It seemed like a good idea when I booked it. The fifth-floor flat on Rue Saint Merri looked out over the rooftops of Paris, just north of Notre Dame. There was no lift, but we Noltners travel light and we are hardy.
Well. Often we are hardy. But on this day, we were tired from 12 hours of trains and a short hike with our backpacks. It was hot, and I sort of dreaded the climb as I rang the bell and waited for Frederic to show us up.
When the door opened, we lumbered the short distance to the dimly lit spiral that would mock us each day as we returned to our flat. “Plan your days well,” I told the kids. “I’m not going back up there for whatever you might forget.”
Frederic showed us a timed switch at the base of the stairs, twisted it, and a warm glow filled the space as I stared up and up trying to make out the top…where our flat was supposed to be. He said something, but I didn’t catch it. I imagine it was along the lines of “Turn this here dial, and then you better climb fast!”
I counted. Because if I’m going to complain, I like to know what I am complaining about. We scaled precisely 100 stairs just as the timer expired and the stairwell went dark. Frederic stopped at a door and winked. Ah, the flat.
He turned the lock, opened the door and smiled…introducing a final 23 stairs, and THEN the flat.
It was small but enchanting. The view was classic Paris, and the stairs? Not so bad. In fact it became a game of sorts and a defining end to each day. As we passed the others who resided on lower levels, we noticed they were not so weary, but we felt like we were ascending to the castle tower and our prized view.
I’ve always loved stairs. There is a meditation to walking them, like a three dimensional labyrinth and they are like eye candy to photographers…the way the light plays off the layers and lines.
A quarter-century ago Karen and I were in the Vatican Museums in Rome and we stumbled upon a double helix wonder designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932, just 8 years before he died.
I must have spent an hour photographing those stairs, waiting for people to fall into just the right position for the image to compose perfectly. I bet I used two or three rolls of film to try to get the perfect shot. I walked away feeling like I had discovered an ancient ruin and was the first to capture it on film.
Ten minutes later we walked into the gift shop and I found the exact same shot on the cover of a book. I suppose it was unreasonable to think that in a half-century of existence, I was the first to see the beauty of it.
No matter. It was the first time I had photographed it.
In 2012 we went back…the same trip as the flat in Paris…and I couldn’t wait to see those stairs again. They loomed large in my memory, a mythic moment in my life and I wondered if real life would hold up.
This time I stood at the top and just watched. I tried to remember exactly where I stood in 1990 and thought about all the things that had happened since.
I raised my camera and shot just a handful of frames.
And I liked these shots better.