Monday, August 26, 2013


[Warning: a few times during the year an Ocean post grows to be far longer than even the average long one. This may be one of those times. If you don't care for this level of detail, scroll through to the photos and come back tomorrow.]

The title for this post came to me in the middle of the night. A restless night: I was tossing around the elements of the day ahead and I thought -- obsession. That's what I'll want to write about at the end of the day.

Several weeks ago, when I committed myself to four nights in Paris, I thought hard about what a Sunday here should be like. Recurring idea: maybe an escape from the city? And even though they've been saying  -- rain, for sure rain! -- it hardly matters. Rain? That's almost perfect! I will have the quiet that comes with a bad weather day.

I'm writing the post when it's all behind me. Not all of it was a success, that's for sure! But the day had two (separate) perfectly beautiful hours in it. Is there more that one could possibly want out of life?

Back in the days when I stood watering my gardens at the farmette, I thought to myself -- I should do a day trip to Rouen. (The capital of Normandy. Most people know it for the cathedral, painted obsessively by Monet. Some know, too, that this is where Joan of Arc was tried and burned at the stake.)

Looking at the train schedules, I see that the Paris - Rouen train passes through Vernon.

Well now, that's interesting. Vernon is the gateway to Giverny. The hamlet where Monet lived, gardened and painted. Clicking on the Ocean tag, I see that my last two trips to Giverny were in spring. I'm thinking a summer visit would help me re-imagine different ways I might approach my own gardening.

Talk about obsessions! Monet, of course, carried gardening to an extreme, putting his kids to work on weeding and carrying pails of water on hot summer days. But some would say that I'm not so innocent here either: I never made my kids carry pails of water, but I've been known to stand for hours with hose in hand. Or pulling weeds. Or putting in new seeds and plants by the dozens.

And it all was inspired by a visit to Giverny many decades ago. The nasturtium mounds that you see spilling out in front of the farmhouse? That's a Giverny scheme. Mixing cosmos to fill in empty spaces toward the end of summer? Giverny.

I'd read not too long ago that Giverny has a new head gardener (perhaps not surprisingly, brought in from England). Can you imagine the enormity of his burden? To reinvent a garden that will be true to Monet and that will show itself off all season long (lasting from April until the end of October)?

So on this rainy day, I leave my Paris hotel early -- so early that I have to walk two whole blocks (!) before I find an open cafe.

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 It's empty except for one couple at the bar and I don't think they're here for breakfast. As I take bites of my croissant, I witness their intense flirting session over beer...

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...and when I leave, their salutation to me is "bon soir" (good evening) -- as if the evening is just claiming it's last moments.

It's starting to rain harder now and I take out my newly purchased umbrella. From Monoprix which, I suppose, is France's equivalent to Walmart except without that beastly reputation. Up goes the umbrella now and boom! Down it comes again.

It's broken. It wont stay up. I have a whole outdoor day before me, it's raining in the way that let's me know that it's not about to stop and it wont stay up!

There's no choice: I proceed with it drooping down over me. My backpack is quickly wet. I struggle to keep my camera protected. My shoes are full of water as I cross an empty, wet Paris all the way to the Gare St Lazare.

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Alright. The station is just a few blocks past the Opera (above).  The train's on the platform. I board, sit back and assess the damage. I'm carrying my computer and work notes in my pack for the train rides. They're safe. Even though it's only a fifty minute to Vernon, I settle in to work, glancing occasionally outside as we weave along the River Seine, atmospheric even now, in the rain.

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A woman my age sits down next to me. She assumes I wont mind the occasional comment and I don't, smiling at her as she explains that she's out to hike in the Giverny area. Perhaps it's our common age that invites intimacy because as we near Vernon she asks me to mind her things while she goes to do a little pee pee and then tells me, by way of warning -- there's no paper. Trains create strange partnerships.

At Vernon, I board the bus for Giverny.
Roundtrip, please.  
That'll be eight Euros. Eight Euros! I remember when the short ride was just one Euro each way!

As I get off, I pick up a schedule for the return to the station. Say what? Not another one till after noon? How am I going to make my 11:28 train to Rouen??

Not a worry for now though. I am in Monet's garden and it's early and, with the exception of a small group of Japanese tourists, nearly empty. The rain is atmospheric and refreshing to the garden. I am so overjoyed to be here!

