An ongoing series about uprooting our lives in America and moving to France. For what's happened before, see previous Jours of Our Lives entries here.
THERE WAS AN underlying sadness during Christmas week because my chicks were flying home. When Jim and I left Little Rock for France in late November, we at least knew we’d see one another again in only two and a half weeks. Now we were parting with no meeting planned.
I have chosen to be a nomad, but Bret has been forced; at least Blair has an apartment that doesn’t shut for holidays. What Jim and I were doing was momentous—closing down 501 Holly in Little Rock, my daughters’ childhood home, the place where our lives came together as a family, the house where they could walk in the door and their mama would cook them a meal and their stepfather would act silly with them. They could sleep in their own beds. The dog and cat would greet them with affection. Their clothes hung in their closets.
They felt safe.
Anyway, December 26th was a sad day, a working day, a packing day. The girls were leaving, and we had to move. Michel Tessel had been kind enough to offer Jim and me another apartment of his, Sante Croix, for a reduced rate. We hadn’t found another place and decided a tiny hotel room wouldn’t do.
We were to meet Ruben at 6 PM to retrieve a key and take some bags so the move wouldn’t be so hard the next morning. It was only a few blocks away, so Jim, Blair, Bret, and I walked down the rue Vielle du Temple pulling a suitcase each, and I’m not talking about little ones. I was laughing, thinking of the sight we must look. “The Joads of Paris!” I called to Jim.
“Jwahds,” he called back, pronouncing it the French way.
We made our trek down rue Vielle du Temple
After that, we trekked to Montparnasse and La Closerie des Lilas, a classic restaurant that’s been restored to its former glory. We had drinks at the bar, me sitting on Hemingway’s stool while the expert bartender, in white jacket and black tie, shook his cocktails. We decided to dine there for our last supper together.
La Closerie de Lilas (via Wikipedia)
Bret woke up vomiting the next morning. I called and wrangled with Delta Airlines and finally got her on a flight a day later. It turned to be a freight run. Guess that agent didn’t like it when I asked to speak to her supervisor, but what’s one to do when there’s no intelligent bending of rules?
Jacques picked up Blair, and we said teary goodbyes as she left without her sister. Then Jim, Bret, and I moved, bag by bag, from Perche to Sante Croix—Bret’s pot of flowers, our Christmas tree, the food in the refrigerator. It was exhausting, up and down flights of stairs. But we got it done.
Bret slept. I reorganized and wrote. Jim ventured into the rain to try and take care of business and came home wet and beaten. Then I went out to hunt and gather chicken soup and crackers for my girl. We watched bad French TV, which often consists of bad American reruns.
The next morning Jacques came to get Bret. By noon, I felt her illness and crawled in her bed, took medication, and slept for hours.
OVER THE NEXT few days, Jim and I began preparing to leave Paris on our grand adventure of driving around France pursuing Matisse. We arranged with Jacques to accompany Jim in picking up the car in early January. And we convinced Monsieur Michel Malric at our favorite boutique hotel, the Hotel Saint Germain, to let us leave suitcases in his cave and receive mail at the hotel. “You have a home in Paris,” he said. “On the rue du Bac. Not bad.”
Hotel Saint Germain at 88 rue du Bac
It was good to take our minds off our troubles and our absent loved ones. We’d been so busy we’d hardly had any time to enjoy Paris. And now we were about to leave it! Even in the winter gray, Paris is a vision that both dazzles and charms. I see her as an elegant lady with grand and timeless style.
One day Jim and I crossed the Seine to the Left Bank and wound through the streets according to our fancy. People were out in droves. We looked up Shakespeare & Co., which is not Sylvia Beach’s store but retains the Lost Generation aura and draws the literary crowd. It was teeming with Lost Generation wannabes—including us. The rue de la Huchette was wall-to-wall Greek tavernas and kiosks, with the enticing aromas of grilling pigs and lambs on turning spits. We were hungry, and like everyone else in this city, we stopped to pick up a snack to munch as we walked.
We had a drink at Les Deux Magots, which is always in fashion, even if you’re sitting with the other tourists trying to pretend you’re not one of them. After that we ambled around the Left Bank, where we used to stay but had missed this time. During our weeks in Paris we’d walked the streets at night looking in art gallery windows, encountering lots of mediocre art—but also, in hotel and restaurant windows, an exhibition poster featuring a wonderful painting called “Anemones et grenades” by an artist named Pierre-Humbert. Jim had been captivated by the colors and style of this picture, which we’d only seen on the posters.
Then, on that cold, rainy, late-December Sunday night, we suddenly turned a corner and I saw it. It was on an easel in the window of Galerie Daniel Besseiche at 33, rue Guenegaud. Jim was beside himself. And I took a picture of him with the painting that he calls “the best art I’ve seen in Paris galleries.”
We didn’t yet know how much of an impact this discovery would have on our “Chasing Matisse.” For now, it was just a bit of much-needed warmth and color after all our travails. As Jim said, “It’s like a light in the window.”
January 3, 2003
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold. Not to be used without permission.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.
For more on artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon, click here.