The Coming of Spring

While photos have the ability to make almost anything look beautiful, the corollary is that there is beauty to be found in most everything.

Of course some things may be more obviously beautiful than others, but the trick to recognizing beauty is in allowing yourself to feel it—the calm in the morning before the sky has fully brightened, the smile that stretches across your lips when you notice that the cherry trees have precociously started blooming though it’s not yet the end of February.

This time last year I couldn’t wait for spring to come. It was my first winter, by way of which I mean that as a California girl, I grew up spoiled with full blooms in February and year-round flora. I got through the cold all right, kept warm most of the time by my stylish wool coat and in the times I wasn’t, knowing I’d live. That experience of my first winter, joined with my newly acquired skill of artfully wrapping a scarf, turned out to be quite useful when this year I ended up in DC, a city in urban design and architecture Paris’ (arguably less classically beautiful) twin.

By mid-February I was growing depressed by the barren limbs of the trees and feeling resentfully undercompensated in snow. I hadn’t learned to appreciate the quiet of the city, the way my breaths froze in air and time. But this absence of liveliness made it such that when the flowers did start to bloom, it was exquisite—a slow reprise that, having all but disappeared, was all the more anticipated.

The flowers bloomed slowly and in turns. For weeks I passed buds on my walk to school, and though day after day they did not seem to grow, in a few weeks’ time they had blossomed. The first to do so were the cherry blossoms; then it was the wildflowers and tulips, and finally the magnolias.

On the first of May, the florist above which I lived sold sprigs of muguet de mai, or Lily of the Valley, to give to close friends and family, as is the custom.

In Paris, the magnolias were the first to bloom. Having visited the third weekend in March, I’ve yet to truly see Paris in the springtime, but the magnolias in the Jardin du Palais Royal were spectacular, their thick pink petals reaching up into an overcast sky. 

Only the bravest of cherry trees near the Petit Palais had blossomed. The Grand Palais, however, had opened a temporary exhibition called, appositely, “Jardins,” which I adored: analog photography and silver bromide gelatin prints, cut paper, watercolors of crumpled irises with edges like eyelash lace. My favorite work was one of two botanical drawings from Conrad Gessner, Orlaya grandiflora, a sketch of the white lace flower from between 1555 and 1565.

Last year taught me to find beauty all around. Perhaps it was in part my environment that taught me this—Europe, a continent of history, where an old beauty is literally in the details of its palaces, its opera houses, its bridges, an homage to opulence. This year I look forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms—to the Yoshinos and peony-like Kwanzans, with their layers of tulle, to the paper flowers of ancient Sakura—to the anticipation.

Close-up of the anemone from Eugène Delacroix’s Étude de fleurs: pavot, pensée et anémone (Study of Flowers: Poppy, Pansy, and Anemone).

In the final space of “Jardins,” René Magritte’s Le Grand Style (1951) took a room to itself, depicting a dark stalk growing upwards into a star-filled sky, planting there a strange flower: Earth, iridescent like the moon. This year I will appreciate spring as it comes, one of the gentle workings of the Earth.


A Night at the Symphony


The first of February, I went to the symphony. It was a spontaneous decision: whilst looking for cultural things to do, I landed on the website for the Orchestre National de Lille and of course looked at the agenda. Having read the descriptions for a few concerts, I knew instinctively that the program I’d like most was that of the concert taking place that same night—in two hours, in fact! One couldn’t buy tickets online anymore, and the ticket office, luck would have it, had closed minutes before, eliminating calling as an option. But, after poking around on Google a little, I found a little blurb of hope that read that tickets could be bought sur place, at the door, 45 minutes before the concert. Violà !

The Nouveau Siècle was nearly a full house (and it was a Wednesday!), but purchasing my 10 euro ticket for the galerie haute was no problem. Some minutes later the lights dimmed and the orchestra began the night with La Princesse jaune, a piece by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The name of the piece evokes glittering, daffodil-yellow diamonds, or bright yellow sunflowers among dandelions in a meadow of aggressively green grass the color of parakeets. Actually, it’s racist; Saint-Saëns intended to express through sound the visions of a Japanese princess as she dreams under the influence of opium. Harp glissandos signal at the beginning that one is in a dream, and the triangle, the oboe suggest an Oriental influence. The melodies though—oh, they are wonderful, flitting little things from the strings and the piccolo. I felt quite like a butterfly in a meadow myself.

