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More Notes from Paris, Part Two

A sample of notes I made when I lived in Paris for a short time when I was 30.  Still editing...   A continuation from the first installment, found HERE
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Notes from Paris

This material is original and not to be duplicated or used in any way without the authors permission.

DRAWING AT L’ ACADEMIE de la GRANDE CHAUMIERE 

or... A ROOM WITH QUITE A VIEW

I relinquished speech completely in trade for the chance to spend an afternoon -  
and as it ended up, several more - drawing live models with a room full of strangers. 
The entire time I said not one word. 
I was hiding in plain sight.  

I found my way to a door that led to an archway, that brought me into a hall with more doors, one of which was ajar. There was a man, wearing glasses and a vest buttoned over a rumpled white shirt, standing at it's entrance, his back pressed against the frame, greeting the people trickling past him into a classroom. I walked beyond that door at a distance, my eyes fixed on my wrist watch, brow furrowed, as if I were intent upon getting somewhere else.  I was doing what I needed to avoid being spoken to. I paused at a point where I could discreetly peer past the man and confirm that I was in the right place.  And I was. 
             I backtracked and nodded as I dropped 55 francs into the door monitor's palm. Having taught myself only enough French to get by - asking for one of those, the way to the ladies room and if I should go right or left, saying please, sorry, excuse me and thank you -  I knew that was going to be it. This was no tourist spot. I was entering a world of only French speakers,  the real deal. And that was exactly what I sought.
The room was a U-shaped gallery curving around a small stage. There were three rows of deep, ascending tiers where people could sit with a pad in their lap or prop it against a railing that divided each step. Those standing easels positioned themselves off to either side so as not to block the view of those drawing head on.  I perched second row center and pulled my 8 x 11 drawing pad, two pencils with different leads, charcoal, my gum eraser and a small sandpaper pad for sharpening out of  an olive green case.  I kept my head down as the last people trickled in and got settled. In all, there were about 40 of us.  
A hush fell and out walked the first model, a plump young woman with pendulous breasts and sturdy thighs. Her fine brown hair was stick straight and very shiny, pulled loosely off her face into an elastic. She leaned deeply to the side, reached one arm up, bent the elbow and placed her hand behind her head. She held that for 15 minutes while we all got to work.

I was rusty - hadn't drawn in over a dozen years - so I took some of those precious minutes just to look until I could see. I'd done enough basic drawing and painting as a kid that I assumed instinct would arise. And it did. 


She switched her pose once, and then again, holding each for 15 minutes. The room was silent but for the whisper of charcoal, lead and brush to surface. Once I got clean lines down, I shaded to create depth and texture, enhancing that with my fingertips.  It was meditative, centering. In fact, I was so completely rooted in the moment that when she suddenly moved I was startled. The regulars were clearly prepared for the break; I hoped I hadn't tipped my hand.  Some stretched, others went out to smoke. A few who stayed began idle chat. The fear of discovery tingled. I got up to wash my hands, a plausible way to remove myself (In successive visits, I felt a little more comfortable staying put. I simply focused on the details of my sketches... and it seemed to work). Perhaps they took me for an artist who wanted to keep to herself. And really, that wasn't far from the truth. 

After the break the model returned to the stage and assumed a more complex pose for half an hour to give us time to create a more detailed drawing and fine tune them. One model had a face like Charlotte Rampling, with tea cup breasts and dark hair under her arms.


             Finally, there was a succession of five minute poses - fantastic in their own right. Because my eyes and hand were now attuned, I was forced to capture the essence sketching only the simplest lines. 






I marveled at how unselfconscious the models were. They presented themselves to be observed in excruciating detail by a mix of complete strangers, with all their beauty and beautiful flaws right out there under bright lighting.  I admire them. 

CHESTNUTS

            The weather grows colder and heralds the appearance of men selling chestnuts roasted in wide metal drums on the street corners.  I stop for a bag.
            "Combien?" I ask.
            "Dix francs," he replies as his blackened fingers dance over the smooth brown nuts, expertly picking the ones that are ready.  Behind him, a large leather bag on the ground is filled to the brim with raw nuts.  The smell is glorious.  I think of Christmases at home, slicing an X through the soft outer shells, watching through the fireplace screen, cheeks burning, for the ends to curl back, exposing the yellow-white meat. 
            I put the coin in the man's grainy palm with one hand and accept the small paper bag with the other.
            "Merci Monsieur, Au Revoir Monsieur," I say.
            "Merci Mademoiselle."
            I slip the bag into the deep pocket of my raincoat.  The nuts steam a spot on my thigh.  I cross the Pont Notre Dame, blown mercilessly by water whipped breezes.  As I pull my beret down and tie my scarf tighter, I focus on this little heater, enjoying the sensation in the cold.
            Once safely on the Left Bank, tucked inside the nearest book store, I reach inside the bag, rustle around and pull out one of the nuts.  Easily the encasing peels away, exposing the nugget.  Awkwardly my gloved fingers pick off the rest
of the furry inner coat and pop it whole into my mouth.  It is cooked to perfection, soft as cheese, releasing its subtle flavor.
In France, even the street vendors are excellent chefs. 

