The woman with the black felt hat let her eyes fall from the view outside the train, to the notebook in her lap. She wrote a line, waited a moment as though reading what she had just read, neatly crossed it out and returned to the view. She smiled at the window, catching my eye in the reflection. Margaret introduced herself to us. She was from Melbourne and she was writing a book about her grandfather, Australian, John Peter Russell, a famous painter. Had we heard of him? He was a student of Monet, a friend and confidant of Van Gogh, a talented painter, and as a wealthy young man, a champion of the Impressionists in France at a time when the establishment ignored them completely. But I didn’t say any of these things because I had never heard of her grandfather. Five years of high school art, an art major for my Bachelor’s education degree and some post-grad Art History and I had never heard of Australia’s Impressionist? That’s just embarrassing.
We chatted with Margaret all the way to Giverny. I can’t recall now what we spoke of, but I know we spoke about art. I was enamoured with Monet’s life and work and here we were arriving at his fabled home and studio just outside Paris. In true frog-fashion (Now, before anyone gets offended, this is a quote from A Good Year by Peter Mayle, well, the movie version starring Marion Cottillard and Russell Crowe, which is far superior to the book I think)…where was I? Yes, in true frog fashion, the navette, or shuttle bus that ferried tourists to the gardens from the train station at Vernon left a 5-to the hour, but the train arrived, yes you guessed it, on the hour. So we had the option of waiting 55 minutes, or we could walk. It was a glorious, Spring day…I remember so many things about Paris through rose-tinted lenses, but this walk particularly so. We strolled along tiny lanes edged by wild-flowers and stopped for a cool drink in a cafe that was truly the front room of someone’s home.
Arriving at Monet’s home we said goodbye to Margaret and made our way separately through the gardens, down to le pont japonais, the ponds fringed with willows, and up through the flower beds to his quirky home and the studio that dreams are made of. It was magical. I have some wonderful photos, taken on 35mm film.
My memory lies to me.
I recall a warm sun-dappled day but all of my fellow tourists in the below seem to be wearing jackets. I was wearing a jacket, but in my mind’s eye it was a beautiful Spring day. My diary confirms that my memories lie. My entry for that day complains of crowds, people everywhere and yes, there are definitely people in this shot…but I only remember being with my husband, the flowerbeds, the wallpaper in the house, Monet’s spacious studio, the cool drink in the tiny tea-room, the river winding through Vernon, the solo violinist practising in the old church, and of course chatting with a fellow-art lover, the writer-granddaughter of a friend of Van Gogh. Does it get any better than that?
We met up with Margaret on the return train. She told us a brilliant tale of a Metro worker rescuing her black felt hat from the rails. Months later we ran into her again, this time in Cairns, back home in Queensland. We saw the hat before we saw her.
Imagine travelling from one side of the world to the other just to visit a museum…or taking a day out of your busy itinerary to sit beside a river and paint. Imagine planning your vacation to coincide perfectly with the retrospective blockbuster show for a dead American painter… Not everyone’s idea of a great trip away but it is definitely mine and the benefit of solo travel is the freedom to visit as many museums as possible!
When I first dreamed of visiting the city, it was the architecture that fascinated me. I had always dreamed of becoming an architect or interior designer and Paris had a long history of pushing the architectural envelope. The Eiffel Tower and the brand-new (at the time) Pyramide du Louvre standing 100 years apart but the latter no less controversial than her stately sister in her day. You could walk Paris for a year and discover a new architectural gem every day.
Of course the art was an attraction, too. I was drawn to Picasso, Modigliani and the Impressionists and I realised on that first trip that I was aware of about 1% of the incredible art history of Paris. My high school art teacher, Ms Downes, could only teach us so much in those pre-internet days. It’s possible she had mentioned John Peter Russell but this know-it-all probably only heard…blah, blah, Picasso, blah, Monet, blah, blah…
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that everyone who visits Paris knows about the Louvre at the very least. There are many other museums but the Louvre is arguably the most famous museum in the world. I have also argued before that perhaps those who are not truly interested in the art should find something more their taste to do while in Paris. Paris is a big city, you can find swimming pools, cycling clubs, rock climbing, singing lessons, strip clubs, language classes, fencing lessons, cos-play…there something for everyone. So why does everyone go to the Louvre? Because that’s what you do when you go to Paris? Of course it is.Paris is art.
to be continued…