We left Pine Knoll farm in the frost. There was a bite to the wind, and the wind swept the frost into the air and it was cold on our bare hands and faces as we hurried to prepare the farm for the remaining winter without us. Pine Knoll has been our home since the summer of 2015, and like all places that have been inhabited for some time, the preparation for travel requires the rhythm and various appendages of domestic life to be neatly arranged to rest until the homeowner’s return. The house was cleaned and tidied, the studio was swept and my newest series, “Lethe,” was laid dormant under unfolded New York Times and Wall Street Journal newspapers, many of which wore the scarred remnants of the Presidential Election; the pigs’ food was prepared to last the period of four months, and their apartment – as we lovingly call it – was piled with fresh straw for the impending cold nights. Paddy, our Saluki-Wolfhound, slunk around the house, his neck long and head low, understanding the changes abound. Life in one place slows in order for life in another to animate. As we stowed the usual objects of our life away, I understood that new experiences would soon fill the voids created by curtailed routine.
Icelandic airlines is a good airline if one favors the necessity of travel over the desire of luxury. It is inexpensive and efficient. The stewards and stewardesses are purposefully built, and control the cabin with alacrity and stoic precision. Our flight is easy and worry-free. For all of the complaints that air travel elicits and endures, it is an incredibly easy and relatively comfortable form of travel. I imagine my American predecessors who once chanced tempests at sea in order to cross the wide Atlantic to reach the northern coasts of France and begin their own Grand Tour.
I always feel a heavy longing to ground and explore when flying over the frozen tundra of northern Canada, across Hudson Bay, and further north over canine-teeth-like mountains of Southern Greenland. Like most regions defined by ice and cold, these parts of the world have long elicited my fascination; perhaps it is unforgiving cold I feel akin to, or a reverence for life that persists there. Bowhead whales, who come into the bays of the arctic early in the Spring, cracking channels on the sea-ice with their powerful heads, are some of the oldest living and lived animals on earth; what wisdom they must possess living amongst symphonies of musical ice; however, quieting now—the staccato crack, creak, pop--with each passing numerably warmer year.
Reykjavik is very cold and black at 7:20 A.M. local time. The frigid, salty air is a welcome sensation after 9 hours in a stuffy cabin, and it cures my unusual nausea. Morgan is in good spirits and is upbeat and alert as we deplane and race through nonchalant customs to catch our connection to Paris, the “City of Light.” A fitting destination considering the unrelenting darkness of Icelandic winters; however, I must admit, I am eager to experience and endure the Nordic winter night someday, sometime; it is a seasonal lack that fosters incredible creativity.
The 4 hours to Paris are experienced in fragmented moments between sleepy head-nods and hypnopompic reveries. I only remember the occasional brush of the stewardess’ thigh against my shoulder.
Paris is enveloped in freezing fog. Visibility is next to none, and we land without the comforting visual of tarmac. Charles De Gaul is quiet. Few tourists. Our bags arrive promptly. No further customs. No taxi line. A quiet ride through the fog of late morning into the outer arrondissements of Paris.
The murmur of the morning is met by the bustle of mid-day Parisian life: roaring lories, ballets of bicyclists, and the constant tributaries of walkers amongst the grandeur of the most impressive city on earth, sending its prayers to heaven through cigarette smoke.
On a crosswalk island are 3 young boys and a girl, clad in exhausted clothes, leaning on a construction barricade, holding a hastily written sign that reads in translated French, “Syrian Refuges. Please, money for food.” The oldest, the girl, is only 15 at best. The others appear to be pre-teens. Women and children. No walkers acknowledge them. No cars stop in the incessant flow of traffic to offer aid. They are outsiders within the city. Alone and paused within the motion progressing life. The light turns green and our taxi carries on.
