Tag Archives: France

Montmartre: Yellow 9 to Green 12

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Basilica_Sacre_CoeurWe left the Musée Marmottan Monet fully sated and strolled with satisfaction along our previous route. It rained of course, but it was not an ugly downpour and that longest of Paris days was still young. The Muette Metro station was all tangled up with construction and pedestrian detours. Deb wanted to see Montmartre, and that was clearly our next destination. By Metro it was fairly straightforward, really, take Number 9 (yellow Metro) to some giant underground knot beneath Paris where many of the routes collided. Somewhere there we would switch to the Number 12 (dark green Metro) with the endpoint of Aubervilliers Front Populaire, whatever that is, (for us, meaning roughly “North”).

Subway travelers know the importance of these endpoints–they indicate which direction the train is going –and, just as may occur when you are flying down the freeway and take the wrong exit and end up somewhere else, somewhere you had no intention of being, a similar error in the subway will put you on the wrong platform taking the wrong train in the wrong direction. In which case, I say, “Remain calm,” and let that train go if you are not sure that it is the right one, another one should come along soon, unless it is late at night, and, you can always wait patiently, unless you have had a couple of beers and you have a full bladder, pressing, pressing you with the urgent need to empty it, on a quiet platform, well-lit, with no toilet, no obscuring panels, only a few straggling waiting families and a booth with a tired guard dutifully observing all the closed-circuit television monitors as he fiddles with a pistol in his holster, and all you can think about is the long countdown of 20 minutes until the next train arrives, 20 minutes to hold yourself, 20 minutes that never seems to be less than 20 minutes, and if you’re not thinking about the longest 20 minutes you have ever lived, then you think about how could you have chosen the wrong train and ended up way farther away from your hotel than you intended, and you have done so well on the Metro until now, why now, late at night, getting later, but still the same 20 minutes left!! How could this happen? Do the French names of the metro endpoints really all sound the same in the end?

But never mind that, we got off the dark green Number 12 on one of the several Montmartre stops.

A moment monsieur!” Let’s look at the word “Montmartre”. I don’t comprehend it all, but half of that name suggests a hill, a steep hill, a mont. So upon exiting the metro and following the signs in the narrow, tile arched tunnels we are warned several times in Anglais, no less, that to exit here, we had better be able to climb up the 67 steps. Or was it 167? Or 617? Whatever, it was a matter of climbing many upward steps to the exit. Eventually we popped out in the gentle rain onto the winding narrow cobble streets of Montmartre.

Can any “touristy” part of Paris be more touristy than Montmartre? I don’t know. Which is not to say it’s bad. It is old, it is windy, it is higher than the rest of the city. Every little street goes either higher or lower. If it travels on level ground for a time, don’t grow complacent, and don’t be surprised, that little road will soon go either up or down. And by the way, just because the roads are narrow, don’t expect them to be for pedestrians only. There is not a great amount of traffic, but watch for the trucks and vans and motorcycles! Now, continue up and eventually, above the faded red terra cotta rooflines, you catch a glimpse of the cathedral domes of Sacré Coeur, which is about as high as you can go. We arrived at the base of the main entrance, below a pair of wide steps. At the top of these vast staircases, a road circumnavigates the temple, bordered by a few wide sidewalks covered with throngs of tourists enjoying the expansive views of Paris offered from that height.

We were delighted to discover that our Metro passes enabled us to skip another climb and ride the funicular up the hillside. While we waited, I spent a few minutes trying to assist a Japanese gentleman who did not seem to comprehend that the funicular was not free, it required tickets and payment. With English, a word or two in French, and wishing I knew more Japanese, I said, “Hi!” (Yes!), and finally got him to go to the ticket booth to ask for assistance.

I guess Deb has seen enough of the gaudy gold glitz and bleeding Jesus interiors of churches that she did not want to see this one. Which was fine by me. At the top, after taking in the panorama, we circled around and down, reviewing the restaurants and brasseries, many of which were not yet open. I stopped for a selfie at Chez Plumeau, for obvious reasons, and then found an open window crêperie where I ordered a breakfast crepe to go.

BreakfastAnd so we wound our way down, tripping down the cobblestone, stopping now and then to peek in little shops and absorb the changing views. To Deb, I mentioned that the Moulin Rouge was in the vicinity, and which from my last visit seemed almost like a wax museum–unless you took in the live burlesque I guess. No need to see that. We tried not to look at any maps, hoping that we would sooner or later come upon a metro stop. And it was later, later and many steps down before we, that is, I, resorted to Google maps to be sure I was taking us in the right direction.

I didn’t know it then, but our little expedition to the heights and long journey downward foreshadowed similar adventures in Eze, and Vence, and finally in Nice, where we wandered down the back of the mountain into the old city, where the houses and restaurants were all pushed tightly together, and shaded and cooled in the hot afternoon by their own height and shadow and the shadow of the mountain.

More fun to come…

— Christo

A day it was, and what a day it was!

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

It was the longest day in Paris, starting with a grand tour, followed by Monet’s Sunrise and so much more. What a joy it is to travel with an agreeable and flexible companion. That was my thought as Deb and I, now back at the Hotel Bercy, planned the remains of the day. It was a great plan! A magnificent plan! We were in Paris. How could it be anything less than a wonderful and successful plan?

"The Raft of the Medusa", by Eugene Gericault

“The Raft of the Medusa”, by Théodore Géricault

She had no great interest in the Louvre. Nor did I. A decade before, in my fifties, I had stumbled there upon the enormous and magnificent “Raft of the Medusa” by Théodore Géricault. I stood speechless, with tears embarrassingly welling in my eyes, a reaction inspired partly by the monumental size of the work, but more from its significance as a time portal, for I had stood at the same place, in the Louvre, forty years before that. In 1972, I had been overcome by waves of emotions: awe at the work, wonder at my fortune in being there seeing it, the loneliness of an adolescent far from home and family for the first time, experiencing something that ought to be, but due to circumstances, and the formidable magnificence of the art, could never be clearly communicated, much less shared, an experience condemned to always remain deeply and intensely personal. Thrust backward, then suddenly, flashing forward in time, instead of seeing more of what I wanted at the Louvre and processing that adolescent visit, instead, I spent way too much of that day dragged by an acquaintance through the endless sandstone monotony of Egyptian and Middle-Eastern architecture, of which I had in comparison to the Impressionists, no interest whatsoever.

MuseeDeOrsayThis time, I was in no hurry to enter the Louvre. If I were to pass through a time portal it would be at my choosing, and with opportunity to process the odyssey. Musée D’Orsay, was a possibility, although on yet another Paris trip, a redeeming one, alone, and only a few years before, I had made a thorough survey and with great satisfaction sought and found the Van Goghs, and so, even Orsay I could forego for something previously unseen, perhaps the gardens of Giverny? Or Musée Marmottan Monet?

