Today I will write mostly about toilets. I’ve seen quite a few in my time, beginning with outhouses and holes-in-the-ground in the Maine woods in the 50s, but today will begin with the most amazing toilet I’ve ever seen, a public toilet on the streets of Paris. It is an oblong building, with a drinking fountain at one round end, the sliding door to the toilet at the other round end. After a gentleman came out, I stepped into the spacious interior, but the door didn’t close and there was no evident button to push to make it do so. A stranger standing nearby came over to explain. After each use, the whole space inside is sprayed and disinfected, then dried, so it takes a few minutes. “If you stay inside the toilet, you will get a surprise shower!” He said, thinking that was very funny. I stepped out, the door closed, and sure enough, I could hear the inside of the door being sprayed. When it was my turn, the place was fresh and clean. What a wonderful amenity while walking for hours along city streets! By the way, it is free. The restrooms in the Gare de Lyons cost 50 centimes. Another fascinating toilet arrangement was in the Minoan Palace in Crete, which I saw many years ago. It consisted of a bank of stone seating around the edges of a large room. The banquettes had a depression carved in them through which water passed, brought down forcefully from the nearby mountains by a viaduct, as I recall. Everyone met there together; there was no privacy. But it was sanitary and far more civilized than the outhouse in Maine several thousand years later. The ordinary Greek peasants found a favorite tree and made their way their every morning, evening, and whenever necessary, I am told. There’s a lot more to say about our lavatory practices, but I’ll stop there, and comment on the sociology of toilets for a moment. In museums and other public places there are often separate restrooms for men and women, but in many places, such as restaurants and our hotel, they are unisex. You might find yourself, if you are female, washing your hands and combing your hair next to a man. It feels a little strange at first, but why not? The manufacture of toilets remains quite different in Europe from America. No monopolies there. It sometimes takes some searching to find the button to push (which might be on the wall or on the toilet), or chain to pull. The designs are quite different from each other. Back to art for a moment: we went to the Musee d’Orsay this morning and saw an array of impressionist paintings. I will forever take with me “Starry Night” by Van Gogh. You know how you see something, like a starry night, and you want to can it and put it in your pocket so you will never forget? This is what Van Gogh did. You look at it and see the essence of sentiment and awe that you wanted to never forget about those memorable times when the stars and the night inspired you. This is what art so often does – it packages a feeling or even a thought, and makes it portable. Tonight a picnic in the Jardins de Luxembourg featuring food bought at the famous store, Fauchon. I need a nap first….
Art and artists Today we walked for about five hours and at the end I felt like a novice in boot camp. It was worth it – the street music was fantastic, and we ate in the restaurant “Le Train Bleu” at the Gare de Lyons. It was ornate and a bit pretentious, but we ate well. Their specialty was baba au rhum, and they left the rum bottle on the table in case you needed more. Last night we sallied forth at about 8:00 and stopped outside several art galleries along the quai on the West Bank, roughly opposite Notre Dame. At one, the Art Gallery á l’Ouest, a man came out and said that he was part of the artist collective that had started the gallery, and that there would be an auction in a few minutes. There were about 25 people gathered inside, drinking wine and chatting. We liked one of the smaller paintings very much and decided to stay. We had never been to an auction before, and it turned out this was an “upside down” auction, when the high bid is the first bid and the bidders respond to a lower and lower offering price until either the painting is bought, or the reserve price is reached. Here's a picture of the auction. The first few paintings were not bought; the prices were high (300-700 Euros), and we began to despair of getting the painting we wanted, but in the end, we got the seascape by Maxime Clabot. As we were talking with the organizer, we said we liked another painting too – a stunning bright yellow bird painstakingly executed by Christian Kej. The bidding for it had stopped at 250 Euros (the original price was 400), and we couldn’t pay more than 125. We asked Christian if he would take 125, and he said he would be delighted to have his bird “fly to New York.” The workmanship merited a higher price, but we did what we could. Besides excellent art, we happened on two street concerts, one at the Place des Vosges consisting of a lovely young singer accompanied by a guitar and a violin. She sang classic French popular songs. The other was a five musicians on the bridge between Notre Dame and the Left Bank. They were mostly American and played big band music and some funky blues. In case you didn't know, France, and Europe in general, is enamored of big band music and funky blues. Their drummer was an older man who had no drumsticks; he played with his fingers, which had steel caps. The leader announced that he played the “washboard,” but it was more, an eclectic setup housed in a small cart that could be packed up afterward. He had whistles, washboards, cymbals, bells, and a small drum. Great art in great venues, appreciated by large crowds which today included us.
