In my youth I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time with my maternal grandparents. We lived in the Bronx and they lived in a small walk up Brownstone apartment in Manhattan and my mother and I visited regularly. I often dreaded the visit because as a child, I was bored as only a child could be. My Grandmother had lots of little breakable items that tempted me, however, I wasn’t permitted to touch. I often found myself sitting and staring at a large piece of mass produced artwork that hung on their wall. It was a moody, slightly abstract depiction of Paris in the very early 1900’s when cars were new and multiple lanes of traffic were still in the distant future. The focal point of the piece was the Arc de Triomphe, pictured as a light rain fell. The pedestrians huddled under umbrellas, bent forward and moving quickly against the rain and mist as they walked past a single traffic light. The glow of the street lamps as dusk signaled the end of the day gave the scene an ethereal feel. In later years I began to wonder why they chose this particular piece of art. I remember thinking that the picture seemed strangely out of place with their 1960’s style décor. The identity of the artist remains unknown but the work resembles that of artist Eugene Galien-Laloue, who painted under many different names but always using a similar style. His primary focus was the Belle Epoque era, using a soft focus with an almost ethereal interpretation of common street scenes, primarily of Paris and surrounding areas. Did they admire his work or was it their hope to eventually be able to visit Paris? My grandfather had ancestors who hailed from the Alsace Lorraine region of France, but I never heard him mention a desire to try and locate any relatives. Now having become familiar with Paris, when I think of Manhattan in the 1960’s, I realize that the similarities between the two are quite noticeable. It was most obvious in apartment buildings with their design flourishes, large windows and wrought iron work and the decorative street lamps that have now been replaced with modern, utilitarian versions. The Flat Iron building in downtown Manhattan, most notable for its wedge shape, is a page taken from Parisian architectural design, as are Tudor City and the Dakota. Perhaps my Grandparents also recognized the resemblance between Paris in the 1900’s and Manhattan..
In time, our family left the city and moved to the suburbs in Dutchess County. My parents struggled to achieve the goal of owning their own home and when they did it was with my grandparent’s financial assistance. In return for their investment, the lower level of our two story raised ranch was built as an apartment, just the right size for two retirees and my grandparents relocated with us. Their furnishings were pared down and kept simple but once again, the Arc de Triomphe graced their wall. If the artwork seemed out of place in NYC it definitely was an unusual décor choice for the suburbs. Several summers after we relocated I struck up a friendship with a brother and sister from France who were visiting with relatives. Guy (rhymes with key) and Ghislaine spent the entire summer in Dutchess County and we enjoyed time together almost every day. It was during that time that I was introduced to the French language, culture and the small daily nuances of life in a French household. As the summer came to a close my new friends prepared to return home. They came to bid adieu to me and my grandparents. My grandfather was inspired to photograph the three of us with the Arc de Triomphe artwork as our backdrop. As we said our good-byes I was invited to visit them in France and we exchanged addresses. They sent several letters, I failed to return a reply and the letters eventually stopped coming. To this day, it remains one of my regrets.
Eventually, my Grandparents made one additional and final relocation, this time to Florida and the Arc de Triomphe made its last journey when it retired with them in Miami. Fast forward to 2015 when I’m given the opportunity to sail aboard an Avalon River Cruise and I chose to sail on the Seine. It was my first visit to Paris and I wanted to visit the major attractions and no visit to Paris could be complete without seeing the Arc de Triomphe. Decades of change and progress have brought multiple lanes of fast moving traffic. Wealthy Parisians and curious tourists stroll the Champs- Élysées now lined with upscale stores and boutiques such as Sephora, Guerlain and in case you might be inspired to buy a car while strolling, Bugati has a store front. I was surprised to see The Disney Store, but they too were crowded. As we made our way towards the Arc we also passed dozens of souvenir shops which attracted my travel companion like a moth to a flame. I considered going on ahead so she could shop at her leisure but I decided to stay close and not risk getting separated. Needing to occupy my time, I gave in and entered a small shop carrying mostly postcards and inexpensive replicas of the most famous Paris landmarks. An oversized postcard of the Arc de Triomphe caught my attention and I experienced a sense of familiarity. The art style was a bit abstract and the street lamps glowed just as dusk was over taking the city. The likeness to my grandparent’s artwork was uncanny. It depicted the same early evening rainy scene of people bent down against the wind straining for whatever protection their umbrella could provide. It wasn’t an exact replica but it was close enough to evoke feelings of nostalgia. I was inspired to buy it and now it hangs in my living room. Perhaps, my grandparents dreamed of visiting faraway places, Paris included, but they never mentioned it. Maybe they just liked the artwork. If every journey begins with a wish, I’d like to think that 40 years later, I fulfilled that wish for them.