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Getting Away from It All

photo: village st marcel

The village of Saint–Marcel.

Paris Life – No 39

by Laurel Avery

Paris:– Friday, 20. February 2004:– February must be 'remodeling month' here. A couple of weeks ago I was awakened from a peaceful sleep by the pounding of a hammer right where my head approaches the wall. This noise was soon augmented by a sound reminiscent of a dentist performing a root canal job – at 8:00 in the morning, no less.

This cacophony of sound, compounded by the jackhammering in the street below and one too many days spent in overcrowded métros or museums or shops convinced me that it was time to get out of the city for a few days.

The idea was to escape to the idyllic French countryside where I could awaken to nothing but the sound of birds singing, breathe fresh unpolluted air, and see some sorely missed grass and forests.

I spoke with Dimitri about my idea. Since there was a lull in his busy work schedule he arranged for us to stay with his friend Gérard in the Indre region for a few days. So we hopped in Dimitri's Citroën 2CV and headed out of Paris.

This took longer than expected. One – a 2CV doesn't go very fast in the first place so we wanted to takephoto: gallery interior the small roads, and two – there were the usual small–road getting–out–of–Paris traffic jams. A couple of hours later we were still meandering through the banlieues of Paris, so we decided to get on the autoroute after all.

The interior of Gérard Alexeef's gallery.

This was my first extended trip in the 2CV. It has to be one of the most adorable cars I have ever seen. It's so cute that you just want to pinch its little fenders. I think my first exposure to one was in an old Pink Panther movie. I can just see Inspector Clouseau in his 2CV.

The thing about vintage cars, however, is that they can require more maintenance than average, so we had to stop our breakneck high speed of 90 kph a few times to take care of this and that.

As night began to fall we discovered that there was perhaps a teaspoon of gas left – the 2CV has no gas gauge, only a dipstick. We started sputtering along the autoroute, in desperate need of an offramp leading to some vintage leaded petrol.

We got off at the nearest exit. The direction sign indicated that the next town which had more than two houses and a few chickens in it was a whole eight kilometres away. So much for me wanting to get out into the countryside where there were no people around. Civilization is useful when it comes to things like running out of gas.

The–Powers–That–Be must have been looking after us. Just as a huge golden ball of a sun disappeared on the horizon, we topped the crest of a hill and with some last few sputteringphoto: gerard alexeef gasps, rolled into a gas station that not only had the fuel required by the 2CV, it was also a Citroën dealer! We able to get vintage gas, and Dimitri was able to buy a vintage replacement part necessary to fix another problem he had discovered.

Our destination turned out to be just a few kilometres away, and we finally made it to the little village of Saint–Marcel about eight hours after leaving Paris.

Gérard outside the Saint–Marcel church.

When I first met Dimitri's friend Gérard he was covered in dust from head to toe. Apparently, Paris is not the only town where its citizens are bent on remodeling. Gérard Alexeef has to be the most energetic guy I have ever met. When not personally remodeling one of the three galleries he owns and manages, he somehow finds the time to create large stone sculptures and elaborate mosaics.

Gérard left the manic art scene in Paris to establish a gallery where the most important thing was the art, not the politics involved in getting the art shown. Knowing the 'right people' seems to be a prerequisite for having one's art shown in a large city, and usually has very little to do with the artist's level of talent.

The Gallery of Art and Culture in Saint–Marcel contains the works of nearly 40 artists in its 12 'salles d'exposition,' encompassing various styles and genres, sort of like a mini–Louvre.

The town is dominated by the church of Saint–Marcel, the oldest parts of which were constructed in the 13th century, with the bulk of it completed in the 16th century. The church houses religious relics and has recently had much of its stone vaulting colorfully repainted, to be as it would have looked when the church was first completed.

The first morning in Saint–Marcel I was not sure whether or not I had left Paris.

First I was awakened at 06:30 in the morning by the tolling of the church bells signaling the fact that it was timephoto: crypt, st marcel for all good Catholics to get out of bed and recite 'prime,' one of the seven daily 'Divine Offices' established by the Church in the middle ages. I suppose I should have been grateful they didn't ring the bells for 'lauds,' which is supposed to take place at 03:00.

About an hour later I was once more awakened by loud noises, this time produced by a cement truck making its way down the narrow medieval streets to the piece of road they were repaving.

The crypt in the church.

Shortly thereafter it was joined by the sound of a backhoe doing its best to imitate the sounds of life in Paris. How nice of them to make us feel so at home.

Who wants to sleep anyway when you're in such a beautiful place? So we got up and made our way down to the little café around the corner where we were infused with a generous shot of caffeine and prepared to explore the area.

Association Art et Culture Gérard Alexeef – is open weekends from 14:00 to 19:00. In July and August, open daily from 10:00 to 22:00. At the Association Art et Culture Gérard Alexeef, 4. Place de l'Eglise, 36200 Saint-Marcel. This is a few kilometres south and west of Châteauroux. InfoTel.: 02 54 01 11 93.

To be continued in the next issue.

Text & photos, Laurel Avery © 2004

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