July 23, 2010

Perfumed Paintings.

The scent of roses fills the air and a little wedding cake of a chateau serves extraordinary lunches.  The Bagatelle is the prize jewel of Paris’ Bois de Boulogne, where lovers of roses-and lovers of all sorts-come on a Sunday.  Commissioned by a vain count who bet Marie Antoinette he could build and estate in weeks, the Bagatelle is no mere caprice. 

The gardens are the height of 18th-century romance, each corner a perfumed painting.
“Exploring Bagatelle today is like passing from a Renoir to a Seurat, or from a Manet to a Bonnard,” wrote Denise and Jean-Pierre le Dantec in “Paris in Bloom”, “as if every painter who loved color and light had gathered together to create a patchwork of perfumed paintings.”

Like many a royal patron, the extravagant Comte d’Artois (brother-in-law of Louis XVI), who commissioned the Bagatelle in 1779, was only vaguely aware that an artistic masterpiece was flowering on his grounds.  Thomas Blaikie, his Scottish master-gardener, wrote in his diary of the Comte, “ I never saw a more Lazier and a Man of less taste and…he had not once come to see the Garden since he Lodged there.”

But perhaps that was all to the good.  With the Comte’s francs-and without his interference-Blaikie was free to break from the rigid French tradition of ordered plantings and paths.

Considered capricious at the time, Blaikie’s innovative approach, known as the picturesque style, borrowed the principles of painting, choosing plants for their pallets and textures composing them according to his artistic sense.  

The result was a series of stunning landscapes set off by fast green lawns and clusters of large trees.

The Bagatelle acquired and added painterly touch in 1905, when the city of Paris took possession of the land and hired a friend of Claude Monet, Jean-Claude-Nicolas Forestier, to restore and reinterpret the park.  Greatly influenced by the Impressionists, Forestier grouped a dazzling array of differently hued flowers, obtaining strong contrasts in some places, masterly nuances in others.

The Bagatelle of Forestier is the Bagatelle of today, and its centerpiece remains the extraordinary rose garden.  There, it seems, no two roses are alike, for 700 different varieties have been gathered from around the world, all with the same degree of ostentation that the Comte d’Artois exhibited when he created the park over two-hundred years ago.  

My last post(for a while) from Paris mon amour. We are off, I will keep you posted friends. Much love...

July 08, 2010

A Promenade with Clive.

“Smoochers.” This was Clive’s observation of and in the Luxembourg Gardens. It was February. Clive was six. His Family had moved to Paris for the year. The day had a desolate winter beauty. Earth and sky were the same gris de perle. We were making our way down a long allee of plane trees.

We could see the pitched green roof of the carousel through the bare branches, but it was not in use. The tennis courts were empty, the fountains dry, the waffle stand was shuttered, the courts lay under a crust of snow, and the only evidence of life was, in fact, the passionate young couple-if, indeed, they were young-an assumption one shouldn’t make of the lovers in Paris parks. Clive studied the two fair heads and the four slim legs, intrigued but a little doubtful.

There are no rules about people hugging in the Luxembourg. Two of you may share a single garden chair, entwined like the figures in a Moghul painting. You may also pull two chairs to make an impromptu divan. You may strike the classic cinematic pose, in full view of the Senate and its armed guards. You may stop suddenly, in the middle of a path, in the middle of a sentence, to fling your arms around each other, obstructing the passage of strollers-who will make a silent, uncomplaining detour around you. You may kiss and snuggle at a café table, perched on the rim of a fountain, or astride a balustrade, or pressed against a chestnut tree, or on a bench inside the children’s playground-provided, you have paid your entrance fee, and you have a child with you.

You may not, however, take any sort of pleasure, innocent or guilty, onto the grass.

When the trees are bare, the Luxembourg has the air of a vacant summer palace. Even in summer, the precise allocation of space, and the maniacal tidiness and symmetry are, somehow, those of an interior-a very grand, very formal French salon where, as a guest, you are invited to have a good time, but when you are also on your best behavior. The Luxembourg, you will note: is a jardin. It is not a bois or even a parc. Have I ever seen a dandelion? An untidy hedge? A statue streaked with droppings? I don’t think so.

The tulips grow in perfect weed less beds.

