Friday, June 13, 2008

from Giverny, France: cloudburst

Well, they said it would rain. Clouds and big drops of water, plastered all over the little image of Thursday on the weather site. But I had no choice! All remaining days here are accounted for. And Thursday is for Monet’s garden in the village of Giverny. Besides, rain and I are friends. I’m used to getting wet, used to protecting my camera, used sloshing around in drippy pants.

The skies don’t look too threatening. Initially. By 7, I am on the commuter train to Paris and by 8:15, I am on the train out of Gare St. Lazare. Watching the landscape grow darker as we zip due north.

And now I am in Vernon, the closest station to Giverny. From here you take the bus. Last time, I walked. An hour’s hike. This time, I got it into my head that I should bike.

I’m in a mild hurry. The gates open at 9:30 and I want to be there before the usual avalanche of impatient souls, each wanting everyone else not to be there. I pedal fast. It’s a crappy bike, but it is cheap. The savvy monsieur at the station bar-café offers me a special deal! And I am a sucker to take it! Who else will rent from him on this soon to be very wet day? Of course, monsieur assures me “it’s a new velo!” Right. Utterly believable. It got messed up in shipment, that’s all.

Two minutes into the ride, I notice that the seat falls back every time I go over a bump. I can handle it! I am in a hurry! I wont even pause for a morning café crème avec pain au chocolat and there isn’t much on this planet that will keep me away from that routine.

I’ve arrived. I’m inside the gardens with only 350 people sharing the narrow paths with me. Which is way better than the sunny day in July when I swear, there were 10,895.

So what! It remains a splendid place. Both in concept and execution. It always seems so fantastically random, even as it isn’t random at all – it’s painstakingly well planned.

I am between flowering seasons again. Spring is over, summer hasn’t taken hold. The roses are still blooming, but the irises are gone. Poppies dominate. Nasturtium are so nascent as to be invisible. Water lilies are just beginning, but they’re plenty beautiful already. Sit back now and revel in the abundance that is Giverny:

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Ninety minutes later, I am done. I sip my grande crème and consider my options. The hike to the next village seems silly. It’s gray and damp and I am unlikely to enjoy a forest slosh. I grip my bike and head out to the top of the hills behind the village of Giverny.

And it starts raining. A little at first. Heavily within minutes. I challenge you to try this: to work a multispeed bike with a lopsided seat up a hill, while protecting your camera and holding an umbrella.

At the top, I am spent (and I admit to getting off and pushing the damn bike up at least half the incline), wet and mumbling things that a person of good standing should not be mumbling, even in the middle of nowhere.

But I grow quiet quickly. Because it’s sort of pretty up here. And I can imagine that the Monet family must have run up this hill often enough, to get away from terror dad who made them carry heavy cans of water to sustain his garden dreams.

And then I see the poppies in the green fields of grain and I am enchanted, because for me, this pastoral scene is sublime. (Up there with Normandy cows.)

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Admittedly, the excursion did not end majestically, on this high note. For one thing, I had to get off that hill and there isn’t much that can be said for zipping down in the rain at a rapid pace without a bike helmet. (The French will not wear bike helmets casually. Given their love of biking, it is a complete mystery to me why they avoid this very basic protection.)

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In the last stretch, while crossing the River Seine, my chain disengaged and I spent a wonderful 10 minutes contemplating the traffic, the river, the train schedule and the sad state of affairs with respect to the bike.

And now I am off the train and in the city. I could have spent the rest of my day in Paris, but I have had enough of cloudbursts. I poke around Les Galleries Lafayette, buy a sack full of beautiful but overly expensive foods and take the train home. I couldn’t wait to find out if Aurore and Olivier's daughters had had a good day in school.