This short rêve over, another, golden harp was brought just to the right of center stage for the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera’s Concerto pour harpe, a number full of both charms and surprises that, equal parts sweetness and violence, demonstrated the possibilities of the instrument. Never had I had the joy of hearing a harp soloist perform, and the soloist that night, Anne Le Petit Roy, is highly acclaimed in France. She came on stage in a dress that made her look as though she were from a maiden from a fairy tale wood. A long dress kissing the floor but just, not long enough to hide her pedalwork, it shone in an iridescent sage flecked with French blue.

Tchaïkovsky’s Symphony No.6 was the most fanciful of them all, though. Tchaïkovsky, master composer of symphonies whether for ballet or for concert, is said to have expressed his innermost sentiments through this form of composition. Yet of the final three of his six symphonies, which supposedly offer a glimpse into this man’s soul, the sixth is noted to be the most mysterious, though the most touching, too.

At the beginning of the first movement, one distinctly hears oboe, which turns into a happy little melody. Four and a half minutes in, it’s as if Tchaïkovsky were teasing the audience with the same three notes that begin the Blue Danube Waltz, though that was written by another man at an earlier time. From there it sounds like dancing, like a song to which the water of a fountain might sway or something from an old Disney film, flute delicately singing ascending scales before strings passionately sweep the audience off its feet. Just when the audience thinks the movement is over, Tchaïkovsky surprises it with a dramatic new beginning, timpani dark in the undertones like during the scene in which the prince goes to fight the villain. The French horns play prominently—that there were four was striking to me, as I don’t think there are so many in, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic—before a reprise fades softly to silence.

The second movement begins brilliantly, with miniature trills and playful staccato up and down octaves first on violins, then flutes. This becomes the main theme, to be accompanied by gentle octaves and plucking of strings like tiptoeing. The third movement is quick and lively with strings that execute turns and hold a conversation with the clarinets. A petite march turns into so much to-do that this movement sounds like the finale, especially with bold descending scales and rousing drums at the end!

But a fourth movement, picking up with a minor variation, ends the piece. Tchaïkovsky is said to have cried a lot while mentally composing this symphony (The symphony was even nicknamed the “Pathétique”!), and this fourth movement allows one to imagine how he may have; it is incredibly moving. At its end, the audience clapped and clapped for an encore—though in France, apparently, the audience claps together at regular intervals to ask for an encore, as opposed to simply continuing to clap as we do in America. There were no encores, neither after the concerto nor after the symphony, but the audience still hoped for them, wishing that the enchantment would never end.

An American in Lille

My former coworker told me this past summer that I would really get to know myself in these seven months abroad. Ten years ago, she taught English through the Teaching Assistant Program in France, as I’m doing now. She lived in Paris — I’m living in Lille — but the program hasn’t changed much since then, and so I don’t know why I didn’t believe her; maybe it was that “getting to know yourself” sounded so clichéd to me, or that I couldn’t possibly foresee how exactly I would come to do such a thing (though that, I suppose, was the point). Only three and a half months in, however, I’ve found that in fact I have learned quite a bit about myself.

For example, I notice details. Our second night in Lyon, my friend Shelby and I were walking to the next light installation when to our left we passed someone sitting on a curb and someone standing beside him or her. When we were out of earshot, Shelby turned to me and said, “That’s the third time today I’ve seen someone comforting someone else.” I’m not even sure if the person sitting on the curb was male or female. But when we went to a church the next day, I noticed that the chandeliers were chains. Shelby notices things about people; I notice things that are static.

I love creating ambience. This because I bought a candle (Durance Fleur d’Eau — fresh yet wet like dew on lily petals, a touch musky and divine) and discovered that burning it whilst sipping a cup of tea after dinner is just lovely. I finally burned through it last night; it’s the first time I’ve burned through a whole candle!

In a somewhat more quirky way, I like learning names of plants (in French). So far, I’ve got le tilleul (lime tree), le chêne (oak tree), and le cerisier (cherry tree).

