The Magnificent Secret Inside Notre Dame

Notre Dame Interior When my skeptical ten-year-old asked what we would see when visiting Paris, I said, “We’ll see Notre-Dame cathedral. It’s the most famous church in the world!”

“Really? In the whole world?” she said.

Kids often use the phrase, “in the whole world” to emphasize whatever thing they admire. “She’s my best friend in like, the whole world,” or “That place has the best smoothies in the whole world.” So I purposefully used it to emphasize the value of the trip. It worked. And in this case, I believed it to be mostly true. There are beautiful houses of worship in say, Russia or India or China, but I couldn’t think of a more recognizable church.

In a calm, reassuring voice, I said, “Yes. The entire world.”

“Cool…” she said.

Later in Paris, this specialness was driven eerily home as we waited to enter Notre-Dame. Three police officers stood amidst the roaming crowd, watching the square while holding the largest guns I’d ever seen in my life. They weren’t the machine guns I’d come across in movies or news photos, they were heavy, rectangular hunks of black plastic with scopes, the rectangular shaft, I assume, meant to store more bullets and perhaps greater fire power. I was both worried and grateful for their presence.

French Police at Notre DameInside the cathedral, the air was dim and cool, the pews packed with people. Mass was in progress and the choir stood in robes at the side chamber. They sang haunting melodies as the priest walked down the aisle, sprinkling holy water on attendees whose heads were bowed in reverence.

As we walked quietly among Asians, Europeans, Africans, and all else, we admired the great art, the soaring architecture, the serenity of the ceremony. Though this kind of stone hall creates a harsh echo any time someone knocks against a pew or drops an object, there was no audial disturbance. Just the sound of the priest speaking, the worshippers replying. Visitors wandered, some with hands folded behind their backs. I took a photo of a large Madonna and child rising over everyone in a plaintive blessing. When I finished, a Japanese woman nodded a “thank you” as I stepped aside. Two older ladies knelt at a small altar in a nook and prayed in earnest. A cluster of students pointed at the paintings of Christ on the walls, debating some feature I couldn’t discern. Near the nave’s front, an Indian man filmed a woman at the podium who was reading from the Bible. When he was finished, he shifted around so an Italian father could lift his daughter to see the altar. We all took turns rotating into the best viewing spots, then returned to waiting families or friends.

In Notre-Dame, you can make a donation and light a candle for the dead. I lit two, one for my father, one for my husband’s father. My daughter asked me in a whisper, who they were for. “My dad and daddy’s dad,” I said. She watched as I set the candles on the rack, each one glowing as a pure, silent tribute to life. I thought of how my father had never seen Notre-Dame, or Paris, or lived into a time when police guarded famous landmarks because a few hopeless criminals wanted to create destruction and despair.

Outside, the setting sun cast a gentle, orange light on the buildings and trees. I held my daughter’s hand, happy to have shown her the most famous church “in the whole world.” More so, I was glad to have shown her Notre-Dame’s best feature, not the church in all of its magnificent architecture but rather the good-hearted, peaceful people with whom we’d shared that magnificence.

Spring Has Finally Arrived

PeonyGood Sunday morning! If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’re probably enjoying a gorgeous, sunny day right now. We finally made it through an unusually cold and prolonged rainy spring. Now the peonies are in bloom and I’m feeling inspired. So inspired, in fact, that I have made a change to my blogging life. If you’re a Gardening, Seattle Style subscriber, you may notice this mail came from the Karen K. Hugg website. That’s because I’ve streamlined GSS into this one, making for more frequent posts and richer content. I’ll be offering advice on gardening and posts about writing, motherhood, and Paris and Europe. If none of that interests you, you can always unsubscribe, I won’t be hurt, but if you stick with me, I’ll hopefully enrich your life.

For now, I have to say goodbye and get into the garden. I’m on a roll. I weeded the very back of my yard yesterday and today need to trim back several shrubs. I can’t wait to hear the sounds of birds chirping and lawn mowers buzzing. Feel that warm sun on my arms. How about you? What are you doing to enjoy this lovely day? Cheers.


My Escape to Italy with Donna Leon

Death at La FeniceWhat author do you turn to for predictability? For a story that’s not too unlike one the author wrote previously? Perhaps, it’s a fantasy series set in a particular world (a la George R.R. Martin) or a mystery series featuring the same protagonist (a la Agatha Christie). It might even be a literary author whose books, while featuring fresh characters and storylines, offer the same, quality writing and beautiful insights (like Barbara Kingsolver). For me, it’s the police procedurals of Donna Leon.

I’ve always read literary novels, the kind that are brimming with gorgeous, profound language but lack a substantive plot. These books are rewarding for what they are, in fact, in most ways, they taught me how to write with deeper meaning and still inspire, but when I discovered the crime genre works of Leon, I discovered an entirely new side of the novel. Leon’s books aren’t weak on sentences, but they aren’t there for the language and profound insights, they’re there for the story, all while featuring compelling plots and interesting characters and layered social commentary.

