I was in Paris for a few weeks after flat-swapping for a month with a friend I'd got to know years before at university, and to get over a typically painful break-up. I hadn't been in the city for about a decade, and while on the previous visit I went to all the expected sights, this time I was hoping to find some unexpected ones. I was I suppose what we would call a struggling painter more than an established artist. I could neither make a living from my work, nor did I make a comfortable income from another endeavour like the Sunday painter. I had no other career to support me. I would paint with the dedication of the professional, but with the remuneration of the person who produced the occasional painting at the weekend and sold them to friends and family. The state was still my main source of income, but I had signed off for a month to paint in Paris after some friends bought a few of the paintings and the flat swap was proposed.
The first few days in the city I didn't paint anything, but instead wandered around with my sketchbook, drawing quickly and intensely whatever intrigued me. My only rule was that I was not to paint or draw anything that was as established as the painter I most clearly was not. The Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and Notre Dame were of course ignored and instead I searched out places like the Communist town just beyond the south west of Paris called Ivry, a housing estate in Reuilly on the south east, and also parts of the Canal St Martin and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. I wanted to paint a city that I could not readily see, and why paint sights I could find pictures of in any tourist guide?
Yet strangely, and finally, the work I did gained coherence not from my own fixed ideas about what I should paint, but from a figure that I saw along by the Seine, and whom I found myself increasingly fascinated by. I first noticed him while sitting in a cafe round the corner from Hotel De Ville, next to the river, a cafe in the afternoon that chiefly sold teas, coffees and beers, and became a busy, cheap restaurant that served good food in the evening. I was seated on one side of the street, and he was one of numerous sellers on the other side of the busy, four lane road. Each seller had his own box, several metres wide, and where the roof doubled up as the lid which at the end of the day the seller would secure with a padlock. He was one of the more eclectic sellers, offering anything from books to postcards, records to paintings. Some of the others seemed special collectors who sold simply to buy: people who had been collecting books or magazines, comics or photos for years, and continued their obsession by calling it a business. But this man's eclecticism indicated that he wasn't especially a collector, or rather if he collected anything it was most likely, it seemed to me, to have been women.
He was not good-looking, but he possessed virility, perhaps a characteristic far more attractive in an aging man than in a younger one. He was around fifty, and much of his power resided in his stocky forearms, and the spring in his lengthy legs. He wasn't a tall man but he had a short trunk on longish legs that made his walk a stride. His stall was halfway between two sets of traffic lights, and the cafe bar he would often frequent was next door to the cafe where I would sit and have my tea, and was opposite his stall. Rather than walking along to one or the other sets of traffic lights he would zigzag through the traffic like a man seeking danger and knowing that he was superior to it.
But what I noticed especially was that often young women would stop and talk to him, and they would laugh at what he said and buy some small item of him less with the interest of the collector, than the fascination of the seduced. Most of the other stallholders barely seemed to make eye contact as the meeting was no more than an encounter between mutual obsessives, but with this stall-holder it looked as if he didn't care what he was selling: it was the opportunity for a human encounter, perhaps even a sexual one.
At least that is what I surmised after going to the cafe everyday for around a week. I wasn't much of a coffee drinker, tea in Paris is horribly expensive and often served at too tepid a temperature, and this cafe served at a very reasonable price pots of Th a la menthe. I liked to spend an hour or two in the afternoon reading, an activity that probably impacted on what and how I painted more than I probably realised. If it was true that I usually avoided the tourist sights whenever I travelled and searched out instead public parks, housing estates and quiet streets, it was for the people who occupied them. Historic places were too full of people admiring the old and not existing within the new. When I went to the Eiffel Tower years before, or to Sacre Coeur there was no living dimension to the place; these were places to be looked at; not occupied, and so the building shrunk the human. I usually searched for what brought out the human, not undermined it.
