Art Drunk

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In the past week we’ve been to seven museums, all rich with art and history, full of beautiful objects and stunning paintings, celebrations of creativity and the pleasures and challenges of visual representation of the experience of the world.  And we’ve done it in a city that’s like a giant museum, with street after winding street cobbled in stone and lined with charming boutiques.  Or boulevard after boulevard lined with grand palaces, ornately decorated with gargoyles and statues and bas-relief sculptures and lit up at night, the Eiffel Tower glittering like a giant sequined dream in the distance.

Yesterday we went to Musee Carnavalet, the Museum of the History of the City of Paris, housed in two old mansions, full of paintings and furniture and drawings and dioramas.  We walked through the Marais using the tour in the Lonely Planet, admiring the grand 16th and 17th century buildings that line the streets.  In the Musee Cognacq-Jay there were rooms and rooms and rooms, in another old mansion, with the incredible art and furniture of a wealthy family.  The inlaid and lacquered wooden tables were stunning.  The day before we went to Musee l’Orangerie, which houses an outrageously gorgeous collection of Impressionist paintings, including two large oval rooms wrapped in huge canvases of Monet’s water lilies.

Today, at the Pompidou, France’s National Museum of Modern Art, I finally felt drunk on art.  At one point I just walked through rooms with paintings by Picasso and Derain and Matisse and Kandinsky and Miro and felt like I couldn’t take in one more drop of visual stimulation.  So here’s a small sampling of art I’ve caught on my iPhone (sometimes surreptitiously, like at the Musee D’Orsay where you’re not supposed to take photos, but everyone does).   I need to get to bed, not just because we have to be up early tomorrow to catch the train to the airport.  I need to sleep this Art Drunk off.

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“So Much Paris Everywhere”

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Our walk up to Montmartre on Friday was beautiful.  By looking for back streets to walk, David found Rue Montorgueil, a delightful, pedestrian street full of markets of all kinds — fruit, vegetables, pastries, and wine — and many cafes.  When we got to the top of the hill, the view of the white dome of Sacre Couer, against the only brilliantly blue sky we’ve seen while here, was stunning.  We sat on a bench and I pulled out my notebook to write.  I noticed the young woman beside me was also writing.

We walked the narrow, cobbled lanes that wind around the hilltop, only briefly passing through the throngs of tourists at the Place du Tertre, which Lonely Planet calls “the pinnacle of touristy Paris,” then headed down the hill, on many “streets” that were stairs, to Le Progres cafe, which I’d found in two guidebooks that claim this is a cafe where Parisians, not tourists eat (a bit hard to believe entirely, since we ourselves are tourists and found it in a guidebook).  It was a lovely cafe, with huge windows looking out on the city, and some of the best food we’ve had (David had an endive and roquefort cheese salad, topped with a heap of arugula, followed by salmon with white wine foam and a top grilled to a caramel perfection, piled on vegetables, while I had the vegetable soup followed by an appetizer plate of arugula and tapenade, on a plate drizzled with pesto).  As with every meal, there was plenty of fresh baguette to sponge up all the sauces and flavors.  As we were about halfway into our meal at Le Progres cafe, the same young woman from the bench at the top of Montmartre came in and sat by the window.  She took our her small notebook and started to write.

We then headed to a small museum with the wonderful name Musee de la vie Romantique — the Museum of the Romantic Life.  Down a cobbled lane is a lovely, small house devoted to the life and work of Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin Baronne, better known as George Sand.  Full of paintings and furniture, and featuring a sweet garden with flowers still in bloom, it was a wonderful, and free, treat.

Walking back to the Marais and our apartment, crossing yet more boulevards and squares and streets, all lined with gorgeous old buildings of stone, David looked up at one point and said, “There’s so much Paris everywhere!”

 

Tastes of Paris

In Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik has an interesting and thoughtful (though at times over-written for my “taste”) discussion of taste.  Obviously, taste is more than just what we experience in our mouths, it’s also what is considered good, what is “tasteful,” what’s the best, what’s the most popular or current or noteworthy.

Of the numerous people who sent us recommendations for sights and restaurants in Paris, two suggested Chez Dumonet for dinner.  So I made a reservation and we went on Wednesday night.  When I called the restaurant last week, from the U.S, and asked for an 8:00 p.m. reservation, I was told, “Non, 7:30.”  I suspected we were being told to come when the tourists are seated, and I was right.  We arrived to an empty restaurant and were seated in the front room.  Soon other English-speaking customers arrived, all seated in the front room with us.

