Sunday, March 9, 2014

we'll always have paris (hold on, it's a long one)

my high school french teacher was an eager young woman who ran around the room pointing at things, shouting 'kes kur say?' 

we played along, shouting back at her in our best eastern north carolina accents that i'm sure a frenchman would have found appalling. 

when she moved on and the new teacher came — a family friend i'd known all my life — he spoke 'real french,' the guttural kind, introduced us to Paris Match and actually expected us to read it, and taught us how to sing carols in french. my last year, i opted out, having enough credits to get me to college, not wanting to disappoint him with my poor pronunciation. (i think i disappointed him more for not taking his class, and that year i would not land a role in the senior play, which he directed. i was not even picked to be a stage hand.)  

in college, i took french again, could do a pretty decent translation, though in my third year, when i showed up to class and couldn't understand a word of what was spoken, i opted for calculus. (the outcome is an entirely different story that involved begging during the final exam...) back in those days, france was this place so far away from my life that i never imagined going there. who would want to visit a place where you couldn't speak the language?

wouldn't you know though, that 25 years ago, my husband found himself working for a French company. and he would visit a dozen times —even spent our 15th wedding anniversary in Paris without me— but never once asked me to tag along. he spoke a little spanish but no french, and you would think he would have liked a helpmate who still knew how to conjugate a couple of verbs. but no. weary, he'd drag himself in from the flight back saying: you'd hate Paris. the people smell. it's just 'so French.' 

but by then i had stretched myself beyond the boundaries of my high school life enough to know i would like to at least make that determination myself. 

i eventually did visit Paris, traveling with him on a couple of trips, staying in a small hotel just off the charles de gaulle etoile with a dynamic view of the arch d'triomphe. i found out that i did love paris, smelly citizens et al, and those two trips are among my favorite memories. i promised myself that i'd return to the city of lights one day, trying to figure just how to afford it.

one day came a few weeks ago, when i left my husband to tend to the dog and boarded plane for a a week in my favorite city, this time with the girls.

we rented an apartment in the 9th arrondissement — Anne Boone, my best friend since 8th grade and two of her friends, who became mine in short order. and for a week, we lived like i imagine a lot of parisians do — beds low to the floor, small furniture, baguettes, cheese and jam for breakfast, and walking. lots of walking.

we timed our trip around a special event — the premier of an Agnes De Mille ballet produced by the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest ballet company in the world. Anne Boone's friend Andy is the executive director of De Mille Productions, and the POB would be staging de Mille's Fall River Legend, a ballet about Lizzy Borden, of all people. we were set to attend on opening night at the Palais Garnier, the home of the POB. (Agnes' brilliance of course gave us Oklahoma!, Paint Your Wagon, Carousel and many others in iconic American theatre.)

a week before the trip, i picked up a novel i'd read about: three sisters who danced with the POB in the late 19th century. i knew nothing about the book, but thought it would serve as a worthy companion on the flight. once settled, i pulled it out of my carry-on, and at the same time Anne Boone revealed her book — The Painted Girls — the exact one i had chosen. as great friends, this happens to us from time to time.

the book would prove the perfect backdrop for our experience, as it is the fictionalized story of three real sisters who danced in the late 19th century with the POB. they lived in the very area where we stayed, and so as we walked the streets of paris, i began to recognize places mentioned and could picture them there.

my favorite museum in the world (so far) is the musee d'orsay. home of the great impressionists, you will find degas, monet, manet, renoir, cezanne and more. degas is famous for among many things, his depiction of the reality of parisian ballerinas at work. he used to hang out at the Opera Garnier and sketch the girls dancing there, trying to capture their pain and fatigue. the model for the La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze An is Marie, one of the sisters in the novel.

oh, how i love a good book, and this is great one, one that took me inside the POB, behind the scenes in a way i could not have imagined had i not read it. when Andy took us to the dress rehearsal for the de Mille ballet, we entered from the back door of the opera house and i could see where Marie might have entered herself. i saw the fatigue on the ballerina's faces — just as Degas did — though their beauty on stage hides it well. 

chagall ceiling
on opening night, i wrapped myself in a fringed silk shawl that had been my great-grandmother's and sat below a painting of Chagall. as the ballet played itself out before me, i imagined the thousands of people who had sat in my seat (or at least the area of my seat) in its 150-year history. the stories that had been told there. the magic that people had experienced there. (i didn't even mention that this is the setting of the Phantom of the Opera, and the box he is said to inhabit is high above the stage, to the left.)

the day before the ballet, we spent an afternoon with a guide at the Musee d'orsay, and for the second time in my life i looked at the face of la petite danseuse. on this visit, she was real to me, and i found myself wanting to sit with her for awhile, and take her in, but the crowds would not allow it.


in our week in paris, we found ourselves trying to speak more french. to be understood, and the challenge was refreshing. we found ourselves reading signs in the metro, saying je voudrais as we asked for our meals, saying much more than merci when someone gave us what we asked.

 i think back almost 40 years ago to that first 'kes kur say?' (qu'est-ce que c'est?)  what is it? what was it about this place i never imagined visiting but now can't imagine not? hope to go again before too long, just to experience it again. qu'est-ce que c'est?

the best answer is this:  allez la-bas et vous comprendrez

ps: i took a few pics (400 or so) and here are a few.

stumbling in on a ballet practice

city of lights

artists Place du Tertre

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