Walking home from the market one evening, I saw a woman—elderly, quilted jacket, and perfect coiffed silver hair—peeling away a poster stuck to a wall in downtown Marseille. I couldn’t make out the crux of the message, the call to action. The woman was making quick work of the largest words on the paper and my poor French couldn't keep up. I figured it was political; nobody peels off an advertisement for a crafts bazaar or an estate sale or a lost cat. The wall itself was covered in graffiti, as most walls in Marseille are. Sometimes it’s artful and mural-like in nature. Sometimes it’s a one-word tag, beautiful in its minimalism yet equally pointless in its ineligibility. This woman stayed in the center of the sidewalk, refusing to move, and I admired her stubbornness in caring for a small piece of something already lost. Already incomprehensible to the eye, well-trained or not.
In Aix-en-Provence—Marseille's rich, childless aunt who wears monochromatic outfits with the exception of Hermès scarves—the city's walls were spotless. The streets were stunning and clean, with vine-covered fountains every hundred yards. Everyone was beautiful, and everything was built to be looked at. I hid myself like a bashful child, yearning for a mother whose body is still larger than my own, large enough to hide me away at will. They knew I wasn't French, even if I smoked a cigarette and squinted at dogs and refused to smile at shop-owners. They would smell it on me, I was sure.
We made the trek to Paul Cézanne's atelier where many of his possessions and still-life inspirations have been left untouched (read: lightly staged). The house is simple but beautiful, and his studio is one large room with cracked ceilings and warped, tall windows. His letters to Monet had been translated and printed out on laminate for English tourists to read. Those three skulls on their dilapidated bench. A prayer, written by Henri de Régnier and dubbed "Paul Cézanne's Prayer", was also on display. These are the final lines:
I offer these light eyes and this poor face
And this forehead and these hands and this obstinate eye
Accept them and take these round apples as well
These clusters and these fruits which I've tried to paint the best I could
Because their contour was for me the shape of the world
And all of the eternal light is within them.
I have spent much of my time thinking of the life it takes to be an artist. To not play at it, to say it with your whole chest. To work as much as you need to without complaining, or bragging, or relishing in the discomfort because you've romanticized this particular breed of agony. To write, to paint, to make any kind of art, requires looking at something long enough to say something new about it. This is just one perspective I've learned from established writers, but it's my favorite way of thinking. I refer often to a well-loved book about women in the arts, how they work, how they spend their daily lives. Much of them rely on monotony. (Cézanne worked every day for eight hours, sometimes more, and only left his studio for a small lunch in town.) These artists rely on working the same hours every day in the same room/bed/chair/spot of carpet. Eating the same thing, smoking the same number of cigarettes. The eternal light is within their mundanity.
Much of this trip has been overwhelming because you cannot linger very long on one thing—you keep moving and seeing for the sake of doing so. I have thought of this woman peeling away that poster every day, and I wish I had stopped to watch her. Or ask what had compelled her. I kick myself for not focusing on the words, for not seeing their contours, the shape of the world that might have been tucked underneath this woman's fingernail. I have wanted to slow down more than anything these past weeks. I have wanted to stay in one place with my head screwed on straight and stable. Cézanne's studio was historic and epic, deeply evocative, and I felt lucky to see it. Lucky to live this life that lets me into odd, precious corners of the world. Mostly, though, I envied him.