To tell you about the two French girls, first I have to tell you a bit about the squat. I’ll tell you more about it later, all you need to know now is this: when the two French girls were there, it was pure art, all the time. They were either painting, crafting, or sewing.
My six years of high-school French gave me nothing but the bravado to try and talk to them. It was useless, so we would sit and knit and laugh. Sometimes there was an interpreter around. I think the bond that we formed stemmed from an understanding that our language skills would never be adequate for average communication, and that it was OK.
When I spent a whirlwind Easter break visiting Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 11 days, (1976) the most important thing I learned was that when it was time to do a semester abroad, it would be England for me. While I was always interested in Royalty and Queenly things, it was my lack of faith in my ability to survive in a land where English was not king that kept me from my original dream destination: France.
At around 3 in the afternoon the French girls would come over to the squat and we would all have tea. It was quite ceremonious and calming. After tea most days we would put on a big pot of water and throw in an onion. For the rest of the afternoon, whoever stopped by would drop a vegetable into the pot, and often we would have a hearty soup by suppertime. Sometimes it was really good, sometimes, not so much.
One day the French girls stopped by and physically stopped me from cutting up the onion. We were heading out on an adventure! I was afraid to go, as I had no assurance that we wouldn’t get separated (or worse), and I did have dreams of returning to America one day. Still, they persisted, and dressed me up in some of their clothes (my first leggings) and made me up. When I looked in the mirror I looked like something out of Cabaret. I heard them saying “Nous allons au musée.” I thought they wanted me to sing something.
We waited for one of the others to come home (we never left the place unattended, rule #1 of squat life) and off we went. The girls never seemed to have any money, but on this day they paid for all three of us to ride the Underground. I heard something like “Cette fille pourrait marcher plus vite.” Since I never got much past verbs, I did understand that they wanted me to go faster.
When we exited the tube we were a block away from The Courtauld Museum.
As we made our way through the scary (and thankfully, attended) rickety metal elevator that led to the floors with the paintings, I grew increasingly depressed. We went through much effort to get here, and I tried to open my mind to what these girls thought was the best that London had to offer.
There were the horses. Oh God, the horses. As I stated earlier, this was a small little place, but there were endless old pictures of horses. Mostly tan, brown and black horses with an occasional smattering of red on the outfit of the guy riding the horse. Horses in battles. Horses lost in bloody battles. Small people the height of children but with very grown up faces painted in the same dark dash-of red style. There was even a horse getting a nineteenth century horse shower.
Horses were only outnumbered by the women in the Rubin and Baroque selections, the same dark gloomy settings, women with occasional (now familiar) smatterings of red on their fainting couches, bored looking women appearing to look over the artist’s shoulder, or beyond the artist’s eye.
I was ready to stop, to give up this charade of a parade that I was in with the two French girls who, it was beginning to seem to me, never stopped talking. Then it happened. My Monet moment.
We went through the doors to the Impressionists. Paintings I had spent my whole life studying, paintings I didn’t even realize were all in one place!–were all in one place. The first one I saw was the Van Gogh. Never my favorite, surprise came with the tears that stung my eyes. I did a quick twirl around the room and saw the Eduard Manet, the Claude Monet. We spent the afternoon browsing the handiwork of Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, – oh the Renoirs!
We stayed until the museum closed, sneaking the occasional forbidden picture with my 110 camera (which took impressionistic pictures all by itself). I felt an arm around my shoulder and I was suddenly flanked by the French girls. They looked at me knowingly. I understood something important happened in me that day, and all I could say was “merci.”