Of Solitude and Beauty
June 28, 2013
And I did return. With my daughter, 40 high school students and ten sponsors in tow. Although the trip’s official description included extensive study of European art, culture and language, most students were there for one reason: legal alcohol consumption, and when we emerged from Parisian Metro tunnel our first day in Pigalle, while the girls were attracted by the “high fashion” surrounding them, most boys were oblivious to the “wares” being offered, intent only in finding the well-known Les Deux Moulins to toast their newfound freedom.
By the end of the day, another sponsor and I had worn our way through the sandals we wore.
Because they had not been thoroughly conditioned, my tennis shoes, for that day only, remained in my bag. After walking through the decadence of Pigalle, climbing the hills and halls of Sacré-Cœur, wondering at the stained glass of Notre Dame, browsing the bookstands along the quay, and rushing through the local markets, she and I declined the opportunity to take the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, choosing instead to walk the streets of Paris without our other 38 companions. We explored Saint-Germain, searching for the souls of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Sartre and de Beauvoir. I believe we would have caught a glimpse of them at Les Deux Magots if it hadn’t been for the crowds of tourists rattling their Armani and Rykiel bags like Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas past.
One pair down. Lighter suitcase. More room for my prints, wine and gargoyles I had begun collecting.
Since the search for history’s lost souls in Paris had been fruitless (though I believe I caught a glimpse of the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette in the pout of one of our younger students who had grown weary of Parisian art and culture by the time we descended the marble staircase of Versailles), I extended the invitation to the same-cosponsor to spend a night searching the beaches of Antibes. She politely, albeit succinctly, declined.
I darted in and out of the clubs and cafes that night, choosing to return to our hotel along the beach, hoping to at least find a lost pearl from Sara Murphy’s long strands or a wine bottle discarded by Picasso, pausing long enough to sketch my first attempt at art for the first time since becoming an art teacher at a small community college. Nothing.
No ghosts, even as I spent hours strolling the Promenade des Anglais searching traces of Chagall and Matisse in Nice, explored the hillside near Eze searching for the herbs and fauna Marie Antoinette chose to create her own perfume, or Monte Carlo listening for echoes of Puccini near Garnier’s Opera House, though I did make a photo of a bird of paradise while listening to strains of 007 movie themes at la Jardin botanique that I would later integrate into a series of canvas based loosely upon abstract birds.
Since I had failed to evoke even one glimpse of eighteenth century French aristocrats or nineteenth to twentieth century American expatriates, while at Pisa I had hoped to channel the Pisano brothers, only to hear taunting echoes in the drip of the Baptistery waters. And at Assisi I had hoped to assimilate Giotto’s angular yet softly human figures in my own work, though I believe I saw a glint of the saint in the tears one young man shed while kneeling in front of the reliquary as he honored the request of his recently deceased grandmother to light a candle and say a prayer for her.
By Florence, I had walked myself quite thoroughly into a deep, soul-wrenching cough, worsened, I am sure, by the waves I had baptized myself in those few nights earlier along the beaches of Antibes. My daughter and I missed the side-trip our other companions took to the frescoes of Sienna, losing ourselves in the streets of Florence instead, eating lunch at the foot of the imitation of David; discovering blown glass, hand-stitched journals, and finely woven tapestry in the market stalls; and stumbling upon the Fontana del Porcellino. We believed we had seen a shadow of Alberti scampering along the embracing scaffolding among the historical preservationists working diligently on the Santa Maria Novella, but the sound of the chisels, hammers and saws drowned out any lessons in perspective I may have received from him.
While my cough may not have improved in the mists of the Arno, my own tour-weary soul had been revived by the solitude and beauty my daughter and I were able to bask in, and she was quite proud of her new pink pair of Gucci’s.
By the time we descended on Rome, after climbing the steep Spanish Steps seeking Keat’s companionship; tossing our obligatory coins in the Tivoli while making our wishes; trodding the steps of popes, artists and saints in the Vatican; and chasing the chariots of gladiators through the Coliseum, I had failed to encounter many ghosts. But my tennis shoes smelled like something had died in them.
My parting act: leaving them beside my bed in the quaint inn in the Palatine hills.