from rocket science to the poetry of peeling wallpaper

It was a bright day in August,at last sparkling with enough sunlight to restore our summer mood after a string of rain-soaked days. The kind of day to joyously set out on a trip (1).

A small digression about cars & trains

Traffic was smooth since not that many people hit the road for Northern France on a summer day. Traffic … car traffic! While certainly not about to burst into a laudatory post about cars, I confess not being entirely immune for car-travelling romance: imagine driving along highways through vast planes, under wide skies, on the tunes of “born to be wild”.
And, from a visual point of view: how seducing is the always receding vanishing point of a long,long road stretching out in front of you (train travelers usually don’t get to enjoy this frontal viewpoint) (2)

A car also allows you to visit many “worlds” in a single day – you can for instance go to an ancient rocket launch base & war memorial in the morning, admire the landscape from a charming old French town on top of a sunny hill at noon and participate in a Flemish art& poetry happening in late afternoon.

Mixing worlds & moods may offend a sense of propriety or of due concentration (3), but is of course quite the stuff of vigorous life itself with its diversity of appeals to our attention.

Into the rocket base!!!

But so, on a bright August day this melancholy flâneur was unleashed in the ancient underground WWII rocket base of La Coupole (4)

It could easily have become a sheer amusement park where one can gleefully reenact scientific & military adventures , drooling over engine replica’s, technical drawings and real life weaponry. But this ancient base was also turned into a historical remembrance center, evoking the sufferings of war in Northern France.

Our visit took over 2.5 hours – wandering through chilly underground corridors enlivened by “James Bond” like missile launch simulations, paying close attention in educational rooms explaining the basic physics & mathematics of rocket science, watching the documentaries with testimonies, old photos & drawings evoking the horrors and the human sufferings during war time....

What a despicable species we are ...

Thus, for the more impressionable amongst us, this visit is not merely a history tour, but becomes a vivid evocation of the alternating urges that have always ruled human behavior:
• there’s the sheer intellectual fascination for scientific &technical exploits, for facts & figures that are logically combined in a rational discourse
• there’s the vivacious zest for adventure and action and heroic deeds
• there’s the appeal to our reflection and empathy, the impotent acknowledgement of so much – far too much - suffering & pain & death, materializing in a mute cry of horror, in the upwelling of dry tears

And obviously, immersion in scientific adventures and heroic action is much more fun than impotent reflection and empathy (5).
But, maybe just maybe, with a bit more reflection and empathy, those V2 rocket-engineers would have had some qualms of conscience? Instead of standing there grinning …. as shown by that unforgettable photo: a bunch of grinning brilliant nazi engineers , proudly cheering the successful trial-launch of a rocket, seemingly oblivious of the death & destruction their contraption will bring about.

But the sun is shining brightly in the sky!
Yet upon leaving the memorial center, we ourselves too, as healthy, fun-loving specimens of the human race disposing of a car, sought out more joyful stimuli for the rest of the day. Happily we motored through a lovely landscape: so soothing, so forgetful, so beautiful, so indifferent to human follies ....(6).
And we enjoyed the wide view from the top of a hill, we sipped from our drinks on a terrace in the pretty town of Cassel and took full pleasure in all the lovely sights, in the sweet breeze and the benign sun.

Art to the rescue?

Yet a ponderous flâneur can of course not leave it at that, she couldn’t possibly finish this post upon so bucolic and hedonistic a note!

And as a matter of fact the same day still brought other sensations too: poetic fragments & artistic interventions in the streets and houses of a little Flemish town in the country . And perhaps for the first time that day I felt like coming home, to be amongst kindred spirits: reflecting & remembering humans, restoring some dignity to the transience of human lives and their earthly homes.
One artist let a light beam illuminate the old fashioned , peeling wallpaper in a vacant parsonage, other artists would gently invade an abandoned rest home and amidst the echoes of declining retired lives one could slowly read poems, or be startled by loose wires and tubes (which were fake but evoked so well the undoing of abandoned houses). Ah, how soothing I found this tender play of imagination and understanding …

Will art save the world? No. Can art redeem suffering? No. Is art an escape from worldly duties? Perhaps (but a necessary one, to restore our spirits, so as not to pass too pessimistic a judgment on the human condition). Are aesthetic pleasures as a-moral as strictly sensuous and intellectual pleasures? Possibly. But still. And yet. Art at least is not as indifferent to human presence and experiences as a landscape is. Art at least is not as oblivious of human sensibilities as purely intellectual-technical reasoning is.

