On January 21, 1793, at 10:22 a.m., Louis XVI, King of France, was guillotined at age 38. The execution took place on the Place de la Revolution, what is now known as Place de la Concorde.
Tonight, a group of a hundred or so French citizens and a handful of curious foreigners assembled in front of the steps of the Madeleine, just a block away from place de la Concorde, for the torchlit procession to pay homage to the deceased -- martyred -- king. There were all ages, from a young Scout to a white-bearded man in a beret. The crowds had gathered, and the organizers distributed candles and torches among the group. When queried about his reason for attending, one elegantly dressed man simply replied matter-of-factly, "Je suis monarchiste. Je suis Orleaniste." Someone offered me a torch to carry for the procession, but since I couldn't stay for the whole event, I had to decline.
My ability to explain French political history is woefully inadequate, so I'll leave it up to you to read all the links. My interest in participating in this event was to try to absorb the social and cultural significance of such a gathering, from my all-too-American perspective.
For those who are dedicated Royalists, on Monday there is a commemorative annual Mass for Louis XVI at the Eglise St. Germain l'Auxerrois (which, by the way, is not in St. Germain, but is just to the east of the Louvre). A solemn religious event where I would feel awkward as a curious onlooker.
Here's why: the naive prelude to tonight's story.
A year ago I dated Hubert, a most charming, witty, handsome, and very aristocratic Frenchman. My moving-to-Paris dream come true! After our first date, things were looking pretty promising. Actually, very promising indeed. We had such fun strolling along the Invalides, then relaxing and and discussing everything under the sun, from literature to education to America to why we love Paris so much, and how it looks like the backdrop to a movie. I was smitten, swooning.
After many sweet phone calls in the interim, Date Two finally rolled around. Hubert and I were delighted to see each other, and all was going well. Somewhere in mid-date he mentioned to me that the next day he was attending a church Mass in honor of the death of Louis XVI.
I giggled innocently, endearingly.
Wrong move. I'm sorry, I didn't really mean to. Hubert looked startled, and just politely restrained enough not to show being really vexed.
"Non, non," I tried to weasel out of my reaction. I wasn't making fun of it; how could I explain this to him? . "C'est charmant. Mignon. C'est adorable."
Wrong, wrong, wrong words to choose. I was trying to express to him... what? That I thought the notion of praying for a king who's been gone for over two centuries was a wonderful, old-fashioned thing to do. Like nothing I'd ever imagined, or heard of before. Sweet and different from my viewpoint. Alas, no amount of back-pedaling was going to get me out of this mess, for sure. It's just that as an American, no matter how well-educated we are, to us -- emotionally and spiritually -- kings and queens are on a par with fairy tales. We're breast-fed on democracy. I mean, think about it: in the US, to commemorate our dead presidents we have car sales in February. I couldn't explain this to Hubert.
How do you combine perplexed and vexed -- verplexed? Whatever the verb is, he was that.
We had a sweet enough remainder of the evening, dining and strolling around our beloved 7e arrondissement. As we parted at my apartment building entrance, he gave little cheek bisous and said, "A très bientôt. On s'appellera."
On s'appellera is the kiss of death, relationship-wise, in France. I haven't heard from Hubert since, though I held a torch for him for a long while. Sniff.
Oh well, I guess I can still carry a torch -- for Louis XVI. Next year.
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