The food was very, very good, but not any better than the very, very good food we had at an unknown and empty restaurant on Monday night, which we found by asking someone leaving his shop for a good place to eat and try wine.  At Ma Salle de Manger the sommelier/waiter gave us numerous wines to try, talked with us about the food choices, and even drew us pictures of what he meant by the “eyes” of the grape vines.

At Chez Dumonet the sommelier was a happy and helpful man, but the waiter was gruff and clearly not interested in how we experienced the service.  We left with bellies full of fine food and light-hearted from all the wine, but immediately began talking about the impermanence and trickiness of taste.  With food, like with poetry or fashion or art, what is considered the current, or even next, best thing changes, often quite rapidly.  With food it’s especially hard to pin down exactly what is good, because once the meal is done, there is no object left to judge, only the memory of your mouth and your other sensory experiences of the meal.

“There were three restaurants there,” David said as we started walking back to the apartment.  “The front was for tourists drawn by the name they’ve established.  The next room was for French diners, then the inner room was for those closest to the chef.”  That led to a long discussion about taste, how a restaurant or poet or fashion designer or artist gets a “name” and then can get caught only working to serve that name, rather than working to keep truly creating.  The discussion took the entire 3 km walk back to the apartment.  As we walked we passed storefront after storefront, filled with high fashion, and knock offs of high fashion.

Paris is the perfect city to ponder the delights and mysteries of taste.  We spent yesterday at the Musee D’Orsy (more on that in a later post), where what was considered great art changed over the course of French artists introducing bold new ways of painting, art for which there was no “taste” when first shown, but which permanently changed the whole landscape of what happens with paint on canvas.  Today we’re walking up to Montmartre, a part of Paris that has always challenged the city’s concept of what is fashionable and acceptable and correct.  I’ll let you know how it tastes.

Hunting in Paris

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We hunted bread, cheese, wine and art yesterday.  As soon as I got up yesterday morning, I went to the closest boulangerie I could find and got croissants for breakfast, because the night before as we were falling to sleep I realized we had yet to have a croissant.  The croissants were excellent.

As we set out for the day, we headed for a boulangerie that a website a friend sent us identified as having among the top 10 best baguettes in Paris, then headed towards a cheese shop another website had identified as the best, in Arrondissement 7.  On the way,  as we crossed the Seine, a weak sun showed through the grey sky and I hoped for some fair weather for a picnic in Le Jardin Luxembourg, before going to the Musee Bourdelle.  Antoine Bourdelle was a sculptor and a contemporary of Rodin, though obviously never achieved anywhere near the same level of fame.  Another friend had told us about the museum (I made a list this morning of all the sights and restaurants friends have sent as recommendations, and there is no way we have time for it all, even with 9 days in Paris).

We got to the cheese shop and it was closed for lunch — from 1:00 — 4:30.  And it had started to rain.  So we stopped at a cafe for lunch, one of the hundreds of cafes across the city where people stop in for coffee or wine or a salad or burgers, like the two young women who came in behind us ordered.  We walked down rainy streets, lined with lovely shops, to the museum, and along with the usual massive sculptures and plaster casts for sculptures, there was an exhibition of Bourdelle’s drawings, which was advertised as Que du Dessin.

I know enough French to get the sense of something I read, and catch a word or phrase here and there when listening to someone speak.  But there is much I don’t know, and I didn’t know what “dessin,” means, so I asked one of the museum staff if he knew English, which he did a little, which led to a confused conversation about what the word “dessin” meant until I finally figured out it means “drawing”.  Ah, yes, there was an exhibition of Bourdelle’s drawings along with the sculptures.

A kind French woman, who knew a bit more English than I know French came up to us in the middle of the conversation and asked if she could help.  That led to a 5 minute exchange in which she tried to understand what I wanted.  The woman thought I was asking where the drawings were, which struck me as funny, as we were in a room full of drawings, surrounded by other rooms full of drawings.  She must have thought I was even more lost than I seemed.

The cheese shop was open on our way back to the apartment we’re renting, and so was the wine shop I’d read about.  We bought enough cheese for 8 people, a red pepper, a zucchini and a few potatoes.  When we got back to the apartment, wet from the rain and chilled from a long walk through the damp city, we opened the Bourgogne Pinot to let it breath (“If you can get yourself to wait a half hour after you open it, to drink it, that would be best,” the wine shop proprietor had said, “though I usually can’t wait myself.”) and I cooked the potatoes, pepper and zucchini in a big skillet, then scooped the creamy cheese on top to melt into the vegetables.