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Giverny replica, “Grounds for Sculpture”

An uneventful 45 minute ride from Bercy discharged us from the train at the La Muette Metro station. We walked through a few typical urban Paris streets, then with the assistance of our paper tour map and Google Maps—for neither by itself seems sufficient until you can get them both to agree—we passed thru the Jardin Du Ranelagh—on the map, a small isolated green blotch before all the grey and white of Paris is surrounded on the western flank by the very green Bois de Boulogne – so very much green!

What is the “B-d-B”?? I don’t know. Don’t think I have ever been! It incorporates the Hippodrome de Autreil – which appears to be a horse track. Was this where Hemingway so smugly bet on horses, bragging about his successes, while living in supposed poverty on Hadley’s trust fund? And there on the map(s) in bold print is the A13, the route to the Chateau de Versailles. Is that the same as the Palace of Versailles? But I digress…

The Jardin was walkable in the overcast and humid late morning, slightly green, but suffering the trampled haggard look of excess foot traffic as only a city park can. Gravel walkways lined with green wooden-slatted benches. A few couples with long black umbrellas, more children with mothers nearby and nannies rolling the small ones in blue prams, and us stopping at the intersections of every odd-angled street, re-checking our orientation and looking for signs to the Musée.

It began to rain softly before we arrived at the steps to Marmottan, an unimposing old building of brick and faded white trim.

bdbinparis.pngThe Bois de Boulogne, as research has now revealed, is the second largest public park in Paris – bordering the west side of the 16th Arrondissement and containing not one, but two horse tracks. And yes, the Chateau de Versailles is in fact the one and same “Palace of Versailles” to us Americans. No, like the Louvre before it, and to the dismay and puzzlement of some, the Chateau de Versailles was rapidly discarded as a destination for “The Great Art Tour” – we had no interest. Been there, stood in line for hours, inside and out, and agreed with myself to never return. Never. Lavish, extravagant furnishings and homes of the royals and super-wealthy, past or present, do not do much for me, nor warrant a second visit.

WaterLilies

“Water Lilies” by Claude Monet

While we sidetrack the narrative with our decisions-not-to-see, a more difficult decision was the potential visit to Monet’s Giverny. The garden documented in books and film, and memorialized in uncountable blurry-until-viewed-from-the-proper-distance “Water Lilies” painted by the aged and near-blind Monsieur Claude. Definitely a place worthy of an Art Pilgrimage, but from our perspective requiring a Full Day traveling and touring outside of Paris with the strong potential for RAIN. We chose to hang closer to the City of Lights.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The next morning we learned that our traveling nemesis “Donald” and his long-suffering wife, hired a car with the aid of our excellent and very French guide, Christine, and we would likely have spent the day with them. From their anguished reports, it was a day mostly memorable for “Impressions of Rain and Mud” as opposed to Water Lilies.

What did we choose? As previously disclosed, a visit to Musée Marmottan Monet, which by chance included a selection of Sisley and Pissarro (among others) in addition to our target of “Impression: Sunrise”. And from there? Well, how about Montmartre? And the Latin Quarter? The Seine. And I have yet to get to the near disaster on the late night Metro.

Oh there is so much more. So much more. Such a long day. The longest day in Paris, with more to come.

…to be continued.

— Christo

Four nights in Nice (Parte un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Nice With Las Vegas Interlude
View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

I knew vaguely of Nice by way of a Frenchman, George, who I worked with at a men’s clothing store on Fremont Street in Las Vegas when I was sixteen. George was a flamboyant character; an excellent salesman with a heavy accent. It was the early seventies, and George almost always wore the brightly colored, tight fitting, and highly flammable acetate shirts with long pointy collars that we sold at the “Knight and Squire”. In his mid-thirties with hair in long dark curls that trailed down his neck, a slightly large rounded nose, full lips and a prominent chin, he had an annoying habit of patting me on the ass. With his rich accent he spoke often of his vacations in Nice, explaining that Nice was a stylish, elegant, beach city in France, where the wealthy dined at fine restaurants, played on their yachts, and in clubs, and in the casino in nearby Monte Carlo. But unfamiliar even with beach towns in California, I was too young and naive to be impressed—which was a great disappointment to George.

He was eventually let go for some reason or other. Maybe for the long unscheduled vacations? Or his tendency to return after long lunches with alcohol on his breath? Through a gossipy co-worker I heard that George had fallen on hard times and was working maintenance, “cleaning rooms and emptying garbage cans at the MGM Grand Hotel”. But never one to fall too far, George, who appeared nearly the same—except for his nose, which was taking on the size and veined red glow of one belonging to an alcoholic—explained to me one afternoon some years later when we ran into each other at a gas station on Flamingo Road, that he now worked for “Lee”.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t know Lee. Who is Lee?” I asked, holding a bright yellow helmet under my arm with one hand, and with the other clenching the gas pump handle to fill the tank of my Suzuki 250cc “Champion” dirt bike.

Preceded by a classic nasal snort of French disdain, George patronizingly explained, “Liberace of course!”

I had no reason to think George’s relationship with Liberace was a lie. George was wiping gas-pump-grime from his hands with a dainty white handkerchief, standing outside a huge limo with the Nevada vanity plate “88 Keys”. This was Las Vegas, and as I did live in the neighborhood, I had driven past the Liberace house many times, around the corner from the one where Redd Foxx was occasionally seen in his driveway shouting at his neighbors to “…get your car washed! You’re givin’ the neighborhood a bad name!”, the house with a black grand piano cutout on the garage door, where everyone local knew “Lee” lived.

He told me he was Lee’s “personal dresser”. I didn’t know what that meant, and didn’t care to ask, although I was a little curious if Liberace himself was sitting in back behind the heavily tinted windows, half dressed. But it didn’t matter, because George made it very clear: I was far below his station in life now, and he could hardly admit he had ever worked retail, selling clothes on Fremont Street, much less waste any more time on a lengthy conversation with me at a gas station. That was the last time I saw him in person, and it was many years before I ever heard anyone mention “Nice” again.

Monday, In France, On the Road to Nice…

Nice was a surprise. I had little idea of what to expect, even having read about it in the tour books. This was after all, the “French Riviera”–whatever that means. Christine informed us the name is anathema to the French, mostly because it was coined by the Brits, who discovered and bought and built up much of Nice as a resort for who else? Themselves. The wealthy Brits. For the French, this was the Côte d’Azur.