This sense of scale, the attempt to avoid the magnificent, was also evident in the work: the paintings were rarely bigger than the size of a postcard. I would often draw minute figures, a bit like Lowry's matchstick men, and often against a social backdrop of a park, a cafe or bar, or showed people at a cinema watching a film, or at a play. Sometimes it took me no more than a couple of hours to do one, and I felt as though it was a little like taking a picture. I had no easel, usually only a small box of paints, and the cards I would paint on. After reading at the cafe, on a couple of occasions I walked a bit further along the road, sat on a bench, and made paintings of the man as he worked at his stall. What I think I wanted to try and capture initially was his energy. Where the person at the stall next to him sat in his chair reading the newspaper, or a book, talking to friends who passed along, or occasionally half nodding off, our stall-holder I observed had no chair and would only very occasionally sit on the pavement. As people passed by he would frequently comment flatteringly on what they were wearing, and once when a jogger passed he clapped his hands as if a well-wisher at the end of a marathon.
How could I possibly seek to achieve this level of detail in postcard sized paintings one might ask, and I suppose what I offer here as representational detail in words, in the paintings became rather more abstract as for years I had been trying to answer the problem of the specific in a miniature form that wouldn't appear to allow for its ready rendering. What I tried often to do was use bland colours to indicate stillness and bold colours for movement, so in one of the pictures I showed both our friend's stall and his neighbours, with the neighbour's pale and his vivid. The neighbour was seated wearing dull colours; he was standing wearing a bold orange T shirt and red jeans (which he sometimes wore) and a Chinese straw hat on his head, which I made almost white.
However after a couple of days, painting him did not suffice. I wanted to know more about him, and so I went for my tea later than usual, so late in fact that they insisted they no longer served afternoon drinks and that they only served dinner. I sat eating my salad and noticed that he started to pack up at eight at night. He then went for drinks at the bar next to the cafe, and left the bar just as I finished my fromage blanc. I quickly called for the bill and left a larger tip than I could really afford rather than wait for the change, and noticed as I left the cafe that he had already started walking. I followed him up by Hotel de Ville, and stayed about fifty metres behind as he moved along Rue de Rivoli, before turning by Boulevard de Sebastopol and into Les Halles. He went into Chatelet metro, and I noticed he was taking line seven, going in the direction of Ivry or Villejuif, in the south west of the city. I chose not to get on the train.
The next day, though, I walked along the Seine, past the Bibliotheque F. Mitterand and through a clutter of roads and railway lines towards Ivry, and then walked back following the Metro line stops: Pt de Italie, Tolbiac, Les Gobelins, Place Monge... I still of course had no idea where he lived, but at various places I stopped and sketched, musing over where he might reside.
It would have been three or four days after I followed him to the station that I did so again. I surmised he usually finished work at around eight, and I saw him packing up as I came along the river. This time though he didn't go into the pub but instead started moving again in the direction of Chatelet, and once more got a train to the South West of the city. This time I got on the same train and sat in the same carriage, getting off with him at the station's final destination, Ivry. I followed him from the station down a side street and watched him go through the front door of a compact looking house. I passed the house a minute later, and heard voices, including his own, and the people weren't speaking French.
I knew several people from the city, friends I had studied with and who had returned to or were now living in the capital. One of them was a Parisian who knew the city like a local historian and whose flat was crammed with books and maps. Xavier liked nothing better than to wander the city and find monuments, streets, parks and squares, researching afterwards who they were named after, how they came into being. He told me when we met up the next morning that Ivry was one of the few remaining Communist towns in the area, and also proposed that the language I was hearing might have been Serb-Croat. He explained that during and after the war in the Balkans, numerous people came to Paris trying to build new lives and also some of them new houses: the street I had gone down had been one where old houses were crumbling and new ones were built on the ground where the old ones stood.