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I'll try hard not to flood you with photos of the alleys that cross the yard toward Monet's house. It's all beautiful and the palate of colors runs through  the whole spectrum of the rainbow. I do notice something right away: the head gardener is making heavy use of annuals to carry the garden through the difficult season (as I mentioned back in my farmette postings, the difficult season starts, for me at least, on August 16). There is the cosmos, yes, that and there are many dahlias and zinnias.

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I give an appreciative grin to the flowers of our own golden prairie.

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And then I cross over to the Japanese garden. (You didn't believe me about the rain?)

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You'll see here the group of ever faithful to Monet Japanese tourists with their red umbrellas.

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And now I'm back at the gardens by the house and I leave you with only three more photos -- two of the Grande Allee, with the nasturtium (which, btw, have far fewer blooms than my mounds do -- we probably had more sunshine this year)...

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...and finally,  the beds that lead up to his house. They don't quite hug the house like mine do (to say nothing of the horticultural mastery at work here), but the effect is the one that I love so much -- a house seemingly springing out of a riot of color.

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And then it's over.

I leave completely happy.

Switching to worried. How do I get to the train station in Vernon? I think it's about five kilometers. I pause at the cafe in Giverny to ask directions. I know there's a path to Vernon.

Madame looks horrified. It's raining hard and I suppose I look miserably wet. Take a taxi! She admonishes me. Here, I'll call one for you. It's not that expensive!
I haven't the heart to say no. So another boom! This one of money as it dribbles through my fingers, like the rain dribbling down my back. Never mind. I'll go easy on dinner. Right now I'm in Giverny and the cab driver is the most friendly, chatty person ever and I'm on time for my train to Rouen.

An hour later, I am in this northern city. A first time for me. And here's my advice: never go to Rouen on a Sunday. I'd say, too, don't go when it's raining, but if the tourists from Rouen on the bus ride from the Pont du Gard were right, that leaves you with too few options, so I'll stick with the Sunday advice.

The city isn't so breathtakingly beautiful that it can take the emptiness that closures bring to it. Of course, it was heavily bombed during World War II and so much of it is rather bleakly modern. There are a few pretty streets of timbered houses. But closed stores, closed cafes, closed restaurants all add another layer of bleakness. I almost turned around and caught the next rain back to Paris, except that I saw a beautiful poster advertising a special exhibition at the Musee des Beaux Arts: (in translation) Dazzling Reflections -- 100 Impressionist Masterpieces.

It was probably the best art exhibition I have ever seen. (It helps that it pulled together art that I love with a passion.) Bridges in one room. Seashore in another. In yet another, I was so stunned at the beauty of the theme of painted reflections in water, that I cried. I get very emotional over these things.

No photographs allowed, but here's the brochure.

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After this, I was ready to give Rouen more chance. So here you go, a few of the kinder photos, to give you a sense of the place.

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A view of the River Seine:

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I wont give you the cathedral head on  -- it's being renovated in parts, but here are the towers taken from the side:

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I pause for lunch at a crowded and pleasant place -- one of only a handful that are open on this day. Normandy cheeses for me. And melon soup for dessert.


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And I did also make the pilgrimage to the place where Joan of Arc was tortured and killed. There is a modern church that a Times reporter described as looking like a ship from outer space placed on the old market square. You see his point, though note, too, that the architectural motif should suggest flames.

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Inside, there are terrific old stained glass pieces, saved during the war from a church that was itself destroyed.

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Alright. One more of Rouen:

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And now I am on the 15:53 train, working on my classes,  heading back to Paris.

Dinner? I eat simply, meaning at Polidor, just around the corner from my hotel. It's a good place to eat a wonderful chicken in morelle sauce with mashed potatoes on the side. The waitstaff sometimes has an attitude, but I suppose it's understandable. This place has been going strong for several centuries and they've seen every kind of person sit down and order food here. So forget the lack of pleasantries and order yourself the most yummy comfort food on this side of Jardin Luxembourg.

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My shoes are ruined, my clothes are wet, but allow the cliche -- my heart is full tonight.

I'll leave you with a quote from the exhibition. From Monet:

Ces paysages d'eau et des reflects sont devenues une obsession. C'est au-dela de mes forces de vieillard et je veux cependant arriver a rendre ce que je ressens. 11th August,1908.

(Roughly, by google: These landscapes of water and light reflection have become an obsession. It is beyond my powers of old and yet I want to get back what I feel.)