Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sometimes you've got to become fierce about guarding your light.

I've always loved the ugliness of Gargoyles. I've had one guarding my cookbooks in my kitchen for years. He's ferocious-looking, crouching atop a stack of Food & Wine magazines. His eyes bulge. His mouth is parted in a snarl, as if he'd gobble up anyone attempting to get at my French onion soup recipe.

Many people have commented on my ferocious-looking protector, wondering why on earth I keep him. I like what he stands, or rather crouches, for. (I’ll also admit that my French Onion Soup recipe is pretty darn good.)

So of course I looked for gargoyles in Paris, their natural home. I found them everywhere! Gargoyles glaring from hotel porticoes and grand arches, staring down from Paris’s unique apartment quadrangles. Peaking over courtyard doorways. But especially, gargoyles guarding churches. It’s possible there are more gargoyles in Paris than anywhere else on earth. The most famous residence for gargoyles is, of course, Notre Dame cathedral! Situated on an island in the Seine, the Ile de la Cite, the cathedral and it’s famous protectors are the literal heart of France – the point from which all distance in France is measured.

My first glimpse of those famous profiles was after dark, when their grotesque visages are wonderfully lit against a night sky. But we visited again – and again – during our Paris week. We were drawn back via the Left Bank while browsing the book stalls along the Seine. Notre Dame was in our gaze from one of the bridges in the shadow of the Cathedral, the Rue de Pont Arch and the Pont St. Louis. We glided beneath the flying buttresses and gargoyles on a river Batobus. And we rested in the square in front of the cathedral in the shade of France’s great unifier, Charlemagne astride his charger and yes – beneath the gargolyes. From every position, a chorus of gargoyles with every manner of fierce visage, glared upon us. It was comforting.

Gargoyles were the rage in Medieval Europe. Contrary to the notion that they represent the devil, Gargoyles were created as tangible symbols to ward off the evil spirits and the dangers of the world. And there were a lot of dangers back then. For centuries, through famine and plaque, through invasions and political turmoil, light and hope came from God and the church and the view was long-term.

The peasants, who build Notre Dame literally by hand, began it in 1163 with the hope that their great, great, great, great, great great grandchildren would live to see it dedicated. It took over two centuries. Know anyone these days with that amount of hope in the future? Thanks to Victor Hugo’s almost single-handed effort during the 1860’s to save the crumbling façade with his “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we can see those gargoyles in their full fierce glory today.

Perhaps the gargoyles are a fitting symbol for all of us working to find and hold our own light in this day and age. As a writer, I find that there are now so many ways for our thoughts to be diluted; for original expression to be polluted. You could say the influence is good – or terrible. Everyone who can tweet or string a couple of prepositional phrases together now assumes they are a great writer. Anyone with some technological ability announces that they are now a great marketer – regardless of whether or not they understand brand relationships, strategic positioning or have much in the way of the world’s wisdom. It’s gotten rather crowded with amateurs.

I’m thinking I need more gargoyles to protect my light. Gargoyles are not just the province of the old world. You’ll find them on the great cathedrals of America and on many of our public buildings. In fact, those of us who frequently travel through Denver’s new DIA airport are comforted by the presence there of a few of these protective beasts. Know where to find them? Next time you find yourself in baggage claim, look around. What you find may not just guard against lost luggage!

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll start by relocating my gargoyle to my desk.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Light and Great Expectations.

Few places really live up to our expectations. Paris exceeds mine.

I know, I know. In a literary sense, great expectations go more with London than Paris. Too bad. I've never been to London, but now I've been to Paris. It's better than I hoped for and probably slightly more than I deserve.

I can only write about what I know, reaching for the light with both hands.

Our first full day dawned late, gray and rainy; just the weather we expected from a late March day in Paris. It didn't matter. By 11:00 a.m. we set out for the sunlit spaces and dreamy days of impressionism at the Musee d'Orsay; into the world of late-nineteenth century Paris and the invention of French modern art.

Zipping pass the soggy ticket line as we waved our nifty Museum Passes, we entered this historic train station turned museum and pushed upward. First stop, the top rooms of Impressionists and Post Impressionists....Renoirs, Monets, Chagelles, Manets, Gauguins and Van Goghs. I've been in the great art museums of Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Russia. But to go to the place where artists reinvented how light appeared on canvas.....

I made a point of going to the Musee d'Orsay as an artist and not a tourist. It is said that the Musee d'Orsay on a spring morning is a writer's church. They say that to pray as an artist...you do what it is you do. So I prayed by soaking up the light, writing a near perfect “prayer.” I chose to focus on the thousands of points of light...as paint....in a Pissarro. I found the Renoir of which I dreamed, and tried to replicate quite unsuccessfully, as a girl in high school art class. It is said that “Those whose expectations are God’s, will never be disappointed.” He didn’t intend for me to be a painter.

I dwelt on the fabulous, light-drenched color of the Gauguins, painted in Tahiti. It is a place to which I have actually been. I can now honestly say that he captures the soul that is French in the spirit that is Tahitian. At last, I understood his mocking journals and took his words with, yes, a grain of salt. I discovered, (as Eric Maisel, the writer and writing coach notes) that Gauguin was a gentle soul who did not withstand well the criticism of the established art world.

