Thursday, April 30, 2009
Rain was promised, but the sun is pouring in through the windows here - I'm sitting on my bed in the spot of sun, to write. I've just come back from a pilgrimage which would thrill only me - to see the Palais des Sports. It's an old amphitheatre, part of the Foire de Paris at the Porte de Versailles, but for me, a hallowed spot - in June, 1965, when I was 14, I saw the Beatles twice in one day here. In between the matinee and the evening show, I got the metro home to Gentilly, to leave a note for my father on where to pick me up after the evening show. And he was there, bless him, even though I still have the note and it's incoherent.
But of course, I hardly recognised the place - they've added, of all things, a geodesic dome roof which certainly was not there in 1965. But the basic structure, a low round building with black doors all around, I remember. I asked a young man called Martin who was guarding the gates nearby, because there's a big exposition going on at the Foire - Could this be the place? Have they changed the roof? He told me this couldn't possibly be the place where the Beatles had played, because "Dedans, c'est tout petit!" Inside, it's so small. But that was the whole point - it wasn't one of those vast auditoria where they played later; it was quite cosy, and I was in the 8th row centre waving my picture of Paul McCartney. And he smiled down at me. I know it.
So I revisited a scene of spectacular happiness from my youth. As I waited in the station for the metro home, I was sitting next to a dignified gentleman in a suit. He got out a baguette, a tin of paté and a penknife which had a spoon, I noticed, and he calmly cut the bread and spread a paté sandwich, had just begun to eat when the train pulled in. It smelled so good, I had a paté sandwich myself, when I got home.
There's some kind of gorgeous purple tree here - an almond tree? I have never seen it at home, but it has bright mauve garlands. The wisteria is also out in garlands. As if this city needed more beauty. I love the way some apartment dwellers make gardens on their balconies - as you look up, you can see the ones who have made the effort. One small balcony nearby has found room for an entire lilac tree. I discovered on my last visit to the Jardin des Plantes, incidentally, that pansies here are called "pensées" - thoughts. I guess that's where our word comes from.
Also on the way home, I dropped into one of the many local Pharmacies, to ask about my eyes - they're irritated and red, I think because of the pollution. The pharmacist thought it might be allergies, but I have none and am determined never to have any; she gave me some anti-irritant eye drops. I have seen no equivalent of Shopper's Drugmart here, because there's a Pharmacie on every block with an informed staff, ready to offer advice and medication for anything.
I had a delicious dinner (cannette - a small duck - NOT a rabbit) at a nearby café last night with another old friend, Daniel, whose bush of hair and wild beard are grey now. He's a teacher and mad musician who always has 17 projects on the go; at the moment, he and some young friends have found an old factory and want to buy and renovate it into a centre for philosophical research into the nature of technological change, past, present and future. And also live there.
Daniel had just finished reading my book, and thrilled me by quoting several times from it in the course of the evening. Though his English is good, I didn't think it was that good, but he remembered so much from his reading. What a thrill - a gift to a writer, an intelligent, perceptive reader who remembers. He told me he especially appreciated the purpose of the book - to unearth and honour a forgotten life - because he devotes his life to the battle against amnesia. And I do too.
Only two more weeks. I'm mourning already - where has a whole month gone? Here's my partial list of Things to Do: Montmartre and Sacre Coeur; Notre Dame and the Sainte Chapelle; Picasso, Marmottan and la Vie Romantique museums; back to the Louvre. Also the Orangerie and les Invalides. Also several more stops on my journey into my own past, more pilgrimages, one on Monday to the lycee I attended, and out to Gentilly where we lived. Also some brocantes - flea markets, and Galeries Lafayette and the view from the roof of La Samaritaine, another department store. Also to eat lots more good food and drink more wine from my big juice box. This last I will surely do; the rest I'll tackle, but if I don't get it all done, it looks like I'll be back here at least for a week in August, on my way home.
In August, there will be no Parisians making paté sandwiches; they'll all be in the country. Just me - la vraie Parisienne - and all the tourists.
P.S. Just Googled the Palais des Sports - it was built in 1960 and holds 4500 people.
And by the way, in case you think this is only about playtime, I am working. Sometimes. When I can stop wanting to rush out the door and look at things and eat paté sandwiches, I am working. But you know, in this big bright room with the 15 foot high ceilings and a black iron railing at the window, that feels like exploring Paris too.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Crazy spring weather here - one minute hot sun, the next a violent thunderstorm, then sun again. An umbrella, a sweater and hat, sunscreen ...
On Tuesday, William Blake and Mozart, how's that for great day? There's a Blake exhibit at the Petit Palais - petit, hah, the place is a vast decorated wedding cake. The exhibit was extensive and absorbing, but at the same time it's easy to see why people thought he was a lunatic - even now, he's pretty odd and extreme, exquisite as his work is. Another Van Gogh story, a man who never stopped doing what he had to do though he nearly starved in the process. But William Blake had his wife Catherine by his side every step of the way. He died singing, apparently, and she died a few years later calling to him that she was coming.
At the end of the exhibit, they were showing clips from Dead Man, a Jim Jarmusch film starring Johnny Depp as William Blake. Typecast again, Johnny! I recognised a Canadian First Nations actor called Gary Farmer, dressed in Indian garb with feathered headdress - perhaps as one of Blake's visions. Not a film I'd rush out to see.
I wandered through the Palais afterwards - there's a great deal of work by artists who just aren't quite up to Louvre standards, and then suddenly you come upon a corner with a Rembrandt or a Monet. Upstairs there's a huge hall of giant canvases; I liked the famous portrait of Sarah Bernhart reclining and the row of stunning Courbets, including "Le Sommeil," the racy one of two naked women sleeping intertwined, a 19th century high art kind of porno, apparently. I had a cafe in the exotic garden, looking out at the jungle of ferns and the fancy architecture. Wonderful.
Another great bus stopped just on the other side of the street, in front of the Grand Palais, and was supposed to take me right home. But it stopped after about ten minutes. "The end of the line," the driver announced. "We can't go further. There's a demonstration." There was a bit of grumbling, but it's so normal for the French, they just got off and figured out alternate transportation. So I did too - there was a metro stop nearby. On the way there, incidentally, the bus passed by the Orsay, and the line-up to get in wound around endlessly; another reminder that it pays to pick your times.
Then, last night, another difficult genius - at 9 p.m. I walked in the drizzle to hear the Mozart Requiem at St. Sulpice. My friend Lynn warned me to beware of the quality of concerts in churches, and I could see what she meant - the sound was like soup, bouncing off that vaulted ceiling, and the choir was pretty ragged. But still, the voices rang and the music is glorious and extremely moving. And then, in more drizzle, I walked home.
Marketing this morning; Friday is a national holiday and everything is closed, so I'm getting in supplies. I went first up the cobbled, tiny Rue Mouffetard to FranPrix, the equivalent of a very small Loblaws. Besides staples, I bought a pre-cooked lentil puree that you heat up in a bain marie; tons of Lindt dark chocolate; for fun, some Vache qui Rit cheese that comes in a tub to spread, not in the triangles, and some real cheese - a chunk of cantal and 2 little smelly crottins de chevre that an old man ahead of me picked up so I copied him. I'm still intimidated by the cheese stores, even though they look like heaven.
In the market some kiwis, gariguette strawberries and raspberries that are sublime, I've already finished a tub, and thick white asparagus. The cherries are in and fantastic, I'll get some next time. I'm eating much more fruit here than at home, because there is it, down the street in the market, and except for kiwis it's clear what's in season and delicious. I also stopped at the tabac - the tobacconist who also sells magazines, newspapers, lottery and metro tickets and is the local centre for gossip and political discussion. The man who runs it works six days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I bought this week's Pariscope and asked his advice on various practical matters. I need to find a post office to send my daughter a birthday card. She's 28 next week, and I'm not there.
Both kids were too busy to come visit me in Paris this time, but next, I will insist that they come. I need to share my crottin de chevre and gariguettes, not to mention everything else here, with the two people in the world I love most.
A bit later: I must apologise for my hyperbolic and repetitive exclamations: wonderful marvellous beautiful stunning exquisite. Also huge magnificent glorious. I need a thesaurus to find some new words, in order to describe my experiences here without repeating myself.
