Alive on Arrival
How Thomas Jefferson, Eduoard Manet, and I managed our arrivals in Paris
On Fridays I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (You can find the first entry here.) It tells the story of my road through Paris, London, and Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living.
How wonderful was it that in France, even in 1978, that it wasn’t a mere train that I took to Versailles, it was an “iron path” there, which even I knew was the literal translation of chemins de fer. I’d genuflected in front of the Edouard Manet painting by that name at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., depicting a red-faced Parisian lady with a puppy and a book in her lap, facing the painter, while a little girl — back to the viewer — grasps the iron barrier that frames the scene, watching a passing train. All we see of the train is a trailing cloud of steam.
Maybe I was that little girl, grasping at the iron bars, observing the freedom beyond.
And I was more than ready to meet my Victorine Meurent, the florid lady of “Chemins de Fer.” She had more reason for a red face as depicted in Manet’s “Olympia,” where she was confrontingly naked, and or in “Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe,” where she was picnicking nude with two innattentive guys.
Pass the fried chicken, s’il vous plait. May I hoover up those crumbs in your decolletage?
Manet was born in Paris in 1832, so he had a home-court advantage in recruitment of naked ladies. The country’s national symbol, Marianne, can barely be bothered to button her blouse even as she marches into battle. She’s said to be the intersection of Reason and Liberty, so when she brandished her sword, I felt invited to appreciate all the sorts of freedom she might be advocating.
Manet’s personal liberties were limited by his father Auguste, a judge, who wanted his son to follow him into jurisprudence. But first, he packed the 16-year-old Eduoard off on a steamer to Rio de Janeiro, to launch his naval career. The young man twice failed the Naval entrance exam, which freed him to return to Paris and open his art studio in 1856, copy the old masters in the Louvre, then scandalize the salon in 1863 by exposing Victorine’s navel (and everything else) in “Olympia.”
By dragging Edouard Manet — and Chemin de Fer — into my first trip to Versailles, you might imagine that I am attempting to insert myself among the glorious arrivals in Paris.
Mais non. Thomas Jefferson nailed that one, on August 6, 1784.
Jefferson arrived in Paris with his 9-year old daughter Patsy, and newly widowed. According to The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, by William Adams, he took rooms at the Hôtel d’Orléans, hired a valet and a business manager, and bought eighteen bottles of Bordeaux for ready consumption: He didn’t yet have a wine cellar to store them in. Tant pis, right? He also welcomed into his circle a man named Charles Williamos, who may have been a spy for the recently vanquished British. Jefferson sent him packing when he tried to stick him with some tailoring bills.
See, I told you there were significant differences between TJ et moi.
But that’s the thing about arrivals: We all make them, somewhere, before stepping forward to whatever our fate may be.