Monday, October 8, 2007

I Return, Humbled and Inspired

Okay…back from a wonderful vacation to Paris! I’m not sure what I might be able to add to the conversation about Paris that hasn’t already been said, but here are some of my quick impressions:

Yes, it rains A LOT in Paris. So much that most of the time, Parisians seem used to getting wet and don’t bother with an umbrella…so much that the fancy department store we wandered through had a special “umbrella and raingear boutique.”

Yes, the food is DELICIOUS. In ten days, we had only one bad meal and one mediocre meal: both were due to stumbling randomly into a convenient place out of exhaustion. On the other hand, we stumbled randomly out of exhaustion into plenty of other places that turned out to be amazing. After recovering from jet lag and the nine million things I need to do this week, I plan to dig out my old copy of Julia Child and get busy learning how to cook more French dishes—veau blanquette is first on the long list.

Yes, it helps if one speaks FRENCH. (Duh.) Sadly, what snippets Steve remembered from his high school French (Ou est la biblioteque, Françoise?) were not as helpful as one might imagine. Nevertheless, we got by, mostly, and I will no longer scorn those goofy audio guides in museums that happily came in English. As for eating, I immediately learned the words for “brains” and “horse” so I wouldn’t accidentally find myself facing either item on a plate (I imagined I would have eaten about anything else though I wasn’t put to the test). There was an amusing incident where I nearly ordered an appetizer of “fromage”-something, thinking it was a cheese tart, but we instead decided to order the foie gras yet again. (Yes, I’m evil, eating foie gras and veal left and right). Later, we saw that I had nearly ordered “headcheese.” Which probably would have been served with a lovely sauce that would have made me think it was the best thing I’d ever eaten….

Yes, it is absolutely HUMBLING to be in the presence of such great art, to be walking the same mazey warren of narrow streets (lost, hopelessly examining the useless maps in the guidebooks yet again) as Rodin and Degas and countless others, to sit quietly inside a church that was built in the 11th century, to drink wine at the bars where Hemingway drank (quite a number of these; sadly, we couldn’t hit them all), to be reminded that history actually didn’t begin when the Pilgrims showed up on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

In the midst of so much amazing history and stunning art, I am surprised that what still brings me to tears is thinking of my first glimpse of the Mona Lisa and the moments I spent gazing at Venus de Milo at the Louvre. I wouldn’t expect either of these experiences to have had the power they did—both works are virtually clichés, thanks to abundant T-shirts and cheap parodies in knick-knack catalogs. Yet despite the pack of people crowded around the Mona Lisa (all taking flash photos despite the signs saying not to), the painting was luminous, the famous smile timeless, the beauty beyond description.

The mob scene was worse around Venus de Milo—a tour group had just descended and literally every single person of the 50 shoved to the front to get their picture taken while standing next to the statue; they didn't even bother to look at the work itself. The mass of humanity was ridiculous and demeaning and goofy: and, honestly, who on earth wants to see all these photos on cell phones of people ruining a beautiful, timeless statue by pushing their stupid faces in front of it? And yet. The longer I stood there, a bit removed from the scrum, the more lovely and solid and serene and perfect the statue seemed; even the members of this unthinking, unseeing tour group couldn’t destroy it—so….

Yes, ART is ultimately, always, the thing that will prevail. And as writers, however humble, we are fortunate to feel called upon to take our own miniscule steps along that path toward timelessness.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.