More errands this afternoon - some paté de campagne to serve to my friend Daniel who's visiting this evening, a huge bouquet of spring flowers just because, and the local papeterie where I hyperventilated over the notebooks and pens, because I am a writer and must have these things. After my enormous lunch, I went for a tiny little run around the block and passed by a second-hand clothing store I'd never seen before - my kind of place. So I went in, and the owner literally reeled backwards to find a large woman in jogging gear and giant running shoes in his tiny designer-filled store.
But I am a Parisienne now, which means I don't care. I worried at the beginning about doing the right thing, but in fact, the right thing in Paris is whatever you want, as long as you do it with aplomb.
Monday, April 27, 2009
It's 9.30 p.m. and raining hard in Paris tonight. Your faithful correspondent just came in from her latest sortie and is sampling the contents of a great new discovery: a cubitainer, like a very large juice box with a spigot. My juice box contains the equivalent of four bottles of delicious and very reasonable Médoc. I was a bit damp when I got in, but I'm not feeling the damp any more.
I just came back from the Pompidou Centre, where I returned tonight to visit my beloved Kandinsky, suspecting that a dark and rainy night might provide a fairly empty museum. I was right. It makes such a difference to be able to get close to the canvases without stepping on feet, to have space all around as you take them in rather than being hemmed in by countless gawkers like yourself.
A bit more Médoc before I go on. Pardon me for a moment.
Back from the spigot with another glass and a pungent bit of Tomme de Brébis cheese. I can hear that rain pouring down. Rain really reverberates in the Pompidou, which has so much plastic and glass.
To those of you who've had the patience to follow me as I trail about these museums, I'm sure it's clear that I have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about. I never get the ... what are they called, the explaining earpieces ... and have taken no courses in art history. I just look at what I see and try to understand from my very limited perspective.
And tonight, I changed my mind. It makes no sense, I think, to compare later artists with the old masters, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Titian, Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi. Those men were incredibly gifted, skilled, brilliant artists. At first glance, Kandinsky is like a child splashing colour on canvas. But of course he's not, he is also gifted, skilled, brilliant - just from another time and place, another sensibility. Just as Leonardo translated human thought, feeling, spirituality and skill to canvas for his time, so Kandinsky, and the other great moderns, do for theirs. Ours.
I just find Kandinsky marvellous to look at - his joy in colour, in shape and arrangement and perspective, and behind the slashes and blobs, the smears and swaths, there is sense and meaning. There are rowboats and horses and mountains. He explores the rainbow - does any other artist have such a vast vocabulary of colour? The exposition shows that he was brilliant even as a teenager - the first canvases were painted when he was about 18, and the last, the year that he died at 78. The photograph at the end shows an elderly man in a dark suit and tie, standing before a bookcase filled with bottles, presumably of paint. He does not look like a trail-blazing Russian artist.
I like the early canvasses, where he was truly exuberant with shape and colour, more than the later ones, where he got more squiggly and delicate. But the whole exhibition is a joy.
Down from the top floor through the hamster tube escalators to the permanent exhibition, though by then the museum was almost closed, and so I marched quickly through its collection of modern art, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, my eyes crossing as I gazed and walked with the seven other people who were there on this dark and rainy night.
And when we had to leave, I opened my umbrella and went straight to my #47 bus, which took me straight home. I adore the Paris busses. On my way there, the #47 went by the Sainte Chapelle and I gazed out at its enormous stained glass windows from the windows of the bus. On the way back, we went right past Notre Dame, empty and dark tonight but still shining.
Just a tiny bit more Médoc. I can see the problem - with a bottle of wine, you can tell how much you've drunk, but with a cubitainer, you can keep blithely on and on with no idea. So I will stop now. After this last little glass.
I went to a wonderful party last night. My new friends Joanne and David Burke are kind, generous American documentary filmmakers who made their home in Paris 22 years ago. Joanne is making a documentary about African-Americans in Paris, and most of her friends, last night's invitees, are black or in mixed-race couples. And what a non-French night it was - much hugging and loud laughter, shrieks of welcome and impromptu emotional speeches, and the food: potato salad, chicken wings, meatballs.
It was a celebration of the Burkes' friend Shelley, who runs a not-for-profit theatre in San Francisco but who has, like all the others there last night, fallen in love with the freedom possible in Paris. Joanne read some bits of a novel Shelley was contemplating, and decided that what she needed was time and space.
So Joanne and David moved Shelley into the bedroom of their extremely small apartment. Every morning, Joanne would wake her ward with coffee and breakfast, and then shut the door of her office - their bedroom - and tell her not to come out till 1. No one could get in, and Shelley couldn't get out. And when she emerged at 1, lunch was waiting. Shelley finished a draft of her novel and last night thanked the Burkes with tears in her eyes. Every writer needs a Joanne Burke, guarding the door, honouring the gift.
It's fascinating to talk to this disparate group who have one thing in common: needing to live here, instead of there. After only a few weeks here, I can understand why. I can feel already that it will be hard to return to a place that is not beautiful, that does not cherish beauty and taste and art the way this city does. As you walk around, you see that many buildings have plaques, honouring not only patriotic heroes who have fallen in wars, but artists - painters, poets, musicians, writers - who lived and worked there. Just up the street there's a plaque honouring a Polish poet, of whom I've never heard, who wrote and died in that house. Artists are valued here, and so is food, and so is a really good, cheap Médoc in a juice box.
They may have to come and drag me out of here when my time's up.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Helloooo, she sang out, waving wildly. Yoo hoo! I'm back!
Suffering from Stendahl Syndrome these days, a condition in which people are so affected by great art that they suffer dizziness and blackouts. I went to the Rodin Museum yesterday, on the most perfect spring day imaginable - fresh and sunny with a hint of wind - and was knocked over. I was expecting a museum with sculptures in it. But it's a whole magnificent little chateau, the 18th century Hotel Biron, with a stunning garden and sculptures everywhere. I went out first to enjoy the garden with its emerald lawns, flower beds, ancient trees, and kids lying on the ground sketching the Rodins.
And then there were the Rodins. I wept twice. Once, sitting in that garden by the fountain with the sun on my face and beauty everywhere, just grateful to be alive and in this place. The second time, walking in a quiet, dark little park at the side where the individual sculptures that make up the great "Burghers of Calais" are situated. It's a sculpture of a group of men who have been defeated by the English and who are bringing the keys of their city to the enemy, knowing that they will be killed. Each has a different personality, and displayed separately, as they are here, they're overwhelmingly powerful, with huge hands and feet, veins and knotted neck muscles and sinews on these giant figures in bronze. And their faces, twisted, dark, terrified, resigned, noble - so real, so much bigger than real. I touched one of those beautiful cold real hands and was so flooded with emotion, I honestly thought I was going to pass out.
So nothing's new since I last wrote. Still simply too much pleasure to absorb in this glorious town .
Today I went for a walk; because it was drizzling, I thought the tourists might stay home and I'd get into Notre Dame more easily, but the line-up stretched across the entire square in front. There was a pro-life demonstration going on too, with balloons and drums, but no one seemed to be paying the slightest attention. I visited nearby St. Severin instead, a pretty Gothic church where a family was gathering for a christening. How wonderful to be christened in a fifteenth century church.
When the rain got heavy, I went to the Cluny, the Museum of the Middle Ages, one of my favourite museums in Paris. My kids and I went there fifteen years ago, and though they were not the keenest of museum-goers (putting it mildly), seeing the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries wowed them. And wowed me again today. You walk through room after incredible room with masterpieces from the Middle Ages and earlier - one room devoted to Roman carving that's been excavated - and end up in a magical round dark place with floor to ceiling magnificent fifteenth century tapestries on all sides, glowing at you. Five, devoted to the senses - touch, sight, sound, taste, smell - and the last, probably to love and understanding.
They're so ornate, it's mind-boggling to imagine the work involved - first in the backgrounds, which feature endless flowers and small, gorgeously detailed small animals and birds, and then the foreground figures, the lady and her minions, the lion on one side of her and the stunning unicorn, with his wise, loving face, on the other.
And then, suffering yet again from Stendahl syndrome, you exit through yet more, many more rooms with more masterpieces - carved alterpieces and countless other religious tableaux and artifacts, plus ceramic bowls, ivory miniatures, gold jewelry, armour and swords ... and almost everything is anonymous, made by craftsmen and women of the time, creating beauty for their god or their master, or both.