We arrived by coach after a few hours on the sunny highway from Avignon. Descending into the mountainous dry east, catching occasional glimpses of the Mediterranean to our right, dark blue slivers between the hills, or as we got closer, silver shimmering behind the enormous sprawling developments and skyscraping townhome complexes. As we passed, Christine pointed to the vineyard of “Brangelina”, remarked that the wine was in fact reputable, despite being owned by Hollywood moguls, (with a few of us wondering what happens to it after the divorce), and she mentioned Cannes, St. Tropez and a few other well-worn and familiar names of communities we would not visit on this trip, advising us of the models and movie and rock stars who frolic in this Southern sun, enjoying the lavish homes and splendid company their fame has purchased. But not to worry, she advised, we would be taking a day trip to Monte Carlo, the capital of Monaco, where she would tell us the real story of the tragic death of Princess Grace.

Eventually we emerged on the Promenade Des Anglais, the main drag, at least four lanes of traffic that runs the length of the Baie des Anges, along the tremendous beachfront crescent from the airport, past all the hotels and resorts to the hodgepodge of bars and restaurants that mark the perimeter of “the old city”, where the road changes its name to the Quai des Etats-Unis, and where the beach abruptly ends, severed by the intrusion of Port De Nice on the right, and steeply on the left, a very old hilltop ruin the Parc de la Colline du Château.

The road continues wrapping to the left around the base of this mountain, with a massive monument to the war dead embedded in the side, and on the right, luxury liners, yachts, or other vessels parked at the Port De Nice before moving on to Monte Carlo or other Mediterranean destinations.

Did I mention surprises? Oh yes. First, the water is the bluest you can imagine. Deep, not exceptionally dark, but luminescent. Next, Nice is huge. An enormous beach city. Not a town. City. With dirty steaming streets and tiny cafés, restaurants, computer stores, plumbing supply shops, architectural and real estate offices, the ubiquitous artisanal ice cream, pizza joints, and every imaginable type of storefront you might find in New York or Los Angeles or Taipei. The “old city” nestled between the beach, Parc de la Colline du Château, and the hotel row of “new” Nice, gives the opposite impression. Not of a city per se, but of an ancient, but large, village, pungent in the mornings on certain days with the fruit, vegetables, and baked goods of the open market, its old concrete, plaster, and brick buildings fronted tightly with bars, restaurants, brasseries, patisseries, charcuteries, and other “ies” that face onto the walking streets and squares.

Saint-Paul de Vence

Saint-Paul de Vence

Though for many the beach is the main attraction in Nice, we put it off a few days, it wasn’t until after we saw the castle town of Eze, and the one time home of Matisse, St. Paul de Vence, and yes, Monte Carlo—which as far as I can tell, consists of one gaudy casino, one hairpin turn, and one big bay for oligarchs and their pretentious yachts—that we ventured to the beach. Having both proclaimed, for reasons I can’t recall, that we would not be swimming in the Mediterranean—even if it was the Côte d’Azur—we found a path down from the wide pedestrian walkway and the Quai des Etats-Unis.

This busy way, straining with pedestrians of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, bicycles, Segues, tours of out-of-town tourists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and punctuated by the constant attention of fully dressed French commandos in green fatigues or camo with dark bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles and capped in their classic burgundy berets, always traveling two or more, never walking alone, reminded us that to the French we were heroes. We were tourist heroes, crazy Americans foolish enough to brave not just France, but the Riviera, and the same stretch of Nice beach front road where almost exactly a year before, an angry terrorist had squashed sightseers and locals alike, indiscriminately, with a truck, on his mis-guided journey to what any sane person would agree will be his own hell, Islamic or otherwise.

The wide sidewalk, this busy parade route, borders the beach for the length of its crescent, the beach itself broken into public and private subdivisions, the latter discernible by the presence of umbrellas and chaise longue, fenced or walled in, much desired, especially on the hottest, sunniest of days, and which of course must be rented. These private spaces sometimes also have bars or restaurants with expensive and exclusive views of the beach.

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Public beaches frame the private, with public outdoor showers and toilets, and concrete indoor buildings embedded in the hillside and presumably (since I can’t say that I investigated one..) running under and supporting the walkway above. Instead of sand, the beaches are notoriously covered with round hard gravel: gray, white, black, mottled stones of mostly 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, but present in many sizes. To enable approach to the beach, authorities, or someone(?) provides a faded, maroon, walkway carpet.

On this aging rug we left our sandals and stepped carefully onto the stones near the lapping water. The feeling was as one might expect. Unfamiliar, prickly although not painful, and with the shifting gravel, a bit unstable. Stepping gradually into the water we found it surprisingly cold.

Its touch was magical.

Standing there, my feet shifting as the waves sucked at the rocks beneath, I felt quickly transported to another place. Or perhaps more accurately, to a realization of where I was, actually standing ankle deep in the Côte d’Azur, the breeze cooling me, the bubbling rasp of a motorbike fading away, my arms comfortably baking in the sun. Far off to my right, a huge plane lifted itself from the Nice airport, like a giant raising its head, upper body, and finally arching sharply over the sea, pushing off the runway, into a sky of blue more faded than the sea and free of all but the most distant clouds.

The  morning bustle slipped away along with all sounds but for the hissing water as it wandered through the rocks, and the giggles of two small children who we’re working hard to bury my sandals, pouring wet pebbles and water onto the rapidly disappearing Keene’s. Standing next to me, Deb appeared to have fallen into a similar reverie.

There was nothing else, just us, the beach of rocks, the warming sun, and the lapping waves of the sea.  Just these.

Still to come, Van Gogh, Avignon, Arles, Matisse, Chagall—the road goes ever on!!

…for Dick Kocher

— Christo

 

At Last Monet

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Musée Marmotan Monet, 2, Rue Louis Boilly, Paris

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I was there, at last. Standing in front of Monet’s finished “Impression Sunrise”.  This was after all, the painting that started it. The seminal work of Impressionism and much of what followed.

I had after all, painted it. I was, after so many years, pleased with the manageable size of the canvas I had chosen. If I had attempted it on anything much larger—say a canvas as big as “The Houses of Parliament”, or any of the later “Water Lillies”, it would never have happened. I never would have completed it. It was large enough to capture that foggy ephemeral sea moment, that passed quickly, more quickly than brush and oils would have done for anything even a bit larger or a touch more detailed.  No, it was the perfect moment, right down to the smudge of pinkish white on the edge of the sun and the clearly silhouetted figure of the boatman and rowboat in the foreground created with a casual but somehow precise flick of two brushstrokes.

It was simple. If you got the colors right, then the light would be correct, and all the emerging details would follow. It was simple. But not easy.

The painting was treated harshly by the critics. “Impression Sunrise” was supposed to be an insult, but it became an anthem. The banner work and namesake of the whole movement. No one remembers the name of the critic, except in telling this story, but the artist? The whole world knows his name as well as the names of his friends, colleagues, contemporaries–Renoir Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, later Picasso, Chagall.

Critics. Bah!

I was 14 when I painted it.

