Sunday, May 25, 2014

why i love paris (4)

It was December 25, 2013.  I was going to meet up with members of Paris Sketchers group at Musée Jacquemart-André, in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  It would be only my second outing with the group since becoming a member the month before, and I did not know Marie-Christine, who had suggested the outing.  I had found it strange at first that someone would imagine asking people other than family and friends to join her in visiting a museum on Christmas Day.  As such, I had expected to do anything but show up.  But knowing that I would be in Paris as the day drew closer, I found the idea more and more appealing.  In the end, I embraced the strangeness of it.

Passing through the courtyard lying between the ticket booth and the entrance to the museum building, I felt the cold.  I was even surprised to discover two sketchers there, busy at work.  I went over to meet each of these courageous individuals.  There was first Marie-Christine and, a bit farther away, Savath.  They were friendly and showed me their sketches.  It was great knowing that they were around, as if that was the encouragement that I needed to start drawing.  But I was not going to do that outside.  It seemed too much for my body to bear.  So I went inside the building to take a tour.  It was a small museum, but its rooms were pleasantly laid out and well adorned with paintings, sculptures, plants, mirrors, chandeliers, and other fancy objects.  In spite of this richness, I could not settle on a subject to get the drawing juices flowing.  I ended up returning to the courtyard to try my hand (and eyes) at the facade of the building.  If Marie-Christine and Savath could brave the cold, I could too.

I found an empty bench on one end of the courtyard and facing the center of the building that seemed perfect.  The foldable stool that I had brought was no longer necessary, so I placed that on the bench, next to the pouch containing pencils, eraser, and cutter that I kept beside me.  And off I went.  While I drew, visitors kept passing by, either to enter or to leave the building, and as far as I could tell, they did not always notice me.  When they did, their attention was generally held for an instant before they continued along their path as if nothing had happened.  Less discreet were several Asian tourists.  Some of them took pictures of me, sometimes asking for permission, sometimes not.  Others approached to see my sketch and may have given a compliment.  One man even came by and sat on the bench with me for a while.  There were some empty benches nearby, but he made sure to choose mine.  Coincidence?  Who knows.  In any case, I was too focused on my drawing to chase him away.

This focus disappeared as slowly as the rain appeared.  I had made great progress on the sketch, but it was far from finished.  I felt like being at a crossroads.  Having always succeeded in bringing my drawings to a state of completion, I wanted to finish what I had started.  But I feared that the rain would fall down harder than in the light drops that I was feeling.  Besides, I had become aware of the cold.  Ultimately, I aborted ship and went back inside.  I was not particularly satisfied with the sketch, but I believed that I had done what I could given the circumstances.

After scouring the building floor to floor to find a place from where I could sketch without being disturbed by the stream of visitors passing through, I found a corner at a dead end on the top floor that was small enough to discourage a crowd from approaching.  What's more, it provided a superb view of the ground floor and the staircase linking it to the top floor.  It was perfect.  So I unfolded my stool there, sharpened my pencils using the cutter, and started sketching.  Since the corner was partially bordered by a decorative handrail that extended horizontally from the top of the staircase, I spent some time standing in order to capture a clearer plunging view.  From time to time, I caught sight of people coming up the stairs, notably a large group of Italian girls, yet hardly anyone dared to come towards the corner where I was.  The rare ones that did usually asked for permission to look at my sketch and left after saying something kind.  One woman in particular came by and said nothing like the other curious folk before her.  I did not recognize her after she caught my attention and she began to introduce herself, in English for that matter.  Then I figured it out.  It was Kim, the administrator of the Paris Sketchers group, with whom I had corresponded over e-mail when I was trying to become a member.  I had gotten the sense at that time that she was American just by the way she expressed herself in writing. In person, talking to me, she had to be American.  In any case, she had a friendly demeanor and I connected well with her.  She informed me that she had just arrived at the museum and that all the sketchers would be meeting in the cafe on the ground floor around 4:30pm ‒ which I took as the deadline for stopping all sketching work.  And then she left and would later find a bench at the base of the staircase to sit in order to make some sketches of her own.  Knowing that I had a clear deadline motivated me to get into my drawing more, and I began to fill in details wherever I could.  Eventually, I was lost in my work.  The effort and its progressive results were definitely making up for the incomplete sketch of the building facade.  When I decided that there was nothing more that I could enrich, I was very pleased.  I even felt that I had reached a new high in my drawing.  In fact, the high went beyond the drawing, because until then I had never spent a period of more than 4 hours in a museum without appreciating a single work of art put on display ‒ and enjoyed it.

