal there about two years previously, on a very brief visit to Paris on the way home from the French Alps. My wife loved the place and loved the food. Treating her there to a lavish lunch would – I thought – remedy my thoughtlessness.
Unlike my long acquaintance and “affair” with Alphonsine, up to that day I was totally unaware of the existence of Bėatrice. Heading towards the Station Buffet I was filled with quiet anticipation of a pleasant leisurely lunch to be spent in the company of my longstanding partner, at the absolute exclusion of all other females. She – after all – deserved no less on that special day dedicated to lovers. The shadow, the presence of Alphonsine would have been inappropriate here on this special day; I thought.
The restaurant was bustling with life, it was full and there was a short queue at the entrance waiting for an available table. We were informed at the reception desk that there would be a waiting of at least half an hour before we could be seated and were given a reservation ticket. We made ourselves comfortable at the waiting area near the bar, until we were called to a table.
The tables in all the big rooms are organised in neat rows standing in front of comfortably padded long bench type seats, with a singe equally well padded chair on the opposite side of each table. All the tables in our row were set for two people, but they were so close to each other, that it gave the impression of one long table. In fact to sit on the bench seat, the waiter had to move the table to allow access. As we were being seated there were already two couples sitting at the adjoining two tables. My wife was seated at the bench seat and I took the chair opposite her. At the next table on my right, sat a young, quiet English speaking couple, the man sitting next to me on the chair. On my left, by the window table, a French speaking couple was sitting, already engaged in deep, animated and somewhat loud conversation. Loud that is from diagonally across the table where the young woman was sitting on the bench seat, next to my wife. It became obvious the moment we sat down that, somehow, this lady could not be entirely excluded from this Valentine Day’s lunch. Her presence was almost overbearing as she merrily chatted away to the man sitting opposite her. Inside the large room there was a gentle general hum of conversation going on, mixed with the occasional clatter of cutlery and crockery, superimposed on a muffled and much quieter general hubbub of the station noises filtering in from the outside. The mild background noise would not have interfered the slightest with any desired conversation between my wife and I. However, over and above the background hum was the clear, animated voice of this young woman that seemed to have filled the entire room. Every word she uttered was accompanied and punctuated by broad and incredibly expressive hand gestures that any actress or ballerina would have watched with envy.
For a while I felt cheated and annoyed as I realised that any hope of a quiet tête-à-tête over the lunch with my wife was doomed, as neither of us would be able to compete with this lady’s voice and gestures.
She was wearing a white knitted, lace patterned top over a thin white jumper; she had a pleasant, expressive face that underwent a hundred changes of expression per minute as she conversed, deep dark, expressive eyes and long, curly dark hair. She proved to be impossible to ignore, as she never stopped for a minute, dominating the conversation with the much quieter man sitting opposite her. It also proved to be impossible to stay annoyed with her, as there was some intangible charm oozing from her entire being and her voice - with that typical and inimitable French lilt - sounded more and more like music to the ears rather than an annoying interference.
My wife and I went through an excellent and superb three-course meal with coffee at the end, with only an occasional few sentences exchanged between us, some of which were uttered in quiet Hungarian to make sure that any reference to the lady could not be misconstrue d, should either of them understand English.
At one point during the lunch, as I absorbed the music of the conversation from the next table, without being able to follow the meaning with the exception of a few words, I suddenly felt that I was sitting across
the table of the Lady of the Camellias in her own saloon, quietly observing that beautiful young creature entertaining her guests. Suddenly I found myself a hundred and fifty plus years back in the past in the company of the most desirable woman of Paris. Alphonsine was talking and smiling directly at me. It was a most uncanny experience and I had to shake my head to get back to reality. The experience, short and fleeting, was so real it was almost frightening.
We finished our coffee and I was just about to waive to the waiter for the bill when all of a sudden and unexpectedly the lady from the next table turned to us and addressed us in good English.
- “ I hope I did nor ruin your lunch with my laud conversation.” – she said with a broad smile on
Once again I had this uncanny feeling of facing Alphonsine, the Lady of the Camellias.
