Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mistaken Identity at Chartres

World Heritage Sites

Thirty years later, my cheeks still grow hot when I think about my day at the Chartres Cathedral.  It should be the porches lined with statues, the contrasting spires or original stained glass windows, but oh no, what I remember about that day is my encounter with a southern bombshell in the public bathroom.

I was washing my hands when she walked through the door.  She wore a pink polyester pantsuit and her blond hair was piled high on her head in the shape of a beehive.  She took one look at me and screamed.  Outside, I heard her tell her husband, "I don't understand.  It says ' Dame' on the door, but there's a man in there!"  I looked around in alarm.  A man?  But there was no one but me.  Was she talking about me?
I burst into tears.

When my travel buddy saw me, he immediately asked what was wrong.

I told him what happened.  "Do I look like a man?"

He took in my super-short Mia Farrow haircut, my tweed jacket, jeans and hiking boots.  "No way," he said.  "That woman needs glasses."

I owe it to myself to return to this beautiful cathedral (since I saw it through tears).  Built between 1194 and 1250, it's a masterpiece of Gothic architecture with its tall stained glass windows and heavy flying buttresses.  It's one of the few old cathedrals where most of the glass is original.  The French had the foresight to remove all the windows in 1939, before the German invasion.  Later in the war,  an order came from the American Army to destroy the entire building, but a young man, Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr., pleaded with his commanders to let him cross enemy lines to verify the cathedral was indeed occupied by Germans.  Thank goodness they allowed him to do so.  He and another enlisted man crept into Chartres and confirmed that the cathedral was deserted.  The order was withdrawn.  I shiver to think what might have happened if this young man had not stepped forward.
The sculptures framing the portals on three sides of the cathedral tell the story of Christianity.  The entire Bible is represented here from Melchizedek to St. Peter.  We tagged behind a tour group listening to a very erudite guide for awhile, before we were asked to leave.  (This was not a good day!)
I had more fun walking around the town.  In Medieval times, a lively marketplace surrounded the cathedral.  Today, a lively town does so.  I drowned my sorrows with a glass of red wine and an omelette, the ridiculously fluffy kind that only the French can make.

I like my short hair.  It's carefree and chic.  However, today when I travel, I smear my lips with Rose Taffy by Clinique, and wear sparkly chandelier earrings.  I never want to be mistaken for a man again!

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