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Louvre marathon

On the first Sunday of the month, the museums are free in Paris. So I was up smartly this morning, in the hopes that the tourists would sleep in and I’d just slip into the Louvre. Ha – you’d think I’d know by now! At 9, opening hour when I got there, the line-up by the Pyramid already stretched the length of the courtyard, and the one underneath at the Carrousel was also endless – more than half an hour of waiting, at least – not to pay but to go through security. I was standing there, trying to figure out a change of plans – head for another museum that opens later and get in line now – when a small Frenchwoman in a sensible raincoat came up to me out of the blue and said, “I’m going to try an alternate entrance. Come with me.”

She told me that there’s an entrance for the auditorium that no one knows about, and that perhaps it would work if we tried it. These are the little miracles of travel that you remember all your life – when we got there, there was no one except a guard, to whom she said, “We’re going to the auditorium.”
“Allez-y, mesdames,” he replied. Go ahead, ladies. We walked to the security check and out the other side in seven seconds, and we were in.  I thanked her profusely, saying I’d inform all my friends that the French are geniuses, and she said, “No, only one!” We ran into each other three times in the first hour. After that, the place was packed. But the first hour was heaven, thanks to my guardian angel.
This time I was ready – dressed in layers under a light jacket – it’s a really cold day – and comfortable shoes, I had a small water bottle, a paté sandwich, camera, notebook, map – and knew where I was headed. My friend Bruce loves the painter Claude Lorrain, about whom I knew nothing, so I went straight to the French painters on the second floor and found him. For some time, I was completely alone with Claude Lorrain, who can now add me to his list of fans. 
He worked in the seventeenth century, painting vast mythic landscapes filled with detail and drama. The myriad tiny details of face, clothing, light, architecture, clouds, foliage – stunning. In a scene of Cleopatra landing in Italy to meet Anthony, there’s the whole scene in the forefront of the two of them with their entourage, the intensity of their encounter like something out of Oprah – but in the background is the port where she has just landed, boats filled with sailors rolling sails, unloading her precious goods, watching, one tying up the small boat on which she has reached shore. You could look at it for hours and see more. Up in the very top right corner, people are looking down, bathed in the soft glow of light.
After half an hour with Claude Lorrain and Poussin, I set off to explore. By now the rooms were filling up; the Japanese had arrived.  The sound of soft-soled shoes squeaking on wooden floors is surprisingly loud when there are hundreds of shoes.
I observed that the French kings could never be faulted for their beauty. The Louis’s, Francois 1, a Henri or two – exceptionally plain and uninspiring men. There were several portraits of Louis XIII in his favourite suit – leather, studded with gold fleur de lis, worn with thigh-high boots. Must have been a style maven in his time. If only he’d had a chin.
I fell in love with faces, as I did the last time, and took a few pictures, though I tried not to – so many viewers walk up to a canvas, snap a shot and walk away without taking in a single thing. This time I went slowly, really looking; what a treat. So many painters like to include a little dog, somewhere. I looked for the dogs. And the rings – so many beautiful rings. Such interesting faces. So many Jesuses; the big, solid ones with some flesh are more compelling than the skinny ones. Rubens painted a big handsome Jesus. So many Mary’s. There’s a list posted of new acquisitions, among which are more Marys. Just what the Louvre needs – more Marys, to add to the eighteen thousand already there. 
Believe it or not, I stopped for a picnic in the middle of XVI Dutch art – found a window ledge in a side room filled with obscure Flemish artists, stretched out beside the window and munched my sandwich as subtly as possible. How the Louvre stays as undamaged as it is is a miracle – there are young guards yawning or gossiping with each other in some rooms, but many rooms are completely unguarded. 
Restored, I continued my journey, to revisit my best friend, Vermeer. And I have to say that of all the magnificence and brilliance I saw in more than 3 hours this morning, that one small canvas by my beloved Vermeer is the one that made me cry. The astronomer or astrologer, working intently at his desk, a book open in front of him on the table covered with a tumble of rich cloth – the shining globe, books and paintings shadowy against the wall, one hand twirling the globe, the other gripping the table – the fingernail of his index finger with a particular shine as the light pours from the window to the left, as always. It is so complete, open and yet private and mysterious – I have tears in my eyes now, as I remember. 
Out of the window nearby, I saw the line-up still stretching right across the courtyard and out the other side. By now it was getting very crowded. I went through the objets d’art section much too fast, down to the first floor to see the Venus de Milo, and could hardly move. She was surrounded ten deep, so I waved at her from a distance. On my way out, I stopped in the section about the history of the Louvre – again, marvellous to see the building, which is one kilometre long, from its beginnings. There was a detailed map from 1734 on which you could see Notre-Dame, St. Germain des Pres, rue Jacob, rue St. Honoré – places I’ve walked to or by in the last week. 
My plan had been to have a cup of coffee somewhere and go on to another museum, but I was exhausted and it was still really cold outside. So, full of paté and great art, I got the #27 home.
Yesterday was a slow day because, once again, I fell down. It seems to be a habit of mine in Paris. I was out for a walk in the morning, and on the tiny cobbled rue de L’epee du bois – street of the wooden sword – I slipped on a discarded piece of fruit – not a banana peel, unfortunately, not as dignified as that – and fell heavily, skinning one knee and twisting an ankle. It was a lovely day and I wanted an excursion but didn’t want to walk. So I got a bus – any bus, this one happened to be # 38 – which took me north, out of the tourist area, through a section where there were stores called “Black Beauty Centre” and “Afro King,” then to the Gare du Nord, where I had to get out, walk over to another stop, and get exactly the same bus back. For about $5, it was a great tour of Paris; highly recommended. Any bus. 
Near here, I passed L’eglise Val de Grace and went in. It’s extraordinary inside with a huge painted cupola and the most absurdly ornate altar with thick twisting pillars. But there was an exhibit of Giotto too, so I bought a ticket. It turned out to be not the originals – of course, since it was of frescoes painted right on the walls – but huge, well-done photographic reproductions. At first I thought, what a cheat, but then I saw the value – I was not with hundreds of tourists in Assisi looking at Giotto’s 28 frescoes of the life of St. Francis, I was at an obscure church in Paris looking at very good, huge reproductions with almost no one.  They portray his life, his death, his legacy of miracles. One made me laugh, of one of Francis’s miracles – a sinful woman died, then came back to life, told the mourners that Francis had come to her and told her to repent – so she did, you can see the demon fleeing, and then she died again, peacefully this time. If only.
I’ve just had lunch with a glass of wine – roast chicken, thick white asparagus, lentils, squares of Lindt dark chocolate mousse – and the cheese is out, getting warm, ready for after supper. My friend Daniel told me during our dinner that he had never met anyone, even the French themselves, who adored France as much as my father. Perhaps there’s a gene.



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I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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