Just got back from a gallery here in the States where they had a Georgia O'Keefe retrospective. One thing I could not help but notice was the difference in the style of appreciating that goes on here vs. France. In the U.S. art spectators are a wary lot, standing a good three to five feet away and they zoom along, as though cruising the cereal box aisle in the supermarket looking for the right brand of breakfast food. For whatever reason the French by contrast like to linger and when possible manhandle the art. Some examples of what I mean:
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
April is not the cruellest month. June is.
June is the month where our year countdown began.
June is the month when Mlle. Butterfly left to visit her family in Tokyo and as she said good-bye asked if Louise and I were coming back in the fall for more classes. When I said no, I have to say I was secretly pleased that she looked a little bereft. At least I think that was the expression on her face. Or maybe it was relief.
June is the month when one of the neighborhood clochards, the guy who lived in the doorway of the Shell mini-mart, the joker who made wisecracks when he saw me heading off for a run, left. I passed him crossing the Blvd. Raspail. He had his fully loaded backpack on and a sad, preoccupied look in his eyes as he walked east.
June was when Madame Rosa our concierge left, maybe not to return. She had been in and out of the hospital during the spring. She came back looking very frail and stayed sequestered in her tiny apartment by the front door. Gradually she seemed to recover. One day I saw her standing uncertainly outside the front door. "The oxygen tubes are coming out next week!" she smiled. A few weeks later I saw her, as before, hauling the garbage bins to the sidewalk. Even then there was a diminished quality. Then one June afternoon I was coming back to our building and saw a small scrum of tenants out on the sidewalk. An ambulance was parked at the curb. Attendants had crowded into her apartment. Madame Rosa was going to have to go back to the hospital.
June was when we left Paris. With no complaints. It was almost eery how smoothly everything had gone. When our year was up we realized there was no law that said we had to go, so we stayed another six months. When those six months were up, our landlord asked if we wanted to stay on another six months. We did, but it was time to leave.
Hemingway famously wrote, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I think I understood what he was getting at, but to be honest I'm not totally sure. For some reason I think of takeout meals and doggie bags when I read that. But I guess "Paris is a doggie bag" doesn't scan.
In any case the quote had no relevance to me, I thought. I lived in Paris, yes -- as an old man. Just how old I realized one evening when I was at a birthday party of younger friends. The husband was turning 30. At one point in the evening I was talking to three of his young guests and was feeling acutely Methusalahish. I was thinking that the cumulative ages of the three of them only barely exceeded mine by a year or two.
Fortunately that feeling did not last. If you substitute "old man" for "young man" in Hemingway's line it still applies. Would it have been any different had I come as a young man? When I first came to Paris I felt unstylish, unsophisticated and poor. When I moved there decades later I still felt that way. Only then I didn't care. It was fun.
The cab was at the curb and we were loading it our six suitcases containing all our worldly goods into it to go to the airport and home. The gray-haired man who worked for Madame Rosa came running out. Madame Rosa was on the phone, calling from the hospital. She wished us bon voyage we wished her bonne sante. I hope she's there when we come back.