Posts Tagged ‘photography’

Le 14 juillet, other than being the fête nationale, also marked my last day in Paris, the last day I was able to spend in the dream like world that has been my past year.  Despite the rain that marred the first half of the day,  I was able to sit on my roof with dear friends and bid adieu to France under a perfect sunset, similar to the one that greeted me almost a year ago.  Following our rooftop celebration of good food, champagne, fireworks, music, and laughter, I prolonged this final soirée by walking some friends to the Hôtel de Ville metro stop. After the inevitable goodbyes, I turned for my last beloved walk home.  Through the empty plaza in front of the Hôtel de Ville, across the bridge where I have so often stopped to think, cry, or sit and listen to the sweet music that encapsulates my time in Paris.    After the bridge I crossed in front of Notre Dame, walking over the center point of Paris.  They say that if you stand on this spot it ensures a return to Paris.  Over two years ago I stood there and said goodbye to Paris after finishing my semester at the Sorbonne.  Hopefully it will work again.

Once leaving behind the late night gaiety of the area around Notre Dame, I climbed rue  Saint-Jacques and passing the Panthéon, I found myself home.   I know that home can be a fluid concept.  Most often, home is when we find ourselves with the people we love, the ones who understand us and know us. But home can also be a place that you love so intensely and completely that it assumes an undue familiarity and comfort.  My little room, high above rue Saint-Jacques is home.   From its windows I have watched in awe as storms roll across this city, cloaking the Eiffel Tower in grey sheets of rain.  I have been blessed with sunsets and sunrises that remind me of the fresh promise that each day holds.  I have spent Sunday afternoons listening to the bands in the Luxembourg gardens and knowing that sometimes watching the clouds float across the sky is not a waste of time.  I have shed lonely tears, happy tears, and all the tears in between.  I have seen new tenants move in, old tenants move out, heard new babies cry, and listened to the changing sounds of each season of the year and of life.  From my vantage point  I have watched the city of Paris grow another year older with the quiet beauty and dignity that only she can assume.

The Saturday before I left I dropped by to say goodbye to the girls I took care of.  Those three girls – once very much the bane of my existence – have since become dear little friends, faces, hugs, and sticky hands to which I look forward.  The family gave me a parting gift, a lovely anthology of French poetry.  They had marked a poem that they said made them think of me. Here is an excerpt that I loved:

Mon enfant, ma soeur, My child, my sister,

Songe à la douceur Think of the contentment

D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble! Of living together there!

Aimer à loisir, Of loving at will,

Aimer à mourir Of loving till death,

Au pays qui te ressemble! In the land that is like you!

[…]Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, […] There, all is order and beauty,

Luxe, calme et volupté. Luxury, peace, and pleasure

-Invitation au Voyage, Baudelaire

I don’t know if I am like this land that I have come to love, this place that feels like home. I know that in many ways I long to be, and in other ways I never can be.  But I can assert that this year has been about learning to live a life ordered around the peace, luxury, and pleasure that define Paris.  A year spent finding that perfect measure of beauty that for me, will always be Paris.


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A while ago one of the teachers I worked with asked me how you translate the phrase “fête national.”  We came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a precise translation, at least not in my American English. You could translate it as the national holiday, but the connotations don’t translate into American English.  We celebrate July 4th because it is the birthday of our nation.  It is a day devoted to patriotism, but even more so to beginnings.  No matter how far we have strayed from our founders, every July we shake out the dusty remnants of what our nation was founded on.  We remember the brave men who penned a document that changed everything, who signed their names to a paper that was both high treason, and a fresh beginning.  Our nation celebrates a collective birthday.