But ah … it was getting late …. time for another meal on yet another lovely terrace …. time to walk back to the car in the setting sun …. and cast a glance on the local 1914-1918 monument, smiling at those old-fashioned engraved names and noting with amazement, oh three brothers who all perished in the same month.

good thing there are the notes to harbor more brooding
(1) As distinguished from days when one dutifully sets out for a trip, eg when it’s the first day of your summer holidays and the rain is pouring down.
(2) So far this tribute to “rock ‘n roll car romance” from one a> who has to swallow anti car sickness pills to limit the rocking & rolling car damage to a mere headache, b> who thoroughly resents not being able to read while just sitting there, c> who draws elation & consolation from the unplugged sensuous purity of intertwining melodies rather than from beats & guitar screeches. And the obstinate train lover in me furthermore wants to point out that a train traveler gets something even better than “the frontal vanishing point”: the mysterious glimpses of a far off horizon whenever the train wheezes through a hard bend.
(3) The insufferable train purist in me wants to point out that “visiting many worlds in a single day” leads to a deplorable scattering of attention & concentration. The curse of shallowness is not far off!
(4) As a matter of fact this German rocket base never quite managed to fire a rocket in WWII since it was discovered by the Allies before it could get fully operational.
(5) and of course reflection& empathy are impotent and merely depressing and so may seek release in rage, rage at all those human specimens who oblivious of human suffering, blithely engage in scientific projects without ever pondering consequences. This rage, not wanting to remain impotent, will then itself enlist action and scientific exploits to crush the objects of its rage. Yah. The human species in action! Take the single-minded , brilliant
Wernher von Braun , oblivious (was he?) of the gruesome exploitation of the forced laborers in his base, undisturbed by the death & misery brought about by his V2 combat rockets. And living happily ever after, never ever brought to justice since the American military was all too keen to enlist this rocket-scientist for its own space programs. …
(6) Anyone who has ever visited the world war I memorials in Flanders Fields will have been struck by the contrast formed by the photos of war-torn battlefields (deserts strewn with barbed wire & dead bodies, towns and trees burnt down) with the present day prim & fertile Flemish landscape, with its neat little towns brimming with economic activity.
(7) Art …. reenacting both stark crucifixions and the endearing dalliances of colour & light …. As Bernard Marcadé wrote on the Belgian artist James Ensor : « Citoyen du « pays solitaire de narquoisie » Ensor a consacré l’essentiel de sa vie à la lumière et aux couleurs, en même temps qu’il pourfendait de façon acerbe les vilenies et petitesses de la nature humaine. […] La double exigence d’un homme partagé entre le plaisir voluptueux de peindre et la nécessité de faire rendre gorge aux turpitudes humaines. […] Les auréoles du Christ ou les sensibilités de la lumière. »

for the love of trains

“I love trains, and they have always loved me back. What does it mean to be loved by a train? Love, it seems to me, is that condition in which one is most contentedly oneself. If this sounds paradoxical, remember Rilke’s admonition: love consists in leaving the loved one space to be themselves while providing the security within which that self may flourish”.  (Tony Judt)  (1)

Sitting contentedly in a train, absorbed in some abstruse book, or engrossed in the erratic dance of light-patches…. enveloped in the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours” ….

Yes, certainly,I love trains, and they have always loved me back.

My enduring love-affair with trains probably dates back to childhood, in particular to the yearly family holiday to the South of France. Our train-trip would start in a sooty but still grand Brussels station (quite impressive for the provincial little girl I was) , where we would board a night train from the venerable “Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lit” (2)

Of course, the objects of my travel-contentment were not the same as now: at that time I doted on the comic-books and peaches my parents dealt out to keep us quiet, and even on the cute little plastic cutlery that went with the packaged meals distributed by the train attendant. My elder sisters, while also keen on comics & peaches, did not compete for the cutlery, but rather swooned over the male attendant.

As to the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours”, instead of a poetic incantation, it was a most sensuous and sleepy rhythm indeed back then: to my great delight, at night, the seats of our compartment were transformed into 6 sleeping bunks with real sheets & blankets & pillows.

Round about 9PM my parents invariably would start worrying about the train attendant not showing up in time to perform this remarkable transformation . My 2 sisters and I further added to my parent’s stress by quarreling over who would get the top-bunk. But in the end all the family members would join in the merry hunt for the diverse light switches, with my father authoritatively seizing control of the main switch.

