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 On the other hand, the man who used to sell his artwork outside the fancy boutique below my window had been replaced by a group of women offering massages, and a tiny property down the block had become a bustling two-story Uniqlo.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.