With some minimal awareness of Art History thanks to my hobby of philately, and a year or two of Horizon magazine lying around the house, exposure to art as part of Western Civilizations opened a new world for me. In our very special ninth grade class, the brightest of us were assigned together in a room where the teacher told us to “brownbag” our lunches (meaning, to bring a lunch with us), so instead of dispersing to the cafeteria when the bell rang, we would stay, and he could expand his lectures through our lunch period. We grumbled at first, but delighted in the extra attention to historical and cultural details we would have missed otherwise.

Mike Van Wert, extroverted, sometimes loud, provocative, frequently passionate and nearly always entertaining, was in his mid 30’s with slight temporal baldness, brown curly hair and pork chop sideburns appropriate for the times—the early 1970s. He dressed as a college professor—although this was in junior high school—black or brown wingtip shoes, wool pants, a button-down shirt with a tie, a sweater vest, and a tweed sport coat. That was his uniform. I can hardly remember seeing him in anything else–blue jeans if I caught him by chance at the 7-Eleven on the weekend. But otherwise, no, it was that uniform. He was the teacher, our teacher, and a damn good one, and there was no diverging from that image, from that standard.

He had high expectations of himself and he applied those same expectations to his students, not just to our “Special” class but to the other four classes he taught as well. It didn’t matter who you were, he believed you were capable of learning important, wonderful things; he had fascinating remarkable stories about America, and other nations and cultures throughout history, and he would share this treasure with you, trusting you to pay attention, and listen, and ask questions, and even occasionally challenge him, but above all to participate.

For these classes he purchased or made his own slides of art and architecture. Hundreds, probably a thousand slides from Sumatran mounds of earth, to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” and the constructions of I.M.Pei.

We learned them. Learned the style, artist, title.

And for our “special class”, he imported the local art teacher to instruct us in the basics of drawing, sketching, and painting. We were invited to purchase required art supplies because each student in our class was expected to choose a work of art and create a reproduction of it.

I chose Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” because it was simple. It was beautiful and simple.

“Are you sure, Plummer?” He asked, with that  gravelly voice, and a wink to the rest of the class as if he were amused that I would choose such a daunting task.

But I was confident. “There’s not that much variation in the colors. If I can get that… and it is simple. Look at that boat in the foreground. It’s just two brushstrokes.”

“Okay…” He said with a smirk, making a note in his grade book and mumbling, “Impression Sunrise for Plummer”.

I worked on it after school for days. And it went well. At least I thought it went well. When I got stuck, the art teacher suggested I borrow the slide and project it on the canvas. “Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.

“You’re doing art. Artists use tools. It’s just a tool.” He told me.

The projector helped get the proportions right, and it seemed like it helped with the color, but after a week I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell if it was good or not, or how good. My eyes were blurry from turning the projector on and off, seeing the complete image on my canvas disappear, and then my own unfinished one. Matching paints to colors that turned to white when the lights came on. My friends from class would stop by and check it out. They were mostly quiet. Were they quiet because it was a good reproduction? Or because they didn’t want to tell me it was not so good? As anyone who has worked on something with great intensity and at great length can tell you, after a while, you just don’t know.

We brought our work in to share with each other, and I could see there were a couple of other works that were “good” —meaning that they looked much like the originals that we copied. Maybe that was part of why I wasn’t sure. It was a copy; it wasn’t like I had done anything original. And Van Wert didn’t lavish any great praise, I think he was being moderate with everyone, because some were bad, some were just awful, with bad proportions or whacky color. And we had compassion for each other, we knew we were just a bunch of kids trying to copy great art. But eventually I believed some of my classmates when they told me they thought mine was really “good”. And I was pretty sure then, when we displayed all our art at a PTA meeting and one of the adults asked if he could buy it. Buy it? A copy? When I told my Mom, she was appalled. I told her, maybe for fifty bucks? I considered that. But no way was some other parent going to have Plummer’s “Impression Sunrise”! She made that clear. And when I brought it home, she promptly framed it in a thick, classy, wooden art frame and hung it in our hallway, outside my bedroom where it remained for many years.

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I lost track of it eventually. That’s what happens with art sometimes. It travels; it gets away. But I was very happy to find it again. There on the wall of the Musée Marmottan Monet. Just as I remembered. Just as I had painted it.

—Christo

Three Days in Paris (Troisième partie)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

 Wednesday Day 2 in Paris

Pont Neuf - Paris by August RenoirWe started with strong coffee and excellent croissants all after a good night’s sleep. We wanted now to move past the delays of the previous day. Deb and I were aching to break free and indulge ourselves in the touristic joys of Paris, much as the author aches to break free from the tedious prose of travel details, and speak truly of adventure. Where after all, is all the “Art” in this “Great Art Tour?” But first we had a morning to spend with the ArrowHead tour group.

Christine kept us and our coach driver moving quickly. She provided an informative narrative of the sites we passed, and sometimes the coach stopped and we walked, to view the sites in greater detail. This was essentially an “Overview” of Paris, which was perfect. First stop, Notre Dame. We arrived early enough to avoid the lines, passing inside the enormous dark church and hearing tales of its construction, the preservation and rescue of the stained glass during World War II, the coronation of Napoleon, Michelangelo’s Pieta, gargoyles, flying buttresses, the fictional Hunchback, and so on. I kept a sharp eye out for pickpockets, a notorious nuisance at Notre Dame, but we didn’t have any trouble with them.

The inevitable excitement came as a British guide, with a small microphone boom attached to her head, the little black foam ball seemingly floating in the air next to her mouth, using short range radio headsets for her charges, interrupted Christine, complaining in the nasal, British accent that is so easily equated with snotty arrogance, that Christine was “speaking out loud”, and should also be using transmitters and headsets because it was “impossible” for the two groups to be standing in front of the Pieta and hearing different stories about Michelangelo at the same time. Christine ignored this woman at first, hoping that, like a bothersome fly, she might go elsewhere. But the British radio guide was persistent and insistent, till Christine lashed into her in French, assuming rightly, that when she was done, the annoying woman must have been totally crushed. Without a glance at the other guide, and never skipping a beat, Christine resumed her explanation for us at full volume, while the British radio guide and her British radio tourists stumbled and staggered away in several different directions.

We buzzed around Paris in our coach, past the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, north to the Paris Opera House, hearing tales of some famous architect or other, about a minor Napoleon’s private entrance at the back of the building, and about all the famous designers and models who had been seen at the opera. Christine was very fond of designers and models, and this was not the last we were to hear about them. We saw the Invalides in the distance, the palatial golden “resting place” of Napoleon, quite large for such a little man, and we finally stopped again at the Place du Trocadero for a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower directly across the Seine. From there? A quick buzz along Boulevard St.-Germain, whipping past a few famous cafes as we headed back to the hotel.

