All travel stress aside, Paris was great. After all the traveling and work, I spent a lot of time that Friday in my hotel room, catching up on some drawings and listening to TV dubbed in French, with the tall windows thrown open to let in the fresh air and sunlight. I can’t believe how early spring came in Paris, compared to New England.
When I did venture out the remaining days, I was overwhelmed by all the spring buds, tulips, and blossoms in every courtyard, garden, and neatly manicured tree. It felt like May, not the first week of April. It was so nice to walk around and not need a coat!
The first evening, after I cleaned up following a long day of travel, I met up with Dave Douglas, one of my best friends, and a world traveler and talented painter. He and his husband have moved around a few times; they started in Chile, spent several years in Haiti, and just got stationed in Paris (tough gig!) Dave’s husband is a Chilean ambassador, so they move around every few years. At this point I think Dave knows Hebrew, Spanish, Creole, and French. Not bad!
That first night, we went to one of the best restaurants in the Marais, Chez Marianne, and ordered as much as we could off of the menu. It was so nice to kick back and hear what Dave had been up to over the last year, and to just spend time together like we used to back in college in between studio classes. We both ordered a Coke - looking to indulge in an innocent way after all the moving around (they were still staying in an Airbnb shopping for apartments after only moving to France the week before). So a nice cold, fizzy, sugary soda was exactly what we needed with our Mediterranean smorgasbord. One of the funnest parts of hanging out with Dave is that we will riff on a funny idea until it becomes completely outrageous and we break into uncontrollable giggles. At one point this was when we discussed what would happen if, when a server came to collect unfinished food, we ignorantly pretended that they actually wanted to eat our leftovers. So when they ask, “Are you all set?” say, “That’s all you, dude.” or “Killlll it!” This doesn’t make any sense and would actually be incredibly rude in practice, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
Other activities that we did together were getting ice cream with Dave’s husband on Saturday afternoon and then hitting up BHV for various purchases, shopping at the Sunday market at Bastille and then checking out a gallery in the Marais, getting crêpes, and shooting the shit on Monday night (my last night there), with (more) crêpes and making fun of the punks zigzagging around on electric scooters. It was so much fun to connect in a place that Dave and I both know intimately, but from different times. I lived in the Marais in the winter/spring of 2011 while I was studying there through Wells College, and Dave spent the better part of a year in the same neighborhood only a year later, doing a residency, where he first met his husband. We had talked about a lot of the same things, and had also discovered some of the same things independently, but had never experienced them together. It was also just refreshing because traveling internationally can be stressful, especially for work and with multiple countries in one trip, so spending time with a familiar face helped me see Paris in a different kind of familiar way.
Dave was also starting an intensive French language course, so during the day, when I wasn’t in the hotel, I ventured out to some of my favorite spots, mostly on foot. I did a long walk by the river on Friday afternoon/evening, and definitely walked along rue du Rivoli for way too long thinking it was parallel to the Seine and planning to cut over to Notre Dame, when I realized I was very far off track and had to make a sharp left. Along the road toward the cathedral, I grabbed a caprese sandwich, had it heated up, and then sat in front of Notre Dame admiring the view at dusk. On a whim, I decided to go inside. There was a service in process, so I only took a couple of covert photos and otherwise just listened and admired.
Another day, I took the train out to Père Lachaise, walked by my old language school, and parked myself in the cemetery to do a drawing for several hours.
On the way home, since I had finally figured out my Navigo pass and had unlimited rides for the week, I got off at Palais Royale/Musée du Louvre. Palais Royale is one of my favorite spots, and it was bumping with frolicking Parisians and tourists alike. I did another drawing, from the vertical striped pillar sculptures, though it got quite chilly and my hands started shaking. On the way home, I soaked up an amazing red sunset, on the river and by the Louvre. From there I headed back to the hotel on the train.
At some point, I sat by my old apartment building and did a drawing of the old water fountain at Square Charles Victor Langlois. Doing a drawing there has become a bit of a tradition. It’s part ritual, and part hope that I will run into my apartment host from back in the day. I always note that her lacy curtains are still in the living room window, but have yet to see her. I lost her contact info, and while I have sent her multiple letters, have not heard anything back. I suppose this is one reason to keep going back to visit the city :)
On Sunday night, I had spent quite a lot of time in the evening working on some drawings and photos, so decided I should go out for dinner. I was a bit homesick by that point, so I went to Breakfast in America, which as you might guess, is a diner based on the American breakfast. They play American rock and roll and have what you’d expect: pancakes, milkshakes, and burgers. I got pancakes and ate by myself, perhaps more quickly than necessary. I was a bit anxious because I didn’t really know what I should speak - English? or French? - and because I was one of only two customers and I hadn’t brought much to keep myself occupied. But it was still good to fill up my stomach and take a break in a place where I could feel some muscle memory.
