My time in Paris is almost up. I was spending the morning in quiet places in Paris like this courtyard behind St Severin in the Latin Quarter. In one step you are transported from a noisy crowd to a medieval garden. I will miss them, both the crowd and the garden. Paris has many offerings and we enjoy them as we can. From the tourist standing on Pont d'Arcole pointing at the Hôtel de Ville asking: “What's that?” to the passerby, overhearing and correcting my mistake about an historic feature of Paris, we all have our own idea of Paris, of what she is. Paris is for me, today, the quiet places. I leave the courtyard at St Severin and walk up boulevard St Michel to the garden at Cluny. It is another oasis just one step from the noise. The transformation is striking. So is the revelation. In the last 25 years I had walked by this garden thousands of times. I had even walked through it a few times but didn't linger. I guess it needs time, time to stop seeking and to just sit and observe, time given to me in this extended visit, an unexpected gift. My next stop, after a stroll along boulevard St Germain was the garden behind Notre Dame. Not as quiet here but full of nostalgia. My favorite tree died this year and was replaced by a Kwanzan cherry tree like the one in front of my house in Baltimore. Now, whenever I go out I will see a reminder of Paris. As I left the garden I paused to watch a quartet playing on the sidewalk. They were young and happy. At the end of their piece one of them spontaneously shouted: “Thank you Paris!”. I couldn't agree more.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Everything is beautiful if you know how to see. Not just with your eyes. Your hands and your feet need to join in the discussion, be part an inner conversation. Add the sounds and the smells and you have a genuine experience. Without this, the world is but a flat series of post cards. Have you really had a genuine experience of the sea at your feet without the smell of iodine mixed with salt, the faint smells of fish not quite gone bad, the breeze on your face, the chill of the water on your hands, and the sound of the waves at your feet? Want to really see Paris? Put down the guide book, get off the bus, take a random turn, listen carefully to the sounds, be aware of the smells. Create a story for yourself and move into it. Live in it. Here is a hotel on the east side of Montmartre. I imagine few visitors to Paris ever see it. It's easy to miss. The hill is steep here and the ground icy today. I am a young artist and I have a room in this hotel. I can barely make the weekly rent. I'm climbing the hill up to Place de Tertre with my easel. It's a cold day but sunny. There will be tourists there and perhaps I can make a few euros from charcoal portraits.If it's a good day I may earn enough for dinner at Chez Eugene, if not, they sell cheap hot dogs up by rue du Mont Cenis. The snow crunches as I walk, the air is clean, the sky blue, and the sun cuts the cold. I arrive at Place de Tertre but I am not a young starving artist, am I? I eat dinner at Chez Eugene.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Paris has many fine museums, the Louvre, Museé D'Osay, Grand Palais, and more. I spend time in all of them but, I am beginning to question my understanding of them. Walking the halls and display galleries it feels like I am taking an inventory. One walks past a woman in her bath, a portrait of a young man, a portrait of an old beggar, a woman reading, a praying monk, platters of fruit, plates of oysters, dead fish and ducks, sunsets, picturesque hamlets, cathedrals and boats. I enjoy the works but get no sense of harmony. They are essentially unrelated by anything but being superb works of art. I can go back to these museums many times to focus on some aspect, on some theme. I can spend time just reviewing Caillebotte's works, or Renoir or Félix Ziem's. Still, I begin to feel that art is not something you need or should go see in large collections but rather, art should be in front of you as you go through life. Art should be something that catches your eye and your imagination, taking you out of the ordinary, letting you see in a new way. Sitting in a café with a glass of wine and looking up at a painting of snow in Paris, or one with warm colors of summer, while maybe only reproductions, they are being seen in the context of your day. Walking to the bus stop at Palais de Justice in the morning, thinking about business, my eyes will focus on the beautiful clock there and they travel from there to the rooflines, to the spire of Sainte Chapelle. Art becomes part of my life. I will still go to the museums, but they will now be windows for me to see art everywhere in Paris.