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  • Shelley Dark

16. day 2 of the course

I woke feeling really excited on Tuesday morning, wanting to hear more about the nuts and bolts of travel writing.

John and I walked together to the métro, crossing the Pont Neuf to the right bank, stopping to take photos at the footpath nursery on the quai. The long cold winters and small apartments mean that Parisians love to buy potted plants in full flower. So there are chaotically joyful footpath displays with every colour imaginable: from roses, peonies, lilies, lavender, clematis and pelargoniums to lupins, sweet peas, snapdragons and pansies. Even trees two metres tall! The psychedelic CLEMATITES price tag combined with the pretty startling clematis was almost too much to take.

John was on his way to meet a photography guide near Montmartre and I was looking forward to day two of the writing course.

It's not always easy to find your métro station as they're not all marked with those divine Art Nouveau iron railings. Sometimes you can be right on top of one and not see it until you almost fall down the stairs. Even Parisians can find one difficult to find, gazing around in exasperation as if someone must have shifted it.

I only travelled one stop to Étienne Marcel and walked from there to class, feeling as if I were a real Parisian, enjoying it when two people asked me in French for directions. I exclaimed both times 'Désolé, madame, je suis Australienne' I'm so sorry, madam, I'm an Australian! As if that explained everything.

Loved this Renault Twizy, the top-selling plug-in electric car in Europe.

Because I had left earlier than necessary to be with John on the métro, I had time for a cup of coffee at a café near Co-Work before it opened at 9am. I sat with my notebook, writing notes about the day before, feeling so much like a real writer living in Paris I could feel a deep bubble of contentment inside. All I needed was the smoke of a gauloise cigarette drifting up between my eyebrows and I probably would have morphed into Camus or Sartre. Or more likely had a coughing fit.

At class we greeted each other like long lost friends. I finally mastered the coffee machine, pressing the 'expresso' button for one shot of coffee into the big mug, and then 'café au lait' to fill it, hoping it didn't overflow, ready with another little cup if it did. Each day Heather and Bryan brought wonderful pastries or as the French say, Viennoiseries, in a paper bag printed 'un bon pain fait un bon sandwich' - it takes good bread to make a good sandwich. I had to have not one but two snail-shaped pastries with sultanas to give me that extra edge of concentration.

You don't normally buy both bread and pastries from a boulanger, baker. Although bakers often sell both, a boulanger specialises in bread and a pâtisserie in pastries. Your favourite croissant might come from either. Restaurants have a chef, and a pastry chef. Two totally different disciplines.

Bryan did a power point presentation of how we should review a hotel with a checklist of questions to ask yourself and the hotel staff. We discussed publications which might publish a hotel review, and how important it is to stick to each one's guidelines. We saw examples of really bad writing style which made us laugh. Probably because we've been guilty of the same offence. I know I have.

One of Bryan's asides made really amused me: Parisians don't go outside the Périphérique ring road around the city, because like Columbus, they think they'll fall off the edge.

Then to the subject I'd been waiting for. Writing style. When I'm travelling I need to get it down in one sitting, without time for editing. I'd like to be able to write better in one draft. And I love rules. They make me feel safe. Even if I don't obey them. But I'm not going to list what we learned or you might start critiquing my work! The whole session was totally absorbing with lots of essential do's and don'ts. I hope you'll see the benefit in my writing. Bryan said if you're struggling to write something, even if it's just a personal letter, just stop and say to yourself, 'What I mean to say is.....' and then just write it as you would speak it.

We talked about adjectives, adverbs and the passive tense (a no-no), I and the royal we, generalisations, clichés, stereotypes and exaggerations. Modesty and pomposity and finding your voice. I was absolutely riveted, and really sorry when we had to stop for lunch.

Afterwards we'd visit the Carnavalet Museum. I was just a teeny bit disappointed about that because we visited it last October. I'd have preferred to be going to one I hadn't seen before. The upside was I'd like to see the relics of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette again. Assignment: 300-500 word review.

A welcoming smile from this waiter at the crêperie. Upstairs at a large table, we chose from salads, buckwheat pancakes (galettes), and crêpes. We were all talking so much over lunch, I hardly remember the savoury galette I ordered, but it was good.

It was only a short walk to the museum in the Marais, with its ornate gates. Can you see the coat of arms top centre? The boat is the symbol of Paris, to whom the museum belongs, while the Louvre is owned by the French government. The city motto is fluctuat nec mergitur: although tossed by the waves, she does not sink. Symbols like this smacked of the aristrocracy and were banned during and after the French revolution, but the Paris coat of arms was restored in 1817. The museum is dedicated to the history of Paris, from Neolithic times to the present.