On my last day in Paris, I had a goal in mind. There are so many parts of Parisian culture that are all about etiquette, and despite having spent 6 months living there at various times, I have never quite mastered the art of cafe culture. There is something very intimidating to me about sitting down at an outdoor table and expecting service, when there are so many little things to mix up. To build my confidence, I read through an article written by a Parisian about all the things to make sure to do and to make sure to avoid, and then decided to test it out at a café down the road from where I used to live, where I had dined several times in a group but never solo. On the way, I bought several postcards, and then made a beeline for a seat that appeared open and set for dining. It’s important to choose a seat that is set with flatware if you are expecting to eat, and not a table set only for only drinks.
Luckily the server was incredibly kind and patient, and he did not once take pity on me and switch to English. At this point, my pronunciation is decent, but my listening comprehension is pretty spotty, so it’s pretty common for someone to expect that I am more fluent than I am, and then the conversation comes to a halt when I have to admit, “Pardon… plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” But getting through the entire transaction without a bump was very reassuring to a person who has not had the occasion to speak French consistently since my last brief stay in France, four years ago. Still got it!
After that, I went back to BHV and bought some colored pencils for Dave and me, and then sat in Place des Vosges and drew one of the fountains until the park closed. It was a whirlwind 2.5 weeks, but by that final evening, I have to admit that I have rarely felt so at peace with where I am, and so sad to be leaving to go home.
Dave and I had our final crêpe that evening, and then said goodbye. I packed up while chatting with Chris over Skype, and then called it quits because I had to leave for the airport at 4:30am. By the way, the prevalence of video calling these days is such a blessing. When I was studying abroad, my family and boyfriend at the time used AOL instant messenger’s video chat feature. This was almost 10 years ago. But it was always such a relief to have and rely on. Throughout this trip, I used Skype in the same way. I looked forward to hearing what was going on at home, and to see Chris every night, hanging out in our living room or lounging on the bed. That level of connection kept me sane even when I was stressed and feeling unusually anxious with all of the pressure of work and solo travel.
The flights home were less stressful than some of the earlier legs of the trip, aside from having trouble updating my family where I was during a layover in Lisbon. This was also my first time in Portugal! I looked for a Harry Potter book in Portuguese in one of the shops but was not successful. The views for the plane were astounding - so many cliffs along the ocean! I’ll have to actually visit one day.
I’m back home now, and unpacked, and happy to be home. Another travel chapter comes to a close!
Rotterdam was lots of fun, though rather rushed. My coworkers and I flew out of Warsaw Sunday night, and arrived at our Airbnb around 10pm. We worked the next three days, and then left Thursday morning.
The Airbnb was very sweet; a charming Dutch home with lots of eco-friendly touches, a cozy living room nook, steep stairs, and several bedrooms. There was even a back patio, but it was quite cold while we were there, and we often weren’t back until after dark.
One thing that was interesting to compare between Dutch and American culture is that Dutch shops are often not open after 5pm, and many restaurants are not open until lunch time (especially on Monay morning). We figured we might find a restaurant in that morning to grab a snack before work (we hadn't had dinner the night before), but nothing was open. I kind of like this - it means the people who are staffing these places are not expected to get to work super early, or stay late after normal business hours.
Though it did make it hard for me to go on a mission to find the Harry Potter series in Dutch :D I ended up ducking out during lunch on Wednesday to find a book shop. I had also hoped to find Chris a Virgil van Dijk national jersey (he plays for Liverpool FC), but it was tricky to find a shop that sold jerseys that was open after work. I did get the books, but not the jersey. I’ll have to write a separate post about my growing multilingual Harry Potter library.
On Monday night, we went to an excellent restaurant close to work called Mangiare (we’re in Groothandelsgabouw, next to Centraal Station). They don’t have menus, and just share what they’re making given the ingredients that are in season and available. I immediately was taken by this mouth-watering process being done over and over: putting freshly cooked pasta onto a giant wheel of cheese, swirling it around to absorb the cheese, and then serving it. I did not hesitate with my order. We also got a vegetable appetizer, wine, and I had a chocolate lava cake for dessert.
On Wednesday morning, I also went for an early morning walk to the kubuswoningen (cube houses) and Markthal (Market Hall), which was a refreshing way to start the day. I was able to get a few photos of the architecture not at night. I am also flummoxed by the cube houses. It seems like there must be a lot of underutilized space along the sloping walls? But it still seems really neat all the same. Like, you could attach a chunk of wood at the base of a wall that is sloping outward, and stack/lean books along the wall (until you get to a point that is out of reach).