I find that the bustle of the city has become unfamiliar to me, and I’m simultaneously unnerved and fascinated by the interworking. Our life on the farm has lulled me into the rhythm of the pastoral – a beautiful rhythm, and perhaps a more natural one (if there is such a term anymore) – but already I can feel an uptick. The dissonant and jumpy opening to Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (the Leonard Bernstein arrangement) comes to mind. Suddenly (for aren’t new experiences often sudden!) our taxi turns right onto our rue. Life slows again with the stopping of our taxi; the second movement opens with a sweet and lonely clarinet…
Our rue is quintessential St. Germain: the narrow stone sidewalks are lined with tall rectangular glass windows that display Parisian fineries: tailored winter clothing, dark satin boxes of chocolates, and the pastel casings of seemingly weightless macrons. Above the shops rise the apartments, small canyons of white stone 5 stories high, with angled attics capped in dark tin that turns black in the rain. Higher still, above the tin roofs, can be seen the two bell-towers of the Romanesque Church of Saint-Sulpice, which punctuate the foggy skyline in equal measure with the other impressive landmarks of the city.
We’re early, and must wait for Alex; a man with whom we’ve had little correspondence, but who is responsible for initially letting us into our apartment. We thank our taxi driver in timid French, and arrange our bags against the nearest building as to not block the busy sidewalk. It’s midday on a Wednesday and the rue is filled with people. Some walk with the purpose of a destination and the constraint of time, but most folks plod, hands often folded behind their back, to look in the windows and occasionally stop to consider whatever it is the storefront offers. One may enter a shop empty handed, and exit eating from a box of chocolates. Walks here are opportune to such twists of fate (or possibility, as the case may be).
Alex arrives by moto. He is a handsomely built Frenchman of average height, who is dressed nicely in a trim, fur-collared parka to combat the cold. His eyes are deep and energetic, and his close-cropped hair is thinning a bit at the crown. He speaks English well through thick French inflection, and intones an enthusiastic “Elloo!” upon our meeting. He doesn’t seem to mind my English, but I am self-conscious of my language. I want to be able to speak French in Paris, and I do not wish to be regarded as the stereotypical American who expects all tongues, regardless of place, to speak English. I am at the mercy of my own ability. It is a powerless position, albeit a rectifiable one.
Alex punches in the code and leads us through two large and weathered dark green doors into a cobble stone courtyard. It’s quiet. The bustle of the street is shut out behind us. There is a secret garden on the far end of the courtyard, with large trees that grow to the third story. Most curtains are drawn in the windows that face the courtyard, but through the lace of the ground floor window I see a woman tending to plants on the sill. I do not mean to look, but the eye is attracted to movement. Light green carriage doors dot the inner square, though I’m unsure of what they contain. One could imagine the shadows of horse-drawn carriages leading out of the entryway into the streets of the Belle Epoch.
The reality of six flights of narrow spiral stairs and no lift interrupts the timeless reverie, and we heave our 6 bags of various sizes -- brimming with 3 months’ worth of supplies -- up each worn wooden step. These stairs inspire the same kind of confidence that a tilt-a-whirl at the fair does: blind faith says that it is safe, but the angles and movement paired with the logic of even the most illogical man suggests otherwise. They are charming, however; it is my fondness for the well-used and well-crafted: a history assigned to many structures in Paris. Each flight of the six flights is punctuated by a small landing and a single door to an apartment. The doors are all blue, but each one (I notice as we ascend) is differentiated by their keyhole and doormat; one pictures two elves sitting on their own respective toadstools – a remnant, no doubt, of recent Christmas. The stairway is littered with the slender needles of dry Christmas trees, which like all items that decorate these apartments, must be carried up and down the spiral stairs.
At the top is a narrow, meandering hallway lined in hexagonal red tiles. I recognize these tiles from some old photographs of Picasso’s Paris studio. I remember his specifically because I was amazed at their cleanliness; I can only presume that he found them equally striking and therefore worthy of keeping clean.
Our apartment is at the end of the zigzagging hallway that has been marked – not in a dirty way, but rather in a historical way – by the many objects that have grazed through, and we accidentally add our own history to the record. Alex stands in the open doorway, framed by the light blue paint, to welcome us into our new home.
It is always a relief to reach one's destination when traveling, especially one that is warm and safe, and where one may unpack to live without the immediacy of further travel. Relief quickly becomes exhaustion, as if the collective taxing moments of travel are realized at once. I collapse onto the couch.
"No!" Morgan excitedly, albeit wearily says, "Get up! We have much to do..."