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impressionist and other works of art

Since my hair is now as colorful as a Van Gogh (especially the roots), I decide it’s a good time to go into Paris and re-visit the Musee D’Orsay with new perspective.

I catch my favorite train from Auvers transferring in Valmondois which travels through the beautiful countryside into what I imagine is the riot ravaged section of North Paris into Gare du Nord. I bravely decide to take the metro to the Musee D’Orsay despite the fact that I know all metros are under terrorist threat. Somehow, the Paris metro is so much more civilized than the New York subway I let down my guard and forget to be afraid. My fellow passengers and I survive.

I get off at St. Germain and prompty walk in the wrong direction. When I reach the Odeon, I realize my mistake and backtrack, passing a gazillion gorgeous food stores. At least I know if I get lost I can follow the trail of my drool back the way I came. I resist the urge to enter and continue past the fashion boutiques (also drool inducing) and down the Rue Jacob past the small galleries until I reach the Musee. The line is virtually non-existant and I’m inside in a flash.

It’s a beautiful museum, a converted railway station, with art instead of bums. I head straight for the impressionists, trying not to notice the art lovers critiquing my hair.

The first room alone is more impressive than MOMA and the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam by a long shot. And it keeps going. Rooms of impressionist paintings, many of which are scenes that looks strikingly familiar, maybe because so many were painted in the Val d’Oise. Pissarro, Corot, Sisley, Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh are well represented. There are numeous paintings done in Auvers, I notice with pride (as if I had something to do with it). Views of Pontoise, Argentueil, Sannois, the Oise, Chaponval are as plentiful as if I were at the Chateau Auvers looking down on the valley. And not all that different.

I like Renoir more than I remember and Monet less (although I’m still fascinated by his series of the views of the cathedral in changing light). I still think Pisarro is underrated and feel my rage rising at the injustice of it.

But I’m immediately soothed by the room of Van Goghs. He may have been a douche and a drama queen, but man, I love his paintings. They’re brighter and more striking than I remember. I can’t keep my eyes off the picture of that quack Dr. Gachet and can almost understand why that Japanese industrialist who bought one of the two portraits Van Gogh painted of him wanted to be buried with it. Dr. Gachet looks depressed. His hair is very red. I wonder he went to the same hair salon in town that I did.

I can’t help noticing the scarcity of English speaking people here in the Museum. Where are they? Are they boycotting France because of our refusal to take part in the Iraq war? Whatever it is, I’m grateful, as the museum is uncrowded and pleasant.

Until I go to the ladies room and realize, this must be where the Americans have been hiding. The line here is longer than the line into the museum and virtually everyone in line is an American. Maybe we have smaller bladders than the French?

Only one of the two stalls has toilet paper and rather than take toilet paper from another stall when it’s empty, the women in line choose to wait for the stall with toilet paper to become available, which doubles their wait time. When a woman leaves that stall, I cut ahead to take some toilet paper and go into the free one. The women act as though I’ve just invented the paper clip or something. I begin to understand why the US is no longer a center of innovation any more.

Once I’ve finished my business I take a look at a pre-impressionist work of art—Paris itself. The view from the D’Orsay balcony is spectacular, even when it’s overcast.

By now it’s almost 3:00 and time to wander over to the Place de Madeline and Opera, which I haven’t seen since I floated by in the 80’s high on painkillers from a tooth infection (I have searched vainly for whatever that painkiller was ever since). I walk through the Tuilleries and up the Rue de Fauborg Honore to the Opera. It’s as impressive to me now without narcotics as it was while under the influence.

Then, I don’t know what possesses me, maybe a narcotic flashback, I walk to the Boulevard Haussman to Galleries Lafayette. I recommend this neighborhood to anyone homesick for New York. Here English is more prevalent than French. And I experience the pushing and shoving I’ve so missed. I hate it and rush out. Until I remember that the food hall is supposed to be an epicurian oasis.

I’m not disappointed. It’s the Musee D’Orsay of food. And it’s not nearly as crowded as the rest of the store…in fact it’s downright pleasant.

This place makes Eli’s in New York (the best and most overpriced food emporium in NYC) look like Safeway, except the prices of course, which are high, but still comparatively reasonable. The options are infinitely more mindboggling than Eli’s (which only boggled my mind with the prices). There are all sorts of prepared foods to take out, or eat at little counters set up at each section. There’s the Italian deli section, the Petrossean section, the tapas section, the dim sum section, the meze section (the take out meze platters are so beautiful, I consider them to be art on par with a Van Gogh), the Indian section, the oyster section. There’s also fresh produce, meat, seafood, bakery, candy and grocery sections that includes everything I’ve ever craved and some things I’ve never imagined to crave but will start immediately.