In the morning I would excitedly climb down out of my bunk and look out of the window to discover a southern sunlit landscape with beige-colored houses having wooden shutters. My parents would be swapping sleepless stories of all the nightly stops & shouts & murmurs that had kept them awake, but which for me had only been enchanting echoes to my train dreams. And then of course started the big morning rush to the lavatories & washing facilities, with each family egoistically monopolizing a washing facility for all of its members.

After the washing ritual, my sisters would be allowed to wander about the train, taking stock of the other teenagers, peeping into the attendant’s compartment , starting to plan their activities at the holiday resort. I would stand in the narrow passage way just outside our compartment, looking out of the window (with the beloved “e pericoloso sporgersi” admonition and the red sign prohibiting the throwing of bottles). And I would feel, already then, the seductive transience of travelling, with its mixture of great expectations and melancholy.

(1) Tony Judt In love with trains NYRB March 2010 Issue
The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits also operated the Orient Express

one could also go to Saint-Tropez

Summertime, holiday time !!! For sea, sun and sand, please click here. (1) For meandering musings, do read on.

As you may have noticed, dear reader, I suffer from a particular nervous affliction: while sorely lacking all natural zest for useful practicalities, I definitely perk up amongst dead spirits and fantasies (2).
Not that I haunt cemeteries or study the Kabbalah – no, mine is a very humanistic kind of spirituality, finding elation (almost) only (3) when layers of man-made signs allow my imagination to reconstruct meaning & beauty.

Thus, strolling through the Parc Monceau in Paris, I could not but revel in all those traces of a certain (past) Parisian “haute bourgeoisie” way of life. There is the little pseudo-roman temple at the park-entry (which houses quite decent lavatory services - honoring the Paris habit to offer public services in style).
There are the magnificent wrought-iron gates, the stately broad park avenues with their worn iron name plates commemorating the great French writers of the past (la Comtesse de Ségur!).
And the kiosk … an iron& wood & glass construction in the best public garden tradition which sells classical (4) garden toys in merry colors alongside ice cream and lollies (& delicious croissants!).
The whole conjures up images of nannies wearing starched aprons, keeping an eye on the amusements of the well behaved local bourgeois children. The adult bourgeois locals (as well as my retrograde imagination) would of course have been enchanted also by some of the more adventurously winding garden paths, by the enigmatic Egyptian pyramid on the lawn, or by the ponderous pond surrounded by a melancholy Antique colonnade.

The surrounding broad, tree-lined streets with their marvelous mansions ooze an effortlessly elegant Parisian grandeur. A worthy neighborhood for the Cernuschi museum, which houses the (very rich) private collection of Asian art gathered by the (very rich) 19th C banker Henry Cernuschi.
The vestibule is chic and hushed, making one at once feel a privileged visitor (but entry is free!). Then, there’s the elation of mounting those regal stairs, which are flanked by two huge & exquisite Chinese vases. Only to be dumb-struck a bit later by the formidable presence of a larger than life Buddha. Then, the sheer wonder of gazing at artifacts spanning continents and millennia….
And all the time: the soothing presence of large windows looking out over a very green garden, allowing tired eyes to drift off for a while amongst sunlit foliage.

Still under the impression of the Cernuschi-plendor, aimlessly ambling on in the neighborhood, I soon stumbled on another sublime mansion turned into museum: le Musée Nissim de Camondo.

Here one is enchanted to discover the lavish tribute a Turkish born (in 1860) French banker ( from a Sephardic Jewish family who made their fortune in Constantinople) pays to the French 18th C decorative arts, the life-long object of his collector’s passion .
The interior, abounding with époque furniture, draperies, objects and paintings, is luxuriant, sumptuous …. and yet delicate & graceful – the spirit of the 18th C French decorative genius captured. And the imagination is treated to yet an extra dimension in time and space …. by an exhibit of sepia photographs of a mysterious 19th C Constantinople and of the Camondo ancestors in exotic traditional dress.

Yet, amidst all this marvel, heart & eyes are moved perhaps most by some quiet light filtering through a gauze curtain, a fleeting reflection on a glass pane, by an empty chair standing by a window looking out into the garden, or by a mere shadow in a hall-corner.
This fabulous museum is also a reminder of the vanity of riches; tinged as its history is with melancholy. Moïse Camondo, the rich passionate collector, ended up giving his collection and his house to the French state, demanding it would be named after his son and alas never-to- be heir: Nissim de Camondo, who at age 25 died in an air battle in the first world war.