We drank the wine and ate the vegetables and melted cheese, along with three different varieties of goat cheese we’d bought, along with the baguette.  It was a successful hunt.

Bags of Stone

Walking to the Louvre today (not to go in, just to walk) we passed huge canvas bags of square stones (like 3′ x 3′ x 4′, the bags that is, the stones were about 8″ square each), down in a dirt floored courtyard below the level of the sidewalk.  We stood under the great glass pyramid, then walked through Le Jardin de Tuileries to the Place de la Concorde, then over the Seine to the Left Bank, looking for Les Editeurs, a cafe I wanted to visit.  Trying to understand how we (as in David and me specifically) got to where we are right now, or were right then, looking for a cafe in Paris as we walked down the Boulevard Saint- Germain past one chichi shop after another, as soon as we got to the cafe I started to draw a map of our lives since we first met.  It was a mess, but a good mess, happy and sad and intense and loving.  Looking for a wine bar we’ve been trying to visit since we got here (only 2 days but it’s been closed both times we’ve tried) we ended up at Ma Salle a Manger because David asked a man leaving a gallery next door about a good place to try different wines and perhaps eat and that’s what he recommended.  Ma Salle a Manger was excellent for both, but best of all was the big piece of white paper in the middle of the table, meant as a place mat/table mat of sorts over the red-checked table-cloth, but perfect for making the map bigger.  Well oriented and well-educated by the charming sommelier well-versed in the wines of southwest France, we walked back to our apartment in the Marais by way of Notre Dame and the Ile de St.-Louis, noting other interesting looking restaurants on the way.

“Should we plan our day tomorrow?” I asked David at one point during dinner.  He smiled and said, “No.”

Three Stones

The last small stone I threw into the River of Stones was on Tuesday.  It’s been a trying week, with many anxious moments, navigating some bumps in Eric’s mother’s recovery.  A friend reminded me yesterday that facing a serious health issue with Eric’s mother triggers the trauma of Eric’s death, so the intensity of reaction makes sense.  And that’s on top of how much I love her and am just not ready to lose her yet.

So the three stones I have to offer today are all underlined by simple gratitude — that Eric’s mother is recovering, that I have the privileged position in my life right now to be going on vacation in Paris, and that I’m able to take a moment each day and fully appreciate something.  Which I have done every day, I just haven’t gotten to the writing-it-down step.

Wednesday evening the sunset lit the western horizon, which is lined with a small mountain, tall white pines, a silo, open field, and then more trees in the distance, with a pale silver.

Yesterday I was up and out to a meeting at dawn, and watched the light, then color, come into the day.

This morning, as I drove down the road to go for a ski, a cardinal flitted past the car, flashing red on a bright, white morning.

My next small stone will most likely be from Paris.  A bientôt!

Paris?

Several weeks ago, the day David signed the papers to sell his parents’ house in Lancaster, we went out to dinner and talked about our need for a vacation.  It seems strange, that two people who left their jobs 7 months ago would need a vacation, but we do.  We’ve actually had very little free time, and certainly haven’t had a vacation in the sense of stepping out of our lives, into another way of being and experiencing the world.

So as we ate a fabulous dinner and drank good wine, we talked about where to go and decided on Paris.  “I want to go someplace sophisticated,” David said.  We agreed we didn’t need to go someplace warm, as at that point we’d yet to have any winter weather (and have barely had any since).  Within a week I had dividend mile plane tickets and had found an affordable apartment to rent in the Marais district.  We were set to go.

Then David’s back went out.  Then his mother got sick.  Then Eric’s mother got sick.  We emailed the owner of the apartment to say we didn’t think we could get to Paris.  We let go of the idea of going.  Then David’s mother passed away quickly, David’s back got better, and Eric’s mother got better.  So, we emailed the apartment owner and said we were coming.  Then just last night there was another major scare with Eric’s mother, but now it seems she’s going to be okay.

Do we go to Paris?  It seemed like such a simple decision when we made it.  At this point we’re going, and I just managed to call Paris and make a reservation for a restaurant that’s been recommended by a couple of friends.  The person on the phone in France gave up on my clearly struggling-to-speak French conversation, and confirmed the reservation in English.  I’ll keep trying with the French, and keep trying to imagine that we really can manage to get away.