She apologised for being laud and explained that she was in an elevated, excited mood and just could not stop herself acting the way she acted during the lunch. We reassured her that her presence and behaviour was sheer entertainment and the absolute embodiment of French femininity. She introduced herself and her partner and within seconds we were all involved in a light-hearted animated conversation.
When she found out from my wife that our visit to Paris was in celebration of my birthday, she turned to me with a broad smile and a broad gesture of those unstoppable “talking” hands and declared in a loud voice:
- “ Oh-la-la, I am going to kiss you in a minute!”
Once again I had the feeling that I was face to face with the Lady of the Camellias.
Then, within minutes and before I could realise what was going on, two waiters appeared with coffees and some petit-fours, each piece with a small lit candle on top, singing “Happy Birthday to you” – in French.
I was speechless…
We stayed at our tables for some hours engaged in conversation. It felt as if we had known this couple all our lives. Through the entire conversation Bėatrice – for that was the lady’s name – dominated the scene with her charm, laughter, directness and informality. She was the embodiment of the perfect host.
She could have been the perfect reincarnation of the Lady of the Camellias. She found out about our fondness of French chansons and immediately pulled out her mobile phone to make arrangements for us to see the last performance of a production celebrating the memory of Edith Piaf. The show was fully booked, but somehow she managed to persuade the owner of the small theatre to reserve - and provide if necessary - two extra seats. We exchanged addresses and contact numbers and promised to keep in touch. And yes, before we finally parted – after some three and a half hours of conversation, during which time the restaurant emptied and the waiters were busy preparing for the evening opening – she fulfilled her promise, by kissing me in typical French fashion and familiarity. One kiss on both cheeks. The perfect finale to an extraordinary encounter.
In the evening my wife and I went to the small theatre, where we were welcomed by Marie the owner - another delightful French lady – in a manner befitting special visiting dignitaries. The theatre was small and crammed, the seats were uncomfortable and we had to have separate seats, but the singing and the performance was a perfect, enchanting, nostalgic and uplifting evening entertainment, a unique experience providing the icing on the cake of a perfect St. Valentine’s Day.
If you feel let down, thinking that there was no miracle described and nothing miraculous happened during either of the encounters, just two ordinary days punctuated by nothing more than random and perfectly natural events; you may have missed the point. Of course I am not talking about miracles that the Vatican would endorse; more like every day minor miracles that, by en large, tend to go unnoticed and unrecognised.
We live in an age of fast food, fast travel, fast talk, fast communication, fast thinking, fast encounters, fast marriages and fast divorce. The daily news is full of horror stories, crime, violence, rape, murder, war and atrocities, carnage, all happening in the fast lane at fast pace. In this high tech age of fast communication people talk, but do not connect. We see a constantly changing blur of violent colours, but fail to notice the blue sky and white fluffy clouds. Thousand of faces emerge from a kaleidoscope background and instantly merge back into a blurred oblivion. There is no time to stop, no time to connect, no time to reflect, no time to absorb the very essence of life which itself is the greatest of all miracles.
Have you observed a bee collecting nectar and pollinating the flower all at the same time? If you have not, you missed a miracle. To see and recognise a miracle you have to slow down and observe. Miracles are all around us. You just have to open your eyes, your mind and your heart to find and observe them.
I found a miracle in a quiet Parisian cemetery and in a busy and noisy Parisian restaurant.
I found it by thinking about a long faded beauty, standing by her tomb, feeling a connection with the past,
finding a sense of peace and quiet in the process and finding her vivacious “reincarnation” the following day sitting across the table in a busy restaurant, smiling at me and talking to me. I found the miracle of connecting with strangers across a linguistic and cultural divide and enjoying a conversation and their company.
And I found the best miracle of all reflecting from my wife’s eyes realising, enjoying and sharing the pleasure and enjoyment I experienced.
If those are not miracles… what is?…
© P. J. Oszmann (February 2004)