On Wednesday I woke up, drank some tea, brushed my teeth and took a day trip to Paris just to see one particular museum exhibition. It’s still new to be able to say that kind of thing about my life, so sometimes I like to start stories with it. This particular story actually begins with a very bad stomach bug that almost prevented me from fulfilling my pre-purchased trip to Paris and that left me kind of not wanting to go to Paris, something I’m sad to admit in retrospect. I was feeling a little down about Paris on Wednesday because a) my train was set to leave at six in the morning b) my illness prevented me from eating my way through the city’s patisseries and c) I was awake at the crack of dawn to travel 1.5 hours all to see an art exhibition. As I had already invested the money, I packed some nausea medication and caught up on sleep on the train.
There is good and bad in everything, especially in travelling, and especially in cities like Paris where the bad bits are proportional to the good. Living in France is stereotypically wonderful, yes, but it cannot be so every day, for fear of overwhelming my digestive system and going broke in a week. So Paris on an ordinary day is really cold, especially before the sun rises (if it rises), and the Tuileries gardens are flooded with the watered down sands of tourist season, footprints lost in wintery pits of water. When I arrived in Paris on Wednesday, stomach still throbbing, the city was freezing and dark and I was pushed out of the way by a hoard of black-suited people on their way to high-pressure jobs which exist, yes, even in Paris. I was standing in a puddle of mud in the Jardin des Tuileries, warming my hands with the friction of my wool coat and waiting for the Orangerie museum to open, when the sun rose, almost on cue at 8:30. There is good and bad in everything, especially in travelling, and especially in cities like Paris, but the good bits are all the greater for the bad ones. Paris is even wonderful in the cold with a stomachache and the empty Tuileries gardens are beautiful even in the early morning of winter, when the only place to stand is in a giant mud bath.
Eventually, the museum opened and I entered gratuitement (another wonderful thing about Paris—anyone under 26 with a permanent residency gets free entry to national museums) to see the temporary installation on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, another two people who would agree that there is good and bad in everything. The whole exhibition was a vision of contrast and concordance—Frida’s works are generally smaller in size and pastoral in theme, while Diego is famous for his loud murals—and for me, finding a piece of Latin America in Paris was an unexpected alignment of my studies in French and Spanish. I felt immediately guilty for considering skipping the excursion and immersed myself in planning the next seven hours down to the minute in order to exploit the rare sunny day.
My stomach began to feel better as the sun rose and as I drank uncalled for amounts of water in public—clearly an American tourist! This was the first bright day I think I have ever experienced in Paris, and though it was still freezing, the city looked so much warmer in the light. I wandered around the Père Lachaise cemetery for several hours, as I had never had a rain-free opportunity to do so, and then grabbed lunch at an out-of-the-way, tiny restaurant that held only five tables, one of my favorite hobbies in France being the discovery of local dives. Lunch was a three-course meal complete with red wine, velouté de potiron (pumpkin soup), crevettes au riz (a Spanish dish of shrimp and wild rice) and a café, an ironic combination of flavors that merged my interests just as the earlier museum exhibition had done. After lunch, I found the energy to hike through Montmartre and revisit Sacre Coeur, admire the Christmas decorations at the Galleries LaFayette and then make my way to the Louvre around 6pm to take some night shots of the pyramid and use my all-important secret visa entry just to revisit my favorite statue of Amour et Psyché. I have a not-so-secret addiction to Paul, the French fast-food sandwich shop that hasn’t made it to Troyes, so I made it back to the train station just in time to grab my favorite sandwich and macaron combination and then pass out on the train.
Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived a turbulent life. Both were married multiple times and even divorced from and then remarried to each other one year later, always fighting and cheating and producing art to match their passionate rage. Many people ignored Frida’s artistic skill and saw her as the wife of Diego Rivera, who was in turn often scorned for his sacrilegious themes. I overheard a tour guide at the exhibition explain to her American art students that “Nul n’est prophète en son pays”—“Nobody is a profit in his own country.” The exhibition seemed to skim over the turbulent parts of the lives of Frida and Diego, focusing only on the following that they have gathered in today’s world. Though the exhibition is wonderful, I felt it lacked the ebb-and-flow that helped produce the genius behind Frida and Diego’s works. Is there no fulfillment without struggle, no satisfying ending without a turbulent plot? Or is it just because I know the full story that I crave the missing chapter? Paris isn’t Paris without the early train ride and the damp morning air in the Tuileries, and perhaps an untimely stomach bug. Can we ever appreciate life without the hard bits that make things like sunshine enjoyable? Can we truly love without having felt despair? It turns out, I couldn’t have picked a better day to learn about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Paris, for Frida Kahlo used to say that she had two accidents in her life—the infamous car crashed that forever altered her spine but began her artistic career, and Diego, the man she loved and despised. I wonder, if she could go back, if she would erase the wonders of her life in order to not have to experience the horrors. But that doesn’t seem like Frida, a woman who loved both the good and the bad.