I have fallen in love with humankind again, so grateful am I for all the labour that has gone into making beauty for us to cherish through the centuries. Who was the first person who looked at a dead elephant and thought, I could carve something from those tusks?
Okay, I'll calm down now. I had to buy a pain au chocolat on the way home to bring me down to earth.
Several other bits and pieces: here's something I saw yesterday which you wouldn't see at home: in the Jardin des Plantes, a school group, kids aged about 9, being shepherded through the park by their teacher who was puffing a cigarette.
And why don't we see this at home? Another park had ping-pong tables, made of some solid rainproof substance with net, enthusiastically being used by kids. I guess they bring their own balls and paddles. What a great idea. Let's go to the park and play ping-pong.
The busses are phenomenal here. Before I go anywhere, I try to find a bus route there so I don't have to go underground and can look out at Paris; it's rare I can't find one. The bus shelters have clear maps, and the chief points of its route are printed on sides of the busses themselves. Yesterday, after Rodin, I had a blister (once again, I broke the cardinal rule of the traveller, don't wear new shoes) and didn't want to walk too far. A bus stopped right next to me, as I wandered, with "Pantheon" on the front. That's close to chez moi, so on I hopped - another nearby bus I can get around town sometime. They are built low, easily accessible to strollers and go even lower easily for wheelchairs. Beautifully designed, efficient, clearly marked and omnipresent - that's how a bus service should be.
I am reading Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," which is fascinating because he lived near here and is writing about places I wander by every day. But boy, he could be vicious about other writers. Tonight I'll finish that, read the new "Elle," and the European "Time" magazine which I bought as a treat because it's about Obama's first 100 days, and then begin "Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong," that Tony lent me. I had a big lunch of lapin - rabbit, not duck - and endive with a glass of wine, so am having a salad of some kind for supper with bread and cheese, and another glass, or two, of wine. But that's all. Positively abstemious, after the last few dinners.
So - I raise my glass of rouge to you, my friends. The damp chilly rain is supposed to continue for the next few days. I hope the sun is shining where you are, if not outside then in your hearts. Because it certainly is in mine.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Started my day off with a bang, literally. I bought a can of Illy coffee yesterday, since the delicious stuff is far less expensive here than at home, and when I pulled open the top this morning, a spray of coffee hit me in the face and flew all over the kitchen. After sweeping up, I read the top of the can. "Open slowly," it says, "to release the gas."
Who knew you needed instructions on how to open a can of coffee, or that cans of coffee contain gas? The world is a mysterious place.
My friend Tony had a good day yesterday. "I bought an early seventeenth century bassoon," he told me, "for six and a half thousand pounds. A good deal. And three metronomes - one of them from around 1815, the first metronomes ever made."
At supper, last night, among many other fascinating topics of discussion, I heard the history of the metronome, its "pyramid shape" and inner workings. It's wonderful to see a man who so enjoys his life and his work. There he sat in his second-hand shirt - from the British equivalent of Goodwill - and his Swatch watch, talking with relish about the great wine and champagne he buys in Paris and ships home to London. He recently purchased cases of Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, two of my father's favourite Burgundies. I wished that Dad were here to enjoy Tony's company and my adventures in the city and country that he loved so very much.
Last night's meal, you'll be happy to hear, was not as excessive; we found a little bistro in the Rue Mouffetard. Tony insisted I have a glass of champagne as an aperitif, though, and I now like this little ritual very much. Champagne used to gave me a headache; now I find it goes down very smoothly. "Une coupe de champagne," he said, and there it was, a slender, sparkling flute. And then a bottle of wine and dinner and talk, talk, talk. Tony thinks the bailouts are unfairly rewarding the greedy and incompetent and will leave us forever in debt. He also recommends, when you are in New York, that you go to the restaurant in the Trump Tower on Central Park Circle for lunch. "It's a $28 special, a very good deal," he advised.
I admired the dark wood beams in the ceiling of the restaurant, and the waitress told me that they were original, the building dated from the seventeenth century, the stones in the walls too. In Europe, hundreds of years old doesn't seem old at all, any more. Whereas at home, it's a matter of some incredulity that my house dates from 1879 - pretty damn ancient, for Canada.
Speaking of Canada, one thing that I am missing a lot here - the sound of the geese, honking overhead as they return home.
And speaking of returning home, I am now half-way through my stay in Paris. Time is fleeing; I'm hanging onto every moment. And so, my dear friends, I am going to try to stop for awhile writing here every day, love this as I do. I need to focus inward for a bit, rather than outward, to you. I will still take notes and think of how to share what happens with you, but not on a daily basis. Even as I write this, I'm sorry - because sharing with you sustains me. But I fear that too much energy is going into this travelogue, and not enough into the other work I am here to do.
Thank you for accompanying me on this journey; it means a great deal that you are out there, following me through. I'll talk to you soon, very soon, but not tomorrow.
PS. See? Even as I announced that I'd take a rest, I thought of something else to tell you. Tony explained that late eating on the continent came from the days when people ate a huge lunch at midday and then rested for an hour or two. Shops closed late - at 7 or 8. And I remember Lynn telling me that her kids had school, often, till 6. So supper at 8.30 or 9 makes sense in circumstances like those.
Okay, that's it. Over and out, for now.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
All very well to say cut back on the wine, but how? Yesterday evening, my friend Tony and I had an aperitif at his place at 7.30 - I had a few glasses of wine and he beer - as we got caught up, and then he took me out for dinner. First, he bought us a celebratory glass of champagne and then, of course, a fine bottle of wine. It was all delicious, as was the food - radish mousse as an entree, anyone? Unbelievable. And the best tirimisu I've ever had. I was feeling superb, I can tell you.
This morning, not so much. He wants to meet for dinner again tonight, as he's only in town from London for two days, and I want to say no, tonight I would like a nice salad and a cup of tea. But I can't say no to Tony, so I'll suggest we eat earlier and perhaps instead of an aperitif, we take a nice bracing walk.
Tony was my boyfriend when I was at theatre school in London in 1971 - I was 21 and he was 31. Now he's nearly 70 and still one of the most interesting people I know, a dealer in antique musical instruments. His Hampstead flat back then was crowded with crumhorns, oboes, flutes; now his shop must look like that. He flies all over the world, partly for his business - he knows everyone who's collecting and selling and also does a lot of business with museums - but also for pleasure. There was little money in his childhood; his father was a bus conductor. Now he enjoys every bit of the luxuries he can afford, good food and wine and hotels. And he has the world's largest private collection of antique metronomes and corkscrews.
Tony shares the rent of the Paris apartment with a good friend of his, who deals only in bows. As in, violin and cello bows. Ah, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio ...
Worked this morning, with my little hangover, and went for a walk this afternoon, back to the Luxembourg Gardens which was jammed in the sun, little kids sailing their boats on the pond, long lines of schoolchildren coming to have a picnic, tourists parked on chairs getting a tan - and the flower beds, here as throughout the city, just spectacularly beautiful arrangements of colour, density, size and shape. Found the nearby Eglise St. Sulpice this time, another vast echoey cathedral, massive and unbeautiful, almost monstrous, perhaps because unlike Notre Dame, which is far set back and apart, Sulpice suddenly looms out in an ordinary neighbourhood square. The organ is famous, though; I'm going to catch a mass one Sunday just to hear it.
And then walked home again, admiring the rows of little shops, the grocer every block with his fruit and veg on display, the myriad dusty bookstores with wares in bins outside, people stopped to pore over them. Nearby is a small medieval-looking shop selling and repairing clocks and barometers. Barometers - who uses barometers when we can click on the Internet? But there's the shop, packed with barometers.
I've been thinking about this eating late business, and truly, I do not get it. Why eat a huge meal with wine at 9 or later, so you can go to bed stuffed and woozy? It makes no sense. Yes, 6 is early, I agree, but why is eating so late more sophisticated than eating at 7.30? When you pass restaurants here and see people eating at 7.30, you know they're tourists. Well - nuthin' wrong with that as far as I'm concerned. Maybe the hour has something to do with getting the kids in bed and then enjoying adult company, I don't know. But in any case, it's hard on a girl.