“Grace”

I just sent my corrected page proofs back to Turning Point Books, along with an updated photo (now on this blog — this is the poet me, not the executive director me any longer) and the credit for David’s painting which will be on the cover.

One of the first times David and I got together he had a stack of his paintings in the back of his car, in the middle of moving them to his apartment.  He brought several in to show me, and we sat on the coffee table, facing the couch where he propped the paintings so I could see them.  When he showed me the painting above, I looked at it for a moment, then looked at David and said, “It reminds me of me.”

“I know,” he said.  “The title is ‘Grace’.”  He had painted it 2 years before.

Petrified Stone

I’ve been keeping up with the River of Stones, noticing at least one thing fully each day, then writing down whatever comes from that attention.  A number of those small stones have been on this blog, others I’ve tweeted.  Today’s moment of attention came from David.  He just walked into my study, where I’m working on finishing the novel I got almost finished during NaNoWriMo.  One of the benefits of doing NaNoWriMo, the website tells you, is being able to go to parties and say, “I wrote a novel,” rather than, “I’ve always wanted to write a novel.”  I don’t want to have to say, “I wrote most of a novel, then never finished.”

My writing attention has been more drawn to poetry lately, maybe in part by the ever-complicated life we seem to be living, the constant coming and going of visiting family, being with aging, and dying, parents and ailing in-laws, balancing errands and connecting with friends, exercise and being outdoors and creative pursuits.  Poetry works well in short spells of time, something Maxine Kumin told me when Adrienne was a baby, and I approached her at a reading, complaining about how little time I now had to write, now that I had a baby.  “But poetry is perfect for that,” she said.  “You can take small snatches of time and focus in.”  Now I have a lovely blurb from her for my book (more about that coming soon, page proofs are about to go back to Turning Point Books and I’m getting a book launch and readings scheduled), and here I am, ADDing it again, writing about all the distractions in my life as I’m distracted from working on the novel.  I even got distracted from writing this blog post and looked for a roast chicken recipe online because I’m making roast chicken for dinner with friends tonight.

Back to the novel for a minute, then to the small stone.  I think there may be some very good bits in this novel and I want to finish this first draft, so I can put it aside for a few months, then come back to it with fresh eyes.  In the meantime, I’m starting to pull together poems for my next volume of poetry, and am planning a whole Paris Chapter, because in a week we’ll be on our way there (and more about that to come also).  And I’m also starting to edit An Island Journal, a memoir I wrote three years ago and have done basically nothing with since.

So, what is this petrified stone?  David brought this to me in the palm of his hand.  He’s sorting through papers from his parents’ safety deposit box, which we emptied and closed before we left Lancaster earlier this week.  Looking like long sticks of thick straw, these are actually dried out old rubber bands, petrified into the shape they held around some stacks of papers from the box.  They could easily be 50 years old.  My small stone?  Appreciation for rubber bands, in all their usefulness, along with recognition that at some point rubber bands get old and dry and useless.  As a couple lines from a poem in The Truth About Death say:

I’m the living yin yang, the love, the quiver
in the middle, it will work or it won’t.

Silver Stone

We woke to snow this morning, pulled up the shades and got back in bed, letting the silver light fill the room.  In spite of predictions of a change to sleet and rain, the snow kept up.  We went for a walk, the cold wind numbing our faces the way the last week of new loss has left us feeling numb and dumb and clumsy.  I don’t even know what I did yesterday, but I do know I managed to grocery shop and cook and work on a poem and go to Yogurt Poets last night.  Is that enough for one day?

Then I went for a ski, my first ski of the season, so I said a Shehechiyanu blessing (for more on that see this previous post) and thought of Eric’s mother.  Eric always said a Shehechiyanu when he did something for the first time each year — like the first chance to cross-country ski or the first kayak of spring.  It wasn’t until after he died that I found out Eric learned that from his mother, Natalie.  We were at a Passover Seder together three years ago and she talked about how often she says the Shehechiyanu blessing and all the opportunities there are in a year to bless the return to a favored place or activity.

Now Natalie is in a hospital, recovering from a bad bout of shingles.  More worry.  But back to skiing, to being in the woods, my tracks leading back into the trees, snow draping the branches and quieting the inner chatter.  Blessed.