Ah! But what a struggle it is to write about Paris! It becomes a list of monuments and museums, a description of parks and buildings. They’re beautiful, they’re magnificent, but who cares? The power, the attraction of these places for me is not what they are, maybe in some cases what they contain, but especially what happened there. The interior of Notre Dame is a dead place until you realize that you’re standing where Napoleon stood. Where Jacques Louis David, the great Neo-Classical painter, observed and sketched the Coronation. And who else? Who else stood there?

Not far from Notre Dame, Pont Neuf straddles the river, about as famous a bridge as one finds, a bridge painted by Renoir, and referred to frequently by Hemingway. And Hemingway? Across the river also is the Latin Quarter. Is “Shakespeare & Co.”, the bookstore of ex-patriot era lending librarian Silvia Beech, who first published “Ulysses” for James Joyce. The apartment of Ernest and Hadley. The “lions” of that era, the painters, the Gertrude Stein crowd, this is where they were, this is where they hung out and worked and wrote and socialized and promoted themselves.

Shakespeare and Co.And that’s what I wanted to see, that’s where I wanted to go, that’s what I wanted to write about.

And I shall. Soon.

—Christo

 

Three Days in Paris (Partie deux)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

VanGoghs_YellowCafe_inArles

…continued from Three Days in Paris (Partie un)

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Lawrence and Pace Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not that!

A Bleu Memory

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It was 1978 and I was living in an extremely modest rented room near Harvard Square. In that dark room, the narrow mattress sagged nearly to the floor, which was littered with feathers and other debris of the pigeons that managed to come through the rafters at night. Why they came in? I don’t know, on that top floor it was ungodly summertime Cambridge heat and humidity, and there was no air conditioning. If I were a pigeon, I’d stay outside.

And we did. We stayed out as late as possible, those of us at the so-called “Lincoln’s Inn”. Waiting for the city to cool down. I’d watch a Fred Astaire double feature at the Brattle Theater, and then scrawl the exciting details of my new life in my journal at a table in a corner of the Casablanca coffee house. It was my first exposure to iced coffee, served there with a bit of Crème de Menthe and a dollop of whipped cream, it cut through the heat, and I could nurse one for an hour or two before they’d kick me out.

In the morning, I’d pull open the window screen and chase out the pigeons. And this was okay. I was fresh out of college with my degree in English, and was in no hurry yet to work as a teacher—which I felt was my destiny—or to go to graduate school, which might be required, and which I could not afford. I had managed to get all the way across the country from California, and I was pleased to have work in Cambridge. Working as a tobacconist seemed as good as any other job, and better than most.

Before the whole civilized world had quite sensibly turned against the cancer-inducing addiction, there was a certain romantic and literary allure to tobacco and tobacco products. Especially at “Lawrence and Pace”, which was known to have been the preferred local source for a number of current and historical celebrities who attended or visited Harvard. There was the Perkins shop in Boston, and Ehrlich’s too, on Tremont Street, but those were the domain of business men, old men. They didn’t have the hip Harvard Yard cachet of “L and P”, a living museum of Harvard sports and its own tobacco history collected in framed and yellowed news clippings, articles from Time to the New Yorker, and a tremendous collection of other ephemera. Plus, we benefited from the living book of colorful local characters who came and went, revealing their own stories or narrating the tales of others.

On an August afternoon, our Assistant Manager, Thomas, persuaded one of the local Cambridge “boys in blue” to sample a blue-boxed French Gitanes cigarette.

Bill stepped off the street into our air-conditioned store to escape the swampy New England summer heat. He was about 6’5”, a large slightly paunchy man in his late thirties with a pencil-thin black mustache. He walked the Harvard Square beat in shiny black shoes, with a holstered billy club, the usual blue uniform and a blue hat, tilted back. It seemed too small for his slightly bald, large, round head. He was mostly known for writing parking tickets and harassing the many buskers and pan-handling street people who hovered around the Red Line T- stop like yellow wasps circling a glass of Burgundy. He occasionally purchased Newport menthol filters, and not many of those, and this day, made the mistake of telling Thomas he would like to try a different brand, something “more interesting”.

Thomas turned on the charm, the whites of his bulging brown Peter Lorre eyes flashing. He described the romance of “the continental” cigarettes, peppering his spiel with French, German, and Spanish—all languages with which he had proven on previous occasions to be at least passingly familiar. Thomas loved to wax dramatic, and his show went on for 15 or 20 minutes. He pulled various brands in exotic boxes from the shelves, German “HB”, Swiss “Davidoff”s, even the weird papirosa Russians. He took one of those, crimped the long hollow “filter” at the end in the proper manner—pinching it at right angles—occasionally taking a puff from it, but mostly using it as a pointer. Six or eight different boxes lay on the counter top.

Thomas lifted his thick dark eyebrows dramatically as he painted a picture of the Paris scene of the 1920s—which of course included brilliant ex-patriots smoking Gitanes cigarettes as they piled up the color-coded café saucers on the tables where they wrote their stories or poems. (Of course L&P had facsimiles of these props as well, used for ash trays.)French Cafe Saucers

In the end, Bill selected a blue pack of Gitanes, pronouncing the name, “Gee-tanes”, tapping his finger on the box. I watched in horror as he opened his wallet. Thomas took Bill’s money at the register, closing the deal with the explanation, “The French pronounce it softly, ‘Gee-tawn’,” then added his usual overly affected, “If you don’t like the cigarettes, bring them back and I’ll refund your investment. Bon appètit!”

(And yes, he did say, “investment”.)

Bill walked out the door.

There were no other customers for the moment and it seemed very quiet. I shook my head. Thomas leered his crocodile smile, glancing at me, sighing and leaning forward as if exhausted from his efforts, resting his arms on the glass top of the display case of hand carved meerschaum pipes.

He was smug. Laughing slightly, he said, “I think he’ll like those, but his buddies at the station house may not want him nearby!!”

Only moments later, Bill pushed his large frame back through the shop’s heavy front door, one huge hand wrapped around the door handle, clinging to it as if he needed the support to keep from collapsing. Like many of the furnishings at Lawrence and Pace, the door handle was unique, silver metal cast as an oversized briar pipe. At first, Bill just stood there. Even from across the store, in the walk-in humidor where I was stocking cigars, I could see the pained look on his dark green face.

Bill blurted, “I’m going to be sick…” and Thomas quickly escorted him back to our washroom, left him there, and came out to get him a glass of water, explaining, “The Gitanes were too much for him.”

Thomas’s eyes twinkled a bit. This had been his little joke, but things had gotten out of hand, and he quickly adopted a compassionate pout; he had not intended to hurt our friend and customer.

