Inspiration is sometimes hard to come by. You think to yourself “I should be writing something new”. Or maybe you’ll think – Oh my God. I wrote so much better when I was young!”
Yet perhaps looking back over the years, I can see who I was then and recreate those times.
It was the year 1955 and I was 26. It was July and I was on a steamer headed for Europe, taking off a year to actually see the works of art, the places, I had studied. And I was a watcher. Had always been, not really taking part in what was going on around me but observing. I might have been just storing up impressions, or sketching, which of course means analyzing what you are looking at, or trying to catch that “decisive moment” with my camera in a photo that reflects the now but has both a past and a future.
Those were the days when you traveled by steamer, when girls still wore skirts and heels and Dwight Eisenhower was president. I had relatives in Germany, but also wanted to see what France and Italy were like, for there was where the art I had studied had its home.
The days on the steamer went by mostly eating and sleeping, listening to the hum of the motors at night as I lay in my bunk. Water, water everywhere. Then seagulls appeared, circling close with the sun shining on their orange beaks. The rocky cliffs of Ireland rose out of the water as we approached land. The train from Southampton to London gave me my first introduction to England when tea was served as we sped through the green countryside. London. Everything was new as I wandered around, finding a hotel I could afford and smiling as I watched the Englishmen hurrying by, finding it hard to believe they really went around in bowler hats, carrying black umbrellas – on a bright sunny day like today.
I was to meet Leo Steinberg, a friend of mine from New York, and we finally succeeded in contacting each other, despite the fact that his telegram to the steamer had gone astray . So where did we meet? Why at the British Museum. After all, what does an art history student like me do in London? Visit the museums, where the real Van Eycks and Rembrandts take my breath away, but also make me feel at home. A few more days seeing London and on to France.
A night train, a crossing of the Channel. Six of us in the train compartment– 2 English students, 1 French girl, 1 Italian girl who spoke no English or French, 1 Portuguese boy, slender, young – and 1 American, me. The Portuguese boy, very polite and very Latin, got me coffee on the boat and seats on the French train. I felt as if we were immigrants coming to a new land, huddled together on the deck, trying to sleep and keep warm. Herded through French customs, we finally arrived in Paris. It was early morning, the sky had gotten lighter and the early morning mists were soon to be dispersed by the sun. I roamed the streets waiting for Leo, watching French laborers drinking their morning glass of wine and eating hard-boiled eggs. Out in the streets, stocky housewives dressed in black went by carrying big baskets on their shoulders.
London and Paris. They seemed poles apart! One is never prepared for the real thing and Notre Dame and all the statues in the parks as I wandered around set me to thinking of how different it is to actually see and be IN a building, and move AROUND a statue. Statues are after all also a focus, a point of identification, a guidepost in space for individuals to know where they are in relation to some other point.
A few days with Leo, learning about the history of the Louvre and Napoleon, and he was off to Spain, invited to act as guide for a group of elderly dowagers. I was now alone, for the first time, in a foreign land.
Chartres. A magic name, a place to go to on my own. The station Montparnasse has a glass and steel roof like a Monet painting, except he painted St. Lazare – and if I hadn’t ever seen Monet before, what could I have compared it to? Ticket man asked if I was alone – and when I said yes, he gave me the usual quel dommage. Everyone in Paris seems to think being alone is very sad. I’ve seen more people more obviously in love here than I have elsewhere. There was a typical group of Americans on the train – happy and loud. Two middle-aged couples, one young man – all hurrying off to see Chartres and then hurrying back on the next train.
And here we were in Chartres. One walks up a narrow street and is suddenly confronted by the Cathedral. Small old houses huddle around the church, like chicks around the mother hen. Do the people who pass here every day know the porch sculptures by heart or don’t they see them any more? After meandering through the town, I came back to find funeral services being held in the church. Organ peals and chanting voices. Candles, black-clothed mourners – the men in the central aisle, the women in the left. I’d never been to a funeral before, or thought much about death. Is it just a matter of stopping to exist? One old, old man, elegantly dressed and leaning on a cane, skin stretched taut over his skull, I wondered if he was a relative. The cathedral and the ceremony did make a wonderful thing of this mystery called death that was somehow savage in its splendor. Particularly when compared to the poverty of the people in the town itself. A sluggish grass-grown river runs along at the bottom of the hill – houses lean in over, a woman washes clothes, a pipe drain spouts water from another house. It is a crumbling world where poverty reigns. The only sounds of life are music from a radio somewhere, and two women in faded dresses and aprons talking across the street.
Later in the afternoon I started to feel sick. I was no longer aware of my surroundings, no longer a watcher, and concentrated only on where the nearest toilet was. There weren’t any places to sit down. The English were much better in that respect. At least there was a toilet on the train and I spent half the journey going back and forth in answer to the urgings of my poor stomach. After a short station stop, I emerged to find the passengers in my car were no longer the ones I had left ten minutes earlier. Queer nightmare feeling of being lost. Only identity was my coat, which I had left on the seat.
To be continued…