Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Night Crossing, Paris Streets and Rouen's Musee de Beaux Arts

There's a kind of magic, a tangible feeling of the land being wrapped in something other, different, like entering a fairy story, as soon as the shore on the other side of the water [La Manche] is reached. I don't feel it so strongly now but still feel it. The first time – and it was dark then too - jumped straight up into my imagination, scented and lamplit, first the soft glow of the batons held by the harbour guards at Calais, to guide the cars coming off the ferry and later, the straight dark roads, as we headed south west, the trees lit by the yellow headlamps, these roads had their guardian poplar trees accompanying them. The sheer luck of being waved on by trees, whispered over by trees as the road went on and on. The roadside cafés, the lamps and of course the language. And it's all still there, it comes rushing to meet me, each time I cross the water. There was – and still is – a sense of belonging somewhere different, maybe even belonging in the fairy-story, true home being magical and so – an undercurrent of laughter, sometimes bubbling up.
When I was very young I don't think I was too aware of living on an island. But as soon as I had left it, then, I knew. Each time I leave it now, it's a return to that other place, other self, even – other land of self, entering the magical and other land, as soon as the other side of the water is reached. The north side of the stretch of water has nothing of romantic in it, it is the path of commerce only. There are the rough-hewn steps and blatant props of travel. Rusting cranes by docksides, splinterings of wooden crates, a sheen of oil on water, stench of old and mouldering coiled ropes or nets. No perfume, no distance. Bilge water, old oil, tar and detritus of greasy wrappings ripped and plucked apart by seagulls' beaks. But once on the other side, the south shore, there is the vastness of a continent beneath your feet, that you are joined to. A sense of allure like a lightly fingered treasure casket.
Night crossing.
Waiting at the ferry terminal, flocks of birds rose, strangely silent, spinning like pieces of paper caught in wind. Bright as flecks of foam, tattered flakes catching the beams of light from the string of lamps between ferry and the lines of trucks and cars waiting to drive on.
The water rocks the ferry as if it's determined everyone should sleep, but I'm not sleepy, listening to the regular swoosh of the water, like a thick black whale breathing, with its white foam breath.
The wind on deck is fierce and wet, tearing at clothes, hair, slapping at bare skin.
Because I didn't sleep overnight I'm tired. I wander up Boulevard Magenta, past the Marché de St.Quentin, and the Déjeuner café, down St. Martin, past Notre Dame and a crowd of hunched pigeons, and along by the Seine, with change for the homeless man and the two sleeping puppies.

When I meet up with C she takes me to St. Sulpice, buys me a book by Catherine Clément, and then back to her amazing apartment on rue Vaugirard, every room piled with books. Every room is an office, she laughs. She was the President of the French Byron Society and tells me of someone, whose name I forget, who came to give a talk and claimed to be wearing Byron's ring. 'But how could that be? she said. How could he come to have Byron's ring? Surely they did not sell it? The British, she says, I'm sorry to say this, but the British can be so mercantile.' A truly delicious description! We have an aperitif of port, sitting at a tiny table with a brass tray, books piled all around us, and she then makes soup and lentils à la Auvergnoise.

I wanted to visit the Flaubert museum, but it was closed for renovation. So I went to the Musée de Beaux Arts, where I have never seen so many Impressionist paintings all together. Apart from many Sisleys and Monets – including of course, his Porte de la Cathédrale de Rouen - there was René de Saint-Délis's Le Port d'Honfleur, with light striking the water.

Leaving Calais, the sky was storm grey, but here too, there was a line of light which must have jumped around a cloud, to hit the water.

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