Testimony: Les Impressionnistes en privé

 

On Saturday morning in Paris I rise early
and go to the Marmotten to see
the Impressionist show,
paintings by Renoir and Pissarro,
one-hundred rarely shown masterpieces
from private collections—
Sisley, Cezanne, and Degas.
A light rain is falling when
I leave the apartment and hurry
down the street with my umbrella,
thinking about the paintings I’ll see,
as breathless as if freshly in love
and on my way to a secret rendezvous.
Yet when I come up out of the Metro at Muette
and begin walking in the Auteuil,
the now-elegant neighborhood
where Proust was born,
the Ranelegh gardens are so lovely in the rain
that I linger an hour,
taking pictures of the forsythia
and the cherry trees in bloom,
then crossing the street to photograph
yet another Wallace Fountain
to add to my collection, 
the four Graces
glistening beneath the dripping elms.
When I finally get to the Marmotten,
a stately mansion devoted to Monet,
the line is already two blocks long—
a long weekend line,
“a two-and-a-half hour wait,”
the last man in line—
tall, elegant, with a tweed cap—
informs me. 
I want to tell the Parisians
I admire their patience and devotion,
their willingness to wait in line in the rain
under their black umbrellas
on a chilly Saturday:
it shows how much they love their Impressionists.
But standing under my dripping umbrella
I remind myself that I’m free to come next week.
It might be wise to wait
and avoid looking over crowds of shoulders to see.
I’ll come early Tuesday morning, perhaps,
when I’ll have the museum to myself.
I tell myself I’ve waited all my life—
what’s three more days? Monet will still be here.
I decide to let the day take me where it will,
to let my mind travel anywhere it chooses to go,
“somewhere I have never traveled, 
gladly beyond,” as e. e. cummings put it. 
I stroll down Avenue Raphael—
the neighborhood of embassies and consulates—
past the mansions and gardens
until I find myself outside the residence
of Madagascar’s ambassador,
the bars of the tall black iron fence
just wide enough apart
for the lens of my nosy and curious camera,
hoping to find a chameleon climbing the garden wall
or a lemur sitting on the rail of the balcony.
The rain lets up a little
and I stroll past the Indian ambassador’s house
with its red shutters
and the Italian Consulate General’s
with an Alpha Romeo 159 in the circular drive.
Walking and taking pictures, 
I see peaking over the rooftops
the top of the Eiffel Tower,
a little shyly at first,
then as I round the corner,
standing at the end of the boulevard
like a proud and beautiful woman,
the clouds parting behind her,
the sun making her shine.
Love-struck at the Trocadero,
I dawdle on the esplanade,
then cross the river. On the bridge
I don’t know whether to just stand and admire her
or to take her picture yet again.
I find the end of the endless ticket line,
then shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of others
climb the winding stairs,
stopping now and again to catch my breath,
talking with honeymooners from New Jersey
and a man from Amsterdam
who tells me he comes to Paris every spring
and climbs the Tower.
On the crowded windblown viewing platform
I am handed a camera and asked to take a photo
of a four girls from Japan
with their backpacks and souvenir t-shirts.
I close one eye.
Behind the girls’ faces and blowing, silken hair,
I have coincidentally though perfectly framed
the hills of distant Montmartre
and the white Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris,
Sacré-Cœur looking down at all of us
and offering blessings. After a time
I walk the observation deck alone,
separating myself out,
as I sometimes do in crowded museums,
when I wait for the rooms to clear
so I can look at a painting up close, undisturbed.
A little tired, I lean on the cane of my umbrella
and look from the tower to the west—
dark, racing clouds and sunlight falling
on the rooftops of the Auteuil
and the distant green forests of the Bois de Boulogne.
From this great height and distance,
I can’t see the English-styled gardens and lakes
and can only imagine
Marcel Proust walking there as a child,
trailing a little behind his mother and father,
his mind secretly taking
every detail, every raindrop and blossom, in.