I spent hours wandering around the half-timbered buildings, which clusteredtogether like storybook houses. Over narrow cobbled streets, the housesleaned outward, rising toward each other until the uppermost windows almost touched. Neighbors were close enough to pass a cup of sugar across the street without leaving the house.
Below, in the gloomy alleys too narrow for a car to pass through, I stumbled over slippery stones in the rain. As I searched for the elusive epitaph, I looked around to see what other gems I might unearth.
Jeanne d'Arc, as she is known in France, was a 13-year-old girl when she heard heavenly voices. In 1429, she convinced the Dauphin of France that she could lead his army, and did so, bringing the French to victory over the English at Orleans and Patay. But she was captured and sold to the English in 1430, and the Dauphin, by then King Charles VII, left her to her fate. The English charged her with witchcraft and heresy, and finding her guilty, condemned her to death.
"You must assume your martyrdom willingly and you will enter the kingdomof Paradise in the end," the celestial voices told her. Willing or not, Joanwas burned in the marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.
The cathedral at Rouen is so large, I couldn't get it all into my camera's viewfinder. Though I had seen the cathedral's many faces in Monet's paintings, in person I found it brooding and darkly gothic, with an ancient elegance and air of melancholy mystery. In marked contrast, the church built for Jeanne d'Arc in Rouen is a modern, post-war building given less than a sentence in most guidebooks. It soars heavenward in its own way, angular, asymmetrical, with a wall of stained glass, thousands of bits of amber and ruby and emerald light, luminous despite the rain-darkened sky.
The outward silhouette of the church reminded me of the traditional Bretonwoman's lace cap--white, jutting upward. I had seen many faux examples ofthose caps in the one discordant note to the marketplace: tawdry souvenirshop windows.
Inside the church, I beheld the same reverential hush one always hears, or notices, in a church. A simple, modern icon of Joan was flanked by flickering red votives. For five francs--about a dollar--one could light a candle to honor her, or offer one's own prayers. I heard somewhere, a long time ago, that when you enter a church for the first time, you should make a wish, and I did--I wished I could find Joan's epitaph for my friend.
Next to the church was a bare expanse of ground, which had turned to thick mud in the ceaseless rain. A small sign declared that this hallowed spot was where Joan of Arc was brulee vivre--burned alive. As I stood there, trying to determine if I felt awe, horror, or a disappointed nothing, someone's dog ran across the plot to the sign, lifted its leg, and marked it.
I turned away. Outside the church, across the courtyard, stood a number of souvenir shops, hawking Jeanne D'Arc medals and postcards. They sold everything short of a scrap of wood or charred bone from her bonfire. Tourists were few that rainy Monday, and many regular shops, like the ones that sold exquisitetapestry kits and children's clothing, were closed. But the souvenir shopsstood open, ready to sell.
One shop across from the church advertised itself as the Musee de Jeanne D'Arc. It was a sight too familiar--I could have been at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, or any gimcrack tourist trap exploiting the name and location, reeking of popcorn and jammed by camera-toting tourists and sulky teens. At the Musee de Jeanne d'Arc, merchandise spilled out into bins and spinning displays under the dripping awning on the cobblestone walk.
Inside was a gauntlet of souvenirs: miniature bottles of Calvados, EiffelTower key chains, T-shirts with garish slogans in Italian, German, andEnglish: "France: Been There, Done That!" and romanticized pictures of Joan,with the requisite halo, on her pyre.
The middle-aged shopkeeper perched on her stool, her blond hair in atight bun on her neck. She kept her eyes on the till. No smile creased herface. I felt oppressed in that dim souvenir shop that dared to call itself amuseum, with its 12 postcards for 10 francs, its spoon rests and ovenmitts, its cheap plastic dolls in native Breton costume that were made bythe thousands in China. What could I learn of Joan here?
Nevertheless, I pressed my 20 francs into the woman's palm, pushed through the old wooden door, then descended into the medieval basement of the shop, down uneven hewn stone stairs that smelled of old air and damp earth. In the warren of rooms below, I wandered from display to display, surprised and charmed despite my initial disdain. Glass cases held medals, coins, bits of stories and yellowed holy cards of Joan collected through the centuries.