I'm not complaining - am in fact looking forward to starting all over again tonight, and to a dinner invitation tomorrow! More running needed. Badly.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I'm having trouble sleeping, because my head is so stuffed by the time I lie down, the brain just keeps going. This morning I lay awake thinking such vital thoughts as, "Jacqueline Bisset. What ever happened to Jacqueline Bisset? I wonder why the words for woman and man are so similar but the words for 'husband' and 'wife' are so different. Hus-band - what a funny word." I know that came up because I spent a few pleasant hours yesterday evening with my friend Lynn's husband Denis. But Jacqueline Bisset? I have no idea.
And then I thought, perhaps this lack of sleep, you idiot, has something to do with the amount of red wine sloshing around in your system. It's so delicious and inexpensive, but perhaps I had better cut back. The birds began to sing their dawn chorus, just like at home, only at home there's a host of birds and here only a few. But it seems to me French birdsong is more complex. I then, remembering my raccoon difficulties at home, thought about how few creatures I've actually seen in Paris. Pigeons, everywhere, cats and many dogs of course, but otherwise ... I've barely even seen a squirrel. My dad used to joke that there were no birds left in France because they'd all been eaten. Maybe the squirrels too.
Denis was visiting his mother in Versailles and came to Paris for a flying visit, just to see the Fra Lippo Lippi exhibit at the Musee du Luxembourg. We met there and saw it together - stunning, of such delicacy and richness of detail, emotion, colour. I was telling him the thought I'd had at the Louvre, that when you see the exquisite work of these masters, it's hard not to denigrate even the most glorious work of later painters, and a woman next to us said, "Excuse me for interrupting, but I have to say I agree with you. And the older I get, the more clear it is that the old masters are unsurpassed."
"How France is changing," said Denis later. "Strangers talking like that. Never used to happen."
Denis is the most French person I know, except that he married a Canadian and worked in the L'Arche communities for many years instead of as an aeronautical engineer, as he was trained to do. But he has an argument for everything, and a deep, reasoned one too. I have been known to be somewhat opinionated myself, so Denis and I can go at it, with great pleasure, for hours.
We were looking at a stunning painting of Mary and her babe, as they were almost all, and I said, "How sad she looks."
"Not sad," said Denis. "Why, there's almost a smile playing around her lips."
"Not a smile," I said, "definitely not a smile, but okay, maybe not sad. But very serious."
"She's always serious," he said. "She is always aware of the job ahead of her, of the enormous responsibility she bears."
"Yes, poor woman," I said and he opened his mouth to argue but we moved on to another canvas instead. We argued about crucifixes. "They're instruments of torture," I said, "imagine a religion choosing that horror as its symbol."
"Not torture," said Denis, who is Catholic but with a sense of humour. "It's a symbol of death, and remember what comes after - the resurrection, life eternal."
We did not launch into our usual disagreement about circumcision (I for, he against, but we're tired of that one) though we were looking at a canvas of Jesus's bris, something I'd never thought about before. "Strange, " I said, "to look at a very Jewish ritual, and yet in the canvas it's surrounded by all the trappings of the church, high officials in high jewelled hats and so on." Denis told me all about how at the beginning all the Christians were still Jews, St. Paul was still a Jew, but I didn't understand everything he was saying in French and besides, my head was beginning to swim from the intensity of all this. I'll have to look it up.
He told me he found these portraits of Mary extremely affecting - that once in Italy, he saw a painting of the Annunciation in which her innocence and vulnerability were so moving that he stayed in front of the canvas for fifteen minutes, weeping.
Luckily he had time for a drink, so we found the perfect sidewalk cafe in the fading afternoon sun and watched Paris fly by. Denis and I met in 1970, when he was first engaged to Lynn. I was at theatre school in London at the time and so was able to come across for their wedding in 1971, unforgettable, officiated by Jean Vanier himself.
At the metro, Denis said to me, "Do you remember when you started buying me shirts at Goodwill?"
I couldn't, but said, "Maybe fifteen years ago. Why?" It's something I do, buy stuff for dear friends at Goodwill.
"Because I haven't bought myself a shirt since," he said, and I noticed for the first time how frayed the collar was on the one he was wearing. Perhaps Denis isn't so very French after all. There can't be many Frenchmen who weep for 15 minutes in front of a painting, and who for 15 years have only worn shirts from Goodwill.
Monday, April 20, 2009
I did go for that run, this morning. Finally the weather has turned, it's a glorious day, and I was editing the essay when I got stuck on the last line. So, time to get out. I ran in my slow and lumbering way to and around le Jardin des Plantes, and now I can state: it's not true that the French don't run, but it's true that French women of a certain age don't run, or perhaps of any age. People seem to find me an incongruous sight, a 58-year old woman in running gear, flapping down the streets. However, it felt great.
Particularly after last night's enormous feast. I went to one of Patricia Laplante-Collins' soirees; she's an African-American of huge personality who has hosted these events for many years. Every Sunday night, wherever she happens to be living, anyone who wants to listen to a writer read or a singer sing and meet others, particularly other Americans, and eat a sumptuous meal afterwards, need only find her and pay 20 euros. There were 30 people packed into her small living-room last night, including some Australians and even a few French citizens come to watch the expats at play.
My new friend David Burke read from his terrific, juicy book "Writers in Paris;" his topic for the night was "Bad boys in Paris," and he told us great anecdotes about Rimbaud and Verlaine, Hemingway and Jean Genet and Francois Villon, who was a bad boy poet in the sixteenth century. There was a great deal of mingling, and then a vast quantity of food appeared, by some miracle, from Patricia's postage stamp kitchen. She told us that her stove had stopped working that day, so she cooked two gigots of lamb in a wok. It was 9.30 by that time, and I ate like a wolf.
Hence, the necessity of today's run.
Oh, but I almost forgot, conveniently, to tell you the best part of the evening - my spectacular entrance. Here's how it's done: you wear a tight skirt and high-heeled shoes, even though you've railed about how silly it is to wear the spindly things. You stand at the doorway, and someone hands you both a glass of wine AND a glass of champagne, both of which YOU HAVE ONLY JUST SIPPED. You stand on a little throw rug, and someone behind you makes a sudden move which jolts the rug. And suddenly, you feel that you are about to topple over. And you do, you crumple (perhaps gracefully or perhaps not) to the floor with a glass in each hand, in front of a crowd of 30 strangers.
Yes, that's what happened. I found myself on the floor and various people helped to pick me up. It was the combination of my unsteadiness in the shoes and the unsteady rug, and that when I went off balance, I didn't have a hand to stop myself. A Brazilian told me he thought it was great that I hardly spilled any wine. Later, when Patricia went around the room and people introduced themselves, I said, "I'm Beth, a Canadian, and I like to fall down in public places."
But actually, I'd rather not, thank you very much.
On Sunday morning, I went to the Mouffetard market. David Burke had shown us a turn-of-the- last-century photograph of this very street, which has housed many writers. A scene in Les Miserables takes place in the little church, Eglise Médard, in the square. The church holds its services outside, weather permitting, but the service was over and the music had begun - a group arrives with microphone and accordeons, and they play and sing. And people were dancing. An old man danced with his small granddaughter; young and old couples, middle-aged women, young girls, and around them the crowd with song sheets, singing too, and everywhere the blossoms and smell of spring - a fine, April moment, nothing Miserable about it at all.
In the market detritus on the ground were some discarded bits of lilac which I gathered to bring home. In Toronto, I have a lilac tree; here a little glass with a few blooms, which will have to do, for this spring, anyway.
As I walked around the winding, medieval streets, there seemed to be a pastry shop on every corner, a cheese shop, a specialty store with delicacies. The cafés were flourishing, the outdoor tables packed. I bought some supplies at the grocery store FranPrix, which is not picturesque but cheaper than the small places, and noticed that the wine I bought was considerably less expensive than the cheese. And when I walked by on my way home, the band was playing "La Vie en Rose" and the people were dancing still.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Cold and rainy today. I went out for provisions - finally chose some jam, a special kind of Bonne-Maman with even more fruit. I didn't get the fig jam or the wild blueberries; I chose raspberry/apricot. Can't wait for my next croissant.
Went to the bakery right next door, and while I was buying a baguette, a pain au chocolat and a tiny vegetable quiche, I asked the lady about the man sitting on the ground outside. "He probably can't work," she told me. "He's a 'sans papiers' - I think a gypsy. His whole family, his wife and children, work in the neighborhood." By 'work,' I gather she means the same work he does.
