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Near Death in Chartres

November 8, 2013

In 1999 Mrs. Chatterbox and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and nearly died.


We’d traveled to Paris to celebrate, but unfortunately everything was on strike: museums were closed, monuments shut down, cabs and garbage collectors had ceased being operational. Since the French government had a tight grip on the media, there wasn’t a word about this in the papers. Thousands of tourists were lined up in front of the shuttered Louvre and Musée d’ Orsay. Other than eating at overpriced cafes and bistros, there was little to do in Paris.


After a few days of walking around we decided to catch a train to Chartres to view the cathedral’s famous stained glass windows. Clouds gathered as we journeyed sixty miles southwest of Paris. The cathedral rose in the distance like a great ship sailing over fields of grain. As we entered the thirteenth century cathedral and made our way to the world-famous Rose Window the building went dark as clouds blotted out the sun.





I was totally frazzled; not only was everything in Paris closed, but now it was darker than an eclipse and impossible to see the spectacular windows. As we peered into the overhead darkness, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Lightning cracked. The Medieval windows were illuminated by a burst of intense light, followed by thunder. Frantic pigeons trapped inside the building were invisible phantoms flying about in terror. Lightning put on a pyrotechnic display for thirty minutes, providing us with the rare treat of seeing these magnificent windows illuminated by great bursts of radiance—an experience I’ll never forget. Nor will I forget what happened next.


When we’d had our fill of the cathedral we strolled a few blocks and crossed a small bridge spanning the modest Eure River to enter the tourist section of Chartres.  Eventually, we found a park and laid down on a grassy slope to watch the ever changing clouds racing overhead. When rain began falling we took shelter beneath a canopy conveniently left by a produce vendor—based on rotten fruit and vegetables scattered about.


I don’t recall ever seeing it rain that hard. We were trapped for twenty minutes before the cloudburst eased, at which point we made our way back towards the cathedral for one last look before returning to the train station for the ride back to Paris. That’s when we heard a low rumbling, a marrow-chilling growl. I spun around and saw that the canopy sheltering us had vanished. We approached the spot where we’d taken sanctuary. A massive sinkhole had opened where we’d stood a moment earlier.


Peering over the edge, I was unable to see the bottom beyond the darkness. The coin I dropped into the hole vanished without a sound. Five more minutes of standing on that spot and for us, the world would have been as dark as it was for Tony Soprano at the conclusion of that final episode.


And I wouldn’t be celebrating my sixty-first birthday today.      


