April 4, 2018
The wait for the Louvre is 90 minutes but thanks to the Paris Museum Pass I bought my line is 10 minutes. Rick Steves, here’s looking out;10 minutes in the rain. When I stop in the bathroom before my tour I am reminded how my hair and precipitation are not friends. Today, I have decided, I’m tackling museums.
There is a semicircle five bodies deep in front of the Mona Lisa. No breathing room. Everyone holds a phone above their head, snapping photos, and always followed by the selfie from behind. It seems it’s irresistible to not take one mugging at the camera with Mona in the background. This is the theme of every great monument on my trip. Mona gets it the worst though, and my precious Van Gough at the Orsay, but no jumping ahead! A bag crashes onto my head when the owner behind thrusts up his phone to take a picture without properly securing said bag. Someone literally thrusts their phone in front of my face, obstructing my view. Click. Folks push and shove. I’ve got to admit, I hate it. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it feels like the death of culture. Yeah, that definitely sounds dramatic. Sigh. It makes me feel lonely and angry at the same time. Funniest thing, I have seen a million photos and prints of the Mona Lisa, (they sell them at every turn at this museum!!) and not one has shown me what I see now. I found a patience I usually don’t have. It takes time but after a bit, I am at the front of the semi-circle. There is a giant plastic cover thanks to an attempt by a deranged man with a knife to “kill her” a few years back , but one can see clearly. I can’t say I ever completely got this painting but now, 5 feet in front of it, awestruck. Most astounding is that she’s three dimensional. She jumps off the canvas, like you’re looking through a window and not at a flat surface. How’d Leonardo do that? She seems real, life like, and behind her a rich, colorful, hypnotic and foreboding sky. I know a lot is made of the smile, but what strikes me more is her humanity. Mona Lisa seems alive to me. It’s all in her eyes; full of real thoughts, feelings and emotions. Against advice, I don’t do tours at the Louvre or Orsay, because I want silence. I want my own pace. I want the freedom to consider and let the art wash over me and affect me as it will. But when I want, like here, I lean over listen to an English tour guide. Originally the Mona Lisa was commissioned by a wealthy merchant, a portrait of his bride, who died before the painting was completed, or marriage consummated. The merchant decided he had no need for the painting and walked away, leaving it to Davinci. This woman, looking back at me, so alive here, was sitting for this portrait, and about to exit the world. Then the guide goes on about revisions and maybe it’s also a boy and Leonardo is gay and I drift back to my gazing. I look at this woman, posing for her never to be wedding portrait; here and gone. Maybe Leonardo accidentally took her life from her; the awful, terrible price of this astounding work. I gaze at a truly magnificent work of art.
Over the next four hours,
I wander through Italian painters, French painters, Spanish painters, artifacts from France and Ancient Rome, Roman, Greek and French sculptures.
Sometimes I go very quickly, sometimes like a snail. Chest squared letting it plough through me. And it does.
Fatigue, famished, eyes sore, face dry, I cry “Uncle”. Outside the Louvre I race to the first snack cart I see and buy mystery baguette and water. There is no improvement on the ordering and my raspy, fighting to work voice is becoming alarming. Also, I’m sneezing. Also it’s drizzling. Also, very happy. Art, art, art! Paris, Paris, Paris! I devour the baguette, (meat, butter and stuff?) sitting there starring at the gardens in front of the Louvre. I’m so tired. But no time for that here. So, I walk the garden, slap my face and force myself onward. I’m a soldier in this war. I walk to the Orsay.
