May 21-June 1 2009 / France: French History Seen Along the Seine
Medieval Times to World War II, and Much More
A very fine day! First, at Les Andelys, the thrill and joy of hiking a real little trail, all by myself. I found this trail on the small map they had. The others are going to a ruined chateau on the opposite hillside. But I changed my clothes, set out with the map, and rapidly found the trailhead—so steep that it began with wooden stairs—and quickly was high above the river and the boat, then at and above the white limestone cliffs, with a lovely soft pastoral vista to a far horizon.
There were two kinds of orchids, many other flowers, a tiny narrow trail and steep side to my left. At the top, far past the little town and our boat, the trail led by wheat fields and the graceful heavy heads of grain, then down, wonderfully, in moist and sweet air, through tunneled green walls of limestone, the narrow way, filled with ferns and ivy. I am all alone and so happy.
The boat goes again during another horrible lecture by the so-full-of-herself Frenchwoman, and the lunch, and then we are in Vernon and drive a short distance to Giverny and the home of Monet and his various wives and women and their children.
And his garden. I had no idea at all of the astonishing exuberance of this place! Color upon color, form on form, yellow, orange, pink, blue, purple. red. White and green. Living pyrotechnics. If you weren't painter when you got there you would surely need to become one. The lily ponds, and the green curvy bridge and the green boat, the willows, reflections. All images familiar to those of us who know his paintings. I take so many pictures! Intoxicated by form and color.
On the bus back to the ship, I look at them, the images I made there. Maybe I could just try to copy one?
I could try that.
I might maybe try that.
But I bought pictures of two of his paintings—one the colors of his garden and his house almost hidden behind (his yellow kitchen!). But the other one is his house in winter, in the snow and a crow on the fence. Somehow like my boars in the snowy forest, I want to look at this.
Tomorrow it's Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent painted, suffered, and died.
I am going to dress up enough to go get a cocktail, and then skip dinner. My belly is full—much much too full—and I cannot stand another minute of any of these people. And it's not just a minute, either—dinner lasts about 2 ½ hours and I can't tolerate that. And unfortunately there is no place to hide out quietly except in my cabin. But it's nice in here, and I have plenty to read.
I did get gussied up and went for my gin and tonic, but it turned out that one of the passengers, the very sweet and kind man who helped me when I was not feeling well in Honfleur, and tried to fix my camera, has planned a ceremony of giving an American flag to M Heintz. I tend to get very emotional, he says, so forgive me if that happens.
First this lovely man invites any veterans in the group to come up with him, and many of the men join him. Then he pays tribute to the few who did so much for so many, and preserved and saved our freedom, and indeed his voice breaks. He has found a large American flag, and as he unfurls it I stand up, at the edge of the room. The veteran men assist him in folding it properly, and it is presented to M. Heintz, as we all stand and applaud. This was well-deserved, and well conceived.
This man—whose name I do not know as I do not know anyone's name, is married to the absolutely worst woman on the trip, a stupid irritating piece of work. But he loves her and is loyal to her, which I admire him for, I guess.
For a little while I have a conversation with the most interesting person on the trip, Francois somebody, who is the editor of the French National Geographic. I ask him about French national character, and he cleverly turns the question around and asks me what I think. I struggle with this because I of course do not really know any French. Brisk, I say. Harsh. Self-confident. He agrees with these. After the flag ceremony I tell him that this is typical American, because really we are very patriotic, and love our flag. He spent a year at Harvard as a Neiman fellow, and I guess it was the making of him. Tonight, stupidly, I stay away from his final talk, and when I apologize to him he says yes, and he was sorry, because it was the best of them. Stupid of me!
Today we went to Vernon, and that is where Vincent van Gogh spent his final seventy days, living in a tiny garret room, and we are allowed to walk through that tiny garret room, and to take pictures of it, and the staircase up which he climbed at the end of each fierce day of seeing and painting and making.
Also we are permitted to walk in the wheat field, where he injured himself, unto death, filled with overflowing feelings and passions and despair. Eventually I can't stand any more the stupid guide talking about the “weirdness” and “strangeness” of Vincent and his family, and I turn off the irritating voice in my ear. He tried so very valiantly to stay in this world so he could make more, but in the end it overcame him. He was merely a young person, aged 37 years, and he had made over eight hundred paintings.
School groups run with abandon through the wheat fields. M. Heintz presents me with a stalk of wheat, and I see others taking wheat for themselves. In the cemetery, Vincent and his loving brother Theo are buried side by side, their graves covered with ivy and there are pink roses climbing the wall behind. People have left stalks of wheat.
Oh Vincent, do you see us now??
