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Out of time

By Philippe JAENADA Sofitel Luxembourg Europe

I had only just turned 18 years old, but in two months I was going to be 50. This fact had left me feeling at once puzzled and disconcerted. Not to mention depressed. Because if I had indeed turned 18 only two or three blinks of an eye ago, I nonetheless had to admit the obvious (surrender to it, in a sense, with hands up and head down): I was no longer as handsome as a youth, that was clear, and I had my doubts as to whether I still had the strength of a man – I felt soft and pale inside, like mashed turnips, and I was already dipping into my energy reserves.

I had married the woman I loved, I still loved her, and we had a 13-year-old son who was gently pulling away from us (with, it seemed to me, the requisite weapons, cards and shields to set off on his own path), while I was floating along in the passing time (it’s interesting to note that we generally think “time passes,” although we are the ones who are supposed to be advancing – it’s as if while riding on a train we’d say that it was the landscape that was passing (this apparent linguistic twist reflects the fact that we most often do next to nothing, remaining immobile as we watch and listen to our surroundings)), letting myself be carried, bobbing up and down like a Champagne cork – a cork
from a forgotten bottle – waiting somewhere between birth and death for nothing in particular. Defeated and miserable and heading toward death, I decided that I had to do something.

 

So I went to spend a week holed up in a five-star hotel in the city of Luxembourg, in the country of Luxembourg. I could have gone there as well as anywhere… It was elsewhere, and unknown. But it was also near, and probably familiar. I had a bit of money from a prize awarded to my latest novel, and I thought that this city, which I had imagined to be away from “everything” (a uniform and protected enclave in a country that bore the same name), another planet, would be an ideal setting for my trip, a place at once strange and peaceful and thus perfectly suited for putting myself temporarily on hold, for stepping out of my life. The grand hotel, comfortable, elegant and undoubtedly quiet, would serve as a fortified setting for my reflections, which might or might not involve my confrontation with the question of life and death, a question that in fact was not even a question (the simple fact of asking it is presumptuous).

I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place. The hotel resembled an ocean liner, moored above the city on the Kirchberg plateau, in a sprawling district of businesses and European institutions entirely devoted to work, a zone almost extraterrestrial, calm and geometric, nothing but office towers in which thousands of employees, invisible behind tinted windows, worked to keep the world functioning. Two stunning structures stood among them as reminders of the beauty of life on earth: the Philharmonie, by Christian de Portzamparc, and the Museum of Modern Art, by I.M. Pei.

Inside the hotel, the feeling of being on an ocean liner was even more striking – clearly the architect’s intention. The building was a great oval, a sumptuous cruise ship whose extremities were almost pointed, with an immense atrium-like lobby in the middle that seemed to be open to the sky, with only a transparent roof for a ceiling. On either side of the five floors, rooms were lined like cabins along gangways served by two glass elevators. Even before I had gone as far as the reception desk, I knew that I would not leave this place for a week: Nothing could have been better suited to my state – an indolent, aimless lolling around that had become my existence – than this immobility imposed for no reason, this pampered solitude in which I would be freed from obligations to act, freed from outside impressions and responsibilities, embarked on a stationary cruise out of space and time at last.

I would eat in one or the other of the two restaurants, drink in one or the other of the two bars, perhaps read, listen and look around me, sleep in a big, soft bed. I would go outside only a few minutes each day, stepping onto the front steps as if onto a ship’s deck, to smoke.

But it turned out that I didn’t even have to do that. In the Havana Lounge, a bar decorated in dark red tones and wood, with dim lighting, old leather chairs, antique lamps, models of ships, books and display cases filled with cigars, smoking was permitted – but hotel employees were not allowed to enter, as stipulated by a law intended to protect their health, so patrons had to get their own drinks in the bar next door, which was just as luxurious and pleasant only brighter and healthier. It had an excellent selection of rare and mysterious whiskies. I therefore spent the whole week in the Havana Lounge, a glass of magic elixir in hand, surrounded by strangers who lowered their voices when speaking in the coppery half-light laced with the heady, melancholic scent of cigars.

On the first night, I realized that I was where I wanted to be, that I had left behind the known world: Seated on an olive-green leather
couch near the arm chair in which I had settled under a small lamp with a glass and an unopened book, two heavy-set, gray-haired men in well-cut suits (one wore a three-piece version with a vest) were drinking cognac or Armagnac while discussing Joan of Arc. In a soft voice marked by an accent that escaped identification (by me), the man with the vest was explaining to the other man that Joan had not in fact been burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. Or at least, he said, she had been alive after her death (which had apparently not bothered many people at the time, given that everything was possible in those days, especially when it involved extraordinary beings). She had been seen in
1436 near Metz, where two of her brothers, Pierre and Jean, had formally identified her as being their sister – one of them had immediately delivered the news to Orléans, where the annual commemoration of her death was thus promptly canceled. Joan (who, strangely, was going by the name of Claude) had been presented to Elisabeth de Goerlitz, the duchess of Luxembourg, who also recognized her as being the so-called Maid of Orléans.
The duchess of Luxembourg, according to the dapper storyteller with the vest, was, after all, reputable as far as such witnesses go.
Unfortunately, my neighbors then stood up, having finished their cigars, and I was unable to hear the end of the story. When the Havana Lounge’s glass door closed softly behind them, the big graying fellow was telling of Joan’s reunion with the king of France, Charles VII.

