[Memories of Paris] The Artist in Montmartre

Street Art in Montmartre

By the time we reached Paris, I’d more or less given up on my admittedly silly fantasy of capturing the heart of an impossibly handsome British or otherwise pleasantly-accented man during our two-week adventure across the pond.  I still made an effort to look presentable each day — we were in Paris after all — but the uncharacteristically cold and rainy weather coupled with my growing ennui translated into comfort taking a slight edge to cuteness in my day-to-day dress and make-up efforts.  It’s probably worth admitting that, at a few days into our Parisienne adventure, I was feeling the effect of having sacrificed all self-control when it came to our appetites.

Despite my somewhat gloomy mood, I was excited to visit Montmartre — the artist’s haven on the outskirts of Paris.  I had vivid and lovely memories of a nighttime visit more than a decade before.  I’d had my portrait drawn by a cranky, wizened old woman who only gave me a discounted price only because I’d overheard her give it to someone else, and she’d cautioned me not to tell anyone else what a bargain I was getting.  I’m not sure if that was some sort of reverse psychology form of viral marketing or not, but, for fear of angering the mysterious Old Woman of Montmartre, I do believe I kept what I’d paid a secret.

I remembered the view of Paris from the steps of Sacré Coeur; it was clear and cold, and the lights of the city were glorious and have probably only become more so in my memory.  The cathedral had been closed by the time we made it to the top of the hilly district, and visiting it this time — and climbing the 300 steps to the basilica for an even better view of the city — was high on my list of priorities.

Of course, the day I decided to take on this venture, the rain let up, and the sun came out, and I found my loose-knit sweater becoming rather warm during the ascent to the top of the cathedral.  (The view, by the way, was well worth the climb, and 300 steps go quickly when you’ve got gothic architecture and gargoyles keeping you company along the way.)  My sister, suffering a cold, had opted to sit quietly in the atrium and write letters to her friends back home.

By the time we reached the center of Montmartre — requiring more ascent and descent of steep hills — I was sporting what might qualify as slightly more than a pleasant, dewy glow.  I was feeling the pastries we’d had for breakfast, as well as the absence of water (water bottles took up space and added weight to our already full purses, and thus often got left behind).  In short, I feeling rather round, rather sweaty, and rather unattractive.

But we’d reached my favorite part of Montmartre, so I ignored my self-consciousness and focused my attention on the myriad artists in the tiny square.  Some sat quietly; others shilled relentlessly.  Some looked shy; others looked proud; and yet a third category seemed to simply exist in a state that took no notice of the throng of tourists oohing and aahing over the various artistic efforts on display.

As we walked, I paused momentarily, as I did at each stall, to look at a display of handcut silhouettes.  I paused a moment too long — or, in hindsight, perhaps just long enough — for a man bearing scissors and a rectangular piece of paper to approach me.  He spoke to me in French, and, having been warned many times about the methods of swindlers, who hand you something and then demand payment, without ever having asked for or received the intention of the person now holding the sold product to buy it.  I smiled and held up my hand in refusal, saying, “Non, merci.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

I cringed inwardly, as I did every time my accent gave me away as a non-native speaker.  “The United States,” I replied, with an apologetic expression.

He touched my arm and told me he was going to cut my silhouette.  I once again said, “Non, merci,” and told him I didn’t want to pay.

“You don’t have to pay.  I’ll do it, and then you can see if you like it.”

He smiled at me, and at some point I realized that he looked quite a bit like Heath Ledger, as styled in THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, which is probably my favorite of the late actor’s roles.  He was tall, and his hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail, and he sported just the type of goatee I like — the sort that looks as if it were a happy accident.  The humidity of the day had added a little wave to his hair, and there were a few strands at his hairline fully curling.  He had a playful smile.

I’m not sure what switch flipped in my brain, but I felt myself reaching out.  Before I could explain it, my hand was on his arm, and I was leaning in, telling him I didn’t want to waste his time.  A second later, in what was quite likely a well-practiced move on his part, my hand had ended up in his, and he was once again trying to convince me to let him cut my silhouette.

I shook my head, still smiling, and said, “I’m good, but thank you.”

And at that point, he looked me up and down and said, “I can see that,” which, coming from most folks would be utterly cheesy and ridiculous.  But hey, I was staring into the eyes of IMAGINARIUM’s Tony, who could get away with being smarmy because he did it so charmingly that you simply didn’t care.  And, if the movies had taught me anything, at any second he could transform into the even more handsome Colin Farrell or — better yet — the gloriously sexy Johnny Depp — and sweep me off to a visually stunning and surreal world where anything imaginable could become reality.  And besides, he was holding my hand.

I couldn’t remember the last time someone had held my hand in a non-“Let’s join hands”-in-a-large-group sort of way.  At some point the months had become years, and, while the gesture was nothing unusual, it was a moment of magic.  In some ways, the gesture — so simple, so void of commitment — always has been for me.

The first time I remember my feelings for a boy going from platonic playmate to warm and fuzzy was in the basement of my childhood best friend’s house.  We always played down there — video games, board games, action figures, the usual.  The basement wrapped around itself; when you went down the stairs, you could enter on the left or the right.  We always took the door on the right; the door to the left led to his much older brother’s room.  One day, seemingly on a whim, my friend decided we should turn out all the lights and venture through the basement from one side to the other.  It would be scary and thrilling, he assured me, and we would feel so brave, and he’d lead the way so I wouldn’t be too frightened.  He was always able to convince me to do silly, potentially harmless-according-to-him things (like jumping from the decks of unfinished houses, or climbing fences, or taking a punch to the gut), and I — despite the ‘punch to the gut’ incident — trusted him.

He turned out the lights, and starting at the door on the right, he took my hand and let me through the dark, over the board games and video game controllers, around the discarded furniture and stored Christmas decorations, through his brother’s room — full of possessions I never felt comfortable exploring, being an older sibling myself, who very much valued her privacy — and safely to the door on the left.  He turned on the lights, and we laughed in relief that we’d made it through the dark, hand in hand, and I felt warm and alive and excited and full of potential.

I think that’s the part of the gesture that’s always been so magical for me: the potential.  It’s the representation of a moment where nothing has happened yet but anything and everything still might.

And so, when the artist in Montmartre held my hand, I felt that sensation again.  I was playful.  I was coy.  I was, apparently, charming.  I was things I didn’t realize I still knew how to be.  I operated outside of my own neurosis, with a confidence that didn’t seem to be my own.  It was bizarre and wonderful.  It was a relief.  I knew nothing was going to happen beyond this moment between myself and this man, however charming he might be.  But I still felt that feeling of potential, except this time it was all my own.

He asked how long we were staying in Paris, and I told him, and he said I should come back and see him, that we should go for a drink.  I answered with a peut-être and a smile, even though I’m sure we both knew that I wouldn’t return.  I bid him au revoir, and then my sister and I walked away.

“Well,” my sister said, “you can’t say you didn’t get hit on in Paris now.”

I laughed.  “Only because he was trying to sell me something,” I replied.  “I’m not sure it counts.”

“It counts,” she said.

And I decided that she was right.  “I’m going to pretend it does anyway.”

5 thoughts on “[Memories of Paris] The Artist in Montmartre

  1. I do enjoy your writing, and the paths you take us down. I think you’d write a pretty awesome travel book. The story of the dark basement reminded me of my first time.

    Being punched in the gut, that is. Still waiting on the hand-holding thing.

  2. Beautifully written. Brought a tear to my eye. Of course, as your mom, I have to remind you that I told you and your sister to “STAY TOGETHER!”

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