Helen Bar-Lev was born in New York in 1942. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology, has lived in Israel for 44 years and has held over 90 exhibitions of her landscape paintings, 33 of which were one-woman shows.
Her poems and artwork have appeared in numerous online and print anthologies. Collections: “Cyclamens and Swords and other poems about the land of Israel”, and “The Muse in the Suitcase”, both with Johnmichael Simon, illustrated by Helen. “In Moonlight the Sky Will Slide” with Katherine L. Gordon. “Everything Today”, a not-what-you-expect book of poetry about colours with her colour illustrations, and “Love Letters, the Alphabet Falls In Love with Itself”, are Helen's latest collections. “Canvas Calendar”, a collection with poems of seven poets from different climate zones, is edited and illustrated by Helen.
Helen was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013. She is Assistant to the President of Voices Israel group of poets in English and Senior Editor of Cyclamens and Swords Publishing. She lives in Metulla, Israel with her partner Johnmichael Simon. www.helenbarlev.com
The following work is copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
An Artist in Paris
It was the year the Berlin Wall came down. The year of the big earthquake in San Francisco, 1989. I saw both on the TV of my hostess in Paris, Mme. Boehm. French by birth, 58 years old, she had converted to Judaism, was in the process of translating the Talmud into French. Her husband of many years continued to attend church on Sunday.
What was even more distinctive about this couple, besides the above, were her disproportionately wide hips, their perfect English and the Volvo they drove. The only car in Paris I saw that was not French made.
Madame Boehm was a glaring contradiction to nearly all other Frenchmen who were not only sullenly anti-Jewish, but also anti-everything-not-French; they seemed to have perfected disdain to an art. As though it were a required course in primary school, or a matter of good etiquette– the manner in which they would snap their heads up and to the left so that you could see into their nostrils. Uttering a little “huff” to further emphasize their scorn. The women would, in addition, flick their elegant scarves over the right shoulder – head to the left, scarf to the right, and off they would trot. This happened time and again when I tried to speak the French I had studied semester after semester in college, listening to the French news at home, reading French newspapers. After a short while something inside me, not waiting for my permission, refused to speak the language. My psyche was on strike.
My first visit had been the previous year, and then, like everyone else who has never been to Paris before, I was enchanted. Nothing about the city nor its people had particularly disturbed me. Probably because I was there with a French friend, so perhaps I didn’t pay attention to the hostility towards foreigners, strangers.
This time I had to be there for two months, more than the usual superficial touristy sightseeing. There was to have been an exhibition of my watercolours of Jerusalem at a gallery which had been agreed upon the year before. As prearranged with the gallery owner, I had sent forty-one paintings via a friend before I arrived. When I went there the gallery was gutted and undergoing extensive renovation. I was distraught, could not sleep for nights. Mme. Boehm somehow discovered that M. LeChat had recently announced to his wife and four children that he was gay, sold the gallery and went to live with his lover. Through mysterious connections she had the paintings returned and arranged for an exhibition on Rue de Sienne, right in the middle of the gallery area on the Rive Gauche and a much more prestigious location. She even printed up invitations without telling me, knowing that this luxury was beyond my starving-artist means. They were beautiful – the picture she had chosen was of an old gnarled olive tree I had painted inside a French Monastery in Jerusalem, where I first met Mme. Boehm two years before. “Magnifique! You have captured its soul” she had exclaimed when she saw me working on it then. And invited me to Paris.
Opening night. An artist’s nightmare. My paintings were in the very back of the gallery in an area where no one would think to go. No announcement of the exhibition on the window or outside or anywhere. “Oh, no, I cannot. The artist exhibiting in front will not permit me”, exclaimed the gallery owner, M. Poisson, and refused to discuss it again. What an elegant gallery, what a tattered man! His sweater stained, torn at the elbows. Eyes a bulging brown. Thin. Was this considered artsy? Was he starving in empathy with his artists? I wondered how much Mme. Boehm had bribed him to agree to exhibit my paintings.
After the opening the Boehms invited me and a few others to dinner at a posh restaurant, portions small and digestible, as the French sensibly do. Dessert though was an enormous goblet of chocolate mousse placed in the middle of the circular table. Everyone dipped their spoons in and ate. Suddenly the waiter came and whisked the unfinished mousse away while we were in mid-scoop, the goblet not nearly empty. Would he recycle it? Paris was full of surprises. And, surprise surprise, I did sell paintings, but behind M. Poisson’s back. Friends of the Boehms and others who had seen the exhibition came to me and made whispered arrangements. It paid the cost of the gallery and invitations. Sweet revenge, M. Poisson…
During this interval I strolled Paris’ streets. Walked until my feet refused to respond to my commands. I explored all the arondissements, went through the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay (my favourite because of the impressionist painters) many times. Sipped tea at outdoor cafes and sketched and sketched. Went to concerts in musty old churches and sketched.
The rain renders Paris even more attractive. Its streets and boulevards transform into mirrors and its inhabitants see themselves walking colourfully upside-down. The impressionists took delight in it. But a drizzle is better, because you can walk and observe and yet not get drenched. It was on a drizzly November day that in I discovered the Ile St. Michel.