So he is not allowed to work in France. He wasn't demonstrating with the other 'sans papiers' on the Boul' Mich' the other day because he was at his job in front of the bakery. I went out and gave him 2 euros and explained that because I pass by so often, I could not give him something every time, just now. He gave me a cheery smile. I'll give him something again, for sure, but now we are friends and I don't have to feel strange as I pass him by.
I'd eaten half the bread by the time I got inside, a few steps away, but made myself a proper lunch anyway - a pork chop, ratatouille, asparagus. I never do this at home, but here, it just seems right. Had my pain au chocolat for dessert - with a double stream of chocolate. Mmm. And then settled in to read this weeks "Elle." The book reviews, of course.
In case you think I'm being silly about not wearing running shoes around town, because we do it all the time at home - well, the French simply do not. Kids wear Converse sneakers, but middle-aged women wear proper footwear. People dress well to go anywhere. I'm especially impressed by elderly women, even the very old - still carefully dressed, sleek and fashionable. Perhaps it's impossible to live in a city so beautiful and not dress to match, though the French in less beautiful places dress up as well. But not so well, I'm sure, as in Paris.
And now, out into the chilly drizzle to meet my new young friend Denis, the computer genius who fixed the internet here - we spoke about meeting somewhere to walk around and then have dinner. But where? "Let's see," he said, "do you know the Champs-Elysees?"
"I'm pretty sure I can find it, " I said.
So we're meeting on the left sidewalk as you stand with your back to the Arc de Triomphe. And if I get lost this time, I must be going blind.
I can report that even in a constant drizzle, the Champs is packed - thousand of people, from every nation on earth, parading up and down. There's a Louis Vuitton superstore there, many stories of luxury goods, which can stay open on Sunday, Denis explained, because there's a Louis Vuitton Museum inside. Mmm, just want I want to do in Paris - visit the Louis Vuitton Museum.
Because it was so wet, my young friend and I spent most of our time eating - first at a heated sidewalk cafe, an espresso and a Berthillon sorbet, his mango and mine cassis - black currant. Berthillon are the famous Paris icecream makers, and mine was absolutely the best sorbet ever.
Then we wandered. Denis is the age of my children but unlike them, has a regular job - he's a chartered accountant and likes to buy Hugo Boss clothing at the sales. After getting thoroughly sodden walking up and down, we stopped for dinner at his favourite pizza place, where the waiter greeted him like a long lost friend - Denis used to work nearby - and brought us a free glass of champagne. We gave up our walk, though, both of us cold with wet feet.
And now, to work. I have an essay to edit. I hope the rain stops soon, because I need a run - today, nothing but treats, delicious but sitting heavily in l'estomac.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Yesterday I went to the piddly little Musee d'Orsay and thought I was stuffed with great art. Hah! That was a tiny hors d'oeuvre, a tidbit. Tonight, the giant 9-course feast - the Louvre, the most glorious art museum in the world.
I'm proud to say, first, that I aced the entrance. Here's another Great Tip for your next trip to Paris: find the alternate Carrousel du Louvre entrance on the Rue de Rivoli, which is under the Pyramid where lots of tourists stand and wait to get in. The thing is that lots of tourists have also heard about this alternate entrance; there was a huge line-up here as well. But when you first enter the Carrousel, there's a machine selling entrance tickets, and there was no one there, not one single person. I think the problem is that many foreigners don't have a credit card with a PIN number, as they do here; that's needed, and I made sure to get one before I left. So in one minute I had my ticket and went right by the very, very long line-up.
Where to begin? So much magnificence. I entered through the Greek and Roman statuary, beautiful naked marble men and women, but mostly men, and headed for the Italians, like everyone else. It's so strange that hundreds, literally, hundreds of people were standing in front of the Mona Lisa snapping pictures of her enigmatic face. And all around her are masterpieces equally stunning, including lots of Leonardo's. His famous "Virgin and child with Ste. Anne" brought tears to my eyes; Mary knowing, wise, looking at her child with her loving friend behind her, makes you want to climb into the frame and be part of this family. No one was looking at this picture. On the wall on the other side of the Mona Lisa is a Titian portrait of a young man so alive, with such an interesting, beautiful face that you want to chat with him, though he died nearly 500 years ago. No one was looking.
There was a Fra Angelico that reminded me of the cover of Sargeant Pepper's - a dense crowd, a host of interesting faces, but these ones had gold haloes. Bellini, Fra Lippo Lippi, Botticelli - omygod. The cult of the mother. Many Marys, each one more beautiful than the last.
I escaped the crush of the Italians by asking directions of a handsome Titian-like museum guard - how to get to Vermeer? He advised me to take the elevator to the bottom floor entrance and start again, so I did, and entered in another direction, taking another elevator to the top floor. The place is so vast and confusing that taking the elevators is a good idea. So suddenly I was in the Dutch and Flemish world - no virgins, no naked men, no crowds. I found the Vermeer wall and ... oh no. "The Lacemaker" is in Tokyo, said the little notice above a faded rectangle on the wall. Next to the blank spot was "The Astrologer," though, so I did get my fix of the perfect, private, glowing world of Vermeer, one of my favourite painters.
At this point I was thinking of the Impressionists I'd seen yesterday as children playing, in comparison with the technical skill and depth of these masters. That's not fair, but that's what it felt like in the middle of the Louvre.
On we went - Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Lucas Cranach, Rubens - in those days, women were not thin, they were JUICY - and the Dutch liked to paint cows, lots of cows. Breughel, Hans Holbein, then on to Poussin - including some paintings I'd seen at a Poussin exhibit at the Met in New York, crowded by anxious New Yorkers, now in an almost empty room -
As I went through room after room after room, I kept stopping at the windows to look at the view - there's the Eiffel Tower, there's the Pyramid and the whole gorgeous structure of the Louvre, so enormous - the building itself overwhelming, you have to remember, as you look at the art, to also look at the ornate painted ceilings of the room you're in -
By now I was almost ready to fall over, but no, I had paid for the special exhibit so went to see it - with artifacts from and explanations about Egyptian burial customs and beliefs. Upstairs I was moved to see portraits of faces hundreds of years old who looked like friends of mine - but here were faces thousands of years old. And beautiful things, sculpture, amulets, sarcophagi from thousands of years B.C. Here was another kind of nativity scene, only slightly different from the Italian ones upstairs: the goddess Isis in bronze, with a horned headdress, breastfeeding her son Horus. Here a statue of gods carved in pink granite, just like the rocks I climbed on last summer at Killarney Park in Ontario. The tag said the rock was from Memphis - Memphis, Egypt - and the sculpture dated from 425 B.C.
There were other statues from 2350 B.C. A basket from 1550 B.C., looking like a First Nations basket I bought on Vancouver Island. A piece of bread, left in a tomb in 1480 B.C. I loved especially the papyrus burial scrolls - writers, busy as always, only with picture words. How did these survive thousands of years?
Three hours, my friends, and finally I could take no more. At 9 p.m., I took the escalator up into the pyramid. Now it was dark outside; as I rode up, I saw the Louvre through the pyramid glass, illuminated on all sides - breathtaking. Managed to stagger into the chilly wind with other staggering tourists and find the magic #27 bus home, blessing my style-less but comfortable running shoes all the way.
When I got in, I had a phone message from an old friend in London who's coming to Paris next week. On my computer, various responses to the Facebook message I'd posted today, my first Facebook attempt, and an email message from an editor in Toronto - my article is coming out in More magazine on May 25, could I please check the proofs and get back to her? I poured a large glass of wine and settled in to write to you.
Tonight may just be one of the great nights of my life. I am a citizen of Paris.
There have been protests about my announcement that I'd cut these posts down. And you know, I love chatting away here. So I'll try not to waste your time with boring stuff, but the deal is, if my chats bore you or waste your time, turn me off. So on we go.
Every morning I check the website meteo-paris.com to get an idea of the day's weather and plan the day accordingly. Today is cool with dark clouds, possible rain. I've made a list of the museum timetables, which are all different and very confusing - some are closed Monday, some Tuesday, some never; some open at 9, some 9.30, some 11, and some have late hours once or twice a week, which, after my success yesterday at Orsay, I am interested in trying again. The Louvre, the mother of all museums, has late hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. So unless there's a downpour, I'm going to try that this evening at 6. Like yesterday, it's sure there will be swarms of Italian and Spanish schoolchildren, because they don't eat dinner until 9. I try to imagine convincing my children to visit a museum at 6 p.m. and have dinner three hours later ... without much success.
