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Traveling South By Laurence L. Murphy, Illustrations by Deirdre SheeanGo Back to the Table of Contents
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There is a romance in eastern squalor: in the green valleys, sudden villages, corridored by shopping malls and framed by industrial cities; and traveling on trains in the midst of it. There is the sadness of the older cities in the autumn, and the gray pallor of winter, and, there is also the sorrow of seeing things old destroyed. Older eastern cities have buildings that were not built to be devastated, but many are falling apart now from neglect. Some of the new buildings show we often build things now to eventually destroy them and replace them, and I often lament I can no longer visit Atlantic City as a doddering aged resort filled with ghosts. In the older eastern cities, caught between decay and renewal, the aluminum, steel, and glass structures are like age achieved without grace: a beehive hairdo on an aging Madame. Although there is romance, there is also remorse in such eastern squalor, and for me, there is always a sadness in traveling south.

The last time I traveled south I felt this in Virginia and into the Carolinas, where one can feel the history and anguish of the place being buried beneath shopping malls, highways, and high-rises-almost as if time there will soon have to be found by digging down, as one finds time in geologic strata. But then it may also have been that I was just sad to be south because then, in Carolina, almost at sea on the Outer Banks, in the wind and fury of this place, I was remembering traveling south in other places when I was younger.

I had been living in Paris for about three and a half years, and in the slow summers when we were poor and could not afford to travel we would invent vacations. We would sun bath in the studio on the hill, and from the studio window we could see all of the city to hills and the water tower near Versailles. We would save enough money to walk down from Montmartre and buy a Heineken at a cafe by the river. I would sun bath on the Quai across from the Gare D’Orsay and walk home in the evening, changing thoughts with the many styles of the architecture in the city.

It is fascinating to see the past in structure, like an equation in steel and stone, and the buildings became for us some thought on the mystery of time and history translated into inhabitable form. I would have itineraries of the finest places to stop and rest and knew each of the best and still cheap cafes where you could sit in the sun without noise and drink beer. This was fun as long as we believed it was, and in the autumn it was still joyful to be in the city as the seasons changed their mind. By the third summer in Paris, after a gray winter, however, it did nothing but rain and the joy was gone. I would have dinner late into the night of noodles, fish, peas and cheese, with wine, and all summer there was nothing but the cold sound of rain and wind pressing against the window.

The studio was across from the Bateau Le’Voir, or the Laundry Boat, an old building where Cubism had been invented. Braque and Picasso had lived in this building. Picasso, going out into the square for water from a fountain, would teach the children of the neighborhood to draw animals in chalk on the cobblestones of the square.

I wished then I could have seen these drawings, but they had been long washed away. I knew that art was a rebellion against time lost in this fashion, and I was thankful that there were pictures and drawing that one could still see.

The pictures Picasso had painted of Paris in the early days had showed a world of color and weight, and motion in weight, and you could see the people of these pictures, burdened by both motion and inertia. In the later periods, the art was no longer of Paris in particular and progressively the paintings were less and less about the world we see and more about the way we see it; an eidetic, or an after image, of something understood in time. There was a vertigo of perception altering vision as the world was slowly internalized to mind: a meditation and mediation recorded in gradual stages of refracted light. In Paris, there was most of what I needed to study and understand this vicissitude of vision. The very early pictures, however, when Picasso was very young, for the most part were not in Paris. To see these pictures I would have to travel south to Barcelona; and there was something about these early paintings and drawings I wanted to know.

I was at a cafe with a girlfriend across from a fountain where there was a memorial to members of the Resistance who had been publicly executed there during the war. It was still raining, the cobblestones on the street were shiny with rain and lamplight, and I was counting my money. I was fairly sure that if I hitchhiked south, I could afford the journey back to Paris by train. I also had close friends who were staying in Ibiza, one of the islands in the Balearics, and suddenly it seemed a fine idea to travel south and see the paintings and then visit my friends. Then after dinner in the summer of rain I decided to go.

The decision stuck by morning. I packed a gunnysack, walked down to the Place Emile Goudeau and said goodbye to the girlfriend. I descended down the Rue Ravignan to the Metro Abesses. I was going south to find a vision of time and illumination.

The metro station was an old friend and it too was changing. Automatic ticket machines were being installed and with them the smell of the station was changing to smooth plastic and yellow paper. I took the Metro down to Montparnasse, went to a bank, then walked to the edge of town to get a bus to a suburb near the highway. There I waited.


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