Do not pass go; head straight for the the Van Gough. I literally choke back tears when I see this Starry Night. “This”, of course cause its a series. Many Starry Nights, just like in life. He’s my favorite, they are my favorite and I’ve never seen one in person . It’s so arrestingly beautiful I can’t speak and like a weirdo have to cover my face so no one can see how I’m affected. You can see the brush strokes, it’s topical, in chunks, textured and dense; darkest richest blues. All that I already knew I loved, his post impressionistic style adds emotion to landscape, to the night and the sea and all the things that have resonated most with me in life. It’s not just a painting of a couple at night, but their emotions, the night’s emotions, the fear/pain/sexiness/joy that goes with that moment all perfectly captured. It’s brilliant and arresting. The crowds, like those viewing the Mona Lisa, explode misanthropic feelings in me. But again, I find my way to the front and stand and stare. Honestly, I’m there for a long time. I want to live in it. Same reaction at the Van Gough self portrait which is a study in blue, yellow, brightness, and being alive. The pain and intensity in his eyes; the most vibrant colors I’ve ever seen. This man is amazing. He is my art god. He went insane and cut off his ear. Spent his whole life battling “madness”. What does that say? Maybe you have to be mad to be this good. Is it the price you pay? My mind jumps to Robin Williams. My heart breaks a little. The powerful muse worked so very powerfully through them there was no room for ordinary things left, like sanity. For a second I wish I were crazier. Eventually I move on, Impressionism my favorite period of painting and that’s what Orsay is known for. I see them all. So many wonderful works of art. Plus sculpture. Plus a costumes exhibit that makes me think of E. I send her a photo. This may be my favorite museum of all time. I tour the entire Orsay but before I leave, I circle back and once again stand in awe at the foot of Van Gough. Starry Night. Self Portrait. Nothing left in me.
Home at Selva. 7 hours of total museum time in one day. I lie down. Take a long hot shower and then Irit picks me up. She’s Eleanor’s friend, once daughter of a friend, now friend in her own right. Sounds familiar. Introduced over email, she was kind enough to help me find a hotel room and we said we’d meet up for dinner while I am in Paris. We stroll to a wine bar near by where I get the food and wine experience I have been craving. We start with a Sauv Blanc, (light with strong flavors of melon and grapefruit) and tapas which includes sardines, octopus, some kind of duck pate’ on bread, cheese and charcuterie. I delight at grabbing the entire sardine and popping it in my mouth, it’s metallic skin covered in olive oil and salt mix perfectly with the gulp of wine I make sure follows. More wine. More tapas. More wine. My favorite is a red so exquisite and unusual (cherry, wood, vanilla, umami). I ask the bartender to tell me the varietal. He doesn’t understand and nor does Irit. I keep repeating how much I love it. I love it! Then I realize what I should be asking, as varietal doesn’t translate, what is the grape? But Irit is too busy laughing at me by this time. The name of the wine translates as “big tits”. I’ve been repeating how much I love big tits.
Irit is fantastic. Tall and unassuming with long curly, light auburn hair. Sad alert eyes. She dresses how I imagine Annie Hall would if she sprung to life in modern Paris. We talk for hours and there is never a dull moment. I love her point of view. Israeli born and raised, she now lives in Paris. She’s present, an intellectual, and an old soul. We collectively ring our hands over folks addiction to their cell phones, tear through topics including identity, politics and art. She sees things a little differently than me, and every time I am better for hearing her opinions. When I ask questions about Parisians, she explains French people insist on living a good life. That’s why they eat the way they do, drink the way they do, smoke the way they do, have strikes and fucked up government the way they do, revere chefs over politicians the way they do. Nothing will ever interfere with their enjoying life. Have I been a closet Parisian my whole life? She asks me why Americans fear Socialism so much and I say cause we always mix it up with Communism and we had two generations raised on the cold war. We talk about Trump and voting and abortion. She tells me in Israel if a woman wants to get an abortion she must go before a Rabbi, a social worker and government official. She said her friend, who had 3 kids did this, not looking for a 4th. She saw the social worker first and was advised to tell the Rabbi to lie and say she cheated on her husband. Infidelity is the reason they automatically approve. Somehow this really upsets me. The sexual revolution came and we reap the benefits (well, most of us, hi Muslim countries) but women’s bodies are still a battleground. We end by Irit asking me about my movie. I have all the feelings, and stumble through them. But like magic, on this night, she helps me to see it’s accomplishment in the best light. Maybe it’s Paris. Artists are seen differently here. Being American I’ve never even liked that word. It sounds pretentious, for others to say, never to claim. But tonight, I am Parisian. This night feels like hanging out used to be for me, back in NY a million years ago but never is anymore. The night is perfect. I wonder if I’ll ever see her again. More and more as I age, friends are lost to distance and the ravages of time. In my heart, I know that will only get worse.