Speaking of my children, now that I realise how hard it was just to get my little self here, I cannot imagine how in 1994 I dragged two reluctant kids, Sam then 10 and Anna 13, for three weeks to France, on very little money. Their tickets came through their dad's travel points, we stayed in Paris with my artist cousin Debbie, sleeping on her not-recently-swept floor, and spent most of our time here testing the patience of my dear friends the Blins in Provence, where my Canadian kids learned to sit at a table through a long meal and actually look at things in museums. When we came back to Paris at the end, they were two weathered travellers, very different from the punk skateboarders who landed there. We went to the Louvre and Orsay and climbed the Arc de Triomphe, but what they liked best was visiting Pere Lachaise Cemetery to see Jim Morrisson's grave.
In adulthood, I don't know how or why, they have both turned into wonderful cooks with sophisticated palates, very interested in food. And as payback for my feat of endurance in 1994, they both cook, sometimes, for me.
I did my "courses" this morning, walking to the supermarket down little streets where men and women stood or sat in cafes, drinking their tiny cup of morning brew. At the shop I bought, again, a big bag of endives for very little. Endives at home are a luxury item and here are a staple, so this time I knew what to do - I made braised endives for lunch. My vegetarian friend Patsy asked for the recipe when I mentioned them before, so here it is, courtesy of Lynn:
Take 4 or 5 endives and cut them in half top to bottom, lengthwise. Cut out and discard the middle bit which is bitter, and brown in a skillet with olive oil. When nicely browned, cover with water and parboil until tender. Drain, cover with grated swiss cheese and butter and put in the oven to bake until the cheese melts. I ate them with some chicken I'd bought at the market, and though I'd decided not to drink wine at midday because it kind of wipes me out - floating in mellowland - I couldn't not have a glass with my first, pretty damn good attempt at braised endives. Santé.
There's a "rubby" - I don't know what to call him, because he's obviously not homeless - who sits in front of the bakery right next door all day long. It's like a job for him - he arrives when the bakery opens, carefully puts down his box to sit on and his begging cup, and sits there watching the world go by until the bakery closes, when he rises and goes away. He must take a lunch or bathroom break, but I haven't witnessed that. He is there almost every time I go out, and I don't quite know how to deal with him. He isn't handicapped, at least in any visible way, has a friendly face, but there he sits waiting for coins, and I don't feel like giving him any. At the same time, I don't want to scurry past avoiding his eyes, so yesterday our eyes met and we both said Bonjour. He knows my timetable better than anyone except myself. It's very odd.
I've been chuckling about "les flics," but there's a huge police presence here - in public places, young men in uniform with what might be Uzi's. The other day there was a long line of police cars by the Petit Palais, and as I walked by they must have received a command, because suddenly all these taut young men were strapping on pale blue bullet proof vests and gun belts and other lethal equipment and leaping into the vans and charging away at high speed with sirens blaring. I wondered what the crisis was. The university is still on strike with more strikes threatened, and at the demonstration of the "sans papiers" the other day, again, a very large number of police were in the background, keeping an eye on things. I forget that European countries have experienced terrorism first hand and recently, and are more than anxious that it not happen again. Oh, the peace, so far, of being Canadian.
And a word about a subject very dear to my heart: shoes. Shoes. When will I learn? I packed nice pairs for social events, a little pair of black slingbacks, some even higher for fancier things - and a pair of loafers for sightseeing. Madness! Shoes mean survival in the sightseeing world - the difference between enjoying the day and enduring it. I know this and forget it every time. After a day on your feet, there is nothing you care about less than style; all that matters is comfort. I wrote to Madame Blin in Provence about this, and she wrote back suggesting that I wear my running shoes and hope I didn't meet anyone I knew. Because only tourists wear running shoes.
At this point, I don't care if I look like a tourist, I want to be able to walk. So tonight, if you run into me at the Louvre after 6, please don't notice my feet.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
I tried a new schedule today - working and errands during the day, museum in the evening. Try the Musee d'Orsay at six p.m. on Thursdays, a friend had advised me, as it's the only night the museum stays open late and all the tourists eat at six. I got there at ten to six, and though there was a boisterous clump of Italian schoolchildren ahead of me in the line, we got in fast. When I left at 8 p.m., two star-studded hours later, there was a long line-up outside, even at that hour. So, there's a Valuable Tip for your next trip to Paris.
Even if there were no paintings, Orsay would be worth the visit just for the building alone - that cathedral-like massive inner space with vaulted, decorated ceiling and spectacular gold clock. But of course there ARE paintings, just a few. I went straight to the top, the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, and breathed a sigh of pleasure and recognition as I started the tour - Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Gaugin, Seurat, Bonnard - many of their greatest works that I studied in school as a child. And others, previously unknown - a tiny Manet canvas of one asparagus stalk - just beautiful. A Monet of a young boy almost hidden among tall plants in a dark apartment. Still lifes that make you want to always arrange your fruit so it's spilling onto the table. The almost menacing intensity of Van Gogh, the sweet pinks and blues of Monet, the wondrous calm of Cezanne.
It's helpful that they all painted both themselves and each other, so we can put faces to the work. There's a portrait of the painter Berthe Morissot by Manet - who knew she was very beautiful? And in a group portrait by Fantin-Latour, there's Rimbaud the poet, his hair wild, looking about twelve years old. The artists are usually portrayed dressed in dignified suits, with big beards - not the wild starving-in-a-garret painters of Paris that we imagine.
After an hour gorging myself on the top floor, I went down to the ground, saving the middle floors for another day. Another wander round, with lots of sitting to watch the crowd as well as the canvases and sculptures. But after an hour and a half, I find I can't take much more in, try as I might, and I did try. Emerged into a stunning Paris dusk, the fading sun gleaming on the Louvre across the river, and walked along the Quais to Boul' Mich' to get my bus home, gazing into the windows of very exclusive shops, including one that sells only antiquities from the Middle Ages. I was thrilled to see two Paris flics - police - huddled over a street map. I guess they, too, have to figure out where they are.
Stopped at the nearest grocery store on the way home to buy two necessities, milk and wine. There was an entire wall of selection, ranging in price from 3 euros to 25. So I bought a bottle of 4 euro Bordeaux to have with dinner. It smells a little bit of socks, but it's drinkable.
I raise a glass of wine, my friends - to artists, who have so enriched our world.
Another cool, foggy morning. I'm glad the heater works now. Yesterday morning, it was so cold I bent over the stove for warmth as I made my coffee, and burned a hole in my nightgown. Today - nice warm radiators. Less dangerous.
I wrote yesterday to my friend Bruce, a faithful blog reader, asking him if he thought the posts were getting too long. He wrote back to say he couldn't tell me because he's too busy to read them and will get back to them when he has time. I think that answers my question. I want to delight you with my discoveries, not end up like some relative hanging onto your lapels, crying, Wait, just one more series of slides - my last afternoon in Biarritz, it's so beautiful. Then you can go home.
So I will try to cut these down.
On a more personal note, I lay in bed this morning thinking, again, I'm here. Still hard to believe sometimes. I made a mental list of my daily activities in Toronto, including reading two newspapers and the weekly "New Yorker," dealing with an old four story house, two tenants, a front and back yard, my job at two universities, my job at home with writing students, family young and old. Feeding the cat twice a day and the birds once a week. And as often as possible, Jon Stewart on TV.
Here, all I have to do is feed myself and keep the place - two rooms and a small kitchen - and my clothes and self clean. And email, always, email, and write here. No cat, no birds, no tenants or TV. And yet, even in the absence of all those daily Toronto activities, the days speed by; two weeks have disappeared. Well, today I'm going to sit here and take stock. And do some writing work. But first, I'm going to cut lots out of yesterday's piece.
There. Nice and short. See ya!
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
My walk down the Champs today:
Looking back down the Champs-Elysees while courting death in the middle
Exhausted tourists sitting around the big pond of the Tuileries gardens, with the Arc de Troimphe in the background and the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde
Exhausted tourists sitting around the big pond of the Tuileries gardens, with the Arc de Troimphe in the background and the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde
Grieving statue with plum tree and pigeons
The little Arc with the Louvre and its pyramid behind.
I'm not very good at this, so these are in reverse order of mention in the blog: at the bottom, the marvellous plum tree from the Jardin des Plantes and the Hotel du Sens from 1475, with its tapestry garden.