 

I was left lost in thought. Here I was in Luxembourg intending to look into the matter of life and death, and the first thing that I overhear purely by chance is that Joan of Arc, heroine of an entire people, had come to Luxembourg after having been burned at the stake. It was unsettling.

 

Upon my arrival, I had vowed not to touch my laptop (which I had brought along so that I could do some writing if boredom overcame me). I didn’t want any contact with the outside world, which would feel like an escape from my airtight cocoon. But before going to dine at the hotel’s Italian restaurant, I couldn’t resist the nagging desire to return to my fifth-floor room and switch on my little black MacBook in order to find out what had happened to Joan’s ghost.

 

When, lying on my stomach on the cushy white bed, I had entered the words “Joan Ghost Luxembourg,’’ the first site that Google proposed referred to a “Luxembourg Garden ghost.” Wrong. So I added the words “of Arc,” which I had forgotten because of my emotional familiarity with the ghostly combatant. I quickly, and sadly, found what I was looking for. A certain Lady of Armoises, named Joan or Claude (who knows which), had indeed presented herself as being the glorious Maid of Orléans returned from the dead, motivated only by the trivial desire to make a buck (which is also what prompted Joan’s two brothers, the vile, conniving Jean and Pierre, to feign recognition, no one taking any interest in them since their sister had gone up in smoke and they had been left to vegetate penniless). Duchess Elisabeth de Goerlitz, meanwhile, must not have had her wits about her. In Luxembourg, Joan or Claude had married a certain Robert des Armoises, sire of Jaulny, had quickly bore him two children (the supposed Maid had thrown her chastity out the window) and had lived the high life (mostly in the local bistros) until she finally met up with Charles VII after four years of epistolary exchange. The impostor was immediately unmasked, but the miffed king pardoned her nonetheless and she lived the rest of her days in the shadows, at the Jaulny castle with her
husband. I would have been better off not turning on my computer.

For two or three days, I immersed myself in the subdued alcoholic tranquility of the Havana Lounge and the sweet warmth of the  cigars, discreetly observing my neighbors, who were living the good life. I was comfortably euphoric and thinking that even if the hosts did turn out to be nothing but crooks in disguise, even if death was indeed unavoidable and lying quietly in wait, it was all still more than worth it, even if it meant doing nothing, living adrift and motionless. I was content with the subtle yet intense pleasure of this trip. Apart from a few luxurious accessories, my stay nonetheless was almost exactly like my life the past few years in Paris – and I was complaining? (In the hotel brochure, the director had written: “Life in Luxembourg is magnificent.” I agreed with her).

I had hardly opened my mouth since arriving on Monday, even a slight movement of my arm seeming to consume all my available energy, and I felt as if I were being covered little by little with dark green moss. On the soft bed on Thursday afternoon, I switched on my computer again. I didn’t feel bad, though, because strictly speaking this was not opening a window onto the world from which I had withdrawn, but rather onto the margins of the world, the past. The ghost of the Luxembourg Garden had been on my mind, lingering more or less in the background, for three days. I had come here to the city of Luxembourg to reflect on life and death only to learn that a possible hitch (I’m optimistic) might in fact be found in the Luxembourg Garden, only a 10-minute Métro ride from my home in Paris. I again entered “Joan Ghost Luxembourg” in the search field.

Google, with good reason, lops men and women into the same basket, that of human being. Therefore, what came up in French was not a female Jeanne (which is Joan in English) but a male Jean (or John). He was a 24-year-old medical student, Jean Romier. (I recalled in passing that on Monday I had noted that Joan of Arc’s mother’s name was Romée, Isabelle Romée.) On Saturday, June 27, 1925, around 10 a.m., Jean Romier, a most stable and good-natured young man, was studying in the Luxembourg Garden, on an out-of-the-way bench in the shade of a tree in bloom. Seated nearby was a gaunt old man in an antiquated 19th-century overcoat who seemed to be dozing. After a few minutes Jean thought he heard a murmur.

“Excuse me?” Jean said.

“I said I like this place, it’s so calm. I’ve been coming here for a long time and nothing changes, even the trees don’t seem to grow.”

They struck up a conversation and the old man, having learned that Jean liked classical music, invited him to a chamber music concert at his apartment (a Mozart quartet would be featured) the following Friday at 9 p.m. His name was Alphonse Berruyer.