Just before the clock stroke 4:30pm, I packed up and went downstairs to the cafe to join the crew.  Still high on enthusiasm, I walked into the room oblivious to the fact that there was a queue at the entrance.  Someone made sure to let me know, though it did no longer mattered as I had already spotted Kim and Marie-Christine at a table.  I went to take the seat across Kim and began chatting with them.  We ordered some time after that ‒ all that drawing had left me hungry ‒ and then resumed our chatter.  Savath would arrive later.  During our time in the cafe, we showed each other our works du jour, giving and receiving compliments and comments.  I was truly in awe of some of the sketches that I saw, wishing to master the techniques used.  Besides the drawings, I got to learn more about the other sketchers.  I felt relaxed in their company, which was due in large part to Kim.  The both of us got along very well so quickly that I was surprised at how spontaneous and how expressive I was with three people that I had just met.

While we were leaving the museum, I could not help but look forward to future outings to do urban sketching in Paris, whether it was on Christmas Day or not.

Friday, May 9, 2014

the art of saying bonjour (1)

I arrived at the platform of line 14 at the Bercy metro station in Paris on my way to work one morning last year.  The spot where I chose to stand was exactly where I needed to be in order to end up in front of the escalator in the metro station where I was going to get off.  Nearby, a woman who seemed to be in her 40s or 50s waited also.  The metro came shortly, and we both entered through the same sliding doors.  As the doors began to close, I turned towards the lady and said "Bonjour" ("Hello").  She looked at me and said "Bonjour" in return.  Her reply was clear albeit timid, and she had an expression on her face that conveyed a slight confusion.  She took glances at me, and soon enough I started to feel uneasy.  Then she came closer to me and asked, "On se connaît ?" ("We know each other?").  "Non", I replied calmly.  Her confused state remained and I imagined that she was searching for an explanation without wanting to ask me for one.  I could not tolerate the situation any more, so I decided to resolve it by reassuring the lady with a "C'est comme ça" ("It is what it is").  She let out a smile.  I was no longer uncomfortable.  In fact, I was happy.

The good ol' "Bonjour".  Believe me, this word is magic.  Saying it is clearly one of the simplest and most socially acceptable interactions that you can have with just about anyone.  And I think that many people do not realize this.  Sometimes, we tend to wait for others to say bonjour to us before we decide to return the favor.  When they do, we greet them similarly and often become more agreeable towards them.  If they don't fulfil our expectation, we may become resentful, telling ourselves things like "He did not even say bonjour!"  To me, these attitudes reflect the value of saying bonjour, not only to people that we are familiar with, but to anyone around us.  Needless to say, it is an initial step when we want to acknowledge someone or to connect with someone, even if for 30 seconds.  Moreover, I have found it on occasion to be a simple and effective way to disarm or appease people who I might at first perceive as harmful or distrustful.  As result of saying bonjour to these individuals regularly, I have noticed my perception become more neutral, leaving me to conclude that I had judged them because I did not know them well enough.  Indeed, anytime we attempt to reach out to someone, familiar or not, we expose ourselves to the risk of rejection.  But what is the worst that someone can do to you when you greet them bonjour?  I suppose that either she would ignore you or she would make a harmless gesture of disapproval towards you.  In any case, any disappointment felt after this kind of reaction is ephemeral especially if you consider that there is probably someone else not far away who is eager to respond more favorably to your bonjours.  Besides, such experiences of disappointment can be very well tolerated if the bonjours are given out with joy in a generous way, since most people respond to joy with joy.  Along with their joy is the one that you can give yourself by turning the gift of "Bonjour" into an art to be practiced regularly.

For example, you can say "Bonjour":

In my own experience, saying "Bonjour" allows me to open up more.  It's great when the recipient returns the bonjour, since that can take the interaction further.  However, as it is more important for me to become open, I do not depend too much on the reaction of the recipient.  Having given the gift of bonjour in a way that I find interesting is fulfilling enough.  And so, quite naturally, there is an operation dedicated to saying bonjour, appropriately called Bonjour.  Perhaps it was natural also that it would be the precursor of all operations.

I leave you with a brief message below from our friends at the RATP.

Long live bonjour!

