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.
THE DIVA STEPPED into the light, her bearing regal, her posture erect. It was 2 o’clock on New Year’s Day, and we’d chosen to set a cultural tone for our 2003 start on this adventure to find the creative life, to see ourselves and the world in new ways, to shake and rattle the lethargy in our systems. We sat in folding chairs of the Eglise Saint-Julien-Le-Pauvre, the oldest sanctuary in Paris and one of two Greek Melkite Catholic parishes. The lighting was subdued as Catherine Manandaza (Image above via YouTube) thrilled us through Mozart and Ave Maria, and the chamber orchestra of violin virtuosos flawlessly performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
The next day Jim began this new season of our lives by heading back to Galerie Daniel Besseiche and Pierre-Humbert’s painting. He’d hoped to meet and talk with Monsieur Pierre-Humbert, but the gallery representative, Alice Pennington-Mellor, told him the artist had died 10 years before. With good luck in timing, though, Jim met Pierre-Humbert’s widow—who just happened to have a rendezvous that day at the gallery!
Later that week the two of us went back for a follow-up conversation. Anne Pierre-Humbert is a beautiful woman with blue eyes that are as light filled as her late husband’s paintings. Her face is framed by a well-cut gray pageboy, and her spirit carried us away with its effervescence. As Alice kindly translated, Anne spoke of Pierre-Humbert and their life together. She was an actress who performed on the radio when they met. Pierre knew her voice before he ever laid eyes on her. They lived most of the year in Paris, though they had a summer and holiday house in the South. It is such a civilized life.
Many of their friends were artists as well, and even when they were competitive, they supported one another. After an opening, they would all go out to dinner together. Pierre-Humbert said this was the last of the good artist times. Anne believes artists were more supportive of one another then than now. Money was sometimes hard to come by, but when they needed it the most, a miracle would happen. “When you are doing the work you love," she said, "you may not live as well, but it’s all you need.”
Anne said Pierre-Humbert always looked for the light in his paintings, and I could see what she meant. His paintings resonated with color, life, and light. I admire his images which seemed to me “suggestions” of the scenes and objects he painted and dreamed.
Alice (pictured below) has become our dream-maker as well. It had been eight long weeks since I’d gotten a haircut or color. I looked like a shaggy ghost of myself and was so mentally exhausted I couldn't figure out what to do. Alice came to my rescue and organized a hair appointment down her street. But the best of all is that she believes she may be able to help us find a house in Brittany, where Jim can paint and write for a while when we’re on the road. Genie, genie, come again, let dear Alice bring us a house!
Back at the apartment, we had an email from our sweet friend Patti. She’d rented out our house in Arkansas for a month! Our accountant had also sent a message: "Don’t worry, be happy," it said.
This was such a great day. We received gifts of hope, courage, and kindness from people we knew and others we’d never laid eyes on. One expects friends and family to be supportive, but the generosity of strangers is stunning. These people I've described don’t know us, but they understand our dream and adventure, and are helping us make it come true.
ON A DAY when Paris was glistening with pink light that somehow floats in the sky—the first day in six weeks that’s truly been clear and sunny—we were waiting for Alice at the Place d’Italie. Jim had walked across the street to an ATM, and I was eyeing a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in front of me. We haven't eaten American food since we've been in France, and I’d been craving KFC ever since we saw one in Les Halles. Alice was taking us to Anne Pierre-Humbert’s apartment to see Pierre's studio and we wanted to bring Anne a gift. I was thinking a bucket of chicken would be nice…and, by the way, I'd like to have some. Instead, we stopped into a chocolaterie and bought a golden box of bonbons and a bag of pate de fuits.
Anne’s small apartment was simply and tastefully decorated, with one wall of windows. Art was everywhere we looked—Pierre-Humbert’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and the fine and beautiful cups Anne served our coffee in. It turns out she's an artist, too, and the cups are her graceful work.
Pierre-Humbert once had an exhibition in South Carolina, she said, and they made the trip there.
Even though he probably spoke better English than she did, she was the one who talked for both of them. We discussed the fact that women are the ones who stick their necks out. We're the braver of the sexes. While Pierre-Humbert and Anne were in the U.S., they also visited New York. When they returned to Paris, it seemed like a village to her. I thought that a perfect description.
After our coffee and cookies, she led us up a flight of stairs to Pierre-Humbert’s studio. Stacks of paintings, folders of drawings, and photographs of his work held the room in his energy. The chaise where Pierre-Humbert set his nudes was left undisturbed, and a bookshelf was filled with volumes devoted to Matisse (also Pierre-Humbert's great inspiration). In fact, he and Anne made a pilgrimage to the Matisse Museum in Nice once a year. Pierre-Humbert's atelier was a living vision of his work—and of his and Anne’s life together. The afternoon was an honor and a treat for us.
Afterwards, we rode the bus to the Galerie Besseiche, we three women sitting in a back corner giggling like girlhood friends. I felt lucky to be with them. Jim wasn't included in this female club and sat across from us. But I could tell he was happy, the sun through the bus window warming his face. No wonder whole cultures have worshipped the giver of radiance, when illumination returns after the darkness of night, and the world is given back to them. That’s how it is for Jim on this day when the orb finally makes an appearance. The sun drenches him with its rays, and his dark night lifts as well, his moroseness gone.
In many ways the sky feels brighter today, an absolutely perfect day. Two more to go before we leave Paris!
Image via Digital English
January 8, 2003
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.