The artist in me was sobered by the fact that Van Gogh never sold a single one of his paintings during his lifetime. Some of the best writers this world has ever known wrote in Paris, and never found an audience for their words. I remind myself that one does not stop praying just because the object of my faith cannot be definitively proved. So I pray my way.

So, focused on the light was I, that I have already forgotten where we ate that night. I intended to record it, but the romance of a pink-yellow sunset (indicating a better day tomorrow) and glimpses of that signature tower, took the name of the cafe out of my memory. It bothers me. I only remember the delicious bread, the tender lamb shank, the “Frenchness” of the ideal rose wine carafe, the perfect apple tartlet with soft cream.

It will have to be enough; more than enough for a day in Paris. My expectations are exceeded and I decide to be kind to myself.

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Monday, April 6, 2009

Salt. Lots of salt.

That's how the Paris trip began. Who would think that our journey to the city that made light an aspiration would be made possible by the lowliest of minerals?

Sometime in the early hours of March 25, thousands of pounds of that crystalline stuff was liberally spread on roads so that we could make it to the airport and our plane could make it down the runway. Before daylight this spring morning, a classic Colorado upslope began dumping snow, on the very day we planned to begin our Parisian adventure. If you've never experienced an upslope blizzard, you've missed out on adventures in continuous snow-shoveling, tree branch-rescue, snow-shoeing for food and survival for days without heat. Until recently, Colorado hasn't been much for plowing roads because the old-west culture was -- “It'll melt!”

Once at the airport, it was a nail-bitter as to whether our flight out would survive, or join the list of canceled flights. It wasn't. A couple of de-icings and news that ours was the last flight allowed out, and fate took over. We made Chicago, met up with Nic and departed over the Atlantic, landing early Friday morning for our adventure in Paris.

The difference between Paris and the wide-open spaces of Colorado that I call home, is a real mind adjustment. Where I live, you can see one hundred miles from my favorite writing cafe, to the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. But Paris....Paris surrounds you, envelopes you, infuses your soul in a way both fragrant and gritty, that I haven't experienced before.

It does this, even though it is, physically, a small city; only twenty Arrondissements laid out like a pinwheel. Arrondissements one through eight of this cookie-cutter-shaped space hold most of the attractions for which Paris is renowned; from the Eiffel Tower to the major museums, the Arch de Triumphe, the river Seine and the great cathedrals. We stayed in Arrondissement 15, bounded on the west and north by the Seine, only a block from the Port de Versailles metro stop.

First impressions: it's an easy city in which to get around. Truly, Paris is meant to be strolled, but if your shoes hurt, your partner's back is protesting, or you want to cram more than three things into a day, you take the metro. It's warp speed, clean, handsome and using it, you're right there with the locals. You can get anywhere and if you get a metro pass as we did, you zip in and out, switch gears from the Latin Quarter to a museum and back again. The U.S has such a loooooooong way to go.

Take it easy your first day or you'll miss the next morning. We were so energized that we set out for the Place de la Concorde to pick up our Museum Passes, retrieved our Metro passes, had lunch on the Rue St. Honore, met our niece who flew in from Edinburgh on her way to Rome and took her to dinner in the shadow of Notre Dame. It was a lovely little Alsatian place on the Saint Louis en I'lle, but we nearly fell asleep in our soup! Nic, for his part took time for lunch with a friend at the American Embassy and he's the one who got up at 4:30 am. to make sure our niece made her metro connections for Rome. I knew we'd raised a gentleman! It was 10:30 am, Saturday morning, before the rest of us roused. From that moment on...we set an exploration pace on Paris.

Even if you never eat bread – eat the bread. The French are so serious about their baking that in culinary school, bakers-in-training have to decide if they want to become a bread-baker or a pastry baker. Seriously! Each morning Nicholas has trekked the couple of blocks from our apartment to the bakery to await it's opening, returning with croissants still warm from the oven. They are so exquisite that they melt in your mouth with the strawberry jelly we liberally spoon on to them. Katie, for her part, buys entire baguettes and carries them around in her back pack to nosh on between museums!

I've gotten both good and bad comments from people about this trip. Most are happy for us, that we have set out to share a precious celebration of discovery before our family moves to its next stage. To those who express concern about this trek in the midst of economic turmoil, about justifying it when my marketing contract work is down, about picking a place that could appear too exotic in today's new realities...to these nay-sayers I say, if not now, when? I've economized all my life..when it wasn't fashionable and when many of you were not. I guess I have always “yinged” when others “yanged.” We prayed about this trip...and now was the time, for us. This adventure says the four of us believe in our future, whatever it holds.

Marcel Proust noted that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

In my case, my new eyes have found an unlimited resource of light....for writing ideas, places to write and small moments to write. But technology, in the form of a malfunctioning transformer, prevented me from posting anything after my first few twitters because my laptop batteries, instead of recharging, were drained dry and would not recharge. (No, my i Phone and Blackberry friends, I don't have an international phone, or a fancy one, so there was no twittering without that transformer.)

So think of this as the one week delay, sort of like old post mail, from a friend who's wanting to share the flavor of a new landscape and the discovery of my new eyes.