Monday, April 18, 2011

Week 47: Urban Meditations

I think I would characterize myself as basically a country girl. I grew up on a 40 acre ranch, surrounded by woods. It was quiet, with not one neighbor in view, completely dark at night without light pollution or any noise other than the natural world around us. That kind of isolation seems very comfortable to me. But most people live in cities. Over 77% in France, 82%+ in the U.S. and 90%+ in the UK. And of course, in many ways, that's much more environmentally friendly.

I have been thinking about cities, as I spent part of my week in Paris and part of it in London. Paris is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, with over 20,000 people sharing a single square kilometer. Paris is 41 square miles whereas London is 610 square miles. Population density in Greater London is less than 5000 people per square kilometer. Those are the facts, but in practice, I always find London feels denser, busier, more stressful. Maybe its just that Paris is so much more manageable in terms of size and so many of the boulevards in Paris are broad. In London the streets are narrower, the buildings so much closer to the road. As you rattle past on the upper deck of a bright red city bus, you feel as if you can almost reach out and touch the second floor windows of the apartment buildings as you pass by.


We took care of Quinn for a couple of days and spent one of them visiting the Parc de la Villette, a large urban park within a few minutes walk of Emily's house. We have eaten at the Café de la Musique many times, we watched Joshua Redman in concert at the Cité de la Musique and I even enjoyed an outdoor movie one evening many years ago, sitting on the grass with a film projected onto a huge inflated silver screen. But we had never really explored the entire park. 

This time of year, I suppose, everywhere it's beautiful. The park was no exception. So much green and lots of corners from which to enjoy the verdant season.

Quinn found a bridge and enjoyed crossing it. I find this combination of steel and foliage somehow wonderful. Large red structures are dotted throughout the park and are called follies. They are meant to help the visitor navigate his way through the space.

There is lots of green space. People can gather, have picnics, play, chase or just enjoy the sunshine. I love the giant bicycle tire buried in the grass.

We had wanted to take Quinn to the Museum of Science and Industry at the back end of the Park, but if you've ever taken a stroll with a two year old, you know that it's all about the journey and not the goal. By the time we reached the museum we realized that there would not be nearly enough time for it and besides, the out of doors is better at Quinn's age. The museum will have to wait.


I went to London with Emily, which was a lot of fun. Rick stayed with Quinn in Paris, as Jos was directing a show in Italy. We left before dawn and caught the Eurostar at an ungodly hour. James was hardly awake when we reached his apartment in East London. The advantage to this train schedule, was that we had the entire day ahead of us. We decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, affectionately known as the VandA by the locals. James and Adric had never visited and I was interested in seeing their current show The Cult of Beauty.

While in London we took every form of public transportation: taxi, train, tube and bus. Before heading to the museum, we decided to lunch at the brand new Whole Foods, the largest one in the world. It has an entire floor of various restaurant/food courts. James and I chose Middle Eastern Cuisine, Emily went for Japanese and Adric chose Mexican.

After lunch we walked back to the VandA through Hyde Park. What a fantastic stroll! There were huge chestnut trees and lush grass.

We had a nice walk through the gated Princess Diana Memorial Walkway. It was a world apart. So much blooming loveliness, meticulously manicured.

Extravagant blooming trees, shrubs and plants made for a very pleasant stroll.

And the most incredibly friendly wildlife seem to live among the hedges, including this adorable red breast. We saw gray squirrels that casually take treats from your hands.

Towards the end of the walk you can see the gilded Albert Memorial towering over the shrub border.

Then the Royal Albert Hall (as in How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall? I couldn't believe my children had never pondered this question.)

At last we reached the VandA, considered these days, a very hip place. Despite the old marble tombs, it tends to feature young and interesting designers.

It's a gorgeous space with soaring columns,

cupolas and modern glass sculpture. We spent a very pleasant afternoon there.

The building itself, of red brick, is luscious and expansive. There is a beautiful tea room designed by William Morris where we had a very enjoyable break from our museum going.

We had scones, jam and various kinds of delicious teas served in individual pots.

The British really know how to make an agreeable mid afternoon snack and to create beautiful spaces in which to relax and enjoy it.

While staying with James, I spent a certain amount of time on his balcony looking over the urban view and enjoying it very much. I have never really lived in a big city full time, other than spending extended stays in Paris during one summer and two winters. I think it would be difficult for me to get used to the noise, congestion and the effort it takes to get from one place to another. Still, there is a kind of beauty in a city. I found that making a sketch of the layers of buildings made it easier for me to actually see and appreciate it. Of course, this time of year, with the trees leafed out, the view was softened. Trains went by quite often with their distinctive clickety clack. I found that noise rather comforting.


The weather in France is just a little bluer and warmer than in London. We arrived home on the weekend in time to welcome some clients. I am always happy to come back home. Our wisteria is in its full glory and a huge clump of purple bearded irises are in bloom outside my studio door.

But this time of year is characterized by the safflower in my mind. I keep publishing photos of the fields because it is so difficult to share what a strong impression they make. You have to be able to imagine that these bright patches surround you 365º, with this vibrant patchwork of color. Electric yellow, young wheat, which is blue green, and the green green of the grass. It is a short moment of the year, but it is the view that I most associate with the Perche, this region of France, just as the lavender or sunflower fields are associated with the south.


  1. Hello Nancy,

    Well, you have once again taken me on a wonderful European mini vacation. Love the stroll through the English park ...and that bird!!!!!

    He was gorgeous, I kept double clicking to get a closer look at all his pretty colors. One of my most favorite things to indulge in is a good them!

    It looks as if you really enjoyed your time in Paris, London and with your daughter and friends.

    But...yes, coming home is always a good thing, isn't it? Especially when you can come home to beautiful wisteria, iris', fields of color and friendly guests.

    Enjoy your week and I look forward to next weeks post.

    Janet xox

  2. Ah, lovely post Nancy! My excitement levels are rising each time I read about your week. (Less than 4 weeks till we leave).