The lawns are as smooth as cashmere. Clive could tell you what happens if you dared to dip a foot-even a little six-year old foot-into one of those inviting, forbidden pools of green. “Policemen blow whistle!” Yes, a guardian in a smart blue uniform, with gold epaulets, and a little blue legionnaire’s hat, is instantly upon you, scowling under his moustache, wagging his finger. The presumption, under French law, is always of guilt: “Vous savez bien, madame, que la pelouse est interdite!” (“You know perfectly well that the lawn is of-limits!”). We knew. We knew.

I was surprised when Clive nodded to people. The pony driver, the ticket seller in the playground, an old man playing chess, and shyly would say “bonjoo.” He could also say merci “bowcoo,” pompiers, donne-le-moi, pain de chocolat, en garde, and touché.

Did he remember that year in Paris? I ask. He said that he did, he would dream of the Luxembourg, and when he returned, the smell of hyacinths, waffles, and gitanes, jogged his memory.

One of the delights of having played in the Luxembourg Gardens as a child is the Proustian glamour of being able to claim that one did so.

Clive, thanks for the memories.

July 02, 2010

…and all that Jazz.

I grabbed the Melatonin, the choice plastic, and a fistful of those hot-off-the-press dollars-and off we went on a short jaunt to New Orleans.

People are exceedingly friendly, and whether you are black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, addicted or dry, deviant or devout, from this country or another, needs are fulfilled. New Orleans rolls out the welcome mat, in spite of having gone to hell and back.

You can walk home long after midnight on noisy or quiet streets, get a good night’s sleep behind closed shutters, wake in the morning, not too early, sit for a spell in the courtyard or on a balcony, and then prepare to start the day again, maybe with a walk along the mighty Mississippi.

Did you know that at dawn in the French Quarter the streets and sidewalks are washed with lemon juice? Elegant.

We haven’t seen much of New Orleans, but we saw what makes New Orleans a fascinating and unique American city, a city of our time. We sampled the good life but we also explored neighborhoods: the French Quarter, Bywater, Treme, the Lower 9th. Ward, Central Business District.

As far as we are concerned, there are no limits. Anytime someone asked, “Do you want to see ...?” We replied, “Yes, of course, show us.”

The New York based French Heritage Society  is mentioned again and again for stepping up to help where needed in the aftermath of the flood. The Edgar Degas House , is among the grateful. While Degas spent only six months visiting his maternal relatives in the house on Esplanade Avenue, he did important work there, particularly A Cotton Office in New Orleans. The house, while a museum, is also a B and B. In 2010 one can sleep where Degas slept in 1873. FHS provided thousands of dollars for restoration work.

Like so many out-of-towners, and legions of volunteers, we were drawn to the devastated Lower 9th. Ward, and historic Treme, both predominantly African American communities. Treme was historic before Katrina; the Lower 9th is historic because of Katrina.

A visit to the Lower 9th. stirs complicated feelings. Before the storm it was a community of approximately 14,000 people who lived in close to 5,000 homes, more than half the families owned for 25 years or more, the highest percentage of African American home ownership in a U.S. city.

According to Common Ground Relief , “The loss of these homes represented the disappearance of a family’s major asset, economic livelihood and, as a result, their future.” Since many didn’t evacuate, they were left to struggle or perish.

Today, among the ghosts, ruins and the weeds where once stood homes, there are obvious signs of new life. Thanks to all kinds of groups, and especially architectural entrepreneurs, the Lower 9th. is a model of volunteerism, preservation, restoration and urban renewal.

Still, for every revitalization project, there remain many beaten up and abandoned homes, bearing the coded symbols of the horror: spray painted tattoos from the search and rescue effort. Some locals believe the codes should not be painted over – an enduring reminder of what happened.

It wouldn’t be a visit to New Orleans if we didn’t jump in – with all our senses – to the pleasures of food, wine and music. We sampled with abandon.

This morning I went in search of a café au lait and beignets. After the meal, like a cat covered in bird feathers, I dusted powdered sugar off my face and clothing.

Night is for music. Here, finding music is as easy as breathing. Next day we walked around humming the music of the night before. Music is everywhere and in everything.

Possibly the most telling symbol of New Orleans is the statue of Jesus at St. Louis Cathedral. His arms raised in blessing. At night, a floodlight casts his shadow against the Cathedral wall and the arms loom larger and higher. The natives do call him “Touchdown Jesus.”

Just to show you, a sense of humor may save the day, even for a city.

safe 4th., friends