Sunday, February 16, 2014

why i love paris (3)

The Paris Metro can be a place of delightful experiences.

It was that recently, as well as the site of an Operation Original run.

It was nearing midnight one Friday evening when I boarded line 6 at the Etoile terminus.  As the metro car began to fill up, I went to occupy a empty 4-seater (two pairs of adjacent seats facing each other) and pulled out my "The Art of Urban Sketching" book from my shoulder bag.  While reading, a young couple (man and woman) embarked and took possession of the 4-seater across the narrow corridor from where I was.  I watched them for a short while before returning to my book.  It would not be long before I got distracted again, having noticed the book with the white cover that the girl had pulled out from her handbag.  I saw her handle the book briefly, before passing it to her companion, who was seated in front of her.  He got to browsing the book.  All the while they were speaking to each other, and I could not tell if it was in English because their voices were rather low.  Nevertheless, I kept my eyes on the book, trying to make out the words on the cover from afar.  The title seemed written in English but I was not exactly certain.  From time to time, I took glances without trying to appear too nosy.  On one of these furtive attempts, I managed to recognize something on an open page.  "Chapter".  Within seconds, I sprung into action.

"Swapbook?", I said.  I was already at the edge of my 4-seater and next to theirs, holding out my book towards them.  Naturally, they were surprised though they did not seem threatened.  If anything, they were probably trying to understand what was going on.  It was then that I realized that I had not opened the scene properly.  So I corrected myself.

"Bookswap?", this time delivered with more charm.

Now they appeared more curious, as if they wanted to say yes to an adventure.  So I guided them.

"Book swap.  We swap books."

The girl, who was bookless, had let out a radiant smile.  The guy looked like he was game, and he ended up swapping his book with mine.  Despite the excitement that had come over me, I started poring over their book.  I could not get far however, because I soon got interrupted.

"Did you do all these?", the girl asked, pointing to some colorful sketches in my book.

"Oh no, no", I said, flattered.  I felt it necessary to give a little context.

"The sketches are from people who drew in cities all over the world.  I am part of this group that does urban sketching in Paris.  Actually it's the Parisian group of the Urban Sketchers movement.  We go out into the city and sketch what we see.  I just joined and have been to several outings.  Actually, just last Saturday we had a sketch crawl in Jardin des Plantes that was open to the public, not just to the members of our group.  So you could have participated if you knew about it."

They were quite fascinated, or so it appeared.

"Do you have sketches from that outing?"

"Yes", I replied.  "I drew the skeleton of a mammoth*, but the sketch is at home, so I don't have it with me."

The girl now had the book in her hands and flipped through it, stopping at a page that seemed to have struck a chord with her.  She showed us the page.  It was part of the section on Istanbul, decorated everywhere with various sketches of the city.

"Oh, you're Turkish?"

She nodded, smiling.

"And you, you're French?", I asked the guy, who I supposed was not Turkish, nor French for that matter.

"No, I'm from Latvia."

"Ah, la Lettonie."

He nodded.

They asked where I was from.  I said Nigeria, adding that I came to France from the United States.

"Where in the States?"


"Where in California?"

"San Francisco."

"Oh, we used to live there!", they declared cheerfully.

"What?  You've got to be kidding me!"

"Actually, we were in Palo Alto."

And I'm just amazed.  I admitted that I was truly living in San Mateo, which was a 15-minute drive from Palo Alto and which took 30 minutes to reach from San Francisco.

We began to recall our respective lives in the Bay Area, asking and answering questions of how much time we spent there and of when we left.  In the midst of our jubilation, a young girl entered the metro and took the seat facing me.  I was too occupied to pay her much attention.

"It's so great to hear English for once", she remarked, suddenly.

The couple and I were completely taken aback.  Given her accent, we surmised that she was American.  When she learned that we had lived in the Bay Area and that we were talking about it, she went : "This is such a coincidence.  I'm from San Francisco!"

Now we were floored.

"Really?  Wow, this is incredible!"

Our new friend duly went through an interrogation similar to the one that I had just received.  And it turned out that she was the only one among us to have lived in San Francisco.

"I live in the Mission", she clarified.  "I go to school at San Francisco State University and I just got here a month ago."

Over time, she withdrew from the conversation and settled into a reflective state.  I kept talking with the couple.  The girl [of the couple] seemed interested in urban sketching, so I gave her some information.

"On, you can easily find drawings from our trip to Jardin des Plantes since they are our most recent, and somewhere on the main page is a link to our Flickr site you know Flickr, right? where all our drawings are.  Well, the drawings published by members of the group."

"I would like to do something like this", she said, elatedly.

"Well, our next sketch crawl is taking place in April, so make sure to check out our website."

"I will."

Soon enough, I realized that I still had the couple's book in my hands.  I had not really looked at it since the swap.  So I formally excused myself from them to take a closer look.  The college student seemed a little bored, so I offered her the urban sketching book, which the couple had returned to me.  She accepted it and started browsing while I inspected the couple's book.  "I, Claudius" was written on the front cover.  Hmmmn, I thought, as I turned the book around to read the summary on the back.  It was difficult.  I could make out the words but the whole thing did not speak to me.  Besides, I was too fascinated by the unusual nature of the experience taking place to concentrate.  All that I could conclude from my struggle was that the book belonged to the historical genre.  So I asked them, while handing back the book, "So, is this an historical book?"

I could not remember their reply.  They did not hesitate to praise the book, however.  It was amusing.

"What's your favorite book?", the girl asked me.

Just the kind of question that I have difficulty answering, as with most "favorite" questions.  Nevertheless, I amused myself looking for a proper answer.  Unable to find one quickly, I conceded with a non-answer.

"Well, I'm not much of a reader."

Straight away, I knew that I was saying rubbish.  After all, I do read books on a regular basis.  A suitable answer instantly became clear.

"Well, there is this book that I truly like.  It's on psychology, not a novel or anything like that."

"What is it called?"

"It's called Flow.  It's such a great book.  And a work of art, in my opinion.  I don't know how to describe it.  It talks about optimal experiences and I like it because it explains how to create them based on how the mind works.  It's in the field of positive psychology, as opposed to traditional psychology where the issue is to figure out what's wrong with you.  But you have to read it, because I don't have the words that do justice to the power of this book."

I possibly left them intrigued.  I mean, who mentions a book on psychology as his favorite book when asked by strangers?

We got talking about their move to France.  They said that they did it to be close to family and that they had no regrets about leaving the Bay Area.  I also learned that the guy went to Stanford.  A no-brainer of a question to ask once he mentioned having lived in Palo Alto.  "You guys have the most beautiful campus", I said.  He could do nothing but concur.

Like many good things, our encounter came to an end when the couple had to get off the metro at their stop.  We exchanged goodbyes.

"See you in April", I said to the girl as she left the seating area.  She turned back, smiling in return.  A few seconds later, she and her companion were out of sight.

I turned my attention to the college student and picked up conversation with her.

* The skeleton of the mammoth was located in the Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée, one of the sites that, along with the Jardin des Plantes, makes up the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

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