Thursday, January 23, 2014

Alone at the Louvre

Hipster Beard Prototype

"I can tell that Max is having a blast in France, but are you?"

I got this question from my friend Angela last week, a question I found disconcerting because it poked at a worry that I'd hoped was unfounded, about a condition that I hoped wasn't too glaringly obvious.  

Not "Paris Syndrome," but Stockholm Syndrome: otherwise known as 'capture bonding,' in which hostages develop empathy and feelings of identification--sometimes even love--for their captors.  

Before having a child, I never wanted to be That Kind of parent.  The kind who uses parenting as a verb.  The helicopter.  The snowplow.  (This is my new favorite term, referring to parents who want to cruise ahead of their kids, smoothing over every bump).  I'd seen people--women usually--who seemed to forget that the concerns of early childhood (and, some might argue, little children themselves) are not objectively all that interesting, who seemed compulsively unable to stop themselves from endlessly discussing every tedious detail of their kids’ nap schedules, making potty training charts, weighing the subtle distinctions of nearly identical progressive schools, Montessori vs. Waldorf, as if any of this would make a vast difference in the end--we all wipe our butts eventually, until we can’t anymore--as if their very memory of the things that had excited them before giving birth had been wiped clean. 

I never wanted to be the kind of woman who thinks of herself, let alone refers to herself--shudder--as "Mommy."  

Mommy doesn't like it when you do that!  Now Mommy needs another glass of wine!

But Max is on a jewelry making kick (see earlier post about gypsy rings and his love of bling), and when he recently made me a beaded bracelet with the word "mommy" spelled out in the middle of it, I didn't take it off for a week.  I pretended it was an aesthetic decision.  True, compared to his Femo clay necklaces--the hand-made beads so heavy, the weight of a single strand could break a person's neck--this was a bracelet I could actually wear,
simple and “objectively” good looking, with its burnt orange beads and typewriter-like font on the word spelled out in the middle.  Mommy.  But I also know that I wore it because I am in this mawkish state where I'm constantly aware that he's not going to be this sweet, happy, innocent little kid for that much longer, and I should enjoy these waning days of easy closeness before they're a thing of the past.  

I like to think that over the past six years, I've managed to stake a little turf around the person I was before I had a child.  But Angela's question made me pause, because I recognized that I have been writing an awful lot about our little outings together in Paris.  About Max and our Wednesday afternoon adventures.  As I’ve said, the school days are short, and these hours represent active time in the city, doing and seeing stuff.  No one wants to read about me sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, much as I do back at home.  But I'm also afraid that without meaning to, I've relinquished more of my own identity than I'd like to admit.  I’ve become “Mommy,” as tagged by the bracelet Max conveniently made me, lest I forget my priorities.  And maybe the reason why I'm scared for this period of easy closeness to end is that I know he's on the verge of not needing to be "parented" with the same intensity, and I'm not quite sure what comes next for me, who I'll be then.

In any case, I got a sneak preview on Sunday, when we went to the Louvre, where I'd managed to sign Max up for an "atelier," where an art teacher guides a group of kids to see different works on a theme (this one was "poils et plumes," or fur and feathers), and then they make their own piece of art.  Struggling to make myself understood on the phone, I'd asked whether I could come too, in order to translate.  "You'll have to talk to the teacher," the person told me, but I'd assumed that it would be fine, given that the class was for 4-6 year olds, and at our last "atelier" at the anthropology museum, a parent had been required to accompany each kid and keep them in line. 

On Sunday morning, most of Paris seemed to be asleep.  The stores were closed.  The streets were quiet, scattered with cigarette butts.  The only people out were walking their little dogs.  The city was bathed in a pearly fog, misty but not too cold, and Max and I enjoyed our walk to the Louvre, taking detours through deserted passageways, stopping at Cafe de la Bourse where we enjoyed bowls of coffee (me) and hot chocolate (Max) and a basket of thinly sliced toast, which we covered in a dozen different spreads laid in jars on the table, sampling them all, even the weird kiwi jam and white chocolate spread.  My favorite was "syrop a l'ancienne," which is an apple and pear butter that has been reduced to a tarry sludge that spreads like honey and tastes as tart and sweet as balsamic vinegar.  Max, predictably, liked the chocolate.  It seems that no breakfast here is complete without chocolate.  Even the Special K “fiber flakes” come with chocolate “pepites.”  But hey, at least it's dark chocolate, which is an anti-oxidant, right?

