January 26, 2011 My life in Paris thus far has been eventful, to say the least. My midnight trip to the Musee D’Orsay was followed by a week of intensive grammar classes, a daytrip with Columbia to the Champagne town of Reims, where we visited two Cathedrals and took a tour of a Champagne cave followed by a degustation, and a perfect Sunday night dinner of buckwheat galettes with Kylie. I have settled into my Parisian routine, have learned to carry an umbrella everywhere I go, how to make the perfect omelet with lardons, how to rig my laundry up to dry on lines above the kitchen sink.
By the end of the weekend, I was finally feeling at home in this confusing, marvelous city, and boarded the bus to class Monday morning, knitting (as always) in hand and a hidden smile on my all too expressive face. As always, however, I failed to prepare for the unexpected, neglected to account for that flighty, fickle spirit of mischievous adventure that so often intrudes into my already colorful life. If last week was linguistic, Saturday historical and Sunday culinary, then Monday, and especially Monday night, was magic.
I have to preface this story by saying that there was a very famous Monet exhibit in Paris for the past four months. An exhibition at the Grand Palais on the Champs Elysees, it was the largest retrospective in over sixty years and had almost a million visitors by the time it closed on Monday. I had heard about it and was dying to go, but the lines regularly stretched past six or seven hours of waiting, and all of the timed tickets were long since sold out. The exhibit ended Monday night at 9, and, although my grammar class at Reid Hall did not end until 7, I had somehow decided that I had to get to the museum and at least try to get in. I nagged Han, another Hamilton girl on my program and a fellow art history major, to accompany me to the exhibit, and we boarded the metro with excitement on my part and a cheerful resignation on hers.
When we arrived at 7:30, I understood Han’s pessimism: the entrance to the museum courtyard was fenced off, with an enormous crowd huddled on one side, and guards on the other, allowing the elite few in possession of timed tickets to pass. Signs along the roped offline indicated the waiting times from the past few months of the exhibition. We stood just beyond the seven-hour marker. Undeterred, I huddled under a heating lamp and made conversation with the French women standing beside me, who had been waiting for hours, hoping, against all probability, to somehow get in. The guards shook their heads at us, smiling but insisting the exhibit was full, and only open for those with tickets for another hour. At around eight, Han nudged me and said we should go. It was useless, she insisted. The exhibit had been overbooked for months, and we were clearly not going to make it in without tickets. We should go home to our host families, eat dinner, and forget about the exhibit. I would have, perhaps should have agreed, but something inexplicable, some stoke of idiocy or germ of redheaded stubbornness, kept me rooted to the cold ground. I told Han to go, that my host mom would not be back from teaching yoga for several hours, anyway, and that she should just go home and leave me there.
After a few minutes of hesitation, she left, and I, feeling like a complete idiot, asked the woman next to me what we were hoping for, since everyone kept telling us the exhibit was closed. She pointed at the chief guard, who stood directly across from me on the other side of the fence, and said, “he is a defeatist. He sees only black” and then laughed and I, somehow heartened by her absurd optimism, stayed. At around eight thirty, the guards received messages on their handheld radios, and told us (with a typically Gallic mix of sincere regret and vindication) that the exhibit was now closed. Even those with timed tickets, they insisted, could no longer go in. We should go home. The crowd around me began to thin, but by this point I was engrossed in the experience itself, and stayed to see what happened. I may as well stick around, I thought, at least until 9, so that I can say I was there when the Monet exhibit closed, that I gave it my all.
At nine, there were only about twenty of us left. The woman next to me had, impossibly, gotten in as the plus one of a woman with a handicapped pass who had free entrance to the museum. We cheered for her, and then huddled under the heating lamp, hands clasped against the January chill. By this point, I no longer had any justification to remain. But instead of taking this as a cue to go, I simply stopped justifying. A different sort of visitor began arriving, women in floor- length fur coats and men in suits, driven in private cards and holding large blue square pieces of paper with “Monet” emblazoned in silver. The man next to me got past the fence and called after him, amid resounding cheers, “you have to find a VIP to get in!”
Apparently there was an after-closing reception, and those with invitations were each permitted to bring a guest. The woman next to me jostled over to the line and began accosting the visitor, asking each if he or she had a companion. Invariably, everyone did, and I decided I really should leave. I turned back towards the metro, and saw a woman in her early thirties standing in line, invite in hand and without a clear companion. If I live to be one hundred, I doubt I will ever understand what got into me at that moment, whether it was boldness bred out of the three hours of standing in the cold, or lightheadedness from not eating all night, or the infectious, impossibly optimistic fervor of the French who surrounded me.
Whatever the reason, this is what happened next: I took a deep breath, turned to the woman beside me, and asked in French whether she had a companion. I am a student studying art history for a semester in Paris, I said, and there was nothing I wanted more than to see this exhibit. She paused, gave me an appraising look that was impossible to read, and then said “Yes, why not?” And so I walked in with her, past the guards and impregnable fence, into the courtyard of the museum, and up the marble steps. The next two hours were some of the most incredible and unbelievable of my entire life. We talked as she led me through the galleries, and I learned that she was a writer who worked for a magazine in Versailles, but lived in Paris and had parents who owned a vineyard in Burgundy. I told her about my semester, my family, my attempts to learn French, and she complimented my language with a smile.
The exhibit itself was stunning. We walked through eleven or twelve enormous rooms, all of which were lined with Monet upon Monet from dozens of different museums around the world. On one wall stood three canvases depicting the bridge at Giverny, the wooded home where Monet lived and painted at the end of his life. The artist had a habit of painting the same scene multiple times, in different seasons and under different weather conditions and times of the day. One of the versions in this exhibit was from the collections at Yale, another from a private collection, and a third from a gallery in Budapest. I realized this was probably the first time the three had been united since the artist painted them, and a shiver went down my spine. I left the museum at nearly midnight, filled with a sense of absolute elation, giant poster in one hand and metro pass in the other.
I am now sitting in a café beside the Seine, breaking the brittle surface of my crème brulée with a spoon and still trying, nearly three days later, to process this magical night. I do not know what to make of this experience, feel I should take from it some lesson about tenacity and persistence, about following one’s passions and plunging into the unknown. Instead, the entire night seems like some incredible dream, an impossible collision of desire and reality, tinged by the damp cold of a Parisian January, the thick brushstrokes on Camille Monet’s blue gown, the white beam of light from the Eiffel tower that cut through the cloudy sky above me as I walked home. And if I must settle for impossibility rather than realism, for the rough, vibrant stokes of an Impressionist canvas rather than the perfect linearity of a Renaissance panel, few concessions could be more marvelous.