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies about Paris. Of course it was fantasy but isn't that what Paris is all about? Gil came to Paris with an openness that made it possible for him relive the excitement of times gone by. It is an openness that Paris rewards. You won't meet Hemingway or Cole Porter or Picasso on the street or go to parties with them but they can still become your friends. They have left traces behind them for you to find. You don't have to go at night to the Place de l'Abbé-Basset and wait to be picked up. Just follow your instincts or even make a random judgement at each intersection and see what is around the corner. Maybe these writers and artists only found a part of the soul of Paris. What makes Paris special for me is probably very different from what will make Paris special for you. You can go sit on Hemingway's bar stool at Closerie des Lilas and drink a few beers. I did it, it made me feel silly, I wrote a post about the experience and moved on to other things. Yet, on another day, strolling in Paris with a friend I once again sat on Hemingway's bar stool but this time the conversation was more philosophical and the experience became more about a place that many minds have come together in rather than about a single American writer. And then one day I had lunch there and Closerie des Lilas became a part of my Paris and not just a the remnants of other people's Paris. So, go if you must to those magic steps near the Pantheon but don't wait for the car, take off on your own and make Paris real place for yourself.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
I had a revelation the other day about Paris. I have often referred to Paris as Disneyland for adults. I meant was that there is always something interesting to see or do. It is a city of tradition and people work in traditional clothing, at traditional occupations, in traditional places. The revelation was that I came to take the Disneyland reference seriously and didn't pay enough attention to the “touristy” areas. I haven't spent nearly as much time as I should have over the last 25 years in Montmartre. I had a kind of “been there, done that attitude about it. A good place to spend a sunny day. One night I found myself alone for dinner. I had read that being alone in Paris was the most depressing thing on earth and I was in full agreement. I don't know why, but I went up to Place du Tertre. I walked around a bit. It was late and dark but several of the artists were still working even though the place was quite deserted. I went into Chez Eugene, my favorite place for their boeuf bourguignon. I was the only customer but there was the waiter, dressed as he would be for the tourists and acting the same as always. He was working at his profession, not playing a role for me. As I ate my meal several of the street artists came in for drinks or dinner. I began to feel what Montmartre must have been like a hundred years ago and none of it was for show. I'm back there ore often now. Hidden in among the street artists are some really talented painters and hidden among the souvenir shops some really good art galleries. I spend more time there now with my eyes open.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
I am very sad today. I am reposting the very first blog entry I made about Paris. Today this tree was cut down. I shall miss it along with all the other parts of my Paris that are disappearing.
Paris is more of a presence in my life than a place. For the last 25 years I have spent time there, mostly long stays of 3 or 4 weeks. Strung together it probably amounts to two or three years. I have rented the same apartment on rue Maître Albert for the last 15 of those years. In many ways it feels more like home than Baltimore where I wait between Paris trips.
Each arrival in Paris is like a continuation of the last visit. Rather than remembering Paris it is a if I'm forgetting Baltimore. The time between compresses until it vanishes, as if on my last morning in Paris I walked up to Place Maubert to get a taxi to the airport but changed my mind at the last second and continued up rue Monge to the Keyser boulangerie and now I'm walking home with my warm baguette and a new day in Paris in front of me.
Paris is the place where I feel most present. I relate to the city in a physical way - sound and touch and smell. Yes, I see it as well and in fact record a lot of what I see on film but when I close my eyes and think about my experiences in Paris I hear it and feel it and smell it. When things in ordinary life remind me of Paris it is never the visual but rather the sounds and textures and smells that carry my thoughts.
One of the first things I do on each visit is walk the short distance to Notre Dame. Just inside the back gate, nearest the river, to the gardens behind the cathedral are four trees arranged in a square and one of them has become a symbol for me of my relationship with Paris. It has been oddly grafted in a way that makes it seem animated in a welcoming way. It is very much how I feel in Paris, grafted on, not born here but taking nourishment from its cultural soil. My tree has rough bark with deep crevices and as I rub my hand along its roughness, that texture on my hand welcomes me again to Paris.
