November 5, 2011

You and me and Lisa

Fifty-some years I had been waiting for this day. This Wednesday was the day, the day I was going to tour the Louvre, in Paris, France, the most famous art museum in the world.

My husband and I had never been anywhere out of the country, except for a few places in Ontario, Canada. Only a dim sum restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown was remotely exotic, with baskets full of chicken beaks and Chinese CNN blaring overhead.

On a  glorious October day in Paris, with the autumn sunlight diffused across the magnificent buildings of the City of Lights, I was going to fulfill a bucket list item, and visit the most famous museum in the world.
As our coach slid under the famous buildings to the underground parking lot, I was excited and apprehensive. Excited because of what this represented in my lifelong love of paintings, apprehensive because six weeks earlier I injured my left knee while moving boxes to our basement to prepare for a new kitchen.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Louvre, remembers the grand staircases from the movies. Would I be able to enjoy our visit, hobbling like Chester in Gunsmoke?  Would I ruin my husband's enjoyment of the day?

As we arrived, the tour guide suggested that we visit the restroom before we begin our tour.
Like many European “toilettes,” the Louvre’s basement commode had a one Euro admission fee. I gave the matron my euro and she escorted me into the back to my personal stall (which cost about $1.83 in American money on that day).
Having done my bidding, I tried to get out. The door was jammed. Seems the harder I tried to unlock it, the more jammed it became.
Stuck in the loo at the Louvre--was this just the hellish beginning of a never-to-be-forgotten day in Paris?
I didn't know the French word for help. I screamed “help” in English so loud that members of our tour group outside heard me. The matron came running, unjammed the door, escorted me outside and shoved a bottle of water at me. (The French have a marketing strategy for their pay toilette--free eau water assures return customers.)

Back with my group, my husband and I walked past a Starbucks and a number of upscale shops until we reached the famous upside down pyramid designed by American architect I.M. Pei.
Several years ago the French wanted a new entrance for the Louvre complex and sent the art and architecture world in a tailspin by using a modern design that features a large glass pyramid and several smaller ones. The upside down pyramid is a key feature in the Dan Brown book, The da Vinci Code, and a favorite meeting spot inside the museum.

It was at this iconic spot that I had my meltdown.
Still a little shaken by my incarceration in that bathroom Bastille, I began to realize the enormity of the museum and the task at hand.
After seven days on a tour, my knee was not in good shape and I couldn’t handle stairs or standing still. Much of visiting an art museum is that slow dance around the paintings or objects, and weaving around other tourists like the Frogger video game. It dawned me on that on this special day; I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with our tour.
I spoke with the tour guide, and told her that all I really wanted to see was “the big Three.” “The Big Three” are the most oft-visited pieces in the Louvre, Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and da Vinci’s iconic Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting in the world.

The tour guide, who didn’t recognize that I was in pain or upset, said, “Oh, those three are in a different museum.” She was kidding.

I burst into tears--big, wet tears that rolled down my cheek and onto the floor, tears in full view of everyone in my tour group.
Perhaps this is not a big deal to most people, but I am not a person who cries much at all. Usually crying sets off an asthma attack, so I’ve learned to keep it in check.
But not this time. I sobbed.
The combination of time change, excitement, pain, and frustration made me take off like a colicky baby, except with an audience of tourists in the basement of the Louvre.

The solution was obvious: a wheelchair. My husband gave his passport to the Information Desk (yes, they wanted his passport) and an old, blue hospital-style wheelchair appeared before our eyes.
I felt terribly guilty. I never park in handicapped spaces, because my husband’s mother had been  handicapped and I was always appalled at the number of people who had no regard for that, and zipped into the specially marked parking spaces. I’ve volunteered much of my life for community organizations that serve the disabled, so I just felt guilty.
My husband told me to “get over it” and we moved on to the glorious treasures inside the Louvre.

As it turned out, we had a superlative tour of the museum, seeing much more  than our group.  Because of the centuries-old superstructure of the building, elevators are scarce. To move from one floor to another requires moving through the labyrinth of galleries. We saw more of the museum than most people, including original versions of paintings we had seen the day before at the Palace of Versailles, including The Coronation of Napoleon and Marie Antoinette and her Children at Versailles..

Finally, the Big Three.  Winged Victory was beautiful. Imagine that she was carved in first century BC. 
The Venus de Milo from third century Greece was a dead ringer for my deceased Aunt Zoe. Venus, or Aphrodite in Hellenic times, is missing arms and stands in an oddly convoluted way. While others found this to be fascinating, I couldn’t help but wonder if Miss Venus also had knee pain.

We made our way with the throngs of tourists to a smaller gallery full of amazing paintings, and one small walled-off painting on a wall behind the entrance.  How many images of this painting have you seen?
Of course the most famous painting in the world is probablyLeonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, La Joconde as the French call her.
While scholars argue about whether this icon lives up to her billing, she represents a great treasure in western art, and I wanted to see it. Time after time, people are disappointed by the Mona Lisa because it is so difficult to get up close to the smaller-than-expected painting.  Tourists also often ignore three or more other da Vinci's in proximity to this painting in the Louvre.  As Americans, we only have one permanent exhibit of a da Vinci painting.  Ginevra de' Benci is also a painting of a young, attractive Italian noblewoman, and housed in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The Louvre has a special gallery for the Mona Lisa, and on the day we were there the gallery was filled with tourists, all holding their digital cameras up in the air to capture the famous painting. As my husband pushed me into the gallery, he was pulled to the side by our tour guide Isabella. Isabella told us that we could go up in front ahead of the rope line, behind which were hundreds of noisy, pushing art fans.

My husband pushed me directly in front of the painting, I took a picture, and we moved on.
But for one brief second there was no one else in the world, no one but my husband, me, and da Vinci’s most famous subject.
She smiled that sly smile at us, and her eyes followed us as we quickly merged back into the crowd.
Story and photos copyright by the author 2011.