MEDITATION

            It's funny. Paris is full of lovers, couples doing intimate sharing in public places, lots of women with children, which implies marriage and the importance of family... and yet I don't think I've ever been in a city where I've seen so many people alone -- alone and in seeming communion with themselves.  At cafe tables, in the parks, on the Metro, lone souls sit one after the other in meditation, lost in a book, sketching a scene, or scribbling intently in notebooks of all sizes (and of course, I want to know what they’re writing).
I am alone too. And I like it that way.


ROUTINELESS ROUTINE 

It’s been a fascinating experiment to see how I naturally spend 24 hours, (which morphs as days become weeks), with no imposed structure or outside influences.  Here there exists no one I must meet, coordinate with or sacrifice for, there is no pressure of family needs, no commitments or deadlines, no to-do lists.  My day is not defined by car repair, the dentist, a class at the gym or any of the pedestrian things I usually cram in around my 60 + hour work week.
I’ve been reading the biography of Picasso late into the night; I alternate that with Coco Chanel’s to balance all the testosterone.  But before settling under the covers with either book, I pick the section of town in which to spend the next day and note addresses of interest on a tiny piece of paper that I’ll carry in my pocket, so I have a loose plan. The haunts of the ex-pat artists of the 20’s and 30’s are in particular abundance here, calling me to come, to see, hear and feel what remains of the things that they saw, heard and felt, and as such, inspired them. While nothing can recreate that time and those people, I go to soak in what still may linger, to make something of it mine.  Whenever I’m tempted to mourn that I was born too late, I remind myself that if I had been their peer I’d be dead by now… Though a limp encouragement, it does the trick.
On that list: cafes and bookstores, libraries and movie houses, on occasion a cemetery, stores that sell paper, inks, pens and art supplies and hole in the wall burlesque or jazz clubs

What have I discovered? That my schedule is simple:
·      Wake naturally (the best part).
·      Hot bath.  Dress for day into night.
·      Pack what I need to be gone all day.
·      Head out for an au lait jolt (or two) and a croissant (or two).
·      Write until spent or am compelled to walk. 
·      Use list, but go anywhere that calls to me, until caffiene runs out
·      Pick sidewalk café, order a salad mixte (with the most divine mustard vinegarette).  Another au lait.
·      Watch and write and walk some more. Could include museums, galleries, shops, bench sitting
·      Watch the sun set and the night come up.
·      Dinner of some kind…
·      Rejuvinated, hike wherever my instincts take me until I crawl home. Could be dance clubs, jazz places, more cafes, hotel bars or sitting outside in front of some major building or monument.
·      Read, and sleep.

Seeing things like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre are not top on the list, as I encounter them simply in the act of daily living.  When I travel I may read some plaques, or get a quick tour like I did with the bateaux ride, to get a lay of the land, but I instinctually seek underground clubs, new music, odd shops - the funk and groove off the beaten path and people both strange and fabulous. And while, due to my career clothing people, I have indulged in an appreciative/educational lap around the great French design houses like Lanvin, Dior, Chanel and Hermes, I am fairly uninterested in loading up on clothes, purses and cosmetics. Instead I observe people and their habits. I experience things.  However,  I will dress to the nines at least once and go the bar of the most lush hotel in town to drink champagne and smoke Spanish cigarillos.  My pick in Paris: the Ritz Bar and the Bar du Crillion -- unmatched, in that order.
There is little consideration of money; I have enough to live on, but when allowed to follow my organic interests in a day, I actually spend very little.  I don’t have to think about making it, investing it, saving it, or paying it in the form of bills. I don’t have to eat three meals a day or go to sleep or wake up at any other time than when my body tells me to.  It’s a fabulous way to live, and we all can carve out periods in which to do it, even at home.
While Paris is a gastronomical paradise for most, for me food becomes a fairly minor element, providing a pause in which to write what I’ve seen and felt, or to refuel and rest just enough to set out again.  By doing so, it maximizes my waking hours engaged with the city. 
Dinner varies. I usually stop no longer than it takes to buy a ham and cheese baguette or a palmier from a street vendor, which I save and eat in bits along the way.  Every three days or so my body does need more sustenance, so on those nights I go home and unload, fluff myself up, find a place with a nice view and have poulet roti, haricot vert and wine. Simple. Perfection.
Once in a while I may cook something quickly at home. The kitchen is tiny and wonderfully spartan. There’s a quarter fridge topped by a wooden cutting board astride a small metal sink, a green glass bowl, a good knife, 2 forks, a spoon and a corkscrew, a teacup, 2 wine glasses, and a plate. In keeping with the French custom, I shop for just enough fresh food for a day, maybe two. Foregoing the hyper-marche, I opt for the tiny market streets lined with ancient specialty shops. I navigate from butcher to baker to cheese maker, to the fruit stands and the chocolatier with delight, getting better at the language with each transaction. There’s ultimate pride in a shopkeepers knowledge of their wares; their recommendations must be taken very seriously lest you waste their time.  One by one, white paper and string bundles of various shapes and size fill my netted shoulder bag, a welcome bounty when I’m spent from dancing, to fuel jottings at 4:00 a.m., or as a picnic when sketching at the park.
It all adds up to being very much the same state as when in the throes with a lover: I am fully in the Now, where all the world is just this place and myself, my pen and all my senses, at any and every hour.
I’ve never been happier in my life.



Stay tuned, there may be more to come ....
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