When we got to the museum, I felt smugly pleased to be able to bypass the extremely long line of tourists waiting to buy tickets.  (Service aside: anyone who comes here for a week or two with kids should check out the “ateliers” listed on the website of every museum and try to sign up for one of these art classes, which take place every weekend and cost about $6 for two hours).

In the special back room of the Louvre where the ateliers meet, I introduced myself to the man who was going to teach this class.  Since he didn't speak English, I was  certain that he'd want me there to translate for Max.  But he shook his head at my request and explained with Gallic gravitas that it would be too distracting if I were whispering at the back of the room, and that he preferred kids to come alone.  “Oui, j’ai compris,” I said, chastened and unsure what to do.  Like a good helicopter mom, I'd worked hard to secure this reservation, redialing the Louvre over and over for half an hour until I finally got through to a human being, then struggling to articulate my request and give a credit card number.  Like a good snow plow parent, I was determined to make sure that Max’s experience was fun and stress-free, and he’d told us in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to do any activities that were exclusively in French.  I didn't want him to miss the opportunity to take an art class at the Louvre, but I wasn't sure if he could handle being alone in this palatial museum with a group of strangers that he couldn’t understand.    

"Here's the deal," I said, trying to sound encouraging.  "It turns out that I can't go with you, but it's a drawing class—you probably don't need to understand much French—do you want to try?"

"Okay," he said with only a trace of apprehension, making me promise that I'd be right there at the end of the two hour class, and that we could go draw in the Egypt wing before leaving.

The kids were stuffed into green vests, and like a line of ducks they waddled after their instructor.  As he walked away, Max threw a nervous glance over his shoulder, and I was reminded of his first day of preschool, when he left us without crying even though I could tell he was terrified.  

Once the kids were gone, suddenly I was alone in the Louvre, with two hours and no plan.  

This was my second time at the Louvre since arriving in Paris.  We'd gone as a family over the holidays--Matt, Max and his grandmother and me--when the galleries were packed with so many tourists that it was hard to see over the tops of people's heads.  Matt wanted to see the Robert Wilson installations, Max was only interested in Ancient Egypt, these things were at opposite sides of the palace, and our legs were already aching from having marched all over the cobblestones for days on end.  "What do you want to see?" Matt had asked me, and I drew a blank.  Between the pushy crowds and the whining child, I was frankly ready to leave after twenty minutes, annoyed to think of how much money we'd spent on tickets.  

Do I even like going to museums anymore? I wondered.

Yes, I realized after just ten minutes of wandering by myself, as I could feel my anxiety lifting like the fog outside the windows.  Of course I do.  So what if Max couldn't speak French?  Big deal!  I thought of one of my favorite verbs.  Il va se debrouiller.  He'll cope.  He'll figure it out.  And then I stopped thinking about him, and instead I thought about what I wanted to see.  Not Egypt—that was for sure.  My book group had just finished Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which made me want to see the Dutch paintings up close again, so I thought I'd start there.  But getting to the Dutch masters took me through paintings beginning in the French middle ages, and looking at those strange, flat, wondrous works reminded me of the medieval literature I studied in college, the way that it was so transparently artificial but contained all of this sharp insight into human nature at the same time.

 Here we've got a king who had himself painted as a saint.  I love the vanity not at all disguised by the gesture at humility.  I also love the fey finger awkwardly pressed against the sheep's head.  He doesn't look to me like he's a natural with animals.  I wonder if the actual king had to pose with a sheep while his portrait was painted?  

In spite of the line waiting for tickets, the Louvre seemed nearly empty that morning.  I felt almost giddy, like I had the whole place to myself.  I could take pictures without feeling self-conscious (or having to tiptoe to photograph over people's heads) and wander in blissful aimlessness, stumbling upon room after room of art that I'd only ever seen in books or postcards, making up stories to go with the paintings, but only for myself, and feeling as if I had all the time in the world. 


365 Dresses said...

I just have to comment here---I'm enjoying my way through your blog---and when we lived here for nine months in 2012-2013, we joined both the Louvre and the d'Orsay. This gave us the freedom to just wander in and out and enjoy the art as you did that Sunday.

Gogo/Merrill said...

I so enjoyed reading about you discovering yourself in the art once Max was fully taken care of and on his way . . . I read this before but I had to return to it this morning.