Monday, December 26, 2005

European Escape Part II: SerendiParis 

I arrived in Paris on Thursday to find that the Ambassador Opera, the hotel I'd booked on Expedia, had “no room at the inn”. Apparently, they had a tour group extend their stay and were all booked up.

As skeptical as I was at this excuse, they told me they were sending me to a sister property that was two tiers up in quality. I wasn'’t much in a mood to complain when I found myself at the Hotel Lutetia in the heart of the ritzy St. Germain-du-Pré district.

I called K. to let her know that her end destination had changed. She, Koert, Kecia and baby Chiara were coming in on the train from Amsterdam.

After everyone had gotten their various acts together, we headed to Chez Omar for dinner. The Moroccan staff was completely smitten with Chiara. Every single waiter had to make a pilgrimage to our table, ask how old she was, make faces at her and grab her little hands. It was cute. After gorging ourselves on couscous, we sent the Amsterdam crew back to their hotel to put the baby to bed and K. and I set out on one of our many city walks.

We love walking about foreign cities, learning the local transport and rarely take taxis. In fact, when we're on vacation, we generally lose weight because we love to see cities on foot. Perhaps it is because we're New Yorkers. (According to Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, the average American walks less than 2 miles a day. New Yorkers walk a lot more than that. Heck, K. beats that just walking to work.)

In any case, we set off down the Boulevard Sebastapol for a two to three mile jaunt back to the Lutetia. Being that it was about 10pm, most things were closed. So it was hard to miss the fact that as we approached the Rue de Cygne there was light flooding out from the windows of a corner storefront on our right. It was an art gallery and its door was standing wide open. We peered in and saw what at first glance seemed to be something like a show devoted to either outsider art, primitivism or both.

Primitivism is not normally something that I have much interest in and outsider art is something I have little experience with; but I think both K. and I felt a potential adventure coming on and so we took an extra long look in the window. As we scanned the room, both of our gazes alighted upon one corner where there were works hanging on the wall that appeared to be some sort of mosaic or collage. They also had a metallic gleam that might have been the result of using metal or possibly glass.

We decided to take a closer look and so we entered the gallery and began to scan the walls and as we approached, the pieces were quite odd and also alluring. I could see that while his work was totally original, I felt underlying it were traces of Giotto's geometry, a sense of Munch'’s figures, the movement of Van Gogh'’s landscapes, and a sui generis cosmology akin to that of Blake.

Now that'’s a lot to lay on someone, but the point is I could sense in the work that this was someone who was doing his own thing, but with a strong knowledge of the masters who had come before.

As we spent time with each piece, we both ended up gravitating back to a particular piece: a tree of life simply titled "arbre"’, which sat on a lovely midnight blue background.

I found the artist's name, Thierry Martin, on the wall and a price list nearby, but I couldn’t figure out which price matched the work in question. It was clear that the works on the wall were no longer in the order in which they had originally been hung, presumably as the result of some recent sales.

As I cast about to figure out how to sort out our quandary, I noticed that the back section of the gallery contained a table and a group of men, women and children socializing. Pistachios were being eaten, beers opened and it felt as though I had chanced into the "family meal" amongst the staff of a French restaurants after service has ended.

I approached a woman and asked if she could tell me anything about Thierry Martin and his work. She looked at one of the men at the table, smiled and said, "You can ask him. He's Thierry Martin!"

An elfin man of about 50 stood up to greet us. He had cropped graying hair, a stubbly beard and smiling eyes. Since K. speaks French and I do not, we moved fluidly back and forth between English and French. Thierry spoke French which Kat translated for me I responded in English - which he understands perfectly - and then Thierry would respond in French again.

Our first question was what was the material from which he was fashioning the pieces? Having seen them up close, we had settled on their being collages, apparently from metal. In response, Thierry grabbed a backpack and pulled out a work in progress. It was indeed metal scraps that he was alternately gluing and nailing to the wooden surface on which he works. Then he reached into his bag for the real surprise. He pulled out an aluminum can of Bavaria beer which from which he had cut the top and bottom and flattened it into a rectangle. "This is what I use,"” he explained. "This is what the tree is made from."

Wide eyed, we walked with him over to the work we had been admiring and he showed us which parts of the Bavaria beer can he had used to make each section. A red dot had become abstract fruit. Sheaves of wheat around the logo had been made to resemble leaves. A motif of alternating silver and gold lines had become, artfully torn and placed, variegated tree branches.

