Six days ago, we returned from a 10-day art and dessert-filled vacation in France. Articulating this only heightens the impulse to look behind me to see the actual person who made that trip. I am more of a car-camping, hoofing it in Mexico, risking salmonella kind of traveler. Instead, we tried escargot.
I guess I have taken a wee bit of pride in being the overly-educated underclass. Perhaps it is the steeping pot of “poor farmers daughter” mixed with a generous seasoning of liberation theology and a sprinkling of white guilt that created that. In college, my favorite peers were the “Value Village” gang. They shopped at thrift stores and pinched every toilet paper strip (but strangely always had enough money for beer and donuts.) Plus, I had a wicked crush on St. Francis.
Traveling in “Grand Pareeee” was not exactly like that. (Thank God for the Rick Steves guide which took away some of my guilt.) We stayed in a flat in a hip part of the city and consumed immoral quantities of baguettes and breakfast pastries. We lounged around art galleries taking in paintings of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and more dour portraits of sad-looking dignitaries than I care to remember. To say I felt like an imposter would be an understatement.
Guess what? I liked it! I enjoyed whisking around Paris with my mask on. My god, there are gargoyles from 1,200 still hawking over Notre Dame. Except for my aching hips and the impossibility of keeping up with my mountain-goat husband, I felt YOUNG! Better yet, it sparked my imagination.
“Bon Jour, Mr. Hemingway, how is your writing going?” “Fabulous use of color, Mr. Van Gogh. Who is that prostitute you are painting?” Or something like that.
At Versailles, the ostentatious “hunting cabin” of Kings Louix XIV – XVI which became the government headquarters, there is a single room called the Hall of Mirrors. It runs nearly the length of the palace with 17 full-length windows and 21 mirrors reflecting on each other. To add evening light to the room, there are 17 large chandeliers and 26 smaller ones adorning the room. It is an impressive and awe-inspiring room and space.
With the exception of the Hall of Mirrors, though, the palatial excess which adorns the entire space is, to me, oppressive. Wall to wall gold and cherubs and fabric. It marks the height of the French empire and it’s demise. And why not? It took 49% of the GNP to create it. A country cannot sustain that sort of spending nor those consumer values. (Take note, USA.) To them, I suppose it was both status and beauty.
To be fair, I believe beauty is a basic human need. Appreciating beauty, in its many forms, is one thing that keeps us living. My guess is that there was comfort and meaning in the many beautiful textiles that saturate the palace. The rich need beauty just as the poor do. The experience of beauty releases endorphines equivalent to love or a good run.
And yet, probably similar to you, I was schooled on the art of summer lakes and sunsets. Of wheat fields and sparkling frozen branches after a hard freeze. Of the harmonic lines of an endless sky falling on red rock canyons. Of a single columbine flower. Of a sweet-smelling newborn baby.
The rest is only a reflection of the real thing: a hall of mirrors, if you will.
As a musical artist, it is good to remember. What we create draws us to something real within ourselves and our world – something deeper than words and brush strokes and melody lines. For me, that something is God. What is it for you?