That evening, we explored the interior of Market Hall and had dinner, interestingly at an American restaurant. My coworkers are Polish, and the server happened to be Polish as well, but a lot of things around us were in Dutch, and I was heading to France the following day, so I was very disoriented.
On Thursday morning, we left our Airbnb and carried our luggage to Cafe Booon, where we had pastries before hopping a train to Amsterdam. We were very down to the wire with timing, and just barely made it onto a train in time to still check in and make our flights. I got on the train very sweaty and uncomfortable and irritable, but a nice ride through the Dutch countryside, passing windmills and farmland, was helpful in cooling me down.
I parted ways with my coworkers after checking in (they were flying back to Warsaw), and picked up a couple of souvenirs for my niece at one of the airport shops. I actually almost missed the flight because I got distracted writing work emails and only heard them calling my name over the speakers as they were closing the gate. Oops. We had a really time-sensitive interview process happening back in the States, and I was putting some finishing touches on that before the US team arrived at work.
I did some drawing on the plane, and then when I arrived in Paris, got pretty turned around. I have a terrible sense of direction, and although I had brought my Navigo card (reloadable train pass), I couldn’t get it to register at the airport kiosk, so I just purchased paper tickets. It’s always a bummer when you feel like you should know something by now, a local sees you struggling, and then helps you. (This is what happened.) I think it’s less the language barrier, and more that I am terrible with trains and maps. I’ve definitely gotten lost in NYC and Boston and Warsaw, not just Paris...
I got off at Gare du Nord, and let me tell you, if you’ve never felt the panic of feeling trapped *inside* a train station, then you haven’t known panic. This would only happen to me, mind you. I did several laps of the entire shopping area, trying to find a kiosk to buy tickets for the regular train, but kept running up against the turnstiles that require you to validate a pass before passing through. I was ready to hop something and make a run for the street level, and just lug my terribly heavy luggage a couple miles to Bastille (where I'm staying), when I made a breakthrough. Really I just discovered an escalator that led to a ticket kiosk.
I had also remembered that Parisian train stations almost never have escalators. While this shows how old the city is, it is not accessible to people with different levels of mobility. Another fun note: I was wearing heeled boots and a giant sweater and coat because my suitcase was so filled with books by this point that I could no longer fit my clothes. It was also a beautiful spring day, about 70 degrees. So by the time I had lugged my luggage up and down and up again (btw it was rush hour at this point), I was extremely sweaty and miserable.
When I arrived at my hotel, the person at the reception desk could not find my name in the reservations, and I had a moment of further panic where I thought I didn’t even have a place to stay. But luckily, with me trying to explain the best I could in my rusty French, we located what was needed. The key wasn’t ready, but I was able to conduct a successful conversation with the manager on the phone later on (second languages get way harder when you’re problem solving) and get one set up. PHEW!
I’ll leave the rest of the Paris trip for another post, but figured the split Rotterdam/Paris day was a bit of a blend so that should stay together.
Nous étions dans l’ombre de la chaleur d’août, légèrement séparés. Tu fixais à la ligne d’arbres, et il y avait quelque chose éclatant qui tremblait derrière eux, peut-être la source de la chaleur elle-même. Derrière nous, une voie ferrée s’étendait en ligne droite à traverse le paysage plat, miles et des miles d’herbe brune et raide en toutes directions. Il n’y avait rien autour de nous.
Tu attendais quelque chose au-delà des troncs d’arbres, et je te regardais pendant que tu regardais la lumière derrière eux. Alors que tu faisais les cent pas, d’ici à là, de temps en temps tu regardais par dessus ton épaule à la voie ferrée. Tu portais un chapeau à larges bords avec un cordon, qui protégeais le dos de ton cou du soleil. Le soleil qui tapait du ciel, blanc et sans couleur dans la chaleur.
Tu avançais vers moi. Tu te penchait la tête dans la mienne et nos doigts frôlé l’un l’autre. Nous avons lacées les doigts, en respirant si profondément que nous avons fermé les yeux. Tu as caressé ma paume ouverte avec trois doigts. Je me sentais les durillons sur le bout de tes doigts pendant qu’ils glissaient sur les os de mon poignet.
