A rabbi in yeshiva one told me that Paris is full of yirat shemayim (fear of God). Why? Because Jews, he explained, brought yirat shemayim with them to Paris but quickly lost it there, where it has accumulated like so much lost luggage. I thought about that rabbi a lot when I first started spending time with Rouge, at least until I found myself with her on the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge over the Seine next to the Louvre and just past the Ile de la Cité. The sun was setting. It was February 14th.. Of course I kissed her, and I refuse to believe that at that moment God was doing anything other than cheering us on. It is only now as I write this that I note the coincidence of that day with the anniversary of the massacre of Strasbourg's Jews, but why should that matter? Life has to be lived, and kissing a recovering Maoist on the Pont des Arts at sunset, massacre or no massacre, is living life well.
A month later, I left Paris to spend two months in Alsace to work in the archives in Colmar. There, I swung the other way and returned to Judaism. I spent the weekdays buried in the archives unearthing the lives of nineteenth-century Alsatian Jews. I spent evenings and weekends living the life of an observant Jew, joining Colmar's Jewish community, the descendants of the people I was studying in the archives, and practicing as they did. I never went to Strasbourg, nor did I think much about Rouge until, after a month, I felt the need for balance as well as a desire for Romance. I phoned Rouge, and we arranged to spend my last two days in Alsace visiting Strasbourg together.
Rouge came to Colmar and immediately contracted a stomach virus. She ate nothing for breakfast before we left for Strasbourg, so as the train pulled into the Strasbourg station she announced that she really, really needed to eat something soon. We walked straight to a salon du thé and ordered tea and biscuits. She ate one, sipped some tea, and then slapped her hand across her mouth to keep from throwing up. I reached over the table and literally pulled Rouge out of her seat and down the stairs to the restrooms. It was too late. Rouge threw up on herself and on the walls before we made it to the ladies' room, where she hid and washed herself while I went about the unpleasant business of finding the waitress to tell her that my girlfriend had puked all over the staircase. When Rouge emerged, we paid (I left a huge tip) and walked, slowly, to a bench in Place Kléber. I bought her a bottle of water, and we sat there together while she tried to recover some strength. It was obvious that I needed to take her back to my hotel room in Colmar so she could rest, but we agreed that we had at least to see the Cathedral before we left. In a sense, since any trip to the Strasbourg Cathedral is by definition a Romantic gesture, going would save the weekend from being a complete waste.
The Cathedral was glorious. Someone was practicing for an organ recital, playing morsels of sacred music and filling the Cathedral's interior with sounds that glowed like the stained glass windows. Rouge and I sat transfixed. Until she threw up again, this time on the Cathedral floor. There was little Romance that weekend.
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