Ah, pondering & wondering at signs …
Now I don't ponder & wonder only in consciously aesthetically contrived surroundings. There’s for instance this other image from my Paris-visit that lingers on: in those “Roman-temple”-lavatories in the Monceau park, behind an iron gate fencing off the service quarters from the public area, one could spot a small stock of cleaning materials, a bucket & brush-with-towel ànd a flaming red plastic toy tractor, about toddler-size.
I was captivated by that little scene, framed by pseudo-roman columns, because it was a slice of suspended life, looking as if at any moment a child would burst in and mount its toy tractor, while its parent would grab the bucket and go on about his or her cleaning chores.

Also, I could not ignore that most (not all!) of the strolling or jogging park visitors as well as most (not all!) of the museum visitors where white or Asiatic while the majority (not all!) of the attendants (in lavatories, in the kiosk, at the ticket office) were black or of Maghreb-descent. Neither could I fail to notice, on signs in the window of a nearby real estate agency, that the quoted price of, say, a 50 square meter studio in the Monceau-neighborhood is above 400.000 Eur.

But does this mean that the aesthetic and imaginative delights of this neighborhood should be shunned? Written off as mere play-things of the ruling classes, discounted as the despicable fruit of social exploitation and ill gotten capitalist riches?

No. I mean: oh please, for chrissakes no!!

What a cruel waste of potential joy & happiness that would be! However embedded in a bourgeois culture, these are still aesthetic and imaginative delights that can be tasted by all, if only given the chance and some kind of introduction by a mentor (alive or in book-form).

This is written in all honest naiveté and I do hope to prove my good faith by the story of my own late conversion.
Actually, I became sensitive to (classical) aesthetics rather late. For a long time , in my youthful city explorations, I spurned ‘officially’ picturesque sites or famous “old masters” museums , preferring to explore more neglected neighborhoods (5) .
It was an almost chance encounter with some ‘old master’ paintings (6) which “hurt and connect”, that made me curious about this powerful effect of aesthetics and high art.
And I am not ashamed to confess that it is the reading (at age 30 or so) of the best-selling book by Gombrich, “The Story of Art” (written in fact for teenagers) which marked the beginning of my passion for art history books.

Now to further appease lingering doubts of anxious post-colonial blog-readers out there, yes after my Monceau-tour I also went to visit the Quai Branly museum built to embody President Jacques Chirac's politically correct dream of French multiculturalism “. And yes, I did come under the spell of those wondrously ponderous masks.

Notes including an opinion poll about Brigitte Bardot and a question about multi-coloured propeller toys

(1) Sun, Sea & Sand: yes, prudishly eluding that other S-Word , convinced as I am that my blog readers don’t need the web for thàt. This being said – I do want to attract attention to the Saint-Tropez Tourist Office announcement of a
Brigitte Bardot exhibit. (But then again, are there any Bardot-fans amongst my select blog readership? Do let me know!)
(2) This rumination about dead spirits & fantasies of course echoes the Proust passage I read this morning: « Qui a raison du fossoyeur ou d’Hamlet quand l’un ne voit qu’un crâne là où le second se rappelle une fantaisie? La science peut dire : le fossoyeur ; mais elle a compté sans Shakespeare, qui fera durer le souvenir de cette fantaisie au-delà de la poussière du crâne. » (La bible d’Amiens, préface du traducteur)
(3) “Finding elation (almost) only amidst man-made signs” - Sorry C, that’s of course without counting you – (and anyway, there’s the “almost” qualification , dedicated to you and to sensual autumnal breezes, rays of sunlight on a tile floor, the sun hot on my skin, the smell of a park after the rain, crisp croissants et j’en passe)
(4) “Classical” in the sense of some happy form that has hardly changed since it was perfected long ago: such as red balloons, pink hoops, multi-colored mini-propellers-on-a stake - which -turn-dizzyingly-in-the-wind. (How on earth are these things called? Please let me know , together with your feelings about Brigitte Bardot)
(5) And I will always remain sensitive to the poignancy of “neglected neighborhoods”; partly out of melancholy disposition and partly out of an acute realist observer’s interest in signs of urban life & decay. Witness my Flickr-photostream dedicated to
Charleroi ….
(6) Notably, Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath” and Titian’s “Noli me tangere”
(7) Quote from concierge travel guide