Lastly, I’ve a proclivity for mind-wandering whilst taking public transportation. I tend to have my most inspired thoughts on trains, though trams work well too. These thoughts are like dreams: if I don’t note them down immediately, I can’t remember them later.

As I was taking the tram home from work at the beginning of this week, I kept looking from side to side, first out the windows on the left side of the tram, then out the windows on the right, in an attempt to look at all of the buildings at once. I love the buildings here: not only are they adorable, but they’re also structurally very interesting. Two weeks or so before, I’d gone to a café where on display were postcards of the fronts of houses in cities around the world to which the artist had travelled; they captured the cities’ architectural design and, I think, even hinted at their respective ways of life.

I began thinking about cafés, the outdoor ones where people meet and sit at tiny tables and socialize over drinks and smoke, ones you’d be hard-pressed to find in the U.S. Though people most often daydream about such cafés in a Parisian setting, they exist throughout France and so are, in a way, the epitome of the French lifestyle, in which the pace of life is much slower than it is back home.

Naturally, I then thought about the espresso (ESPRESSO!!), all of the espressos I’ve been having and how I’ll miss them when I go back to the U.S., where all we have is coffee. I thought about going home, when the time comes, and how I’ll describe this seven-month adventure to prospective employers, let alone to myself. What have I been doing?

I’ve been:

  • Hopping around like a bunny while reading a story I wrote to my sixièmes, to get them excited about learning the rooms of a house
  • Teaching troisièmes Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”, in English
  • Speed practicing my spoken French with locals (it’s like speed dating, but totally platonic)
  • Reading books in French and writing, in a notebook, the definitions of words I don’t know
  • Searching for pink granite in Brittany, three hours by foot from the train station, without any idea of how I was going to catch my train back
  • Wandering the small streets of Montmartre in search of sunlight and flowers
  • Familiarizing myself with art (for example, I can tell a Dutch painting from a Spanish one from a French one)
  • Inspecting my first snowflake (snowflakes really do have six arms and mini crystals all over, just like in the pictures!)
  • Planning all of my travels to come

So far, I’ve travelled to Paris, Bordeaux, the Côte de Granit Rose, St. Malo, Quimper, Nantes, Lyon, Calais, Barcelona, and Prague, and I’ve a lot more destinations on my list. Before I came to France, I had the intention of spending my vacances (in the French school system, every six weeks is followed by a two-week break) travelling to countries nearby France, but once I arrived, I realized how much there is to see in this country alone: though France is but one-fourteenth the size of the U.S., it seems to me that there are more topographical and urban differences from one city to another here than there are in the U.S. Once I started travelling, I realized that the same places could be experienced much differently at different times of the year, and this, combined with the enormity of the number of places to go, as well as that of the number of things to do in each place, means that the possibilities for trips are very much endless.

Furthermore, in each place, I’ve noticed that people from the same culture may have very different ideas from one time to another about what’s beautiful. Take fashion, for example. In Lyon, which was once the capital of the silk industry in France, the Musée des Tissus has on display two dresses, one English and one French; the English one is characterized by its corset, the French one by the illusion it creates of hips that protrude at almost a 90-degree angle to the torso. Both silhouettes, one might imagine, were painful or at the very least uncomfortable, and the fact that women — let’s be honest, it was women who were most famously subjected to such fashions — willingly wore them or at least were obligated to wear them reflects a desire, always, to seek and to embody beauty, and it reveals something more about the individual society. Why the dramatically extended hips in France, and why at the end of the 18th century and not now? If such transformations take place within a single culture, it follows that two people from two wholly different cultures will have entirely different notions not only of beauty but also of how to live.

I came to France to practice my French and to travel in Europe, but I didn’t just want to travel: I wanted to live in another place for a while, to understand how a people lives differently. For what it’s worth, my friend David told me the other day when he met me on the steps of the opéra that I looked very European, sitting on the steps in my peacoat and scarf, so maybe I’ve come to live a little differently. 

I’ve noticed differences between French and American culture (more on this later), some which I like and some which I don’t, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the French are a beautiful people, just as one might find (I think) anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of horror in the world right now, but there’s a lot of beauty too, and I aspire to find it; I’ve gotten to know myself, but I’m on my way to knowing the world.