Part 1 France – Touching the Sights of France


For our generous Parisian friends, Niquette & Didier, our gratitude for letting us take over the spare spaces in your cosy flat for sharing warm happy times…

Let me shed some light on how a vision-impaired traveller uses every sensory fibre of her being to delight in the history and culture of another country. I call the experience hearing landscapes – inhaling history – touching art.

It was in May 2011, when our trio of intrepid companions ventured to France. The following posts are a series of travel writings from notes taken along the way. As I review my laptop journal of my unforgettable holiday with Harry my partner and Mike our teenage son, I am reminded of the beauty I ‘saw’ without having full sight.

Our itinerary for the six weeks was impressive – starting with the gardens, museums and galleries of Paris. Why would someone with very little sight want to visit such visual places as an art gallery? Because I am fascinated by art – and what I miss in the seeing is recreated by audio-descriptive Harry and observant Mike as they describe in elaborate detail the wonderful things before our eyes. Also because, in France, a few of the galleries generously gave me permission to TOUCH the exhibits – with reverent fingertips (while I dared not to breathe!).

Since the French were extremely receptive when noticing the white cane, my companions encouraged me to tap the ground harder to clear our path as they guided me incident-free along the humming streets of Paris. With Harry on my left, Mike guarding my right, we weaved effortlessly through fragrant gardens, busy market stalls, paced briskly with the flow of Metro passengers, shuffled shoulder to shoulder in long queues, and always found a table for three to delight our taste buds with the sensations of French cuisine – bien sûr!

Truly, Paris is a city of beautiful smells! From the moment we left Charles de Gaulle airport, I have noticed the fragrance of this enchanting city. It really is true – I can smell the warm tones of Chanel as we make our way to our friends’ house in the 15th Arrondissement. The European perfume drifts gently on aromatherapy clouds as pairs of women trot by on fashionable clickety-heels. The scent lingers in the parched Parisian air ? after two consecutive dry summers, Paris is desperate for rain.

The scent of freshly percolated coffee catches in the warm summer breeze like an intoxicating spell, enchanting us towards the nearest cafe where waiters in pristine white aprons wave their hands like wands to produce a ready-made table for three. Tempting – but we must stride on to our destination, three abreast, the middle one sweeping the ground as she trots to keep up (on not so fashionable flat heels). Down dusty avenues under shady trees, my cane scatters puffs of creamy-dust like sifted icing sugar on to our shoes.

We stand with a throng of bodies, waiting for a gap in the manic traffic. My ‘minders’ hold my hand firmly as I hear mad drivers zoom by, even crazier scooters tooting horns, their two-stroke machines zipping past in daring style as they force their way between cars. My nose begins to twitch as olfactory senses inhale the dry choaking tones of eau de petrol.

Down Rue Jules Dupré, we hear the deep solid chimes of several church bells. We are nearing the flat on Boulevard Lefèvre. With peripheral vision from my ‘good’ eye, I use the contrast of bright blue sky to see the dark outline of buildings, trailing behind my guides as I gaze dreamily, pulled along like a child looking back at a toy shop. I want to reach out and touch the sturdy wrought iron gates or a Parisian tree or a crisp white café table cloth – hey guys, let me touch something?

On our first day, Niquette takes us to the Jardin de Rodin and we wander around the spacious shady garden, touching the solid bronze and marble sculptures scattered around the grounds. Intricate carvings of little children’s feet and tiny hands adorn a gate and we linger a while tracing with admiring fingers the precise curves and lines of these carved cherubs intertwined with leaves and branches, coiled snakes and tempting fruit from the Garden of Eden – our hands glide slowly like Tai Chi masters. It is May and the garden is alive with fragrant roses as our group flits in and around the colourful bushes, excited to smell almost every scented bloom!

Next morning, fresh, flaky croissants for breakfast – naturellement – and off to join the thousands of adventurers in the centre of Paris. The French metro is super efficient but terribly frightening, not to mention, disorientating if you cannot see down the dark tunnels and crowded corridors. My left hand grips tighter to Harry’s sweaty palm, right hand thrashing the cane from side to side while calling over my shoulder on regular intervals to reassure myself that Michael hasn’t drowned in the rapids of Parisian bodies.

The trapped air of the underground is distinctive yet difficult to describe. Currents of air race through drafty tunnels smelling like a mixture of overheated metal, warm newspaper dyes and sweet chewing gum – with not a trace of fresh oxygen until we begin to ascend the daunting steps towards the exit.

Harry or Mike push me through the metal barricade and have to time the swiping of my ticket perfectly with my reaching the point where the glass door shoots open for this helpless traveler who is half expecting the door to smash hard on her face if they time it wrong. Brief panic subsides once we regroup on the other side – beam me out of here, Scottie…

Soft goat’s cheese salad for lunch in Le Jardin de Luxemburg where I listen to the sounds of happy children darting through the groves of chestnut trees. The 23 hectare garden has a small round lake, and in the southern section, there is a honey-producing apiary in the urban orchard.

We follow a narrow pavement outside the garden to hunt down a Cubist museum, where Zadkine (a Russian artist) worked and lived between 1890 & 1967. The enclosed courtyard among soft green plants is unexpectedly peaceful here in the heart of Paris. Our quartet moves inside the compact gallery and I utter to waiting staff a new French phrase Niquette has rehearsed with me along the way. I wave my long white wand and with foreign fluttering eyelashes, I announce,

“Bonjour Madame. Je suis mal voyante.”

A pause. She glances at the white cane.

“Oh! I understand,” she replies in English. “You may go in to the gallery for free, Madame.”

The others pay their fees and as we turn to enter the gallery she calls after us,

“Madame? You may touch the sculptures if you are very careful with them. But only you, d’accord?”

“D’accord,” replies Niquette. “Merci boucoup, Madame,” smiling broadly as we walk arm in arm through the narrow door. “Eh? Voila!”

I am overwhelmed with gratitude – touch the artwork?

And believe me, I truly saw Zadkine’s sculptures of ebony, bronze, stone and carved wood through dancing eyes at the edges of my fingertips.


An Artist is not paid for his labour but for his vision

James Whistler


Next post: Part 2; Inhaling history, touching time

© Maribel Steel 2012

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