When Bill emerged, he was sheepish about the incident. Thomas refunded Bill’s investment and spent the next few minutes apologizing for overselling the smelly dark cigarettes.

For his part, Bill politely refused Thomas’s offer of more advice and a complimentary box of some other brand, explaining that he was now quite seriously quitting the dirty habit altogether. He was, he said, done with cigarettes, forever. “Nothing personal guys,” he proclaimed, regaining something of his normal commanding composure, “Newport, Gee-tanes, Gee-tawn, whatever. I’m done.”

— And I have to say, that although Bill still dropped in to the shop to visit once or twice a week, to my knowledge, he never smoked another cigarette, or consumed any other type or form of tobacco. In the end, for all the romantic expectation and comic drama, some good did come from that particular pack of Gitanes.

Gitanes_cigarette_pack

To be continued…

— Christo

Three Days in Paris (Partie Un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Notre_DameTuesday

The coach lurched along from airport Charles de Gaulle past many Paris streets and squares that I thought looked familiar but probably were not. We caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower briefly, before the tall buildings and streets of Paris swallowed the open sky. That sounds nice. Actually, we arrived quickly at the east end of the Seine River, several long blocks below Notre Dame, near Bercy. Considering every moment in Paris precious, and anxious that we not waste any, I checked our halted progress via GPS on the “Ulmon City Maps To Go” app on my iPhone.

I could see that our relatively direct trip had stalled completely in the insane morning traffic as our off-ramp merged with one or two others, plus four lanes from various feeder streets. Every bus, auto, cab, and motor scooter, wherever it was coming from, seemed intent on getting to the other side of the stream of cars in front of it, where we were ALL headed. Caught up in the excitement of the streets of Paris, our travel cohorts were oblivious to the delay, except Donald. He was obsessed with the rising temperature inside the almost-stationary, sunbaked coach.

“Air Conditioning!!” He shouted repeatedly to the bus driver, “Air Conditioning!!”

Need I say he included no, “S‘il vous plaît.

“Air Conditioning!! Turn on the air conditioning!!”

The AC came on. I heard no one, except myself, say, “Merci!

Stopping and starting we made a few feet of progress at a time, taking about an hour to transit the single block to our hotel.

The Hotel Bercy is a “modern” glass and steel “business hotel” with several fountains and a 15-foot-tall, bright red, muscular, caped, male superhero statue in front. I could speculate, but I have no explanation for this statue. It was just there.

The female receptionist at the hotel was young (in her twenties?) and attractive with long straight brown hair, a smart suit, and dark, spiked heels—stylish enough to appear on the cover of Vogue or the New York Times Women’s Fashion magazine, although maybe not quite starved enough. This was true of all the women coming and going in the lobby. Not just the heels that is, but the stylish and attractive part too. Yes, we are in Paris.

The men? Oh, they are all thin, though not underfed, well groomed. Fortunately, very few sport the time-consuming, face-covering, trendy, hipster beards seen in parts of the USA. If these men have beards at all, they are close-cropped stubble that gives depth to their chiseled chins. The male hotel staff wear suits. Male businessmen wear typical European business attire: jeans or slightly more formal trousers, lined or solid (sometimes button-down) dress shirts, and dark leather loafers often without socks. Most wear sport coats, which in France are narrow sleeved, snug fitting jackets, the lapels held together with one button.

Nobody but the tourists, wear sneakers or running shoes. (Donald, blinding, in his bright white sneakers and bleached white socks halfway up his calves, steps off the coach trailing a wave of cool air.)

No sneakers, and thank goodness, no ties. Maybe the maître d’ hotel and the bartender wear ties. But otherwise, no ties. I don’t like ties.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of time to observe the lobby, because our rooms are not ready.

I consider the possibility that we do not actually have rooms, but we are assured the rooms are there, the Hotel Bercy is just behind schedule with cleaning. Way behind.

Several times the Front Desk receptionist walks over to our group, sprawled awkwardly on the artsy, cube-shaped chairs and couches. We rise. She hands Steve a too thin stack of envelopes with keys and room numbers. Steve reads the names and hands white envelopes to the lucky winners, who quickly leave to get settled in their digs and enjoy what was left of our “free” day. The lobby emptied a few people at a time, in this manner, the process repeated over and over.

We waited for hours. And we were, yes, the last, the very last to receive our room keys.

Before the eventual delivery of our envelope, Christine walked those of us remaining over to the charming, tree-lined Bercy Mall for a quick tour. Bercy had once been an industrial bakery, and has the red brick charm of very old buildings, but all the swag and glamour of a trendy destination for young business people and tourists. We noted the location of a small local grocer, the local ATM, the soon to be recognized as ubiquitous “artisanal ice cream” shop, and strolled along the partly shaded pedestrian promenade lined with tables and umbrellas that front the many bars and restaurants. We saw designer shops, stores with special French candy packaged in French art tins, a Surf store with surfer shirts, skateboards, and yes surfboards for sale and on display in the windows. Is Bercy near the beach? Does Bercy have quick access to mysterious Mediterranean swells? Is there an Internet “Surf Report” available for Bercy? “No,” would be the answer to these questions. (Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Surf shop, more than once, to peruse the shirts and board shorts.)

Christine escorted us down the escalator to the Metro. She provided quick tutelage in the basics of ticket purchase, the various lines, maps, and other arcane knowledge required in the underground. Important but not important, the “Purple Line” as we might call it in Boston, is not the “Purple Line” in Paris. It is the “M 14” between St. Lazare and Olympiades. But on all the maps and signs it is purple, so I called it the “Purple Line”, which was usually fine as long as we remembered we wanted to go to “Olympiades” to get back to Bercy. The ticket machines may challenge, especially if you use a credit card, but otherwise (from previous Franco-adventures), I considered myself fairly adept at Metro use. (A notion disproved dramatically a day or two later).

We popped back into the daylight upstairs, abandoned Christine and tour group to fend for ourselves in Bercy, searching for a place to lunch, and eventually settled at a little outdoor cafe. We sat next to tour manager Steve, and his wife Karen. After ordering salad for Deb, croque-monsieur for me, and two glasses of rosé of course, we got to know our tour hosts a bit.

A university academic, Steve, though well-versed in Literature (and an exemplary English Major), holds a PhD in History, the subject he teaches. Karen has a consulting business where she is engaged in multi-year research and writing projects. Their professions and interests allow for much international travel, which they have done with Arawho for years.

We enjoyed the relaxed meal and conversation, and I tried to remember what I had learned from the Rick Steve’s podcast about French restaurant protocols:

  • The wait staff generally leave you alone, for hours.
  • When you want the bill, DO NOT shout, “Garçon!”
  • To get attention, make eye contact.
  • They will come over.
  • Generally, do not tip, but ask if the check includes a service charge.

