Sun On the Terraces

photo: terrace on raspail
Not big, but in the right place with free seats.

It's a Little Early This Year

Paris:- Wednesday, 6. January 1999:- Today, I have to believe in last night's TV-weather forecast. For some reason I believed it last night too; I suppose there is a feeling in the air - that it is going to be soft this year and brightness is going to have the upper hand.

All the same, it is not a good idea to fritter time away, because there is no law about this. There could be clouds very close, just beyond my low horizon. I stop the writing I'm not supposed to be doing and go out.

The temperature is spring in January. With the cool westerly breeze it could be 'on the coast' in May. Riding on the train I turn over the idea of getting a Paris bus pass for the day - to hit as many places as I can - but no. Why rush about?

As bright as it is in the city, the sun is low and there are long shadows. This cuts the number of truly sunny terraces by about three-quarters - to the few big open places with terraces on their north sides.

The half-dozen terraces at Trocadéro are mainly on the north-west part, so half of them are in dense shade. I should have figured on being here sooner; before noon. I know more likely places in Montparnasse.

Even in mid-summer, Montparnasse is half in shade and I try to remember how it is on the south side of the boulevard. I took a photo from inside Le Select for an early number of the magazine - maybe the first; but that was before the extra top was added to La Coupole across the street. I don't want to re-do that photo, but maybe the terrace is full.

The métro line six, after it leaves the Passy station, is elevated and in the light. The first thing to see is always the Tour Eiffel and today I can see people's faces looking down from it like tiny sunflowers. It is very clear and the huge structure seems very close.

I am always disappointed that all the elevated stations are enclosed from Passy to Lecourbe. Itphoto: cafe le consigne is from this line I have the idea that the 15th is sunnier than other parts of Paris, but the stations divide this idea into short chapters.

At this café, all the spots are the right ones.

Between stations it is possible to look straight into second or third-floor apartment and offices in the buildings near the métro line. One apartment has an empty chair, backwards to the outside, halfway on a balcony and halfway inside. Is it too cool?

I haven't been in Montparnasse in a long time. When I leave it alone for a while, it is always kind of exciting to go back to it. Why this is, I don't know.

Gino Severini arrived from Italy at the Gare de Lyon in October of 1906 with fifty francs in his pocket and went straight to Montparnasse on a white tram. On arrival, he has his first café au lait.

At the time, all the artists were still up on Montmartre, making 'outrages' in their 'laboratoires centrals.' But tourism was making itself felt and commerce was taking the edge off the innocent 'village on a hill' they'd been painting, so nearly all of them gradually moved to Montparnasse.

Max Jacobs, everybody's friend, was afraid Montparnasse was 'lost' and stayed behind; painted on a wall in his bedroom, "Ne jamais aller à Montparnasse." In 1910 the métro line Montmartre-Montparnasse opened - line 12 - and everybody took it with an 'aller-simple' fare; but not all; Modigliani commuted back and forth for a time.

Montparnasse was so different from Montmartre. It seemed new, it had wide boulevards and its 'Mont' wasn't, which let in north light - the painter's light - on all sides. Although there were a lot of bourgeois apartment buildings, there were still a lot of small, green courtyards. It wasn't even finished; the Boulevard Raspail only acquired its present aspect in 1913.

From its epicenter at the Vavin intersection, the boulevard divided Montparnasse into the bourgeois north and the 'anything goes' of the south.

Bourdelle's daughter, near Falguière, saw wheat fields behind her father's atelier. There were cherry orchards in the rue Cassini - mentioned by Balzac.

But mainly, Montparnasse is Montparnasse because nearly all modern artists lived and worked here, and it is the memory of their ghosts, this myth, that make it interesting, and not the way it looks or is today.

Not the way Montparnasse looked then either; because almost none of these artists chose to depict it. They painted people; often their neighbors. They drankphoto: cafe la tour, montparnasse together in Le Dôme after a session, and they danced in the clubs after that. They picnicked together and went on holidays together.

Here, near the corner of Rennes, the light overwhelms the camera.

To catch this, you have to be able to see it in your head because you can't 'see it' anywhere else - except in books full of old photos. To imagine it, it is easier do this in the proper surroundings, but these are hard to find because there are few original ones left.

The nearly original Le Select is in the 'new' shadow of the renovated and restored La Coupole today, and both Le Dôme and the Rotonde are too changed.

This leaves stranded islets on the Boulevard Raspail with only a part of a terrace here and there. One café, by Rennes, in the big place where the station used to be, is miraculously catching the sun for a brief moment after it has passed the modern office lump on the other side.

Although, like the Vavin intersection, the Place Edgar Quinet was a crossroads between the Rue du Départ, the Rue de la Gaité, Delambre, the Rue Montparnasse and the Rue d'Odessa, it was not prominent in writings, paintings or photographs, and seems to have been invisible.

Brancusi lived in the Rue Montparnasse, just a few doors from the place. Tamara de Lempicka and Jacques Lipchitz were in the same street. Foujita was in the Rue d'Odessa and Rue Delambre, as was Tristan Tzara. Piet Mondrian was in the nearby Rue du Départ.

The Place Edgar Quinet is close - one block from the Boulevard Montparnasse by way of the Rues d'Odessa or Montparnasse, and two blocks from Vavin by way of the Rue Delambre.

And today, the north side Place Edgar Quinet has three sunlit café terraces. The pavements on this side have been re-cobbled and everything is fixed up and tidy. The entrance to the métro across the way is unchanged and the trees in the Boulevard Edgar Quinet are original-looking.

The Montparnasse cemetery, which is immediately to the left over there by the boulevard, is the current home to about half the characters and artists who walked through this place all the time.

I try to figure out which café has the least wind and will have the sun for longest. Lunch is long past so there is a choice of seats. As warm as it is - normal for May - it is not that warm, this January sun.

At this time of day, 75 years ago, everybody was probably working. But if the winter had been colder back then, and then warm like today, then manyphoto: cafe de la place would probably downed tools and have come out to sit in this café, because everybody knows today's kind of weather is possibly a one-day freak occurance.

Winter's short days mean the shadows get longer, sooner.

But maybe the weather 75 years ago on this day was normal and they stayed in by their coal or wood stoves, and worked at painting the girls they would later drink with at Le Dôme, near its stove. If this were the case, then they wouldn't have come here for rare January sun. It's a coin-flipper.

When I came up Odessa, Tony's windows were shut. If he isn't in England or Switzerland, on a day like today they would have been open.

As the shadow creeps up I decide to give his doorcode a buzz. He might be there with the windows closed for some reason. What a street Odessa is! Breton crêpes cafés and regional specialty shops at the place, pizzerias, Indian joints and sex shops in the middle, and a multi-cinema at the end, at the old Place de Rennes.

His doorway is between the Indian restaurant and Mr. Goodpizza. The code-lock opens and I climb the 150-year-old staircase. Tony's door buzzer works. Silence. England or Switzerland?

I count to ten, then twenty-five. I hear a scrape. The door opens. Tony smiles. He is dressed to go out; for lunch. We pick up a conversation where we left it four months ago.

The day slides into early evening in Montparnasse and the bustle turns into rush-hour, just before the time to go out for a pre-dinner drink.

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