"1 bonjour costs next to nothing, it changes everyday living."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

fight for my right to write

I have a guilty pleasure.

And it is called writing.

Okay, maybe it is not guilty pleasure material.  Nevertheless, I have enjoyed writing for the longest time.  When I was a teenager, I began exchanging handwritten letters with friends and family, an activity that I carried well into adulthood.  Things then took a drastic turn in college, when I rediscovered the French language.  I started taking a vivid interest in verb conjugation, word gender and other aspects of the grammar, making it all work in every sentence written.  Answering an essay question on a French class exam was a very exciting moment, since it was essentially a creative writing opportunity.  Later on, a few years of my professional experience under my belt, I signed up for evening classes at Alliance française in a quest for fluency, so that I could describe what ever I wanted clearly, richly, and naturally.  In love with French classes again, I was able to develop my writing skills for four years, sometimes even having the instructor review my reports (and this was not homework).  During the same period, I maintained correspondences with Francophile and Francophone friends that would last several years (you can guess who wrote more).  For a time when I was in my twenties, I even got into travel reporting, producing detailed accounts of trips in French and sometimes in English as well.  Filling up 11 pages of a Microsoft Word document with a description of a two-week summer vacation spent in Europe remains one of my favorite memories.  You could say a memory of a memory.  And once I had finally settled in France and fluency in French was no longer a priority, I decided to try my hands at Spanish.  Guess how I started learning the language.  By writing.  While I spent some time improving my listening skills and my pronunciation, it was largely by writing out answers to questions in grammar exercises and by composing e-mails addressed to Spanish-speaking friends that I developed my interest in español for two years.  Also in romantic relationships, writing found a place.  I remember once having a dispute with a former girlfriend.  I had a point of view on the matter being discussed but I had difficulty in making it clear to her vocally.  So I decided to put it in writing.  That gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts together and to make them coherent.  After she saw (or rather read) the fruit of this effort, she was able to grasp a bigger picture and to understand better what was happening.  Or so it seemed.  She had broken up with me a month later.  I tried to get her back a few times by writing lengthy e-mails pleading that she reconsider.  Looking back now, that may not have been the best means, but I could not help it then.  I really wanted to write, so I wrote.

Today, in my thirties, and I am clearly still writing.  In fact, my writing efforts are mostly focused on my blog.  This blog.  It's a lovely thing, to have ideas to explore and express.  It takes a substantial amount of time to develop a idea and to structure the text that presents it, but, at the end of the day, it is a pleasurable activity.

Yet writing is like talking or thinking.  It is so easy to do.  And while one might succeed in giving the most compelling talk or in producing the most insightful thought, that alone would not suffice when it comes to changing a life for the better.  At the least, some action would be necessary.  Actually, a lot of action would be necessary if the exact purpose is change, and perhaps more so than a lot of talk or thought.

But I really enjoy writing and I do not want to give it up.  It is a guilty pleasure after all.  Who gives up guilty pleasures?  Besides, I am trying to liberate my mind, and writing appears to be useful to that end.  So what to do?  Well, you write ... and you act.  Even better ‒ you act and you reward yourself for the actions taken by getting to write.  Talk about a win-win situation.

Roughly speaking, every other article on this blog has been produced this way.  Usually, one article gets out every week.  Every odd-numbered week, I publish an article freely.  But to be able to publish on an even-numbered week, I have to act by completing a certain number of actions, or operations as I prefer to call them.  If this quota is not reached, then that week goes by without a published article.  Sure, I could care less about the number of the operations completed and patiently wait to publish during the odd-numbered weeks.  But I keep having ideas that I would like to explore and express, and I would very much prefer them being out there instead of clogging up my mind.  Also, I want to get stuff done, just because that tends to change a situation more than thinking, talking or writing a blog.  If I am rewarded for having gotten important stuff done with the offer of a guilty pleasure, it is really all good.

With continuous discipline, this relationship between writing and doing gets stronger.  Yet, if the doing remains the same over time like a habit, the level of excitement that was initially there will eventually decrease, the writing will start to lose its meaning, and, in the end, there will be nothing to fight for.  So the doing has to keep evolving, in quantity and in quality.

I do not want the ideas expressed in this blog to lose their meaning to me.  So I choose to keep applying them by doing.  Doing more and doing better.  Fortunately, there is a lot to be done.

Rest assured that I did fight for my right to write this.