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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Final days in Paris


Yes, of course we occasionally behaved like tourists.  We took the Metro to the base of Montmartre, winding our way through the streets and up the stairs to that over-decorated wedding cake of a church, Sacra Coeur.  We took an odd way, though, through streets of fabric shops filled with the most appalling prints.  Then we took an unusually circuitous route upward so Veronica could take some photographs.  My favourite is of an open window with a beautiful staircase just beyond it.  We walked  straight through  tourist land, with its souvenirs, though had to fight our way through tourists photographing themselves in tourist land:  no simple little streets for them.  What is it we're all looking for? I wondered.  They want to record the experience of being a tourist, perhaps of following millions of tourists before them.  While we want a different kind of experience, in spite of the fact that we're...tourists.  This led me to think about the reality of our experience here.

For instance, I've drawn some conclusions about French children and how they play, though these have been based on the riotous, joyous sounds of children behind the walls of their schoolyards (yes, there always seem to be walls) or children in gardens.  Yet whose parents take children to gardens?  I have also come to the conclusion that the French are perhaps less obsessed about work than we are.  They have a 35-hour work week, yet they imagine to be among the most productive societies.  They seem to go out onto the street for smoke breaks, but certainly aren't hurrying to get back into the office.  They seem to take lunch with friends.  When we visited the Musee Marmotten-Monet, which is slightly off the beaten track, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant where we heard nothing but lively conversations all in French.  Yet unless I do a study of the people who work in the highrises we saw when we made our one Metro mistake and got on the wrong train in a line that divided in two, I have no idea what the French worker really thinks or does. We ate crepes on the street, something we have seen French people doing; while I enjoyed the dark chocolate folded into a freshly-made crepe, I felt like I was having a slightly fraudulent experience.

I made even wilder generalizations when we took the Metro from Montmartre to La Bon Marche, Paris's oldest department store, where I bought a thimble.  No, that's not a typo.  We went directly to the store's much-praised selection of buttons, fabrics, and wool, but could find little, except in the way of buttons, that we couldn't find in Regina.  They did, however, have whole wooden cases of thimbles that you could actually try on, and I found one that fit.  I have a single comfortable thimble, and lord help me if Sheba ever turns it into a toy.  Their beautiful stationary department still has inserts for Filofaxes and beautiful, leather-covered address books in purple and ruby red; have they forgotten that we live in the twenty-first century and that cell phones and email programs contain all the names and addresses one needs?.  I saw some lovely blue Moleskine notebooks, but I try to buy those from Paper Umbrella on 13th because I love that shop and want to support it.  We went up to the floor of women's clothing where we found haute style and even haute-er price tags.  In the midst of the stylish beige and black and soft blue we saw a pair of pink sandals with heels about six inches high.  The heels were actually a pair of plastic poodles sitting up that had rhinestone collar on.  Out of curiosity, I turned the show over and looked at the price:  1,345 Euros.  No, that's not a typo either.  Having seen countless French women--every one of them with a scarf--I can't make any generalizations about French style, except to say that we looked like tourists because we'd brought shawls and not scarves.

Occasionally as we were walking down a street, a couple of gates were opened into a courtyard with further doors beyond.  This perhaps is my metaphor for my minimal understanding of Paris:  there is simply so much we do not see in the public spaces.  On our way to the airport, we learned that even Parisians get caught in traffic jams, that they have a box store land, and that Parisian kids (at least one presumes  it's kids) love doing graffiti.  Every possible surface is covered, and in the Metro, on walls where there is really no space, people have left their signatures and drawings.  One suspects this work is done on a dare, between trains.

But Parisians write on their city in other creative ways.  During our last couple of days, when we were looking for presents to bring back, we made our way to a small shop called "Lil Weasel" in one of the arcades we hadn't traveled to on our first day there.  Three stories high, covered in glass, it is a lovely space with black wrought iron gates that are probably closed when none of the shops are open.  Lil Weasel, we suspect, yarn-bombed the gates with imaginative arrangements of bright knitted sea anemones, seaweed, and crocheted flowers.

Their buildings tell us something about their historical sense.  Central Paris--the tourists' Paris--has probably changed very little over the last century, though occasionally we found a row of shops with apartments above that had a simpler, more modern architecture.  At the same time, Paris seems always under repair.  On a walk of about half an hour, you will doubtless come across someone doing repairs to windows or painting trim or fixing a doorway:  there are ladders and tradesmen everywhere weaving in the loose ends of very old architecture.  Nowhere is this clearer than in their cathedrals.  We went into several of the smaller churches when we saw their doors were open, and Veronica would look all around and point out the early Norman arches of the nave, which was clearly built first.  Then Gothic arches take over, and perhaps stained glass that is even more modern.  The need to keep up an old built environment or the architectural layers of the churches suggest that Parisians, and perhaps even Europeans, are aware of the historical layers that stand behind the present moment. 