But in France, like in many Old World countries, there isn’t a day where the nation began.  Thus they choose a day from history, a day significant for the way that it encapsulates beliefs they still hold dear, a day that calls to memory patriotism and celebration. Bastille day, as we call it in America, commemorates the storming of the Bastille Prison, an event which symbolically began the original French Revolution.    Since this initial uprising, there have been more revolutions and governments than I can count, including a brief return to the monarchy.  But still, this date has become the fête national.  It is not the birthday of a nation, but it is a moment where things changed, where the old order started to topple and make way for the liberté, egalité, fraternité that would become the national motto.  It is a moment where the French people realized their own power.

Thus even though this date comes after half of France’s history as a powerful nation, I find it fitting.  Their fête national commemorates revolution, a sentiment that I find deeply ingrained in the French psyche.  For all the turmoil that their political uprisings have caused, I appreciate this passionate volatile people that is ready to take go on strike and take to the barricades at a moment’s notice.

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“I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.” – Cole Porter

These past weeks of summer have been hot, so hot.  In America it gets hot yes, but we strongly believe in air conditioning that chills you to the bone the second you step inside.  During this, my first Parisian summer, I am becoming convinced that the French have a quiet strength which enables them to endure impossible discomfort. That is the only real explanation for the fact that there is rarely AC.  Even when I visited someone in the hospital last week I found it AC free. Thus, I have given up the chic Parisian appearance I was hoping to adapt and simply try not to melt.

“It was one of those breathless summer days that God reserves for poets and Paris.” –  Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning?

But then there are days like today, “breathless summer days” that seem a gift, that remind you why you spend all winter dreaming of summer, longing for long days of warm sun.  Today the heat abeited, and the sky that has hung hazy and hot for days cleared into a perfect blue canvas with bold fluffy clouds that veiled a glowing sun.  I walked from Place de la Concorde through the Tuileries, the Louvre, along the Seine, then up past Notre Dame to home.  And along the way I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty that surrounded me. As I crossed the Pont d’Arcole, I stopped to listen to one of my favorite street musicians.  He is on that bridge frequently, playing the type of acoustic, sweetly melancholic songs that enhance evenings in Paris. I sat and listened for at least 45 minutes, enjoying the breeze, the music, the evening.  He only has about 10 songs, and I have heard them all before, but I never tire of them.  They invite me to sit and enjoy the evening, to push aside all I ought to do and instead do what I want most.  His music is the poetry of twilight and warm breezes, of sunsets and breathless summer days in Paris.

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June 21st, the longest day of the year, Midsummer’s.   Perhaps it was because Paris keeps clinging to winter in the form of cold rainy days and it was finally turning nice, or perhaps it was because I have loved the ever lengthening days, but whatever the case, I was excited about Midsummer’s Night in Paris. We were made for light, for day, for summer days that never end.

Paris marks June 21st with La Fête de la Musique, “The Festival of Music.”  As an unabashed fan of street musicians, I had high expectations.  I imagined violinists strolling the streets and pianos positioned under old archways.  I was wrong.  Most cafés had bands playing outside, attempting to blare their own cover songs over the band next door.  I am sure that my illusive violinists were somewhere, but I lost heart finding them as I fought my way through the cacophony that was Paris on Midsummer’s Night.  I even heard “Sweet Home Alabama” at least three times in a one-hour period.

But even if I found the circumstances not worthy of the magical power of Midsummer’s Night, nature was. After a couple days of uninspiring weather, Paris offered up a perfect evening of pink tinted crowns that spotted across a golden sunset.    I was walking through the Louvre after deciding that the concert inside had too long, when I was struck the beauty of this most lovely of Midsummer’s Nights.

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There is a little street that I walk down at least four times a day called Rue Malebranche.  I use it to cut down towards my RER station and even though there is nothing really spectacular about it, I think it may be one of my favorite little streets in Paris.  It doesn’t have any special stores, restaurants, or gardens.  It is beautiful in its simplicity, in the quiet moment of calm that it offers in a bustling city.  Knit in between the some of the quartier’s louder streets, Malebranche offers a perfect moment of peace.  So many times I pause in the narrow, double level cobblestone passage to appreciate the utter stillness in the midst of an excitingly bustling city.

