i am in america looking out an airplane window at what must be a great lake. there is no horizon. the faded blue of the lake comes up into a band of white hazy clouds and becomes sky somewhere. this will be the last time i write from a plane, trian, or boat for a long while. i have been in five countries in two months. i have seen some of the greatest cathedrals and monuments and museums in the world and i am convinced i have met some of the nicest people on earth too. and i have done all this for little–not much more than my usual cost of living at home, assisted by a small art scholarship and a handful of hospitable friends and fans who graciously let me into their homes and sheltered me and fed me and escorted me around in exchange for me singing my simple american songs. for a month i have been a kind of traveling minstrel, and i have been fortunate to find small audiences and even more fortunate to now consider them close friends. my world has gotten smaller and larger at once. i see myself as more american than i ever, but more than that i have thought about the common humanity of other cultures and the things that transcend country lines, things like music, art, food, family, and friends.
in paris i stayed in a cheap but decent hotel in montmartre, an area of town which is famous in part for the moulin rouge and the behemian culture of artists it helped to inspire. artists as varied as Talousse Latrec, Salvador DalÃ, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh all lived or worked in montmartre at some point. the clubs in montmartre are some of the seediest in the world, and the area remains as unpredictable and dangerous as it must have been for talousse latrec in 1900. pigalles and the boulevard de clichy strip is a far cry from the cleanliness and cheeriness of the red light district in amsterdam. the moulin rouge, however, now attracts large groups of tourists to its nightly shows and to its brightly lit red exterior where americans pose for photographs and think of nicole kidman.
my first day in paris i went straight from the train station to the hotel and then to the louvre. at the louvre i only had a few hours so i went directly to the mona lisa first. the image is so well known to me that i spotted it from within another large room when it was just the size of an ant. there, masses of asian people swarmed around pushing and shoving with cameras trying to get a photo of themselves in front of the painting. i stood there for probably five or ten minutes, longer than anyone else in that time period. i am not sure anyone was really looking at it but only looking at the idea of the mona lisa–the most famous painting in the world. i have never seen anything like it. it was as if brad pitt had just stepped out of a limo. never had mona lisa’s knowing smile seemed so hilariously perfect to me, as if saying “can you believe this?” i almost wonder if davinci anticipated this kind of scene, or if the response was similar in the quattrocento. slowly i worked my way to the front and center and became the silent motionless eye of a tornado of ridiculous excitement. and there i decided: yes. it is one of the very best, a perfect painting. the right kind of atmosphere, mystery, beauty. despite becoming a cliche and a tourist trap, the mona lisa remains a timeless masterpiece. and even if it’s only in that one corner of france, somewhere for some reason people still get very excited about colored pigment on a flat surface. that makes me smile too.
that night i had paris by night tour and a drink and an open faced french sandwich with my first ever french friend benjamin (who shares my exact birthday) and his wife. they drove me around to show me monuments and important buildings, a tour which would have been impossible in one day on foot. i was still tired from my trip from lyon so that night in montmartre i slept like a baby from babyville despite the sounds of young artists drinking and laughing drifting through my open window into the late hours.
yesterday, tuesday, was my very last day in europe. i went to the MusÃ©e d’Orsay, perhaps the second most famous museum in the world after the louvre. the orsay was at one time the most modern train station in paris, now it is home to many of the best works ever from the impressionists and post-impressionists. there i saw monet, manet, corbet, and many other artists whose names end with et but are pronounced ay. most of the artists at the orsay walked the line between tradition and modernity. i think that is the job of every artist.
what would you do, if you had just one more night in europe after a two month adventure? i took a cab to the eifel tower to get there fast enough to catch the sunset. i walked on the lawn weaving through young and old bodies kicking soccer balls and drinking wine on blankets. i found a patch in the grass with a good view and bought a bottle of cold champagne from a vendor. i watched the sky turn from blue to pink to dark blue to black and the tower turn from orange to night and the lights come on. i made an effort to reflect on everywhere i had been and all the things i had done. my thoughts turned to home. after sitting around by myself for a couple hours i finally had the guts to approach a young guy sitting by himself with a backpack. i assumed he was a solo traveler like me.
“do you speak english?” i asked
“yes” he said with an accent i could not place.
“do you want a glass of champagne? i had to buy a whole bottle but i won’t drink it all.”
“sure!” he said with genuine enthusiasm, so i sat down.
“this is going to be the last conversation i have in europe,” i told him and we talked for an hour or so. i would learn that he was from quebec, canada, and spoke a form of french that could not be understood by french people living in france. it was his very first night of a european adventure. he had just found his way from the airport.
“i saw the eifel tower so i thought that would be a good place to start!” like me when i arrived, he had no return plane ticket, and only a rough idea of what he wanted to see. so with unspoken poetry, i passed the torch. the eifel tower, i thought, is a good place to end.