My budget allows me a smoked salmon on blini sandwich for 4 Euros which is tasty, but leaves me longing for more. I take one last slow, tortured lap and decide I better leave before I find my credit card buried in my bag and create a deficit at the dim sum counter that’s bigger than the US debt to China.

The train ride back to Auvers is uneventful. I watch the countryside go by now with the eyes of an artist—the slashes of green, gold, and red of the passing fields as vibrant as the tabouli salad at galleries Lafayette.

Once again, I feel a kinship with Van Gogh, despite my desire not to. I stop at the grocery store on the way home and linger over the wine section since absinthe is no longer legal. I decide against buying a bottle, since like Van Gogh, I’m short on cash. What would Van Gogh do? It seems I have two choices. One involves cutting, the other painting.

I head back home to paint my hair.

the rock stars of auvers

vWhere I come from, people stand in line for celebrities and iPhones.

Here in Auvers, it appears the most wanted men are the butchers.   On Sunday mornings before they close for their weekend, the line stretches down the main drag.

J.Y. Gicquel Boucherie  comes highly recommended by the Ladoux family.   I’ve been a little hesitant to venture in there because it will require speaking French and I shudder to think what adorable forest creature I might wind up taking home for dinner.   I’m also not sure whether those numbers before the decimal point in their prices, are ones or sevens and whether we’re talking francs or euros and I’m afraid I can’t afford it if I have to ask.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight and have decided that my lack of energy is due to a protein deficiency and I need a good piece of red meat.   Preferably something someone who’s lived on takeout for the past 20 years can cook.

butcher window

I’m a little nervous entering, the vibe here is a lot friendlier than the boulanger down the street, where I feel I must apologize when I enter, again when I order and one more time when I pay.   Sometimes I apologize when I leave for good measure.

It’s not like I’m a total stranger here.  I wave to them every time I walk by and they wave back.  There are usually two butchers; a younger one with a roundish face and receeding hairline and an older guy with salt and pepper hair and a nice northern european face.  They may be wearing bloody aprons, but here, they’re captains of industry.   A woman mans the prepared foods counter (quiche, Frenchy salads, things en croute and terrines with hardboiled eggs in them) and cash register.

A couple of people are ahead of me which gives me time to get my bearings and look at all the meats behind the counter and try to figure out what they are so I can point knowledgably.   There are about 7 different kinds of chicken shaped items in various sizes.  Lots of fillets of chicken colored objects of various sizes,  slabs of red unrecognizable red meats.   Lots of unrecognizable parts.   Sausage galore.   Chops.   Ribs.   Rabbits.   Geese.   I’m getting a little sad and consider fleeing or at least turning to the deli counter, but it’s my turn.Meat Question

Here are the french words for meats I know I’ll eat:   poulet (chicken), agneau (lamb), boeuf (beef), dinde (turkey), porc.   But then we get into cuts and I’m lost.   Is an onglet a steak or some organ I don’t want to know about?   And is it an onglet de boeuf, ou cheval?   And what the heck is french for goat?   Je ne voudrais pas goat.   Or lapin (rabbit).   I’m now in a cold sweat and probably look guilty.

The younger guy greets me in French.    I try to say something in French, but all I can do is look behind the the glass and point desperately at a kebab and ask ‘qu’est ce que c’est.’   He doesn’t understand me.   Shit (merde).   He’s one of those French people who doesn’t understand English OR really bad French.   This could be a problem.

I point again at the kebab and ask “c’est l’agneau?”

He looks at me blankly.   I repeat myself slowly.   Nothing.   By now everyone in the store has stopped and watches curiously.   I really want to flee now, but I might want to come back here sometime, so I blunder on.

I point at the kebab and “baaaaah” loudly like a lamb.   His face brightens and he nods vigorously.   I point to my leg.   He nods again.

I shout excitedly, ca!   Un de ca s’il vous plait.  He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but we’re on the same wavelength.

He wraps it up and I hold my hand out to take it.   He gives me a slip of paper and points to the cash register while babbling something in French.  And I totally get it.   They give me the meat after I pay.   I say merci beaucoup, he says something and the transaction is completed.    We’re both very pleased with ourselves.

Next stop, cash register.   Grand total about E4.92 which is about 9 dollars, so, pretty pricey.   It also presents the problem of whether I pay with the pocketful of coins in my pocket or just hand her the E10 bill I have and get even more coins.   If I pay in coins it could take hours for me to figure out the right amount.   But if I get my change in coins, I’ll just have to face the problem down the road.   I do the only logical thing and dump the contents of my pocket on the counter and let the very nice cashier pick out the coins she needs.

rock stars of AuversI leave the store with my package, calling out “merci, bon soir!” feeling very French.

I broil the kebab, which is all seasoned lamb cubes with a chunk of some sort of sausage at each end and make a salad.