 

On the agreed evening, Jean Romier knocked on the door of the apartment on the left side of the third-floor landing in a well-appointed building (as a literary man might say) in the rue de Vaugirard. Monsieur Berruyer, eyes sparkling behind small round glasses, cheerfully greeted him and introduced him to his family – his wife, sister-in-law, grandchildren André and Marcel, nephew – and the concert began. It was a quartet with a flute. Afterwards, Jean stayed for a good hour chatting with them (Marcel was studying law, André was preparing to enter the naval academy, the nephew was heading to a seminary), sitting in a beautiful armchair in the library that doubled as a smoking room, sipping Madeira wine and nibbling on appetizers. He then bid farewell to is new friends, as he had classes early the next morning. But
once in the street he realized that he had left behind a fine-cut gold lighter that his parents had given him for his birthday. He climbed back up the three flights and knocked at the door. This time, no one answered. He knocked again, louder. He heard no sound coming from inside, although he had left the apartment only three minutes before. Incredulous, he knocked and knocked. Disturbed by the noise, an old man came out of the apartment next door. Jean explained that he had forgotten something at Monsieur Berruyer’s apartment. The old man
frowned.

“The last Berruyer who I knew died about 20 years ago,’’ he said, “and no one has lived in that apartment since.’’

Jean Romier was annoyed: He wasn’t crazy, he insisted, he had just spent the evening there with the whole family. The old man’s expression then changed and he shouted, “Thief! Thief!” The concierge came running up, other neighbors arrived. They surrounded the young man and called the police, who took Jean to the station. He identified himself, told his story, described every room in the apartment, the furniture, the knick-knacks, the smoking room. The officers didn’t believe him. But they were baffled nonetheless.

The next morning, the police organized a visit of the apartment in the presence of the owner, a certain Monsieur Mauger (who was the great-great-grandson of Alphonse Berruyer), and Jean Romier and his father, a doctor, who confirmed that his son had told him the night before that he was going to listen to chamber music at the home of an old man whom he had met in the Luxembourg Garden.

Inside the apartment, which clearly had been deserted for quite some time, a few dusty pieces of furniture were visible, along with old knick-knacks and spider webs, in the faint light filtering through dirty windows. The police officer noted, however, that Jean Romier’s descriptions corresponded very precisely to the reality. Suddenly, the student froze before a faded portrait hanging in the living room:

“That’s Monsieur Berruyer’s nephew! And there, next to him, is his grandson, Marcel, who is studying law!’’

The owner went pale (and was trembling, no doubt) and acquiesced: That’s right, he said, the former is buried in Africa, where he was a missionary, and the latter, Marcel, his great-uncle, was a lawyer. He recalled that his other great-uncle, André, was an admiral when he died. All of these details, and what followed, are contained in a report that is to this day on file in the Paris police department archives. When the policemen, the owner, Jean Romier and his father entered the library, there on an old end table they saw the fine-cut gold lighter covered with dust.

This “anecdote’’ became famous (there is talk even today of a “Luxembourg ghost,” who gradually through the years lost the identity of Alphonse Berruyer and became simply a ghost). When the story was told to Albert Einstein, he took it seriously and was not even really surprised: “This young man stumbled in time,’’ he said, “like other people miss a step on the stairs.”

I don’t know if I believe it or not. Probably not. But believing it or not is not what’s important. What’s important is that the story exists. It marks your mind.

The last day of my stay, unable to stroll back through time, I decided to go out after all – I felt that the comfort, the calm, dim light, the whisky and cigarettes smoked in peace, and, especially, the immobility had all in one way or another helped me find what I had been seeking. I asked a young blonde woman in the office behind the reception desk for tourism tips. Her name, which made me smile, was Jeanne.

I started in the city center, which was primarily a pedestrian shopping zone. I don’t usually like that sort of place, but now, perhaps because I hadn’t seen any passers-by or shops for six days, I felt good there. I walked without any particular expectation, observing people and statues, such as the one of Grand Duchess Charlotte, which looked gracious, human, fleshy – almost soft.
Near the Place Guillaume II, I approached a big hole that had been dug, roughly three meters by three and two or three meters deep. Two men in white coveralls stood talking next to it. They didn’t say anything when I leaned over to look into it.
On the bottom, I swear on the head, ears and kneecaps of my son, there was a skeleton.

I went down to the Ville Basse, the Grund (it was a long descent via old stone steps rather than via the elevator – which is nonetheless practical), and I walked for two hours under the ruins of the ramparts, along one river, the Alzette, and then another, the Pétrusse, which empties into it. I passed almost no one else. I advanced through the calm silence, accompanied only by the sound of the water, the same as in the days when Count Siegfried built his castle on the Bock promontory above the valley, towering over the villagers, and me, in 936.

When I returned to the Ville Haute, this time riding the elevator (a walk has its limits), I passed the excavation site again. The skeleton hole had been covered with a large blue tarp and was surrounded by metal barriers.

 

In the little sanctuary of the Havana Lounge on my final night, I witnessed an incident that was to become my favorite of the week, leaving me with a light-hearted memory from my time in seclusion. An attractive blonde woman in her 60s, holding a sizable cigar in one hand and a glass of amber-colored liquid in the other, was conversing with a silver-haired man who was a bit older than her and whose features were still firm despite showing signs of age. They were discussing the future of the world. The man, speaking with a Spanish accent, predicted that someday people would no longer even meet each other, everyone would stay closed up in his own electronic universe, even couples would
live their love from a distance, via screens or holograms. But he added that, fortunately, when that time came he would be long dead. Without hesitation, the woman casually half smiled and, before languorously taking a drag on her cigar, said: “You, dead?
Now that would surprise me.”