To my right, a friendly entrance beckoned. Long and tunnel-like, it led to a circular courtyard in which many doors were symmetrically situated. In the courtyard stood a man wearing a silver-grey suit, umbrella held high in one hand, baguette under same arm, small white coiffed poodle tucked under the other. I asked him if it was permissible that I be here. He nodded a resounding “oui”. I noticed that in each room, placed haphazardly on shelves and tables, were gems of various sizes, colours and origins. The doors were unlocked, not all were staffed. As though theft was a concept yet to be invented. Then he gestured to one of the rooms where the owner was seated behind a ponderous old oak desk and stacks of paper with crystal balls and gems used as nonchalant paperweights. He jumped to his feet, extended a warm hand, “Call me Jean-Luis!” “This is my brother Charles, and Fifi”. Jean-Luis and I became friends over coffee and petite fours. He had a fondness for Jews, because, he told me, his mistress was Jewish. Yes, bien sur, he was married, but this is the way it is in France. Would I like to meet her? She is interested in Israel, would like to visit one day, after she finishes high school. Jean-Luis was close to fifty, if not a tad past. I blinked, swallowed my amazement, said, of course.
Madeleine was pretty, sixteen, in a school uniform. Mama knew of the affair. Yes, of course she approved, Jean-Luis is a very nice man. No, Papa didn’t know; he might not understand. We talked about Israel, her studies, about Jean-Luis and his great need for her, considering that he did not love his wife. Maybe, I suggested, if he had no lover, he would have no choice but to become closer to his wife. She considered this and agreed. Anyhow there was an interesting man only ten years her senior, whom she had recently met and who was single. Jean-Luis never did find out about my indiscretion. Charles and he visited my exhibition and offered a trade: a large amethyst and a small crystal ball for a painting to which they had taken a fancy. Accepted with gratitude.
My meanderings took me to the seediest side of Paris. A different one to her many other personalities was the neighbourhood of the Gare du Nord. Here, even in bitter cold weather, the prostitutes stood, waiting, skirts slit up to pubis, blouses exposing well-worn breasts, cigarettes dangling from crimson lips, a la Irma la Douce. But without the youth or beauty. Here also lived the poor, which included African immigrants. They seemed to be the only ones who sympathized with a newcomer to France, patiently listened, spoke slowly, gave directions. Here also were clothing stores, reminiscent of New York’s Lower East Side. And I bought a pair of white corduroy pants to wear at the opening of my exhibition, a sin for which I was duly chastised by men and women alike: the ribs of the corduroy were last year’s – too narrow. That year, the year of a nasty earthquake and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the ribs were wider. How could I not have noticed?
Precisely at twelve noon Parisians become aware they are famished. “J’ai faim” they groan in unison and scurry to nearby restaurants and bistros to eat modest but adequate meals. Jean-Luis, Charles and Fifi invited me to join them for lunch one day. At a bistro across the street from their courtyard, which was smoky and quaint and the waiters were old men. Charles took my hand, read my palm. He foresaw fame, fortune, love, happiness. And then the food arrived. “Tell me more” I implored. “Impossible! Je mange!” We discussed the intricacies and intrigues of exhibiting in Paris. When I mentioned M. LeChat and his gutted gallery, Charles paused, paled, excused himself. “Bernard LeChat was his lover” mumbled Jean-Luis in the midst of mouthfuls. “He jilted him at the same time he left his wife”. I giggled, sipped my wine. Charles returned but declined dessert and further fortune telling.
When I could do no more sketching, no more walking, no more discovering neighbourhoods, museums, zoos, I took a day trip out of Paris. A double-decker train took me to a town further south where I had read there was an impressive castle. The station was small and stank of urine. On the walls were painted swastikas. Many, all sizes. Where there were none, the wall was a grimy mustard colour.
I strolled through the town, quite old and charming, which, unlike Paris, was hilly. I was lost. No castle, no people on the street. No one to ask. Resigned I would see nothing that day except for a picturesque town, I sat down on a bench and took out my sketchbook. Then a woman approached, looked at my hand streaking the page with outlines of lampposts, a bridge, trees. She was sixty? Seventy? Impossible to tell with French women who always looked chic and elegant, skin smooth and shiny – from wine? cheese? No matter. Oh, what a smile she beamed at me… My resignation not to speak French faded.
“Bon jour madam”.
“Bon jour madam”.
“Qu’est que vous cherchez dans cette ville?” What are you seeking in this town?
“Je cherche le chateau”, I’m searching for the castle.
Her smile broadened. She seemed to love my accent, adjusted her smart scarf, pointed just over there, beyond that building, turn left, go downhill, just after the patisserie turn right, you can’t miss it. And by the way, where are you from?
I watched her face carefully; I was a feline, waiting, knowing what was coming, and etched a cheery expression into my face. “Israel”, I beamed. Her smile plunged as though it had been dropped from the top of the Tour Eiffel. Fell off and turned into a scowl that added a thousand wrinkles to her skin. She huffed, turned her face up to the left so that I saw the underside of her nostrils, threw her scarf angrily over her right shoulder and vanished into a cloud of righteous superiority.
I returned to Paris without seeing the chateau. The Boehms told me about a fierce storm that had raged all day in Paris, knocking down big trees, knocking out power. They were surprised that not a trace of the storm had touched the town I had visited. I fell asleep musing on storms of mother nature and storms of human nature.
The exhibition came down, I returned home to Jerusalem, a city of more contrasts than France could imagine. But a helpful city, polite to its tourists.
I never visited France again. It wasn’t a vow. I simply didn’t.