Paris is the best place in the world to live if you like art, history, architecture, food, and what I call the café way of life. It is a way of life in which each day is a new adventure, even though it may take place in the same spot as yesterday's new adventure. You step out in the morning, decide to turn left or right, and the day unfolds. As part of normal life, you walk through what many people only experience from films or books. You make new friends everyday even though some of them have been dead for a long time. You stand in front of Monet's “Impression of Sunrise” from close enough to reach out and touch it and imagine what he saw and heard and thought as he painted it. You can't get this from a book or a film, you just have to plant your feet right here and take it in. Everyday I walk past Notre Dame. I've spent about 1,000 days in Paris in my life and lived within 500 meters of Notre Dame for every one of those days. I've enjoyed her gardens out back, the lovely sound of her organ, and the beautiful voices of her choir. Her one flaw has been her bells. Yet, even though they were horribly out of tune, it was special to hear them. This year is my old friend's 850th birthday and she got new bells as a birthday present. They rang for the first time last Sunday. The new bells were on display in the center aisle of the cathedral, each bigger than a person, each named, each a presence. One by one they were moved to the tower, becoming a part of my Paris. You can only really hear them here.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Winter is dying hard here in Paris. Walking along the Seine to a morning meeting at Bords de Seine I captured this image of winter hanging on. It turns out I was walking in a short preview of spring. The sun was bright and warm, at least as measured by the last few days, but by the time my meeting was over winter had won out again. Walking back to the apartment was a dreary affair. And don't look at me like that! Even a city as beautiful as Paris can misbehave, pitch a snowy fit, or tease you with just a whiff of the pleasures to come before blowing cold air in your face. I'll forgive her but it will be easier when winter ends. The intense passion of my relationship with Paris is long gone and yet she remains the city where I would spend all of my time if I could. Even in a cold snowy winter I would rather be here than anywhere else and yet I find myself wondering: is Paris occupying too large a space in my existence? I am being spoiled by her excesses. Stoic philosophers in ancient Greece would teach that in order to lessen the pain of eventual separation from things and people we love we should, from time to time, imagine that we have lost them, to sort of test drive the sadness. If it is sunny and warm tomorrow I'm going to sit in Luxembourg Gardens and imagine life without the Louvre, D'Orsay, the park I'm sitting in, Parisian cafés in their particular way of being, the book sellers along the Seine, rue Mouffetard, and so many other treasures. Leave Paris I must, but I can make the next adventure the coming of spring. I just have to try.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Paris is the city of light. If you have ever been here you know how true that is. The light seems alive at times. It searches out and emphasizes the textures of the city. It comes in at a shallow angle, filtered as if by lace, and exposes Paris in a way that draws artists here to paint and write and photograph. Here is a view of Châtelet taken with a technique called contre-jour, literally “against the light.” The edges are stark, sharp, defined against the soft background of the Conciergerie and the Palais du Justice. This light is aligned with the character of Paris. Whatever is right in front of you is important, it occupies you, but always with more to come in the background and, if you are lucky, always with a story. Just to the right of this fountain is a café called Bords de Seine. It is an elegant café, newly restored. It has retained the character of Paris, unlike some of the café restorations. Near Châtelet, one of the largest Paris métro stations, it is a great place to meet someone. In nicer weather, after lunch, coffee or a glass of wine, you can walk along Quai de la Megisserie in front of the flower shops and pet stores. But, beware. Paris can change her mood in an instant. She spends most of the winter under a gray sky. It makes you treasure the sunny moments now and appreciate their abundance once spring has arrived. Watching the way Paris changes on a daily basis over a long time has given me a new appreciation for painting. A painter can see that same scene differently, day after day until he finally decides how to describe it, not just in an instant but for all time.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Happiness is divided into little pieces and one of those pieces is the anticipation of spring after a cold winter in Paris. Not that anything could actually make Paris undesirable but, after months of cold days, some below freezing, a little sunshine counts as one of those little pieces of happiness. Yesterday had just a hint of spring in it. I didn't need my gloves, I wore one less layer of clothing, I could sit in the shade to rest or just study something a little closer without feeling like I was in an icebox. It was the sunshine that was special. I missed the sun during all of those gray winter days. While walking along the sunny side of the quays in my neighborhood yesterday I could stop for a moment and just soak it all in, Notre Dame, Hôtel de Ville, Île St Louis, all there in front of me. I remembered the last warm days of fall and thought about the coming warm days of spring, little pieces of past happiness and anticipation of more to come. Living here gives a different pace to the days. There is time to spend on the little things and like little moments of happiness, they accumulate and become part of the relationship I have with Paris. We form and reform each other, Paris changes me and the changed me sees Paris in new ways. As Johnny Cash once sang: “I've been everywhere, man” and now I have the time to go deeper into those places in Paris that instigate those little moments of happiness. As soon as it is just a little bit warmer you might, if you came for a visit here, see me on this quay with my camera or my watercolors, building on the happy moments.