Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Paris, Day 9 -- Distance, or Ellen & Eliza's Excellent Adventure in Giverny

Despite the fact that I've barely scratched the surface of things to see in Paris, my friend Eliza and I went on a little adventure out of town yesterday.  Our destination was Giverny, to see the gardens which Monet once declared to be his "greatest masterpiece."  He lived and gardened and painted in Giverny from 1883 to 1926.

Eliza came over at 9am, and met little Pepito and Bout de Zan while I finished my coffee and gathered my things.  Then she helped me buy a "carnet" of ten tickets for the subway and/or bus, and we left Reamur/Sebastopol Station on the first leg of our journey, headed toward Paris' St. Lazare Station.

Eliza on the train at St. Lazare!  We walked all the way to the front, and snagged window seats facing each other.
St. Lazare Station.
Looking out the window as the terrain changes from city to small town to countryside.

The queue in Vernon -- waiting to board the bus.  Which was standing room only!  Eliza and I got the next to the last seats, but they kept packing people on until it was full.  Lucky the ride was only ten minutes or so...

At St. Lazare, we bought one-way tickets for the train to Giverny, which was leaving from gate 22.  We could have bought round-trip tickets, but much like on Amtrak, we would have had to indicate a specific return time, and we weren't sure how long it was going to take us to reach the gardens, or how long we'd want to wander.  The woman who sold us the tickets validated them for us.  Eliza explained that this is a very important step when you are buying train tickets in France.  Buying them isn't enough.  You also have to validate them, using the "composter" machine.  "Composter" does not mean composting!  Instead, it marks the ticket with the day and time.  Apparently, you can get into trouble with the conductor if your ticket isn't composted, if he checks it on the train...

The 45-minute ride from Paris to Vernon (in Normandy) went by in a flash, which proves that it's always better to travel with friends.  Eliza and I chatted all the way, as city buildings gave way to green, verdant rural landscapes.  Lots of people got off the train with us, and we followed along as most of them queued up on the sidewalk outside the train station, all of us headed for Giverny.  A four euro bus ticket (round-trip) took us through the quaint little village of Vernon, over the river, through the woods, and into the tinier village of Giverny, where Monet's house and gardens are tucked neatly against the hillside.

We found a little cafe to lunch at before entering the gardens.  The day was perfect -- bright and warm.  We sat outside and ate our sandwich and salad, respectively, and tried to wave off the yellow-jackets that swarmed around my Coca Cola and Eliza's plum tart.  

Coca Cola.  Glass bottle.
(Coca Cola is very popular here.  You'll see people drinking it regularly at cafes in the afternoon.  It is served in glass bottles, which makes me remember and wish for the times when soda pop was sold in glass bottles in the U.S.  We didn't drink pop very often when I was growing up, but I remember there was either a machine that sold it or a refrigerator filled with pop down at the fire hall, where my Dad was a volunteer fireman for years and years... once in a while, if we were down there, we would have one.  I think it was RC Cola there, though, not Coca Cola.  And Dr. Pepper, and Orange Crush, and 7-Up, all in glass bottles that seemed much colder than the plastic ones we have today.)

We bought tickets for both Monet's gardens and the Musee des Impressionismes down the street -- a small museum of impressionist paintings.

The gardens are absolutely lovely.  There were a lot of people there, but it wasn't so many that you couldn't breathe.  (We did have to time our pictures carefully, though, so as not to have too many other people in them.)

The little green bridges and the pond with blooming pink and yellow waterlilies really does look just like Monet's paintings.  In addition to the pond, a fast-moving stream runs along the edge of the property.  Formal flower gardens are interspersed with less formal paths, and little bamboo railings keep visitors from trampling things too much.  A few gardeners were clipping and digging, paying all the visitors no mind.  It's hard to tell if the wheelbarrows were carefully placed for our photographs or about to have weeds plunked down in them.  Some of the fruit trees had been espaliered into a natural fence, while others leaned their heavy branches down, weighted with apples and pears.

We wandered for an hour, at least.  Maybe two.  It was just so nice to be there.  The air was fresh and we kept taking pictures of bright zinnias and geraniums and Canterbury bells and snapdragons and hollyhocks.

A wide path in the garden.
Blooming flowers over the meandering stream.
Waterlilies and weeping willows.
The house, tucked against the hill.
The house is pretty, too.  Each room is a different color, which is appropriate for a painter, I suppose.  The big room on the end, where Monet painted and displayed his paintings, had enormous windows on two sides, letting the light in.  The upstairs windows looked out on the gardens.  Every room was filled with Monet's original collection of Japanese prints.  Photographs allowed us to see what the place looked like when Monet was there, and it wasn't so very different.  There's a tiny little sewing room upstairs, and an enormous kitchen downstairs, replete with copper kettles and a huge stove.

Ellen and Eliza on the bridge.
The bend in the river.
Sky over Giverny.
Glorious hollyhocks.
Monet's house.
Wheelbarrow on the path.
We stopped for a cold drink before heading for the Musee des Impressionismes.  

The museum is the private collection of an American couple who were great fans of the Impressionists.  Their collection includes several Monets, Degas, Renoirs, a Gaugin or two, some pieces by Toulouse Lautrec, and a handful of others.  It isn't a large collection, but after seeing the blazes of pink and purple flowers in Monet's garden, it was nice to have a place to think about what he and his colleagues did with what they saw.

Eliza and I talked about a number of things as we walked along, including color, and distance.  Distance is what I've been thinking about today, as I look back on yesterday's adventure.

It's hard to see something when you're too close to it.  Hold a nectarine an inch from your face, and your eyes will cross in a red and yellow blur.  Hold it out a bit, and you can begin to understand what it is.

Seeing impressionist paintings (any paintings) in person is tremendously different from seeing them in a print on the wall of a pale blue bathroom or on a discount calendar.  Some of this has to do with real always being better than facsimile, but I think distance is a factor as well.  Instinctively, in the museum, I stepped back from each painting.  Forward, to see the rise of paint on canvas, because I love the rough edges and texture of it, but then back, to see the picture.  And each painting had an optimal distance -- that point at which the colors began to bleed into each other, where the individual brushstrokes disappeared into whole stories of color and light.  Boats pushing through stormy seas, beautiful young women laughing together in their opera box, dancers warming up at the barre...  

And maybe this is the great gift of being a traveler.  This idea of distance.  I didn't buy anything at the gift shops to take home as a souvenir.  But I feel like this whole trip is allowing me to take a step back from my life, and thus see it more clearly.  

The last year has been full of tremendous changes.  Quitting my job, moving across the country, writing full-time, meeting new people, trying to find my way into a new writing community, and wondering what comes next, now that my wonderful fellowship year has come to a close.

This trip couldn't have come at a better time, really.  I'm going to try to take in all the lessons it offers.  History lessons, French lessons, art lessons, and maybe... just maybe... a small insight into what to do with the rest of my life.

We'll see.


Adventures in Giverny.

There and Back Again.

I nibble my nectarine, and drink my thick, dark French coffee, and try to be ready for where this trip is trying to take me.

Canterbury Bells, which remind me of my grandma's garden.
Ellen on the Bridge to Somewhere.  (Thank you to Eliza, for sharing her pictures!)


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing your journey.


Claudia said...

"On a bridge to somewhere." I like that. May you always be on a bridge to somewhere.

EM Lewis said...

Thank you, Peter and Claudia!