The street is a two level one, where the upper level dead ends and then has steps descending to a line of parking places below.   On a GPS this doesn’t show up, and last year a car actually vaulted off the steps, smashing the cars below, but miraculously the driver emerged alive.  Or so goes the story that the little girls relate every single time we pass the one smashed railing.  It seems so hard to imagine someone so unaware of their beautiful surroundings that they would drive off a flight of stairs.

This little street is often commandeered by movie sets, for probably exactly the same reason that I like it. It seems timeless, the Paris you see in old black and white photographs or movies. The Paris that everyone intuitively conjures up.  In fact, in the old Audrey Hepburn movie Love in the Afternoon, the apartment that she and Maurice Chevalier shared was on this little stretch of street.

But I liked it before I knew about Audrey, before I walked through a set on the way to work.  I loved it the first time I stepped into this empty passage at twilight, with the only sound being that of my footsteps on stones worn smooth from years of Paris sojourners walking slowly across them.

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After repeated relapses into chilly February weather, I think Paris is finally settling into the warm June days that one expects.   The sun is up by not long after 6 and stays light till 10.  When I walk to the train station in the morning there is that delicious hopeful feeling that comes with early summer, that excitement of leaving without a coat, and the joy of warm morning sunshine.  By August, we leave in the morning already wilted and hot, but in June, the warmth is still thrilling. By late afternoon, it can be uncomfortably hot, but this is forgiven in June because we have long been ready for it.  My room receives steady and direct sunshine between 4 and 8.  There is no place to step out of way of the rays that come streaming through the one wide window, thus I have discovered that I can actually lay out inside my room.  One of the mini perks of economy sized lodging.

Yesterday Emma and I, forever on the quest to find Paris’ best salon de thé, trekked out to the Bois de Boulogne, having heard a rumor that there was a tearoom in the Bagatelles garden.  There is not, in fact, but we were still able to take in the beauty of Bagatelles’ rolling hills (yes, you may sit on the grass), flowers, and most wonderfully – peacocks.  They wandered across the lawns with the grace and self-awareness that comes inherently accompanies possession of the most rapturous train of colorful feathers.  At one point, one especially striking bird strutted in between us and two other garden goers and all four of us just stood in silence, too in awe to even get out our cameras.

Later that evening I wandered slowly home through central Paris, this rambling path being on of my favorite walks.  I relish June mornings, I soak in sunny June afternoons, but nothing restores the soul like an early summer evening. Sometime long after the sun has passed its zenith the day reaches its most perfect moment. Even the tourists that now fill the city calm a bit and you find people standing still on bridges, reclining along the Seine, or walking slowly through the gardens.  The twilights of early summer are sweet and promising.  They make us forget that they will eventually fade to darkness, make us forget to do lists, or obligations.  June evenings offer an escape from time, a moment where the clocks of our busy lives stop.

As I crossed the Seine I stopped in front of a man playing guitar on the bridge.  He was singing the type of wistful poignant songs that are meant for such evenings, and I sat on the bench for a long while before even touching my camera.  Across from me a couple in matching striped shirts leaned closer to each other and listened.  A mother hugged her children close and rocked with the music.  Even a Michael Jackson impersonator (I am assuming, based on the Thriller-esque red leather jacket, black leather pants, and signature one glove) slipped onto the other end of my bench to listen. Every person on their way somewhere else, hypnotized by the golden summer glow and sweetly melancholy music.  Every one of us had somewhere else to be, but on June evenings, you find it hard to remember where that was, and even harder to care.