J’ai traîné un doigt le long de ton avant-bras et c’était comme l’éclairage lente d’un match. Tu as pris ma main dans la tienne et tu as apporté mes jointures à la point de ton nez. Je me sentais une paix au-delà de tout que je m’en avais senti avant. Je me sentais plus proche à toi que je ne m’avais jamais senti avec une personne dans ma vie. Je savais que nous ne pouvions pas rester dans ce place. Mais je posais ma tête sur ton épaule, et nos mains ont tombées doucement entre nous, relié délicatement.
La ligne d’arbres était encore devant nous, la voie ferrée derrière nous, et je savais que tu ne pouvais pas exister avec moi totalement, en ce moment-là, jusque la lumière au-delà les troncs avait été révélé à toi. Ou jusqu’à un train est venu et nous emportés loin d’ici. Mais j’étais contente d’être ici, avec toi, tout de même. Et tu penchait ta tête vers la mienne, en passant tes lèvres sur mes cheveux pendant que ma tête est tombée dans la creux de ton cou. Je pressais l’oreille à ton clavicule.
Je courrais mon nez le long de ton mâchoire, quand j’ai reconnu qu’il y avait des miles et des miles entre nous qui nous empêchait de véritablement se tenir les mains. Nous n’étions pas à coté de l’autre sur un coté de la voie ferrée, mais sur des cotés opposés de la voie ferrée, en attendant un train de nous connecter. Et les arbres ne poussaient pas devant nous, mais entre nous. Nous étions sur des cotés opposés d’un forêt immense, en essayant désespérément de capturer la lumière papillotant de la coté opposée.
je voudrais mettre mes chaussures où il mets ses chaussures
quand il les enlèves à la fin de la journée
je voudrais m’allonger sur le sol et lever les yeux vers le plafond
je voudrais tenir ses peintures
et peindre avec ses pinceaux
je voudrais lancer mes doigts le long de ses bras
et lui donner la chair de poule
je voudrais plier ses vêtements
après avoir fini le linge
et les mettre dans son tiroir
je voudrais laisser toutes les lumières allumées
et m’endormir à côté de lui
Here are a couple of character mockups for an illustration project I'm working on with my father. No spoilers, but one day we'll share more!
It has been such a busy month! Only a week and a half after the marathon, I took a week long trip to Paris with my family. This was good timing because after training for 5 months, I had that empty "now what?" mind block. And of course, it was such a wonderful feeling to be back in a place that I associate with some of the happiest memories and most enlightening experiences of my life. I explored old haunts and new favorites, and saw familiar shopkeepers and new faces. For instance, the man who runs my favorite book shop "I Love My Blender", which specializes in English books that have been translated into French, was still there and puttered quietly while I browsed. And the owner of the calligraphy boutique "Mélodies Graphiques" was still at his desk amongst dozens of beautifully addressed letters. On the other hand, the man who used to sell his artwork outside the fancy boutique below my window had been replaced by a group of women offering massages, and a tiny property down the block had become a bustling two-story Uniqlo.
Something about Paris makes me want to draw everything in sight. I am sure part of it comes from a desperation to keep a record, the same way every person who sees the Eiffel Tower is obliged to take out a camera (or, nowadays, a selfie stick) and get at least 3 dozen shots of their witnessing its immense size. It's the touristic impulse.
But I'm curious about this urge to draw whenever I set foot in Paris because there is no other place I've ever been that has elicited that response to such a high degree. Does it come from the fact that Paris is so deeply entrenched in art history? Entire neighborhoods have been home to groundbreaking artistic movements, and sometimes you can feel what I can only describe as a centuries-old creative contagion causing the city's occupants to continually record its charm and grandeur. And this is only advanced by the volume of work available for viewing by thousands of world-renown artists, whose masterpieces are displayed in dozens of exquisite museums across the city. And perhaps the architecture has something to do with it. While Paris has changed drastically since the Impressionists occupied Montmartre, it remains an unmistakable city. The buildings are consistently five stories high, the roofs so recognizably rounded, the many double windows so tall and wide and shuttered and screenless, the many cobbled side streets narrow and winding. One cannot look at a snapshot of a Parisian street and not recognize it as Paris. And besides the history and aesthetic, there's that uniquely Parisian mood about the cafes. Sitting between those narrow mirrored walls before a tiny table set with all kinds of dining accoutrements, or luxuriating outside with a heat lamp and a cigarette in the dead of winter conjures up visions of Toulouse-Lautrec and Hemingway.
My honors thesis at Alfred had been about using sketching to find familiarity in the strange (living in Paris) and strangeness in the familiar (returning to New York). But upon returning to Paris for the fifth time, a city that at this point has played the role of both vacation destination and home for me, the root of the urge to sketch shifted. This I felt most while I drew the park in the courtyard of my old apartment; I was not simply familiarizing myself with the unfamiliar, nor was I just looking for peculiarity in the familiar. Rather, I was kind of doing both. Some things had changed, others hadn't, just as I had noticed throughout the neighborhood, and as I drew I almost felt like I was taking inventory.