Our visit to the Musee Marmottan-Monet is of a piece with this sense of the historical layers that make up almost any space in Paris.  The building on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne was originally the hunting lodge of the Duke of Valmy.  In 1882, it was bought by Jules Marmottan, who left it to his son Paul in 1882.  Paul was a collector of the art of the Napoleonic era.  In turn, he left the house and its collection to the Academie des Beaux Arts in 1934.  While Paul's collection remains in the house, two major donations shifted its focus.  One was the  gift of Victorine Donop de Monchy of her father's collection of Impressionist paintings.  Doctor Georges de  Bellio had been the physician of Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, and Renoir, and had collected their work. In 1966, Monet's second son Michel donated his collection of his father's work, making the Musee Marmottan-Monet the largest collection of Monets in the world.  The house also holds the Waldenstein collection of Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts.  The Musee also hosts special exhibitions, in our case the work of modernist painters Marie Laurencin, a contemporary of Bracque, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Delauney, and Derain, and the partner and muse of Guillaume Apollinaire.  While she was part of the cubist and Fauves circles, her work has of course been ignored in the broad swathes of art history that infamously and dishonestly edit the details of a period to a few "greats."

 So one's experience of the museum is slightly jerky:  you move from rooms full of portraits of  heroes of the Napoleonic period to gentle portraits of Berthe Morrisot and paintings of Monet.  Once you have finished the Laurencin exhibition, you again switch gears to look at the remarkable Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts.  The effect is a useful reality check, reminding you that any collection is, indeed, a collection:  that is a reflection of individuals' choices and tastes, and that the historical narratives used to hold those choices together with an historical narrative is ultimately a simplification. 

There is another element of the Monet collection that calls coherence into question.  I believe it was Cezanne who commented that Monet "was only an eye--but what an eye!"  It is Monet's serene and beautiful canvases, whether of the Houses of Parliament of snowy streets or hay stacks, of his gardens and water lilies, that one first thinks of.  Yet this collection contains quite a number of later Monets from the war and from his old age that are decidedly atypical.  During the war, the brushwork in his paintings of his water lily garden becomes agitated and he tends not to finish the edges and the corners of the paintings, foregrounding the his questions about art and representation.  By the time he began his last paintings, Monet was well into his eighties and he no longer saw the colours that you and I tend to see in, say, a lily pond.  Suddenly, dark winy reds make their appearance into otherwise natural scenes.  Doubtless Monet knew that lily pads weren't deep red and could have also red the names on his tubes of paint, thus keeping the colours of his paintings "accurate."  For whatever reason, however, he decided that he would give us a chance to see through an old man's eyes.  The effect is moving and unsettling, in about equal parts.

On our last day in Paris, I needed a book for the long trip back to Regina, so we went hunting for Shakespeare and Company, a left bank book shop that takes its name from the earlier institution opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 that became a gathering place for expatriate writers like Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald, Stein, Man Ray, and Joyce.  The original closed during the German Occupation in 1940.  In 1951, George Whitman opened an English language bookstore in Paris that he called "Mistral," a name he changed  in tribute when Sylvia Beech died.  He termed it a "socialist utopia masquerating as a bookstore," and even had 15 beds where writers could sleep when they were in Paris.

I wanted serendipity to choose my book for me, so I picked up Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, about his life in Paris during the 20s, partly because I remembering loving it as an undergraduate and hadn't read it since then, partly because I was leaving Paris.  When I looked more carefully at its cover, I saw it was a photograph of the original shop with Sylvia Beach and Hemingway standing out in front of it.  When you buy your books at The Shakespeare Book Company, they offer to stamp it on the inside so you  have a record of where you bought it, a record that of, ourse resonates (whether you buy A Moveable Feast or not) back to before World War II.  My copy resonates doubly and perhaps even triply, since Hemingway talks about Beach's bookstore (which people often used more as a library), and because the stamp on the inside echoes the photograph on the outside.  In one of the later chapters, Hemingway, who hated Ford Maddox Ford with a passion that no one can quite explain, talks about sitting in his favourite cafe, the "Closerie de Lilas," "watching the light change on the trees and the buildings and the passage of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards."  Unfortunately, Ford came in and took over the scene with a conversation that Hemingway reports (how accurately is anyone's guess), leading Hemingway to report that "The light was changed again and I had missed the change." 

Fortunately, there was no Ford Maddox Ford in our evening, so after dinner Veronica and I walked to the end of the Isle de Cite, where you can watch the sun set over the Siene.  We saw for at least twenty minutes, sometimes watching people, sometimes watching the light.  We didn't lose a minute of it.

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