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For those of us who love looking through glossy magazines with picture perfect rooms bursting with floral arrangments and decoration ideas that we will never actually try, but instead merely save in a pile of clippings in some dusty folder, the magazine Marie Claire Idées is heaven.  The family that I nanny for subscribes and so there are always old copies sitting around and I love browsing through them.  I like seeing the perfectly clean little French girls playing on swing sets in their pink Repetto tutus and the children’s arts and crafts projects that only work in a country where kids use a ruler and compass like it was second nature.  I delight in the quantities of tulle, organza, and toile that reoccur ever two pages and I can’t get enough of the tin pitchers spilling cabbage roses onto distressed tables.  I want to live in Marie Claire world.  Today I opened the magazine at random and found a woman riding a white Vespa up the driveway to a French manor house, wearing a billowy white gown that puffs and settles around her beribboned adult scooter like a dream.  She smiles out from a floppy sun hat and giggles at the fact that all around her are flowered hat boxes which have fallen from her vespa and from which tumble bunches of pink flowers.  Why can’t I be the white-gowned-flower-laden Vespa maiden?  In my soul, I truly believe I am her.  But in reality, my white gown would get tangled in my Vespa and I would plunge head long onto the gravel drive as my flower boxes landed on me attracting bees.

But on the cover of this past issue,  Marie Claire had a quote that I loved, that I am claiming for spring, even if I have not the poise, elegance, or Frenchness, of the Vespa Princess.

Pour l’amour des beaux jours

Dites oui à tout

Aux oiseaux

Et aux fleurs

Aux petits riens

Et au bonheur.

“Out of love for fine days, say yes to birds, and to flowers, to little nothings, and to happiness.”

I know it is corny. I know it is cheesy.  And I know that it is pertaining to fabric choices in reupholstering an Ikea chair or organizing the place settings for a garden party. But I don’t care.  Spring is here with summer fast approaching.  The days are long and I want to fill them with all that is lovely: with birds, flowers, little nothings, and happiness.

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Often we visit places where history happened, where battles were fought, kings crowned, feats of daring or honor performed.  I have written before about how much I love that in Paris, how much I love walking through the city with a constant reminder of its history, of the decisions made by its leaders and conquerors.   But this week, I visited perhaps the most important place in Paris’ history, a place where a decision was made to not act, and in this absence, the city was saved.

My boyfriend studied history at college and is always sending me books on the history of Paris.  Obligingly, I read them, and to his credit, I usually love them.   The most recent book he recommended was one called Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  It follows the last weeks of the German occupation during World War II, ending with the allied liberation.  Though replete with tear jerking stories of noble French men and women fighting back to reclaim their city, what really stands out is the portrayal it offers of Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer handpicked by Hitler to come and raze Paris to the ground in the event of an Allied advance or internal rebellion.  Renowned for his capabilities in this respect and previous war cruelty, he would be the perfect candidate to prevent the city from falling into enemy hands “except lying in complete debris.”  But what happened is another story.  The authors conducted weeks of interviews with Choltitz and what these revealed is a man who became tormented between his military duty, and the knowledge that in doing so he would commit a crime that the world would never forgive. He would stand on the balcony of the headquarters in the Hôtel Meurice  and watch little children playing in the Tuileries Gardens, in between the Louvre and Palais Bourbon, and could not bring himself to destroy this.  Every bridge was rigged to explode, as well as all the important monuments and buildings.  One word from this man and Paris would be destroyed beyond recognition.  And inside of the Hôtel Meurice,  Dietrich von Choltitz chose not to give the order, delaying long enough that the FFI and Allied Forces reached Paris and liberated the city.

James is visiting this week, so we went to have tea in the Hôte Meurice, which far surpasses any hotel I have ever entered.  We sat in the main parlor, where the German officers where paraded out and imagined the American soldiers – boys from Iowa and Nebraska – wandering under the gilded chandeliers.  Then we left and strolled home through the centuries-old beauty that is Paris, appreciating afresh the fact that the city still exists all around us.

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You know you are a Disney princess when you sing and birds land in your hands.  Even Cinderella, long before marrying the prince and getting all the royal glory, had birds alight on her while she sang. Lesson learned from Disney stories:  perfect lives end in cute little birds landing on you, and an early onset of bird perching signals many good things to come.

