How to be French pt. 8: Rue St. Maur

“He has the saddest eyes,” Harry said, crossing his arms over his chest and staring hard at the self portrait of Vincent Van Gogh.

I hadn’t noticed his eyes yet, as I was a little preoccupied trying to contain my astonishment at beholding the self-portrait of Mr. Van Gogh. All I could do was keep praying that I was actually there, standing before one of the most beloved artist in history.

“He’s never looking at you, like he’s trying to avoid eye contact,” Harry continued. I went and stood next Harry to see his perspective. The blue and white patterns of the self-portrait matched his sad eyes, and I found Harry to be correct. The portrait didn’t pierce my soul or see right through me as some self-portraits seem to. Van Gogh was avoiding my eyes even though I couldn’t seem to tear my gaze from his.

We stood in front of Van Gogh’s self-portrait for ten minutes maybe, longer than some other tourists who came and held their smartphones right up to Van Gogh’s sad eyes, snapped a picture, and continued.

How could something so magnificently beautiful make me so sad? It was like I could feel for Van Gogh and the thoughts going through his head. But maybe that was what made it magnificent: this man’s oil-painted eyes refused to meet my gaze and that drew something out of me. Frustration, maybe? Or something resembling my own sadness for his wondering eyes.

It was only our second full day in Paris and I had already felt like we had become accomplished art snobs just by spending a few hours in Musee d’Orsay. D’Orsay used to be a train station, which added a certain modern charm to the place. The other exhibits were beautiful, but honestly, I think we were only there to see the Impressionist exhibit: Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Pissarro, and Renoir. Van Gogh, however, was on a whole other level---somewhere between painting emotion and depicting the world in such a way that made everything dance. There should be an “ism”  for that.

We had a week to see everything we possibly could and we were off to a fantastic start. The day before, we had climbed the Eiffel Tower in heavy fog. It felt like a dream, standing at the top and trying to see Paris below. We were truly lost in the clouds above the city and it was eerie and exciting all at the same time.

We saw countless pieces of art: “La Joconde” (Mona Lisa) by daVinci, “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix at Le Louvre, where we also got hopelessly lost and probably spent the second half of our time there trying to find our way out. There was “Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies” by Monet, Van Gogh’s sunflowers and self-portrait at d’Orsay. My art-loving soul actually could not handle it and by the end of our museum escapade, we collapsed in a heap of colorful history, too tired to even be young and free and go wander the City of Light at night. But we were satisfied and felt accomplished, and had increased our art history trivia ability tenfold. We were also happy to be breathing air that moved and was not completely museum-stagnant.

After getting our dose of art history, it was time to hit the books: Shakespeare & Co. was calling our names.

If there ever is a bookstore in heaven, this is what it would be like. It’s charmingly small and so stuffed with books that you can practically see the poetry and the paragraphs leaking from the windowsills and coming up from the floorboards. Upstair there’s a piano and more books and a typewriter. All of which combine to make one of the sweetest melodies that only someone who has spent half their life lost in a book can hear.

Someone was playing a composition I was not familiar with when we walked up upstairs, but it was a little sad and beautiful, reminding me of Van Gogh. Someone else sat at the typewriter, clacking away at some poetry. There was the quiet shuffle of footsteps on the staircase and the turning of pages. See? How sweet a song is that? All that was missing was the hiss of espresso, BUT there was a cafe next door so that meant this really was heaven.  

We sat for a little while in the small room with the piano. Harry had picked a book about Irish Folklore to skim through---very fitting for him. I had picked up a book of different love poems, also very fitting.

Our goal at Shakespeare & Co., aside from becoming literature buffs, was to find a book for the other. It took me almost an hour to decide on which book I thought Harry would enjoy. We had the same taste---anything by Tolkein or C.S. Lewis or some other glorious fairytale was always a good bet.

I settled on The Song of Middle Earth by David Harvey. It was the one book about Tolkien I was sure he had not read.

We bought our books and got our official Shakespeare & Co. stamps and practically skipped out into the street. We chose the Luxembourg Gardens to enjoy our books.

I think the Luxembourg Gardens are my favorite. I have never seen such a dramatic change in the color of the leaves, as I did there. Brilliantly yellow leaves littered every inch of the ground. I had to subdue my childish instinct to reach down, grab a massive handful of leaves, and throw them at Harry. There was a fountain with a crowd of little kids racing small toy sailboats, and I think it almost killed Harry to not participate. We watched the little boats delicately catch the wind and glide across the water, kids shouting cheerfully as their boat made it across the entire fountain.

But we were in Paris, after all, so the most civilized thing to do seemed to be find a decent place to read our books. We tore ourselves from the excitement and sat down in light green lawn chairs with a nice view of the palace and the boats. A little  hesitantly we exchanged books because books can reveal a lot about someone.

Harry presented me with The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz. Hafiz was a Persian poet who wrote much about God and love, so naturally, it was the perfect book for me. I have not been able to put it down since I started reading it in the park, and I am pleased to say that Harry was equally as excited about his book on Middle Earth.

We sat in the park for an hour maybe, enjoying the chilliness and reading aloud some of the poems and bits of our new found treasures. I can’t think of a better way to spend a week is Paris, getting lost in the art and the words of it all. I was sad to leave the park, mostly because it was hard to determine when I would get to go back. But it was one of those perfect days that you don’t wish to spoil with thoughts of tomorrow or with petty worries of the future.

So we left the park that was still perfect in the moments of the falling leaves and the laughter of children, of poetry and of boats gliding across the water. We would let that moment be, let it breathe in the fall air, as we went in search of some coffee to keep our hands warm.