K. and I looked at each other and found ourselves giving each other “the nod”. For those of you who have been in long relationships (we are pushing 14 years), you know what the nod is. For those of you who have not, it works like this. You have decided something. You look to your partner to see if they are at that very moment looking at you to determine if you've reached the same decision. If your glances meet at exactly the same moment, you exchange the glance that you've established which means, "Yes". In our case, especially when it comes to art acquisition, this is a time honored practice.

Thierry, sweet man that he clearly is, began to well up. He had his daughter photograph us together (the children scooting about the gallery turned out to be his) and then gave us a photocopied book of some of his recent works that also included an image of him in his studio. "I only have this one copy,"” he said. "But I want you to have it. I will make another."” He said he was proud to have his work traveling to New York City and we told him we were delighted to be offering it a home there.

With many handshakes, smiles, goodbyes and waves we completed our transaction and sauntered out into the cool evening Parisian air with our new purchase wrapped up in bubble wrap and firmly tucked under my arm.

We sauntered home, admiring various buildings and glowing from our happy, chance encounter with the nice people at the gallery. When we were a few blocks from the Lutetia, we hit a point where I was forced to take out the map and navigate. We seemed to have two equally good paths to the hotel and I couldn'’t easily reckon which was preferable.

It was at this point that a night denizen of the city spotted us. "Where are you trying to go?"” he asked in a friendly way. I looked him over with a New Yorker's suspicious eye and pegged him as a gay hustler. I was certain he was looking for a few bucks (or francs, or I guess Euros, really) and that there was some sort of a scam about to issue for from his mouth. He was fashionably dressed and looked like he’d just popped out of a nearby club.

I did no’t want to answer, but K. said, "Rue Raspail."

"Where on the Rue Raspail? It'’s just over there, but you could go either way." I was feeling frustrated because I COULD SEE THAT ON THE MAP and was feeling unusually proud of my navigating skills and his input seemed both unnecessary, unwanted and maybe cheating to be told the answer to the problem I was on the VERGE OF FIGURING OUT FOR MYSELF.

"Hotel Lutetia,"” K. told him. He proceeded to explain that we could, in fact, use either route; and that it was roughly the same distance, regardless. I KNEW IT, I thought to myself. He bid us a loose and cheery goodnight, having done his good deed without requesting any money. I was thinking all of a sudden that I had misjudged him when he turned around and said very loudly, "WAIT!"

We turned and he zipped back to us excitedly and said, "“If you go take the left here and go on the Cherche Midi you will pass the best boulangerie in all of Paris!" K. and I looked at each other in shock. We asked him what it was called. He stood there for a moment racking his brain. "“Oh, what is it called? It's this place. The prime minister used to buy his bread there. It's very famous. It'’s… It's… POILANE!" He looked at us victoriously, wished us a good stay in Paris and set off again on his way with a proud stride.

I had horribly misjudged this man. He was clearly an avatar of the boozy Patron Saint of Foodies. While we don't know this saint's name, we'’ve met her prophets before. Once in our neighborhood on the Upper West Side, a drunken woman overheard us discussing hamburgers and marched up to us -– as much as one can march when one's feet are arguing with each other over which direction is straight ahead - to declare that the best burger in The City was hidden in the Parker Meridien on 57th Street. "“It's haaaard to fiiiiind,"” she slurred. "It'’s hidden behind the front desk. You pretend you're going to walk by the desk and then you look left and you;ll see a dark passage with a neon sign at the end. Best burgers in New York. The Best. Abso-fuckinlutely. Ya."” And then she stumbled off. We were skeptical that Burger Joint existed. But it does. And indeed, as the prophet foretold, it rocks.

So realizing what had just befallen us, we followed the angel's directions to Poilane and noted its exact location so as to return with Koert and Kecia. Oh, the wonders of Poilane! Rustic apple tarts that completely exploded my prior definition of the item in question. Pain au chocolat that was just unfair to its American relatives of the same name. It was wondrous.

Our Paris weekend included other adventures: trips to the Louvre and the Musee d'Orsay (one of my all time favorites); crepes and hot chocolate hither and thither; a late night screening of the disappointing Corpse Bride that was chockablock with American students; and lots of great conversation and visiting with Kecia & Koert. But these are the gems of serendipity that I most treasure in my travels.
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