This process I suppose could be labeled reacquainting. Like revisiting a childhood home after renovations or a campus after a new generation of students has moved in. The climbing and riding equipment on the playground had been replaced, and the surface of the play area was new too. But the sand box in the far corner was still protected by the same structure with chipped red and blue paint. The well-dressed Marais toddlers playing in the square were the same age, but they were a new generation; the kids that had played there in 2011 were probably all in school now. All around, some things were similar, others different. But at the same time, when I looked up at my old living room windows, I was struck by the overall sameness.
Anne-Katerine's lacy white curtains that she used to pull back while smoking in the evenings were unmoved. They hung limp and delicate behind the glare of the glass just as they had when I was a student peering out from behind them four years earlier. I used to sit in a wicker chair at the window sill while I drank my morning tea. I had even drawn this very square from that window when I was sick and too symptomatic to go outside. Before dinner, Anne-Katerine would ask if I had any new drawings to show her, and we would lay out my sketchbook on the living room floor. I remembered all of these things and felt comforted by the idea that Anne-Katerine was still living there. Because while I had moved out, returned to school, graduated, moved to the New England, and held down a job for three years, the woman who hosted me for six months in a foreign city was right where I'd left her. Perhaps her life was different now, maybe she had retired or re-married or even just gotten a new cat, but she was still there.
After an hour or so, I had finished a drawing of the playground and was about to leave, when I looked up at my old apartment and saw that the window had been opened. My heart leaped, because it had to have been Anne-Katerine who opened it. After all, it was the same set of curtains. Perhaps she had even looked out over the square and seen me and just not known it was me, before going back to the kitchen to start dinner.
I didn't know what to do. I half expected to see her hand resting on the bars with a lit cigarette. I wanted to say something, but I knew it would be rude to call on her unannounced. And besides, a pass was needed in order to gain entry into the building to ring her bell, and I had lost her phone number years ago. I sat for a moment and considered if I should risk an attempt to pop in, but decided it would be best to stay outside and simply call up to her if she appeared at the window again. After all, it wasn't that warm of a day, so she would close it eventually.
While I waited I drew the face of the building, which glowed yellow in the afternoon sun. I took my time defining each window, each brick, and each gutter. And then, for a few seconds I looked down to carefully draw the roof's edge, when she must have returned. Because when I looked back, the window was closed shut. I panicked, and with a sinking heart realized I had missed my chance. If only I had looked up a second sooner, I could have spotted her and hollered. I held out hope that if she was shutting the window, perhaps she was heading out, and for the next 20 minutes, I finished up my drawing and paid close attention to anyone who used the apartment gate, just another thing whose familiar long squeak and clang rang with sameness. But I finished the drawing, and never saw Anne-Katerine exit. I wrote her a letter and sent it to the apartment the night before my return to Boston and included my email address in hopes that we could get back in touch. But so far, I haven't heard anything.
Paris is a special place to me, because it opened up my understanding of the world, which had been quite limited to upstate New York. Returning can feel like returning home in the way that visiting the house of a beloved relative feels like coming home. It isn't home, because it isn't yours, but you have such an intimate understanding of parts of it that it reads like home. You see its contents and consider its occupants, and it just makes sense. It is comforting. And yet, it doesn't belong to you and parts remain unexplored.
Returning to Boston, I am comforted by the city that truly is my home. It can be a little anticlimactic, descending from the clouds to see a city that is not host to the Louvre, nor Notre Dame, nor the little vintage shops that are filled with those French boat-necked striped shirts, but Boston is its own kind of romantic city. It is manageable and not so far from my family that I need a plane ticket to see them, yet it is also full of similar caliber museums and monuments and history. The banks of the Charles aren't the banks of the Seine, but running along the Esplanade and seeing the Harvard rowing teams glide by provides a wonderment that is distinctly Bostonian.
And because I am a Boston transplant, the city is still novel for me; I can still get excited about exploring Boston in a way that mirrors my thrill in Paris. I have relationships here, and I have responsibilities here, and I have roots here, but there is still so much I haven't seen here. So while it was bittersweet to bid Paris farewell once again, I return refreshed and inspired by what fueled me to draw Paris all week. I look forward to carrying that energy into some Boston drawings next, and wonder if I will be finding familiar in the strange, strange in the familiar, or if I will be reacquainting myself with places I haven't visited in a while. Thanks for the fresh eyes, Paris!
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Brookline, MA.