I realize this is not true for everyone.  One of my best friends lives in mortal fear of most birds.   But the story I am about to tell doesn’t involve the gross birds, the footless mangled pigeons of dubious ancestry that fill Parisian airspace.  I am not talking about the manically devious crows that mar your picnics and who, on more than one occasion, I have watched unwrap crumbled Macdonalds bags in the Luxembourg gardens and remove burger bits with a dexterity that strikes fear in my heart.  No, the birds I encountered yesterday where of the Disney fairy tale variety, colorful, friendly, and drawn in by perfect melodies.

I was walking home from the Hôtel de Ville last night when I paused in front of Notre Dame to listen to some street musicians.  They were two boys, probably not much older than 17 who  were basking up the attention of the crowd that was gathering in the twilight.  One was playing a guitar to accompany his friend who was playing away at a hang. (What is a hang you say?  I had to ask too.  Here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hang_(musical_instrument) )  I have seen people playing them before, but the music usually sounds like the type of thing that is piped through speakers beside a pool and you listen while drinking something that has  a miniature umbrella stuck in the top.  But this duo sounded entirely different.  The perfect melody of the soft acoustic guitar and the tinkling harp/ bell sound of the hang drew me in.  I was not the only one.  After about 10 minutes, two brightly colored birds flew in out of nowhere and landed on the hang player’s head.  He was as shocked as the rest of us, but continued laughing and playing while the birds fluttered back and forth from his head, shoulders, and instrument.  We all waited for some owner to appear and take credit, then badger us for some coins, but no one came.  Finally the birds started making the rounds of the audience, flittering from hand to hand, until drifting up towards the bell tower of Notre Dame to settle for the night.  It was never resolved where the birds came from, or whether they belonged to anyone. But while they were there, they added perfect dashes of color and seemed to bless the perfection of the music by their mere presence.

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Miniature things are exciting to me by virtue of the mere fact that they are small.  Anything that is a microscopic copy of its original has instant appeal for me.  When I was little I was an avid American Girl doll owner (If you don’t know what that is, go to http://www.americangirl.com/index.php  and bask) and I was always on the look out for small sized versions of things to provide a realistic and complete atmosphere for my dolls.   This fascination has never lessened.

France is a miniature paradise.  Everything is available in perfect tiny models, from the ramekins I use for chocolate mousse, to little tart pans, to the microscopic serving sizes that make huge dents in your wallets. But moreover, everything is smaller in general.  The grocery store takes up less space than the frozen food section of Walmart, the cars zip through the streets in the tiny “cute” models that are foreign to my former SUV world, and my walk in closet at home was almost as large as my apartment here. But then again, space is precious in Paris, and a world of small scaled proportions is reflected at every corner. What they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality, precision, and depth.

My friend Laura is visiting this week, and we talked about this as we ate tiny desserts at Ladurée last night.   Each of the 15 bites of my dessert was so perfect that I sat and savored it for an hour, and we slowly consumed our tiny pewter pot of ginger root tea.  Sometimes you don’t need big to impress.  Something small can stop us in our tracks because of its tiny perfect details.

In nature, this is even more true.  Have you ever paused to look at the perfection of a tiny flower or the details on a little shell?  Sunday, Laura and I went to Giverny. I know that I just posted about Giverny, but as Laura is an art major and a Monet fan, we had to make the pilgrimage.  The gardens were as beautiful as before, with huge clumps of giant tulips and long patches of bright flowers.  But what we couldn’t get over where the tiny flowers, the little snails that crawl along the tulips, and the absolute perfection of nature.  Laura pulled out a scaled down water color pad and did some painting and I wandered pilfering delicate pansies.  I love Paris, but it is always refreshing to wander in fields of green in quiet villages. And it is always humbling and delighting to see the diminutive beauty in little details.  What a wonderful Creator and a beautiful creation!

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