Then the kind gentlemen fixing the heater in the kitchen.
The incredible Madeleine.
A flower bed on the Champs Elysees.
I will have been here two weeks tomorrow, hard as it is to believe - and today was the first day that I truly felt at home, relaxed, coping and able to take it all in.
This morning, two charming gentlemen came to fix the heat in the apartment. And then today's project: to do some serious Right Bank exploration. This time I prepared for a Himalayan excursion: not only camera, notebook, lipstick and map, but little water bottle and, yes, I packed a sandwich. I can hear my children screaming, but why pay a lot of money to sit at a cafe when I have this perfectly good Poilane bread going stale? I dressed carefully too, because I was going to Fashion Central - le Faubourg St. Honore, the most fashionable, expensive shopping street in the world.
The bus passed a big demonstration on the Boul' Mich', and I asked the woman next to me what it was about. She explained that it was the "sans papiers," foreigners without papers, who want to be legalized. "Oh yes, they should all be given papers," she said bitterly, "and then they'll ALL come." We did not converse much after that.
My first destination was the store Colette, which has become, apparently, the world centre of trendiness. After a little tour around, I think it is the centre of attitude and expensiveness. Anyone can be trendy in a 2500 Euro Comme des Garcons dress, or a 145 Euro t-shirt, or with one of those handbags. Oh the handbags! I picked one up - Yves St. Laurent, 4500 Euros - and looked at myself in the mirror. On one arm, nearly eight thousand dollars of squishy grey leather; on the other, a colourful Japanese canvas bag I bought at my favourite couturier, which also provided most of the clothes I had on: Goodwill of Gerrard Street.
The place had not only clothes, but the smallest iPods and cameras, the grooviest sunglasses, the most ridiculous shoes, diamante Hello Kitty headphones. The thing I liked best was a map of Europe and Asia, all in pink except for a big blue France. Underneath, in blue, was printed, "France." And in pink was printed, "Not France."
Otherwise, I thought it was humourless and sterile, all silver and glass cynicism. I thought of my kids and their effortless, fabulous, penniless style, and wished they were there to diss this store with me. No, I just wished they were there. We visited France together when they were 13 and 10. I wished, all day, they were with me again.
Continued along the street, gazing at one mind-boggling display of luxury goods after another. The street has every luxury name in the world, including Sothebys which is soon auctioning a Picasso for an estimated 18 million Euros. There was an Armani Junior for children, and a shop with silver bowls for dogs. My favourite shoemaker was there - Stuart Weizmann, who makes shoes for the big-footed woman. I myself was wearing shoes bought in New York, though not Weizmann's - nice loafers from the thrift store across from my cousin Ted's on W. 77th.
At one point I saw a skinny blonde dressed from head to toe in Chanel - jacket, bag, shoes - walking, barely, arm in arm with a stooped, much older man who did not look like her dad. I wondered if it was worth it.
I turned off the street, finally, towards the Champs-Elysees and stopped at a sidewalk cafe for a grand creme, a cafe au lait, and to watch the crowd. The Elysee Palace where Sarkozy lives and works is on St. Honore, and this is a quartier of French bureaucrats - there they were bustling along, hoardes of natty little men in perfectly tailored grey suits and silk ties. A family of four tourists went by, the father dressed in a pink polo shirt and Hawaiian surfing shorts splashed with giant pink and green flowers. What, I asked myself, was he thinking?
And there it was - the Champs-Elysees - so wide and spacious, so very grand. I was only at the midpoint, so I decided to explore the Arc de Triomphe side to the right another time and turned left towards the Louvre. And soon stopped on a bench right on the Champs to eat my delicious sandwich. I felt pretty smug, I can tell you.
Couldn't get over the sweeping vista from one end to the other, then le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais and the Tuileries gardens - in fact, all afternoon, one magnificent building or square or monument or church after another, La Madelaine, Place Vendome, then coming up to Place de la Concorde which I managed to cross alive, and then the elegant and endless Louvre. Stunning, breath-taking, glorious. Did I mention that I'm having a good time?
Home on the #21 bus, which stops right around the corner, and on to my second most favourite activity of the day, after wandering in Paris - no, my fourth, after wandering, drinking and eating - telling you all about it.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
What am I, nuts, talking about going for a run? All you have to do in in this city is decide on a little jaunt, and three hours later you are still walking with screaming feet. Running is for when there's nowhere to walk. In fact, I should not have bought a month's metro pass - about $100 for limitless bus and metro - because I'm not going to get my money's worth.
Today's jaunt - to the Musee Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris, another place that somehow, in my trips here, I have never visited. On the way, I kept stopping to gawk, especially at the stunning Hotel de Sens, built in 1475, with an ornate garden. I overheard a tour guide tell her group that the formal French old gardens are called "tapestry" style, because they're designed to be seen from above, from the windows of chateaux.
For some bizarre reason, I thought the museum would be a small place, a cosy little look at Paris past. Hah! It's in a stunning building, and it's endless. One room after another packed with history, starting with the Romans pre-Christianity and continuing through the Revolution to pre-war times. Now that I'm home, I will get out the guidebooks with Paris's history in them, so I can sit down and try to learn what I saw today. There was far too much to take in, but the highlight, for this writer, was seeing Marcel Proust's cork-lined room, which they have recreated - there he lay in bed and wrote, protected from harsh noises by his unusual wallpaper. I also saw Jean-Jacques Rousseau's inkwell, Voltaire's "fauteuil mortuaire" - death chair? - and a recreation of what the Arenes de Lutece must have looked like in the first few centuries, when 15,000 people would gather there to watch gladiators and wild beasts. The ruins of Les Arenes are just down the street here, a huge open park and playground which, interestingly, is equipped with wifi.
After an hour and a half, my eyes were rolling back, so I had to leave and will return to start, next time, at the other end - with a huge portrait gallery of famous Parisians. I waved to Jean Cocteau on my way out. From the second floor, by the way, I looked out the window at the formal garden, and sure enough, saw a tapestry of pattern not visible from the ground.
The triumph of this trip was that I forgot my map and still managed to make it home. Of course, after leaving the museum I thought, I know exactly where I am, and walked 100% in the wrong direction. But only asked once before getting my bearings and wandering back. Saw a great poster on a wall: the famous Obama poster with "Yes, we can" underneath, and beside it, in exactly the same style, the face of Sarkozy with, underneath, "Pas de weekend."
I also heard a man, who was cleaning the windows of his shop, exclaiming on the phone, "Mais c'est pas a moi de faire, ca, pas a moi." I thought of something someone said at Almeta's dinner - that the word which comes most naturally to the French is 'non.' This morning I went to a plumber a few steps away to ask if they could come and light the pilot light in the heater so I could have some heat. You'd think I'd asked them to do brain surgery. "You need a specialist, madame," he told me, as if a plumber cannot light a pilot light.
The French may enjoy saying no, but they've created a city crammed with masterpieces to share with us all. Today's excursion - walk, gawk, vast Museum - cost exactly zero.
Monday, April 13, 2009
I set off this afternoon to go to a concert at the Cluny Museum not far from here - but realised half-way there that the day was too beautiful to miss. And also, that I was very tired. I'm not used to talking, listening and eating for an unbroken span of five hours, and perhaps, too, I have finally surfaced here, come up for air. The heat has broken down in the apartment and the repair people are off for Easter, so I spent the morning under a blanket working out finances. A cold dose of reality, now that I have actually translated Euros to Canadian dollars, at about $1.70 to a Euro. It's always fun to go out shopping and for dinner with play money. Won't be quite so much fun now that I know how much I am actually spending.
Though the most important things, wine and flowers, are still a great deal. What a relief.
So I walked back up the Boul. Mich. where I spent many happy hours of my adolescence - it was blessedly empty as many shops are closed, but even so, it's clearly a place for the under-25's, not old crocks like me. I wandered in the Jardin du Luxembourg again, went a different way and found a spectacular, enormous fountain with sculpture that I've never seen before, in my many visits there. And then I came home to pass the rest of the day doing very little.