(This part is a little complicated at first. I’m sure we tipped when we should not have and vice-versa. By the end of the trip I was pretty clear about how it all works, but writing now I can’t recall well enough to explain it. Sorry. Listen to Rick Steve.)

The clouds and rain moved in, and I gradually became bothered by the drifting cigarette smoke from the tables of other diners. This was odd, I thought, the smoke, because although I had expected the worst on my last trip to Paris, in fact I had experienced very little exposure to second hand smoke.

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Leavitt and Peirce Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not like that!

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To be continued…
— Christo

Newark to Paris

🛫 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

MondayEiffelTower

We departed Newark airport on a regular and frequently used Delta flight, leaving in the late afternoon. I was familiar with the routine. I had taken many similar flights to Frankfurt in 2015 to participate in the slow motion collapse of my career at the conquering and unappreciative German pharma and chemical giant, Merck.

Summer air travel has a reputation for delays, but passing through airport security with the “TSA Pre” checkmark on my electronic ticket was quick, even with the pat down I received when a sensor set off an alarm for no apparent reason. (After running his hands down the inside of my legs to my ankles, the TSA agent waved me through without comment. Despite my opinion to the contrary, my package is apparently not that notable!)

But that unbelievably long walk to the very last gate, then sitting, sitting, sitting through the noise and bustle, passengers gushing forth, crews leaving, arriving, checking in, and so on, until you can’t take it anymore, and instead of grumbling or screaming, you get up, walk around, find another seat– blah! Time spent in the terminal is tedious! Writing about it is nearly as tedious as the real thing–which is why we should skip it–and so we will. When I retype this, perhaps a heavy edit can reduce it to a line or two? Or maybe nothing?

Got on the plane.

Deb had upgraded our economy tickets to “Delta Comfort”, which guarantees ‘Overhead storage’ and an additional 6 inches (who wouldn’t want that?). If you have flown at all in the last 20 years, you know that besides the seat shrinkage issue, nobody wants to check their bags. Every passenger is in an ugly rush to get on board as quickly as possible to stow his bag overhead, preferably over his own seat, before anyone else usurps that valuable location. Failure means finding overhead space back—toward the tail of the plane—the worst place for your bag to be after the plane lands and everyone is surging and shoving ruthlessly to the front to get God-knows-where, but definitely off the plane, past you. In that unlucky situation, you’ll likely have to wait until the plane is empty–or if you’re lucky, if someone further back has the same situation and manages to stanch the flow of the herd long enough for you to make a run against the stream and grab your bag. If you have endured this ordeal in the past you will appreciate the “Delta Comfort” guarantee that your luggage, and only your luggage goes in that special place.

💺Hooray! We find our seats (with the six extra inches), stow our bags overhead and get settled in.

Moments later, directly across the aisle, a middle-aged, clean shaven, blond guy in a guayabera and shorts starts cramming and shoving and moving his bag, and another bag that is already there, grumbling, and trying to slam the hatch on the bag that is clearly and obviously too big. I think this is his bag. He sighs loudly and grumbles loudly to the person next to him (who is his wife, trying hard to pretend that he is a stranger to her). He rearranges the bag with much slamming and complaining and sighing and noise. Deb and I both glance his way with the same thought, at the same time, and yes, tied to his bag is the same yellow Arawjo Tours tag that identifies our bags. We turn face-to-face at the same instant, with the same horrified look of recognition. This is the man we shall call “Donald”, who will be spending the next ten days traveling around France with us. Need I say, we do not introduce ourselves.

On the plane they feed us. Better than no food, by my account anyway. Deb has standards for food, the main one being that it is actually food. As opposed to chemicals and sugar variants. She leaves the butter, bread, cookies, chocolate, and other suspect quasi-food items on her tray. I follow her lead sometimes, and other times over the next five hours, I eat the butter, bread, cookies, and chocolate. Although our special “Delta Comfort” seats entitle us to alcoholic beverages, neither of us drinks alcohol on the plane.

We watch movies. It’s a chance to watch something, not as a couple! Violent Jason Bourne movies, stupid super-hero movies, sexy vampires, for me these are the things that are best watched with your children, but not usually, with your life partner. I happily indulge in a movie I have been anticipating for awhile, the latest Wolverine movie: “Logan“. Although my reputation as the “non-exemplary English Major” plus my ability to recite the Green Lantern’s oath, is well-known, the truth is, I never read Marvel comics until I was an adult.

I was much more fond of DC’s Superman, Batman, and yes, the Green Lantern, than of Marvel’s “X-Men”. The X-Men were difficult to follow, with their multitude of mutational powers and Marvel’s penchant for endlessly serialized stories. Heck, when I spent 12 cents, then 15 cents, and eventually 25 cents for a comic, . Not a soap opera of agonizing super-hero self-examination and drama that only moved the story along a smidge and compelled me to buy the next issue! Criminy.

Nevertheless, as an adult, watching with my pre-teen son, I came to enjoy the X-Men, mostly because of the movies with Patrick Stewart as “Doctor Xavier”. I especially liked “the Wolverine” (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) with his Dorian Grey/vampire-tormented-by-immortality issues as seen in several confusing time-shifting films. So I was primed and ready for the new film, “Logan”.

** Spoiler Alert!! ** This one is more than a little dark. Really. Everyone gets killed. All the friendly helpful non-mutant civilians, Logan, and even Dr. Xavier. Snuffed. Not very uplifting;  true to the Marvel tradition.

The normal healthy person might sleep through the rest of the flight. That would be Deb. Without my CPAP I can’t sleep,  and though I have a portable unit, it’s too much trouble to break it out, even with Delta Comfort’s extra six inches.

The giant 747, 767, or seven-something-or-other-seven variant growled its way over the Atlantic all night—a night shortened by our Eastward travel toward the rising sun. Pushed by the Gulf stream and the heavy hand of our pilot, the plane touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport an hour early!!

Tuesday

🇫🇷 It was Tuesday morning in Paris. In heels, sporty trousers and a matching jacket, of medium height, middle-aged, with mid-length black hair on a round head, and a pleasant face with just enough makeup on her lips and eyes, our truly French guide, Christine, met us in the luggage area. We had shuffled through the long winding passport control/immigration line, and piled up, thirty-five tourists with yellow Arawjo tags on their bags, ready to take the coach to the hotel.

I took this moment to observe the full group: Mostly couples. One or two singles, both male and female. We are not the youngest. We are not the oldest.

