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a last feast

Signs of my new comfort level here: I got on the bus this morning without looking at the map inside or watching each stop as it went by; I knew exactly where I was going and when to get off, headed for a last cultural feast – l’Orangerie. As usual – you are bored with this – the museum was far richer than I’d realised; at some point in this city, you want to cry, “Didn’t you guys EVER stop painting?” I went to see Monet’s “Nympheas” – water lilies – without realising, first, that they fill two vast rooms, and second, that there’s a whole gallery of impressionist art below. And yes, I was, as ever, overwhelmed.

The water lilies – enormous canvases which cover eight entire walls, of the gardens and ponds at Giverny, Monet’s country estate.  He has painted them at daybreak, at dusk and in-between – the light changes, the reflections of sky, clouds and leaves in the water, the shape and density of the lilies themselves and the ripples of water – you can’t tell what is reflected and what is actual. It’s the most profoundly calming series of paintings; there are seats in the middle so you can sit and imagine you’re at Giverny, watching the light on the water, the tree branches trailing on the surface. Again, tourists were snapping pictures – how could they hope to capture a hundredth of the expanse? A beautiful young Japanese woman had her picture taken in front of each vast painting; I can only imagine her explaining, at home, “And here I am in front of some blue, and here in front of some green, and some more blue with a bit of pink …”
Downstairs is the collection of the art dealer Paul Guillaume – there’s a maquette of the interior of his home, like Gertrude Stein’s place, positively littered with genius – Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir. I discovered two painters I didn’t know well – Derain, who was a particular favourite of Guillaume’s, and Soutine. Derain’s work had a touch of all of the above painters. In a relatively small, contained display like this, you can see how much they all influenced each other.
In the early 20’s, Derain had the same experience I did at the Louvre, according to a panel on the wall; he reported that exposure to the Old Masters – his list was Rembrandt, Rubens, Velasquez, Watteau, Poussin, Raphael – lessened his appreciation for the Impressionists. “Even a grey Le Nain,” he wrote of three 17th century painters, the Le Nain brothers, “demolishes the Monets.” 
After today, I’d have to disagree. Those water lilies are with me forever. 
In that blue and green room, so calm, I remembered that on arriving in Paris, I looked on-line for a yoga studio. I seriously thought I was going to take time out of my day here to go to yoga. But in fact, having spent my time in this tranquil room or else taking in the most beautiful art imaginable, I have not missed it.
Walked back to the bus along the edge of the Tuileries, towards the Louvre. The French have a positive genius for grand, welcoming public spaces, for squares and parks and for avenues of trees. 
And on the bus back, I saw someone I knew out of the window – the French translator of Graham Swift’s books who spoke at the seminar I went to – standing at a crosswalk with a baguette. If I’d been walking, we would have bumped into each other. Six weeks, and I’m meeting Parisian friends on the street, nearly.
The sun is shining; a city beckons. But there are suitcases on the floor. Madame la Parisienne is packing and saying goodbye.
6 p.m. Well, this is truly bliss – it’s thundering now, pouring with rain – I’m watching the storm from my nest, with a glass of wine. Luckily I went out earlier, when the sun was shining though the clouds were dark – could not resist, set out with not the slightest notion of where I was going, just had to walk in the sun in Paris. My, it’s a really violent rain storm, the kind that at home I start to worry about the basement and the roof. 
I walked along my favourite haunt, the rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris, and ended up at the church next to the Pantheon, l’Eglise St. Etienne de Mont. Okay, let’s take a peek – I’d never heard of this church. And OF COURSE – it’s spectacular. An extremely ornate
7 p.m. I shut down the computer at that point – I was afraid the power might go out, so violent was the downpour – and then it turned to a battering of hail. Quite a sight and sound. I picked up a few pieces of hail and ate them – little frozen pills from heaven. Now all is tranquil again; soon the swifts and swallows will begin their night flights across the sky. 
Where was I? Ten minutes from my front door, in the sixteenth century Eglise St. Etienne de Mont, looking at the extremely ornate altar. Again, a nearly empty church – this one contains the tomb of Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, and twice, recently, Popes have said mass here, so this is no ordinary local church. As I walked by, an elderly woman beckoned me into the sacristy to see the stained glass windows – a gorgeous display of windows from the 16th to the 18th century. We chatted, and she gave me a gift – a series of slides of the church. “No one uses slides any more,” she said sadly. “I hope you can see these.”
From this spectacular church to the Pantheon – you can have a tour up to the huge dome, but it was half an hour away and cost 8 euros and I just was not in the mood for more famous dead people in the cold and damp when the sun was struggling to beam outside. I’ll do it next time – along with the other things I didn’t do, like climbing the towers of Notre Dame, the Picasso Museum, the Marmottan Museum – and what about outside Paris, Versailles, the Bois du Boulogne, Fontainebleau and most of all, Chartres …
Outside the Pantheon I could see a manif – another manifestation was being set up. I asked what it was about. It’s to honour the homeless who have died in France from November to mid-April – 223 of them, with an average age of 48. The organisers were going to conduct a service in their memory outside the Pantheon where France’s great are buried – because, says the brochure, “chaque homme est grand.” Every man is great. They distributed a list of their names and ages, and another brochure asking people to make friends or at least have a conversation with the homeless people on their street. A true challenge and very moving. 
Unfortunately, they would just have been getting going when the skies opened. But the Pantheon provides a great deal of shelter.



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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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