Friday, July 29, 2011

The Cycles of Time

I woke up one morning some ten weeks ago to discover that my wrist watch had stopped. So had Diane’s. We were in Turkey, whose proximity to Greece suggested that this eerie coincidence might be the work of Chronos, the Greek god of time. But a serpentine deity with the heads of a man, a bull and a lion, not to mention a full-time consort named Ananke, must have better things to do than indulge in cross-border practical jokes. So I finally decided that the culprits were probably the gods Timex and Swatch.

No matter. We decided to travel on without replacements, a decision that had solid precedent. My father not only eschewed watches but liked to twit society for obsessively checking its collective left wrist. He shared the view of Mel Brooks, the 2,000-year-old man, that one key to longevity was never to run for a bus. This attitude seemed sensible, but did not altogether explain why Dad insisted on getting to airports at least three hours before takeoff, an early-bird syndrome that also applied to social engagements.

Bob Pollak was never bashful about knocking before the appointed hour and frequently arrived when the husband was still zipping up his wife’s dress. I have inherited his proclivity to start out too soon, which always results in arriving prematurely. This happened twice before dinner with friends in their Bonn home recently. Diane adjusted matters by parading me around the block, the second time in the rain.

Nonetheless, we have done nicely without wrist watches these past weeks, not once asking a stranger for the hour, getting to museums when the spirit moved us, and letting hunger schedule meals. I had developed a comfortably cavalier attitude toward the tyranny of time when, on July 23, I found myself in the Strasbourg Cathedral standing before its astronomical clock, an instrument that tends to banish indifference to life’s inexorable tick.

The crown of the clock’s case rises toward the stained glass windows that, on this midday, refracted the sun’s rays into the south transept. Two other clocks preceded it in this corner, the first constructed in the mid-13th century and featuring a wooden cock that crowed and flapped its wings; the second, finished in 1547, replacing its demolished predecessor with the current case and new mechanisms.

Those movements worked until 1788, i.e., 241 years (Timex and Swatch, please note). The clock remained frozen for several decades, until a determined Strasbourg mechanical engineer named Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué devised all new movements, which now have been running pretty much without stop since he set them operating in 1843.

The clock is a marvel of 19th century science and technology. Golden hands show the local mean time, an angel-child strikes the first stroke of each quarter hour, another one turns over its hour-glass every hour. Seven planetary gods seated in chariots personify the weekdays, Apollo points out this Saturday with his arrow, an astronomical dial indicates the times of sunrise and sunset.

The signs of the Zodiac appear on the circumference of the planetary dial at the center of the case and designate the planets’ constellations. Just above, a lunar globe, half black and half gilded, shows the true phases of the moon, its rotation tracing the lunar month’s 29 days and 55 minutes.

I am gazing at this astonishing apparatus along with some 200 other visitors as we stand waiting for a 20-minute film about the clock to begin on an adjacent screen. It is alternatively narrated in French, German and English, and focuses almost entirely on the case’s Christian iconography and how its statuettes (e.g., of the four evangelists, of the Prophet Isaiah) and paintings (e.g., of the creation of Eve, of the triumph of Christ) should inspire us. “Time has no hold on His love,” sermonizes the English voice, as organ chords swell in the background.

It’s true that the case­–designed by one Hans Thomann Uhlberger, a statuette of whom sits atop the crown–is certainly a Renaissance beauty worth dwelling on. But a few more words about the genius of Schwilgué, whose scientific thrust created the clock and whose portrait adorns the case, seemed in order, as did more than a nod to the secular fascination with time dating to the 14th century that spurred the building of all three clocks.

I emerged into the sunlight with a new appreciation of time’s importance, a respect rewarded that evening when our TVG express left Strasbourg on the dot at 6:16 P.M. and arrived non-stop in Paris with like punctuality, at 8:34 P.M. As we walked by a kiosk in the Gare de l'Est, a headline revealed that the Tour de France would end at the Arc de Triomphe the next day.

In the morning, Diane and I bolted our hotel breakfasts and were at the finish line just after ten, only to learn that the riders weren’t expected until at least 3 P.M. By then the crowd would number in the thousands all along the Champs Élysées, so we gave up on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and went off on separate explorations of the city.

I was searching for a bike rental to help assuage my disappointment when I noticed that the Quai des Tuileries, which flanks the Seine, was cordoned off and heavily patrolled by the national police. I needn’t be at the finish line, the Tour would fly right by here!

I walked to the Louvre nearby, had a leisurely lunch in the cafeteria, spent an hour or so admiring or puzzling over the statuary and paintings in the Richelieu wing, at least once consulting my watchless wrist for fear that I would not get back to the Quai des Tuileries in time to claim a position on the rail. When a guard told me it was two o’clock, I dashed for the exit.

A cacophony of horns barked as I approached the Pont Royal. Cars passed garbed as Mickey Mouse or as a hell-bent cyclist in a yellow jersey; floats advertised everything from Bic pens to Nesquik; rock blared from most of them, as young women shook their tightly wrapped anatomies and the burgeoning crowd cheered.

This rackety parade–part Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and part Wall Street ticker tape, minus the confetti–rolled across the bridge for half an hour as I watched against a stone wall above the river that commanded an excellent view. Absent a hat, I protected my bald pate from the sun with the unfolded floor pan of Louvre, much to the amusement of four chain-smoking German tourists sharing the wall.

By 3 P.M., the preamble had petered out and I eagerly waited for the riders to come pumping by. And waited. And waited some more. In desperation, I began eying a TV cameraman perched on the platform of a cherry picker. He was sitting, reading a book. A volume of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu?

He was still deep in his pages when one of the Germans complained that it was now 4 P.M. Enough, I thought, time to go back to the hotel. Then the cameraman stood and aimed his viewfinder, as a phalanx of motorcycle police came down the Quai Voltaire on the left bank, crossed the Pont Royal and turned right before me into the Quai des Tuileries.

The peloton was hard behind, several dozen cyclists melded over their handlebars like a multicolored quilt. They had been pedaling furiously like this throughout the country for a month, including in the Alps. I am a passionate, if rank amateur, cyclist; to see these riders in this final stage, if only for 30 seconds as they sped across the bridge, was to witness the ne plus ultra of time.

Cadel Evans, of Australia, won the tour with a time of 86 hours, 12 minutes and 22 seconds.  I don’t know if he’ll be invited to endorse Rolex, but I’ve definitely decided to buy a more modest wristwatch.


Corrections: In Diane’s account of her visit to Beethoven-Haus (July 22), I edited the composer’s desk into the manuscript vault rather than into the museum’s second-floor exhibition space, where it is displayed. . . . In my post from Berlin (July 9), I wrote hanger, as for closets, when I meant hangar, as for airplanes.