Balancing painting, parenting, crafting and book loving one day at a time...

Balancing painting, parenting, crafting and book loving one day at a time...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Remembering "April in Paris"

I've been thinking alot about Paris lately.  My mother-in-law just went there for the first time in her life with her best friend, as a way to celebrate 50 years of friendship.  How great is that?!  in talking with her about where to go and what to see, I've taken myself back to the semester I spent there as a college student studying art.  The time I spent there would change the course of my life.

I first went there in with my college boyfriend, to join him after his semester in France.  We took advantage of the low exchange rates of 1985, where you could buy a room at a 2 star hotel for the low price of 10 francs, or $10 a night!  $1500 saved from a semester of working bought me 6 weeks traveling across Europe, staying with friends and friends of our families.  When I returned (sans boyfriend, we had broken up ) 2 years later in 1987, the exchange rate was not so good....a coffee in a cafe (pre-Starbucks era) cost me about $4.00, but I spent alot of time there writing in my journal and sketching as it was a relatively warm and cheap way to pass the time. 

I attended a somewhat unreputable school called the Paris American Academy.  When I was researching American art programs in Paris where I could study art, there were not that many.  This fledgling program wooed me with an admissions "tea" at a wealthy patrons home in upstate NY.  They showed us photos of a beautiful period building where our school would be, along with the classes that would be offered, the fashion shows we would be able to attend and the field trips we would be traveling to.  I was sold!  Thousands of dollars in tuition later (no financial aid was available for this school), I bought a ticket, packed my bags and flew to Paris .  I took the cheapest flight on Iceland Air, and sat next to a Icelandic woman who slowly drank herself across the ocean and left me with an Icelandic coin to remember her by.  Stopping over in Rekyavik (which in May was a bitter 32 degrees), we flew on to Luxembourg, our final destination.  The airplane food was amazing: fresh fish, yogurt and fruit, and served by the blondest, most beautiful stewardesses I'd ever seen...very Nordic!

 Being cheap, I decided that I'd take me and my 4 months of art supplies and luggage on the train from Luxembourg into Paris, another 2-3 hour trip.  Unbeknowst to me, we had to stop someplace in France and have our ticket stamped.  I got off the train, left my bags with some nice seatmates and went to wait in line.  When I got back the train was pulling away with my luggage!  At this point, after almost no sleep, and hours and miles of travel under my belt I started crying and trying to remember how to say, "Stop the train" in French.  After a hysterical explanation to the confused conductors trying to understand my broken French, I got on another train and rode into Paris.  I DID get my luggage back, after getting the third degree.  I then went out into the pouring rain at 11 pm and took a taxi to my airplane seatmate's hostel recommendation for the night.  I got out with all my luggage and walked up to the 3rd floor of the hostel.  As I reached the middle of the winding staircase, the lights on their 2-minute timer promptly went out! I went in and put all my stuff down and sank into an hour long bath, pondering my future semester. 

It was a weird time for me, as this was my big chance to finally study the impractical study of painting I had always wanted to pursue.  The art department at my liberal arts college was full of professors who touted abstract thinking over real life drawing and painting skills.  Plus, I had no respect for my fellow students who could not draw and were more interested in philosophizing about their art than actually learning how to draw.  My training in Paris was pure "Academie Francais".  We drew from life until our professeur deigned us "ready" to move onto painting.  We mixed paints in their original powdered form, so we had total control over the paint--this was not paint from a tube!  We were told to think about our art, and if we got stuck, to go and have a coffee in the cafe and come back and look again at our art, then think again.  It was so different from my fast-paced, get-it-done American way of thinking.  It changed me. 

Each day I went to the same patisserie and ordered a "pain au raisin", sort of a raisin cinnamon bun.  Then I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens and through a few alleys, past several patisseries with gorgoeus impeccable desserts in the window until I came to the Rue St. Jacques. 

There next to the improbably huge Val-de-Grace (a 19th century hospital complex) was a tiny atelier with 3 floor walkup.  This was my school.  The total number of students was 35.  Most of them were fashion students, less than half were fine arts students.  There were a couple Americans, but most were from all over; France, Australia, England and Taiwan.  My roommate was a spoiled, rich, bored Californian, who was there more for the experience than for really learning art.  She was a photographer and turned out to be not so nice. 

I wrote in my diary, and moped through the first months (I was missing my boyfriend who was supposed to have come with me to France to study)....but eventually I made some friends and took advantage of my rare chance at a life in the city of light. 

I ate pate.  I wrote bad poetry.  I wished I could draw better and tried, but mostly I wasn't able to do as much as I wanted, as much as I dreamed of doing.  I held an easter egg hunt with friends in the Luxembourg gardens.  I tried to bargain shop in the "marches" (open air markets) of Paris, and ended up with deals, because every time I paused to do the math in my head, or walked away because I couldn't figure out how to say the word in French, the shopkeepers would lower their prices for fear of losing me.

I sat in cafes, writing in my journal.  I read Hemingway, and tried to write diary entries in his style.  Like a good English major, I read all the important writers who lived in Paris in the 20's and 30's.  I read Hemingway's Parisian memoir "A Moveable Feast" which I bought at the famous American bookstore "Shakespeare and Co."  I bought $5  bottles of wine and smelly camembert and ate baguettes fresh from the bakery on my walk home from school. 

After a while, my French got better.  I learned to argue back when the ladies at the post office rudely asked me if I wanted stamps as if it was a challenge.  I called home, inserting franc coins into public telephones at the post office.  I saved enough to go on a bus trip to Venice for Carnival, where I got sick then lost my companions and wandered through the crooked streets in a makeshift costume, feverish, lost, but in total amazement of the spectacle before me.  I drank hot wine from paper cups while Italian boys touched my blonde hair and spun me round in a dance, caught up in the music of the moment. 

To earn extra money, I took a babysitting job and got paid under the table.  I tried to communicate with a 4 year old boy in broken French.  It was humbling. 

Towards the end of my time there, I drank too much wine at a party and began speaking without thinking.  My teachers told me I should drink wine more often, that I spoke French better when I did.  My last week there, I stopped in a shop on the commercial strip along the Champs-Elysees.  I conversed in French with the clerk who asked me where I was from.  I told her to guess.  Dutch?  German?  Russian?  she guessed and guessed, but never guessed "American."  My American accent had become indetectable.  I had done it.  I was a Parisian.


  1. Great post, Jill! I enjoyed reading it - nicely written. By the way, have you ever watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset? Two great Paris movies - romantic, yes, but I watched them by myself because - well, you know how it is when you have to choose a movie with your husband, although I do think Aaron would enjoy it. But it might be more fun to watch with girlfriends.

  2. Wonderful and priceless memories. You should do a series of paintings inspired by this post.