These swampy lands of the Marais district were once outside the enclosed walls of the city. It was drained and cultivated for market gardens by large abbey owners. Later it became a very fashionable area in the 17th and 18th centuries, when King Henry IV commissioned the lovely Place des Vosges. (And the Place Dauphine where we are staying) At that time, many grand houses or hotels were built with extravagant amounts spent on beautiful architecture and interior design.

museum official, tutors and budding travel writers on a museum mission

The museum is actually two townhouses joined together. The Carnavalet building was constructed in 1548, altered in the seventeenth century; home to Madame de Sévigné from 1677 to 1696. This is what she wrote: 'Thank God we have the Carnavalet. It is really an excellent deal: the house will accommodate all of us and in high style. Since one cannot have everything, we will have to forego parquet floors and the small new fireplaces now in vogue, but we will have a beautiful courtyard, a lovely garden and a fine neighbourhood!' How little times have changed.

To it has been added the Hôtel le Peletier, built in 1688. Together they make a surprisingly cohesive entity.

This is Jean-Baptiste Woloch, the enthusiastic and excitable press communications liaison officer who gave us an escorted tour. Because he wasn't comfortable in English, he shot out rapid-fire French which I didn't have a chance of understanding.

Bryan translated for us at intervals, although I think Anne and Mike may have been getting the gist of most of it anyway. JB loves this museum as if it were his own baby. I was struck by the fact that not long ago in this position he would have been wearing a conservative black serge suit, maybe a bow tie. Now it's a casual checked shirt and jeans, reflecting changing fashions which this museum may one day record.

The council of Paris bought the house in 1866 to house their growing collection. City hall, which contained many of the treasures to be displayed at the Carnavalet, burned down at the time of the Paris commune in 1871. So it didn't open until 1880. The collection has remained here ever since, although many of its 600,000 works are stored elsewhere, with some on show at the crypt below Notre Dame cathedral. Only 4000 are on display at any one time. By comparison, JB inserted, the Louvre only has 300,000. It made me smile. His museum has twice as many items in its collection as the Louvre. So there.

The museum is rather like a beautiful woman beginning to showing her age, with broken windows boarded up and paint peeling. It's closing for total renovations in October, and will reopen in February 2017. Just before the mayoral elections, said Jean-Baptiste cynically. Someone said it would be surprising if it were finished on time, because nothing else is. The revolution section is already closed. So much for seeing the relics of Louis and Marie Antoinette again.

Last year, I was intrigued as to why a formal parterre garden like this would have messy potato vine supports half way along each side. Was there a plan to formalise them in keeping with the overall design, I wondered. Or a subversive gardener? Later in his talk I heard JB mention the gardener, grimace a little, and then the word formidable. I suddenly lost interest in asking, I guess for the same reason that no one has insisted they be taken out.

This is the original bronze statue of Louis XIV from 1689 in one of the internal courtyards. He's dressed as a Roman emperor. It's a wonder that it survived the revolution when most royal statues were destroyed and melted down. Behind him on the walls are relief carvings of the four seasons. Louis is facing the part of the house where Mme de Sévigny lived. Arched doorways were once the entrance to the stables.

The bronze statue of Victory which sits on top of the Châtelet column is actually a copy. This one in the second courtyard is the real thing, by Louis-Simon Boizot. It seems surprising that it was precious enough to be removed from the column, but not precious enough to be put inside. Perhaps she'll move during the renovations. I can't tell you how much the placement of that terracotta pot in the photo upsets me. Casually sitting next to one of the most historic statues in Paris. Hmmmm. There's almost a message in it. The work of the formidable gardener?

Dawn and Bryan hard at work. Lots of note-taking. Again, our half and hour tour had turned into more than two hours.

We said our thanks and goodbye to Jean-Baptiste and walked to this cafe for a post-museum-debriefing coffee. It was late and I was dying to hear how John's day had been, so I didn't stay long.

He had captured some great faces during the day. It's not as easy to find co-operative subjects in a big city.

And some pretty girls....

I heard a story today about theft on the métro. The victim is a passenger near a door reading his phone screen or texting. The thief is nearby, taking no interest, until suddenly just as the doors are closing at a station, he grabs the phone and is gone.

I'll leave you with another of John's magical flower photos. Until tomorrow buddies....

shelley dark, writer 

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