But wait!! Where were the two round, blond ladies who introduced themselves as we snaked through the long immigration line?? Steve, our friendly and easy-going tour manager, (Who we met at Newark airport—but I cut that part of the narrative out, didn’t I?) gathers us together closer and after roll call, confirms the absence of the two indistinguishable blondes, who we begin to refer to as “the Bobbsey Twins”. “Donald” uses this pause to jump to the front of the line, dragging his wife behind him, a scene repeated throughout the trip.  We take a few anxious moments pondering the fate of our comrades, lost so early in the journey, imagining them waiting somewhere near a baggage carousel far away, staring at the portal over an endless conveyor that spews out suitcases and bags of all sorts, but never theirs, never theirs!  Interrupting this reverie, a sharp-eyed scout points them out, standing outside on the curb, shiny heads barely visible through a huge swirling blue grey cloud of their own cigarette smoke.

Led by Christine on a short march through the airport, picking up our delinquent charges on the way, we hop in the large charter bus. At last.

— Christo

✈️

Paris to Avignon

The Great France Art Tour of 2017

🇫🇷 Matisse, Cezanne, Chagall? Matisse, Chagall, Cezanne? I don’t know. Who lived where? This was “The Great France Art Tour of 2017” (my title, anyway) and those guys, those guys confuse me!! Monet? No problem. And well, to be sure. I am good with Van Gogh anyway.

Field of Sunflowers in Avignon
Van Gogh’s presence was there on the TGV as we rocketed south across France, starting in Paris in the North from the dirty and rundown Gare de Lyon. We left the Pullman Bercy Hotel on time, but the horrendous Paris traffic gave us a few tense moments—our French guide Christine, skeptical of the route, gently exchanging comments with the coach driver who was quite sure his way to the station would get us through the traffic lights, bicycles, scooters, narrow streets, buses, and awkwardly parked delivery trucks that line the Bercy back streets like so many hazards in a Disneyland adventure ride, pulling into our lane unexpectedly and getting out of the way just in time to let us pass. Sure enough, we rolled in through the grimy Gare de Lyon entrance gate a few minutes sooner than expected and parked the coach.

Christine had warned us of the tight departure schedule, and told us more than once that she had previously arranged for a team of porters to transport our bags from coach to train. But upon our arrival we received a quick reminder that this was FRANCE after all, and the porters, not to be seen, were all “on break”, ALL, and they gave not a whit for any pre-arranged special compensation that may have been negotiated to enlist their assistance with bags! One might think, “Well, let’s find them, and make them help!” But Christine was clear on what was needed, and what was now possible and advised us, “Take your own bags”.

We men, being men, arranged ourselves around the sides of the coach and quickly unloaded and distributed the bags, each to his friend, partner, or spouse first, then passed along if unclaimed to someone further down the line until every bag had an American tourist clearly attached to it. Then following Christine, dragging our rolling bags on the old concrete, some cobblestone, brick, and then onto the tile floor of the station, we formed a clump, prepared to dash to the gate, to the platform, and to the waiting car.

But once again our anticipation and plans were trounced by the real world, where, on the confusing electronic light board above the gates, our train was clearly not present. As commuters the world round are aware, you can’t—or shouldn’t—run to the gate until the proper authorities have identified at which gate your particular plane, train, or automobile will be boarding. And so our clump stayed clumped waiting amid similar clumps, until the proper train and destination—Avignon—flashed onto the board along with its gate, at which time we all rushed, to the growling resonant rumble of hundreds of small plastic wheels attached to many rolling suitcases, onward to our reserved section of a single long passenger car.

Our tour group discovered, (though having traveled on the TGV before, to me this was no surprise) that the TGV car has a relatively small luggage section with a rack at each end. In addition, there are overhead storage areas suitable for small bags, outerwear, etc., and in the comfortable seats, netting for water bottles, notebooks, and so on. This would have been fine for Deb and I, who had packed light with only carry-on bags for the entire journey. For our accompanying troop of thirty-five Americans from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania though, most with multiple enormous suitcases, these more the size of steamer trunks, some as large as dumpsters, and one or two which could have passed for cargo containers, the very limited luggage racks proved a challenge.

Again “the men”—of which, after completing the previous muscle-and-testosterone bag lifting challenge, I was moderately pleased to find myself still included as a member—passed the bags down the aisle like a fire brigade and piled them high at the far end of the car. The colorful, unruly stack rolled and heaved slightly as the train began to pull out, threatening to collapse on the heads of a Chinese couple and their elderly parents, one of only a few passengers not from our American Band, who dared to push through, and seat themselves among us.

For our entertainment and serving as a distraction from the loud and obnoxious Bethlehemians, in the middle of the car, across from us, and safe from the impending avalanche, sat les petit Francaise, two adorable little boys with young, attentive parents, in seats arranged as a booth, the four facing each other with a table between. The French parents were occupied with their French lives, reading French magazines, and occasionally offering French crackers to their French children. They never looked at nor acknowledged us. Except that is, for the youngest boy, maybe two years old, with a head of thick brown hair and cerulean eyes, who flirted incessantly with Deb, looking directly at her with his disarming smile. Eventually I had enough, growled at him and mouthed, “Le femme avec moi!” But other than this small conflict, you would never know from their non-chalance that these four natives were sitting in a car with a large group of noisy and rude Americans (along with four doomed Chinese).

Wisely, the Chinese got up to leave, shoving their bags, and anyone in their path, closer to the exit, long before we arrived at our first and only stop, Avignon. And after they left, to the audible racist commentary of one of our group (who we nicknamed “Donald”), the fireman’s brigade was hastily re-assembled to unload our bags onto the platform as quickly as possible, with Christine, smiling occasionally, grimacing more, as she chatted up the conductor, standing halfway in the train, and half on the platform, to prevent, she hoped, the departure of the train before we had completed our task.

This done, we rolled down the long bumpy concrete ramp into the dry heat and bright Southern sun of Avignon, with its expansive deep blue sky and bushy olive trees, a sharp contrast to the noise, bustle, grime, and overcast skies of Paris left behind. In a way the dry air and energy-sapping heat reminded me of Las Vegas, the Nevada desert—not the neon and all that casino glit and garbage—but the comfortably arid climate, to me, so welcoming.

I had started this commentary with Van Gogh in mind. Why? Avignon, Arles nearby have much history with Vincent. And from the speeding TGV, its tall long windows displaying the blurred countryside—many green fields, dirt roads, telephone poles, a few giant electricity generating windmills, red tile rooftops of homes in an occasional ancient farm village with a tiny castle tucked into a hillside, gradually transitioning into yellow, then orange fields of sunflowers blotted out quickly by more green, more sunflowers, then roads, then the fuzzy blur, purple now, lavender in fact, fields of lavender, then more yellow, orange, sunflowers until we are no longer awed, we were de-sensitized, this was mundane, the orange, the vast fields of sunflowers stretching left and right and swallowed by green hills in the distance, marked by tall cypress, and then, I don’t know, we were almost there. The train was slowing and the city and old medieval structures and Rhone River came into view and we had to gather everything and prepare for our exit.

— Christo

🌻