The country alongside the river gives way from fields to city, some ugly under a gray sky, but eventually we come into Paris, and the edges of the river are lined with hundreds of elegant or whimsical or ramshackle houseboats, and I take many pictures as I drink my gin and tonic, dressed in white, black and bright red, and at last and for once it is warm enough to be outside, even if briefly.
But I leave dinner early, bored to the screaming point with the people around me. Too bad if I am being rude. I came here in the cabin and packed, and now finished this.
All kinds of barges—enormous long thin ones—and yachts and all kind of boats keep going by. Outside the city, where we were this morning, there is a whole culture–oh, Conflans is the name of the place—with houseboat church, houseboat mailboxes by the piers, and that.
So I have packed. The Eiffel Tower is on the horizon. A short tour tomorrow, then I hope to go up it. Or at least stand near it, for godssake.
I am bloody sick of being with these people and I am sure they are sick of me!
I have learned: do not go on a tour if there is no place to get away from the rest of the group.
But I think I have also learned about-–or at least am thinking about—doing SOMETHING about color and form.
So now, a shower, then some reading, and the water slops and gurgles against the wall of my cabin. My three portholes look out nearly at water level. I like that.
I would have very much enjoyed having had more conversation with Francois. He is smart, curious, and articulate, aware and interesting. Too bad. But he is at work and I can't hog him.
And I ran under bridges—
And so the day in Paris. I was on a so-called secrets of the Seine walk with one of the so very inadequate guides. She talked a great deal about kings of France and so on, nothing any of us were interested in I don't believe, but then we got to go into Notre Dame cathedral and it was so glorious, so refreshing in spite of the hundreds, no thousands, of people in there. She kept fussing because I did not stay with the group. I walked around carefully, looking at things, the side chapels austere in some strange way though all the ravishing stained glass said luxury or extravagance. But still austere, the stone, the coolness, the organ music, and then a choir of young American girls in pale blue, singing in the front. I would have wished to stay all day but no, we had to move on, “we have another island to do.”
It is really hard for me to believe that this woman in particular is a professional.
There were so many problems with her, such an amateur performance, it just killed me the whole time. Even this morning they did not have the bags organized to be put properly on the bus. Amateur hour stuff, that we learned around Day 2 of tour director training.
But then in the afternoon I went back into the city, and I went up the Tour Eiffel! I must say in my ignorance I had had no idea at all of the sheer gigantic size of it! Its marvelous robustness. How the four corners of its base tilt so sharply to angle it in the the right way, and how massive those bases are. I loved everything about it.
I waited in line for about an hour, in the sun, with everybody else, to get tickets to go up. The thing is so audacious, so beautiful and clever and so very elegant yet lacy. How can something so huge be so lacy? Tres French I think, also the audacity of it. Up we went in the ascenseur, the beautiful girders framing lovely scenes of the streets and the river and gardens and great architectural wonders below, all falling away as we rose, cheerful exclamations in every language.
I only went up a short distance, for there is room for fewer and fewer people the higher you go, and I did not have time to wait any longer. But I joined the hordes of people of just every nationality I should think, standing at the edges and taking pictures, and me, taking them, too.
Below, the black men and perhaps Moroccan or some such walk about with large rings of small metal Eiffel Towers of graduated sizes, a euro each I think, and every once in a while when the stout policewoman on the bicycle comes pedaling through, they scatter swiftly, but not very far, I think it is a game or at least a charade they play with her.
Back at the ship, I sit though most of a dinner—which I believe went on for three hours—but I can’t stand these people any longer and so, having packed the day before, I just get to tuck in, and for the first time, although I have to get up at 5, I sleep through the night.
Well, what have I learned on this trip? that I don’t want to take trips alone with too large a group. That I need to check on guides, and professionalism somehow. That I am not in some ways a city person. I was LONGING for the outdoors, for a tree or plants that were not tamed. The only animals I saw were a couple of butterflies on my hike, and a few bees, some large pigeons and a dead jackdaw I think, black and white, two white cats, one at a great distance and the other near, and an enormous number of dogs. Oh, and some sheep and cows, and horses. Not even a squirrel.
I guess because this has been inhabited so continuously for so many centuries, anything wild has long since disappeared. A pity, for it is lush with rain and would appear to be good for woods and things that live in woods.
I am not sure, at least not yet, what else I learned except that I am certainly ravished by color.
As so many were before me.
All right, now I have five hours to wait here, in the airport, and I will stop. I cannot wait to be at home. I missed them so much. I think I do not like the French very much. Although I admire them, their audacious creativity and independence. I guess that's another thing I learned. I’ll be thinking about that. And about color, and form, somehow.