Whoa! Now that was just an apocalyptic day altogether!
By: The Bug on November 8, 2013
Happy birthday! That's a lot more disappointing than when I went to Portland, ME to a lighthouse only to find the whole thing wrapped up in tarps and scaffolding for remodeling. Good reasons never to go to France, as if I needed any besides that it's France.
By: PT Dilloway on November 8, 2013
Headline, "Overweight American Tourist Causes Sinkhole!"
By: Cranky on November 8, 2013
Eep. That sounds awful. I'm glad you didn't get buried alive.
By: Michael Offutt on November 8, 2013
Happy birthday! My goodness- sinkhole, lightning strikes- I hope your birthday is a little more on the sedate side.
By: Shelly on November 8, 2013
Everything is always closed in France. Boy did I hate our trip to Paris. Happy birthday to you!!
By: LL Cool Joe on November 8, 2013
UGH!!!!! and happy, happy birthday!!!!
By: TexWisGirl on November 8, 2013
At first I thought this might be a story of romance and lust in the city of love. You enjoy living life on the edge, don't ya!
By: Daniel LaFrance on November 8, 2013
holy mackrel! That is an amazing Now- good old France...we've been there many times- my favorite city is Paris- even with all the strikes we've endured there is something that pulls us back. Haven't been there tho since the Euro showed up. Most importantly - Happy Birthday and wishes for man more! Cheers!
By: Kathe W. on November 8, 2013
That was unbelievable--HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Stephen!!
By: fishducky on November 8, 2013
Many happy returns of the day! It's great to have you around, that was a close one.
By: mimi on November 8, 2013
Wow. That sounds surreal, like a nightmare. Or maybe a profound reminder of your fortune and blessings. Happy Birthday! xoRobyn
By: Robyn Engel on November 8, 2013
Well, happy birthday! That's a fantastic story!
By: red on November 8, 2013
Happy Birthday! That would not have been a fun way to meet your Maker. When I have to go, I hope I'm in England. That will mean I finally got there. Just don't take me, Lord, until I've wandered the moors like the Bronte sisters. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on November 8, 2013
Wow...your heart must have beaten in your throat for quite a while at the realization that you narrowly escaped death! Happy birthday to you!
By: Pixel Peeper on November 8, 2013
You're scaring me! Fruits and vegetables! Happy Birthday, and stay away from the French produce.
By: Val on November 8, 2013
Incredible story. Not a happy a day, but the near miss gave you a great memory to share. Chartres figures prominently in my first book, but no sink hole. BTW Happy Birthday.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 8, 2013
Happy Birthday! I'm so glad you're still around to celebrate it - that was one seriously close call. Whew! :O
By: Lexa Cain on November 9, 2013
What an incredible story! I can't imagine....! but I can wish you a Happy Birthday! :) S
By: Scott Cody Park on November 9, 2013
As usual, Stephen exceptionally well written and a fine story. Happy Birthday!
By: Michael Manning on November 9, 2013
OH NO..I am a day late...Hope you had a wonderful birthday!!!! Wow..that is something about the sinkhole. Someone must be watching over you and Mrs. C. There are a lot of things that can go wrong on any given day but moving from a spot only to see it sink into the earth is beyond strange.
By: Cheryl P. on November 9, 2013
Yikes - that gave me goosebumps just reading about it. I can only imagine how scary that would be. Glad you two were unscathed. Happy Birthday, and many more. MANY more!
By: jenny_o on November 9, 2013
Happy Birthday mate, and I'm so glad you're still here to celebrate it. Thank goodness you moved out of the way when you did. You must have been so shocked to see that gaping hole. It's just amazing how one decision to go visit a place, nearly took both your lives. Well, hope you have another 60 plus years on this earth, just avoid those holes mate.
By: Rum Punch Drunk on November 9, 2013
Ye gods, that is some story! Absolutely terrifying, and astonishing. And you told it really well. I was expecting that you'd get struck by lightning. Paris on strike, eh? Well, what a surprise. Almost every time I go there's a strike. I'm surprised they haven't managed to do anything about it in all these years.
By: Jenny Woolf on November 10, 2013
omg, a close call indeed. i have chills. you tell a great story Stephen
By: Fran on November 10, 2013 that's what I call a really big close call moment. Oh thank goodness everyone can say "Happy, happy Birthday Day to you Stephen". I was gonna complain about my miserable weekend trip but after reading of your adventure.....nevermind.
By: Oma Linda on November 10, 2013
Your thrilling story reinforces two things I have always believed: 1. Life is fragile 2. The French are militant.
By: Bryan Jones on November 10, 2013
Happy Birthday, a bit late. Love this story, and that you survived to tell it.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on November 10, 2013
I feel really awful right not, all I can think about is. I wish you had taken some pictures! Like I said, awful :(
By: Magaly Guerrero on November 10, 2013
Oma linda sent me. Belated Happy Birthday. What an amazing anniversary and one to remember. A cathedral light show, watching racing French clouds, and then being spared premature burial. Wow.
By: Akansas Patti on November 11, 2013
Firstly belated happy birthday. And what a story, we probably dance with near death experiences more than we know............
By: John on November 12, 2013
You know how to give a person chills and not in the good way! That must have haunted you for a long time. Wishing you a belated happy birthday.. and many, many more.
By: Hilary on November 15, 2013

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