I’ve been working my way through her 25 novels about Commissario Guido Brunetti, a detective who solves crimes in Venice. When I read her first book, Death at La Fenice, I was struck by the serious, workaday style of her language, sort of like mine, and the deep love of a foreign city (in her case, Venice, in mine, Paris). I was immediately drawn to the practical, middle-aged detective with an intellectual wife and sweet kids whose personality shows quiet intelligence and fair reasoning. Secondary characters are colorful but not clownish, spawning my endearment. I thought it a kick that she often describes Brunetti’s lunch and dinner meals in great detail, so much so that there’s now a cookbook with recipes for the meals he eats.

The setting of watery Venice offers rich history and a portal to Italian life. I spent a long summer in Italy, just after college, and have fond memories of Venice. To go there via Leon’s imaginative stewardship delights me. That I can do it again and again through multiple books, delights me even more.

What’s most satisfying though is that Brunetti is never in intense danger. As I read in bed before sleep, I don’t stress that he might die. I’ve got enough stress as a mom of three kids with a job and house and pets and blah, blah, blah. Brunetti survives each case. Justice is only spotty in these stories, a commentary on the corruption of the Italian system, but Brunetti serves as its moral compass. The characters around him often don’t survive, of course, and some of the circumstances of the murders he solves are gruesome, but this is the nature of a crime novel.

And so, I’ve found a favorite author who I can return to again and again to counter the unpredictability of life. To remind me that, despite what hectic chaos I have to get through, I can always escape to live a brief life as an Italian on the trail of the truth amidst great art, deep history, dedicated religion, delicious food, and the warm sun.

Why I Set my Stories in Paris

115-1600_IMGAmerican cities have never interested me much. Though I was born in Chicago, have spent most of my adulthood in Seattle, and have visited most major U.S. cities, I’ve been less taken with American places than European ones. There’s nothing really wrong with American cities, Americans are friendly, hopeful people. They’re resourceful, they’re scrappy, they believe their lives will get better and better. But they’re not mysterious. History doesn’t matter as much as the future does. Just because you were born into a certain kind of family with a certain level of wealth or lack thereof doesn’t mean you can’t be someone different or richer later in life. Whether that’s true is debatable but Americans believe that. It’s ingrained in our spirit.

In Europe, the past matters. It’s not everything, but it means more to people than it does here. More of the architecture is ancient. Tradition is important. Because of the tiered school system, fewer people believe they can grow up to be whoever they want to be. But with this way of life comes reassurance. Comes less pressure. Of course, Europeans are also forward-thinking. Many people create new ideas, new art, new science every day. The culture changes with the times. Immigrants are drawn to it. And some cities are very modern, but most, simply because Europe is the birth of some ancient civilizations, have an old look and feel America can’t match. And because America was founded by intellectuals with a vision for a new kind of culture, a democracy free of royalty, its nature has always been to jettison the past in the name of what might lie ahead.

When I wrote my first novel, several years ago, I set it in Paris. I thought, “Well, I’m going to satisfy myself. I’m going to immerse myself in a story in a place that I want to dream constantly about. A place I always want to be.” I wrote that book, then rewrote it from scratch in graduate school, and then revised it a hundred times. The constant in all of it was Paris. I never got rid of that setting. I couldn’t. I love that city too much.

My current novel is set there as well. When I started this book, I asked myself some tough questions about why I was setting a book about horticulture there instead of in Seattle where the surrounding area is full of incredible, natural beauty. The answer was because the city of Seattle didn’t interest me. If there’s a city without a soul, it’s Seattle. And Seattle is changing so fast with so many people moving here, I barely know what Seattle people are like anymore. They’re not the granola, earthy types I knew in the early 1990s when I moved here. Things are corporate, people are educated, buildings (more and more being built every day), are aesthetically boring.

But I felt I knew the people of Paris. Not everyone of course. But I felt I could put my finger on the soul of Paris more than any other city. I’ve visited there several times. I worked in a French office. I commuted to work, schlepping every morning on the train, like everyone else. I mixed with residents of all ages. I lost the romantic vision I (as well as many Americans) had of it and learned firsthand the mundane side. Worked with French people in a suburban office. Lived in a tiny apartment. Spoke the language a bit.

It was an experience that never left me. The way I see Paris isn’t the way most people see it. The sheen has worn down. And of course, with its problems and complexity, that’s what Paris is. A large, multicultural city with great wealth and chronic poverty and unique traditions. It has a contradictory nature in some ways. But it’s not like in the movies. It’s just a city — but as far as cities go, it’s the most fascinating and beautiful one I know.