A few thoughts: I cannot get over the miracle of the Internet, how different things are, now, for travellers. Conversations with friends zipping back and forth on the screen; Skyping - with camera! - to Vancouver or Provence; logging in to the "Globe" and the "Star" in Toronto, reading a review of Wayson's book at the same time as he was, at home; this blog linking me to everyone, and friends sending me links from all over the world - how incredibly connected we are. Today, this quiet Easter Monday felt like Sunday, so at 3, as I usually do at home on Sundays at 3, I decided to listen to Eleanor Wachtel's "Writers and Company." Logged into the CBC podcast and listened to last week's superb interview about the poet Shelley, just as if I were at home in my kitchen in Toronto, making dinner.
I just read about the 5eme Quartier where I'm living in "The Rough Guide to Paris." "There's not much point in going further south on rue St.-Jacques," the authors write. "The area is dull and lifeless ..." Hooray! I am living further south on the dull and lifeless Rue Claude Bernard, which means that there are no tourists here, just ordinary people living their lives. Especially after visiting a tourist area like Notre Dame or the Boulevard St. Germain, caught in the frantic crush and assaulted by babble in every language on earth, it's great to leave it all behind and return to a quiet part of the city.
Right across the street is a video rental store, and in the window is the film "Juno." Not very long ago, when I was visiting the Halifax Grammar School, the school founded by my father in Halifax, I was told that Ellen Page spent nearly her entire school career there. So I like to think that my father, in a small way, had something to do with the originality and freshness of the talented Ellen Page, who looks at me from the window across this dull and lifeless street.
PS. In my Skype conversation with Lynn a few minutes ago, she corrected something I posted here about one of our meals together - that it was a kind of "rabbit stew." In fact, Lynn pointed out, it was a "confit de canard." So much for the sophisticated Parisienne, who cannot tell the difference between a rabbit and a duck. Oh well. Give me time.
Two great excursions yesterday, as the day continued mild and soft. In the afternoon, I discovered the nearby Jardin des Plantes for the first time. Of course, this being Paris, it's not only a garden - there are several spectacular palatial buildings. But the rest is, yes, a French-type garden, mostly laid out in neat orderly designs of stunning colour - especially beds of poppies in pale and bright yellows, oranges and pinks. I buried my face in lilac for the first time this year, and stood under a blossom tree (plum?) so vast and heavy that there were a dozen of us concealed underneath. A little enclave, not as tidy as the rest, featured scraggly alpine plants identified by little tags, and I remembered walking among rows like these last summer at Stratford, Ontario, where outside the main theatre, they have a pretty labelled garden.
There were lots of joggers in the Jardin. There are joggers in Paris, but not many and mostly, it's pretty clear, North Americans. The French, in general, do not jog. They walk and they smoke, which is how they stay slim, I guess. But I was happy to see the runners in the garden because I thought I might join them occasionally. Otherwise, with all this orgasmic eating of croissants, I soon won't be able to move at all.
In the evening, carrying my two baguettes, a bottle of wine and Wayson's book, I walked along the Boulevard Montparnasse, past some of the famous Montparnasse watering spots, La Closerie des Lilas, Le Select, La Coupole, on my way to my friend Almeta Speaks's in the 15th. Almeta and I met in Vancouver in the 70's, where she was singing and I acting. We lost touch and met again last year under the auspices of our mutual friend Wayson. To that first meeting in Toronto, I brought an excerpt I'd found in my diary.
July 13, 1976
Almeta Speaks playing and singing the blues at the Sheraton, over the clamour of voices and clatter of the cash register. She came over to join me for a drink. She's going back to university to study sociology, with a minor in music.
"You don't allow yourself to be intimidated," she said. "You intimidate. I asked one professor on the first day of class, 'What does it take to get an A in your class?'
And he said, 'Wuh?'
And I said, 'What do you want?'
And he said, 'Well, this and this and this,' and I said, 'Okay,' and that's what I gave him and at the end of the year, I told him, 'You remember when I asked you what you wanted and you said this and this and this? Well I want you to remember cuz that's what I gave you.'
You intimidate. All you need is logic. Nothing university professors hate more than logic. You sit there in the front row and when he says something, you stand up and you say, 'Man, that doesn't sound logical,' and he thinks (rolls eyes to heaven), 'Lord, what did I do to deserve this?'
And I got 5 B's and the rest are A's and I'm ranked sixth in my class. So it works."
Almeta, who has not changed one iota, has lived in Paris for many years, though she also works in the States and all over the place. Last night she had invited a fantastic group: three literary couples, most American expats who have found the artistic nourishment they need in Paris. Tom Reeves has just published "Paris Insights," and his wife Monique Wells wrote a cookbook about the African-American food of her childhood; Joanne and David Burke, both documentary filmmakers, have lived in Paris for 22 years and David has just brought out "Writers in Paris;" Jake Lamar is working on his seventh book, and his Swiss-born wife Dorli is a musician.
Mon dieu. An intimidatingly accomplished assembly, and all warm, open, lively. Around the table in Almeta's tiny living-room, we ate, drank and told stories for five hours, which vanished. There was much talk of their friend Mavis Gallant, who didn't join us because her new book has just been released, she's been extremely busy and needed time to herself to write. There was also discussion about the fascinating people these old friends have known through the years, the writers and painters who made Paris permanently or temporarily their home.
We all, black and white, shared a huge love and respect for the new President of the United States. With what joy did these Americans, at dinner, discuss their president. How long they've waited for this day.
Almeta as always told enthralling stories - about singing for Johnny Depp at the Ritz (after a set, he apologised to her that he had to go upstairs to join Vanessa and the baby, and left her a large token of his esteem), about her friendship with Odetta, about a friend of hers who was a friend of Charley Parker's. In this group, Charley Parker was just one degree of separation away.
The English-speaking community of artists in Paris sounds like a pretty tight group - that eventually, through connections and events, everyone meets everyone. They all know the owners of the important bookstores, the Village Voice and Shakespeare and Co., and where other Paris-American writers are with their books and careers. Last night I felt part of a village within a metropolis, and a welcoming, inspiring village at that.
At midnight, after we'd devoured the last of the exquisite chocolates Monique had been given by a chocolatier about whom she was writing a story and it was time to go home, I discovered that Tom and Monique live one long block from my place. Mellow with wine, food, and stories, I didn't have to snap my brain into gear and figure out the metro; they led me home.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
It's not even noon on Easter Sunday, and I've already had two orgasmic experiences. I'm sorry to be graphic, but that's how it feels. I've just returned from the bakery on rue Mouffetard, and simply standing in line waiting to be served in the narrow shop, with right next to me the products laid out behind the glass - I nearly fainted. The array of breads, pastries, delicacies, sandwiches, quiches, tartes - it was like being in Aladdin's cave. The perfection of a tarte tatin with its overlapping darkened apple slices and golden sheen brought tears to my eyes. I wondered if the French people around me were aware of this richness. I think, you know, they must be. Who could not?
Incidentally, I love how in the stores, they sing out, "Monsieurdame," when it's your turn, as if you are an indeterminate creature of either sex. In the shop, I listened to the music of Paris - "Monsieurdame oui une baguette deux pains au chocolat un croissant aux amandes ..." It could have been sung by a great soprano.
I bought two baguettes that I've been requested to bring to a dinner party tonight - immediately ripped the top from one, crusty, yeasty, heavenly - a loaf of "pain aux cereales" - cereal bread? - for myself (even though I already have here a loaf of pain Poilane), and a croissant. I've been in this country over a week and have not yet eaten a croissant. What am I, sick? And in the market, I bought a flat of bright red strawberries on special, according to the cries of the merchant, for only 3 Euros. Here is the Parisienne walking home with her baguettes, her croissant and her strawberries, feeling light-headed.
At home I bit into the croissant. Oh! Oh oh oh, as Meg Ryan might have groaned. What's left is here on my lap and I'll bite into it slowly, trying to explain. First, you pull it apart - layer upon layer, light as air, springy yet crusty. And then into the mouth - oh, it's sweet. But not too sweet. It curls around the tongue and there's butter on the fingers and crumbs on the plate and on the lap and ... slowly pull off another piece, watching the tension in the pastry as it gives, and then the mouth, watering, receives its ...
No, I was about to say sacrament, but it's Easter Sunday and I'm half-Jewish and shouldn't take these things lightly. But it does feel like a sacred experience. I have seen a kind of god in a croissant. The god of this extraordinary country, the god of beautiful food, beautifully produced, prepared, marketed - and that's before you taste. Beautiful.
Now somehow to calm down, cool my flushed cheeks and get on with my day.