All I can say is that kebab brought me more pleasure than Springstein, Jagger or an iPhone ever could.   Hours later, I’m still fantasizing the subtle seasoning and the tender juicy lamb cubes.   And the sausage!   OMG!  A veritable medley of spices in perfect pork harmony that I can’t get out of my head.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so I’m going to get in line first thing in the morning.   Maybe I should camp out front over night.   I’ll just die if they’re sold out when I get there.

Consult this meat translation guide before venturing into a boucherie.


danger mort

It’s another lovely day and there’s no excuse to put off fullfilling yesterday’s mission. Today I’m taking the the train to L’isle Adam. Yes, I know it’s fraught with perils, but I must go.

This time, I’m prepared. I have less coffee, more yogurt and a banana. I study a map.

At precisely 10 AM, I tuck the bottled water into my bag and hit the driveway, full stride. Until I remember that I forgot my keys. I go back inside to find them. Desdemona greets me at the door, all full of expectation so I play with her for a bit. When she seems bored with me, I go to check on Denzel, and start to leave again… until I realize I still haven’t found the keys. As a rule, I try to put them on the furnace knob by the front door everytime I get back from somewhere. ‘Try’ being the key word. I finally find them in the refrigerator on top of the yogurt I bought earlier and head out again. This time I make it as far as the gate until it occurs to me that I may have left the internet connection on. I run back to check. It’s off; maybe I’m not as senile as I think.

I return to the front door which I’d left slightly ajar. But as I close it, I unwillingly begin entertaining my newest big fear: that Desdemona has slipped out the door, darted into the street in pursuit of a bird and…I can’t even continue. I call her and get no answer. I scan the yard, no kitty. I search the house calling her, first gently, but rising in pitch as I get more hysterical. By the time I find her on top of an armoire in the closet, I’m sweaty and my voice is raw and shaky. She looks at me like I’m insane. Phew. I double check that Denzel is still under the sheets and head out again. But when I get to the gate I can’t find my keys.

parmainI get to the train station, (probably 200 yeards from the house) at noon. A man sits behind a big glass wall. His voice booms through a speaker. “Bonjour madam.” Oh … my … God…I have to buy a ticket…in French. I prepare for the usual rush of blood to my brain. Only this time it doesn’t happen. I buy the ticket in French and even understand when he tells me the train is coming in ten minutes.

On the train, I watch the scenery closely trying to figure out exactly where I walked yesterday. Turns out it was the Valmondois, not Butry church bell that rang me into retreat. Valmondois is the first stop on a 7 minute train ride from Auvers. The next stop is another seven minutes away: Parmain/L’isle Adam. I’m tempted to go on to Champagne sur Oise because I like the name, but I also like the looks of this stop and don’t want to press my luck. So I get off. If I turn right, I’ll be in Parmain and if I turn left I’ll be in L’isle Adam.

footbridgeL’isle Adam is a small island in the middle of the Oise. I’d say it’s about one narrow square mile (a rectangular mile?). It’s green with trees that are much taller and lusher than the ones in Auvers. I think the Barbizon forest starts somewhere near here.

The houses are mostly old, beautifully maintained and shaded. It’s very peaceful, quaint as hell and the people seem extraordinarily friendly.

This town is full of little stores, restaurants, parks and great outlooks (Le Plage, the beach I’d read about is the pits—a huge sandbox with a big pool).

downtownI’m drawn to the center of town, which is always the church. Across the street from the church, I discover the answer to my prayers. A big outdoor market with all sorts of dry goods type stuff and a covered food market full of fresh produce, fish, meat, cheeses, baked goods, Asian delicacies…an array that makes Whole Foods look like Gristedes. I am so in awe (and lust) for all this food, I forget to become nervous when speaking to the people behind the counter. I get a beet salad, a half pound of gruyere (which I’ll never be able to prounounce no matter how drunk I deliam), two apples, two oranges, two spring rolls a loaf of bread and a really weird but tasty vietnamese dessert made of crushed peanuts and coconut wrapped in something sweet and doughy that the guy said was plus meillieux than the beignet ananas. All for under five Euro. And I bought everything in French with minimal blushing or stammering. It makes me want to dance around singing nyah, nyah nyah nyah…to whom, I’m not sure.goosey

I wander around the island for awhile. I have some bread and cheese at a shady spot overlooking l’Oise. And wander some more. I feel oddly relaxed and peaceful. In fact, when I come upon two swans (geese?), one building a nest around where she sits, I watch a full five minutes before even THINKING about bird flu.

When I return to Auvers at about 4:00 some of the people in town smile, wave and say bonjour to me. I inhale the scented air and think to myself “Damn, this is good!” I feel like in the beginning of the Mary Tyler Moore show, I should throw my beret triumphantly into the air to the chorus “you’re gonna make it after all.”


This too, shall pass.


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