Sunday afternoon, 2 pm:
I'm in the chapel at the cathedral, the quietest place I could find. The cheers of the crowd on St. Catherine reach even here, muffled by the double doors that lead out onto the portico, above the street, filled now with people wearing green glittered hats and garlands, children wandering around dazed and high on sugar, rocked by the megaphones and loudspeakers on the floats, and the insistent bass beat of pop and techno rhythms.
After a falafel sandwich in the Underground, which was quickly filling with green-garbed party-ers, I escaped to a bookstore where I spend half an hour looking at books abour Mexico, and another half hour in the poetry section, pulling out volumes by Ted Hughes, Anne Carson, Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo. My sole companion was a fuzzily-grey-haired man with a furrowed brow, across the way in Philosophy; we ranged up and down our respective shelves, two dinosaurs in this updated chain store which is now more devoted to gifts than books.
And I, too, didn't lift a claw to arrest the decline of the remaining books into fantasy and self-help genres, for I left without buying anything, preferring to go to the library or buy used copies rather than pay the printed, inflated Canadian prices which ignore the fact that the U.S. and Canadian dollars have been at par for a long time.
Now, here in the chapel, standing squarely in the Jurassic, I'm getting ready to sing Evensong, an all-Palestrina program this afternoon, hoping that by 4:00 pm when the microphones go live, the crowds will have dispersed to the bars and the metro, and we can at least hear our collective scales rattling as we walk up the aisle.
As it turned out, quite a few people came into the cathedral after the parade, perhaps out of curiosity, or simply to warm up on a cold day. As the choir took its places in the chancel, some of them remained right near us, up on the altar. They stood around the sides as the conductor began her instructions, gawking at us as if this were a zoo rather than a church, and we were the odd creatures. I'm always stunned by the first notes when the choir begins singing; it seems like something miraculous, this power and beauty contained just within the human body. But only one or two of the visitors seemed taken with it enough to stay for a while, transfixed by a different kind of sound and atmosphere from the street, perhaps different from anything they'd heard before: plainchant alternating with Palestrina's own melodies, emerging from and returning to the silence of another stone cathedral five centuries ago. One mother and child stayed for the service, and as we came down the aisle at the end, the mother bent down to whisper something to the little girl, whose wide eyes were fixed on us, rapt.