I am in Paris. I didn’t want to come . I envisioned walking through museums viewing paintings that I had known (or near enough) for decades. Sigh. It would be fine. I wanted to be out in the country, enjoying the dry summer heat, or the cool summer breezes, in touch with a free-running river or the sea, not the hemmed-in, tightly controlled Seine. I remembered the time I took my children to Paris and fought against panic attacks as I realized that feeding my teenage son and daughter, with the occasional ice cream treat, would run my credit card over its limit. Paris can still stab me with panic, just at the thought. When we arrived here, I was so jet lagged that I didn’t even know it – that first stage of numbness. Only two hours of sleep on the airplane – I watched Lincoln and Argo in a bank of three unoccupied center-aisle seats, curled up or stretched out, as I preferred. Then I ignored all of science and my friends’ best advice and took a four-hour nap in the afternoon. I suggested to my husband, Terry, that we were not a science experiment. We could do as we pleased. When we woke up, we set out for a stroll. Passing the archaeological explorations at Cluny was interesting enough, but a while later, we heard a voice speaking into a microphone and wondered what it was. There, in front of the Shakespeare & Company* bookshop, was Charles Simic, the Pulitzer Prize winning former Poet Laureate of the United States, reading his poetry and telling stories. There was a crowd of about 150 people, maybe 200, listening intently. They didn’t applaud between poems, but they laughed with him, and didn’t leave until the end, when they applauded heartily. Paris provides enough of a literary audience to support hundreds of small, independent bookstores (called "librairies"): Librairie Lutece, Librairie des Arenes, Jazz Ensuite, Librairie Payot, not a Barnes & Noble in sight. I don't know how well amazon.com does in France, but the French support a lot of small bookstores. Like stories about the European health care system (which my American friends seem to think I am making up, or that I am telling them about exceptions to the rule), I feel it necessary to prove through photographs that there are places in the world where poetry is just a part of life, not a breathless Other, and where you can make a living with a small bookstore. The toilets and art will come in another posting. * On the front of Shakespeare & Company is a little sign acknowledging its close ties to another of my favorite bookstores, City Lights Bookstore.
When I moved to an 18th floor apartment in semi-urban Hoboken from a large house in suburban Montclair, I brought with me a nondescript chive plant in a cheap orange pot which was supposed to be reminiscent of clay but was only plastic. I stuck it out on the balcony and left it there. It was a remnant of the world I had abandoned, where I could have an herb garden, walk out my door to pad around on the grass, shoo off the deer or the groundhog. In exchange for the garden and the space, I have time. No mowing, weeding, pruning, planting. No worries when it snows, rains, and blows. I look out on the Hudson River and the skyline of New York city, and that is as changeable and lovely a view as my garden. It was hectic fitting this previous life into a two-bedroom apartment, and I forgot about the chive plant. As winter came along, it withered into brown straw, but I didn’t throw it out. It went on to show me life -- the withdrawn, dry winter, the easy proliferation of spring, the struggle through summer, and giving up for a while in fall. This spring, as usual, it unfolded, turning green with ease, popping out multiple balls of purple bloom, spreading its tasty thin green spikes into an arrangement as beautiful as a Japanese flower arrangement. It doesn’t get any bigger or smaller. It hugs the outer edge of the cheap orange pot without claiming any more ground. It knows its limits, and seems quite content to go on living as the seasons around it dictate. Here I am trying to put into words the meaning of raggedy, potent reminder that nature untended will rouse itself – it’s the over-tending of nature that is our problem these days. It’s been here three years now, and I enjoy it as an old friend.