As Xavier talked to me about Ivry, the Balkans, and the immigrants who built houses in the town, I mentioned that he might have recalled that a few years before I had been to Mostar and Sarajevo, that I hadn't actually said much to anybody about the trip, and had never done anything with the sketches and the small paintings that I had produced during it. Often when I travelled, to Mexico, India, Morocco, and elsewhere, a few of the pictures I produced I would send to family and friends as postcards. Yet on that trip nothing I painted or drew seemed apt to send to anyone in such a form. How could I send someone a postcard of a graveyard, of a bombed out building, of a wall peppered by sniper's gunfire? As I had talked to Xavier I started to recall certain details about the trip that seemed strangely pertinent now, where before all that seemed relevant was the horror of thinking how quickly the middle of Europe tore bits of itself apart, with the rubble, graves and punctured walls remnants of this geographic and ethnic catfight. What I talked to Xavier about though was the mucus green of the Mostar river, the mist around Sarajevo after the rain began to clear, and the abrupt generosity of people from Bosnia. It was after walking down one particular street in Ivry that these images from Mostar and Sarajevo had returned to me, but not as memories of the Balkans, since it was not until the following morning that Xavier told me that they were probably housing Balkan migrs, but as vague feelings of uneasy familiarity. I wondered if the sketches and paintings that I had done were not so much reflecting the horror of what I had seen, but more readily the images I couldn't get out of my mind from television years before visiting. One reason I perhaps hadn't done anything with the work produced there was that not only were they unsuitable as postcards, they were also too influenced by the images I had seen on television during the conflict and that had superimposed themselves on my own work. I found it odd that the country had been returned to me in a subtler, thoroughly sub-conscious way through simply walking down one narrow street in Ivry.
Xavier replied by saying that he had once been to Morocco and thought it the least romantic and luxurious place he had ever been, but on top of the poverty images of luxury and romance would keep imposing themselves, as if the hunger and desperation he was seeing happened to be no more than the loose wires and the ballast of a building in a state of mild disrepair. Would it have been different, I wondered, if we happened to have an affair with someone from the countries we visited? He looked surprised, and I shrugged as if to say I didn't really know what I meant either.
After talking with Xavier, for the first time I walked along the side of road where the stall-holder happened to be, trying to see what titles he might have and the accent he possessed, without actually dawdling for long enough so that he would assume I was a potential customer and engage me in conversation. I somehow didn't want to know him but only about him. I managed to pass more slowly than usual as he was in conversation with a potential buyer, and I noticed nothing especially singular about the books he had, but I did sense in the manner in which he spoke French that he might have been from somewhere else, and wondered whether he was indeed from the Balkans.
The next day I went again to my regular cafe, and again on the other side of the road he was standing by his stall. I realised he was probably younger than I believed: he was wearing drainpipe red jeans that had recently once again become fashionable, but he was wearing them I sensed as a return to an early eighties past. If he were twenty in 1980, he would be no more than fifty now. That day he had obviously been drinking a lot. When I arrived at four he was already inebriated, and he drank another few beers while I was drinking my tea. He closed up earlier than usual so I put my book in my bag, asked for the bill, and was ready just as he locked the last of his four boxes.
I followed him the direction of Hotel de Ville, got on the same metro train, and got out again at Ivry where he disembarked. I followed him along the various roads that led to the very street I had walked along a few days before, and watched him turn into one of the houses that I had peered into. I passed a minute later, and saw through a smallish window that was the kitchen's that he sat down with his head in his hands and didn't look up as a woman came into the room, a look I'm sure of compassion on her face. Perhaps I didn't have time to read that look as I half passed and half peered, for maybe I simply deduced it: that here he was arriving drunk and no doubt smelling of alcohol and she hadn't harangued him.
I went for a drink in a bar in Ivry not far from the street. After about twenty minutes I saw the stall-holder walking towards the bar on the other side of the road. He stood at the counter, ordered a drink and appeared to be talking to the barman as if to a friend. I finished my beer shortly afterwards, got the metro back to the centre, changed at Hotel de Ville and went back to my own temporary apartment.
I was nearing the end of my stay and it was the following evening, eating with Xavier at my regular cafe, that we watched as the stall-holder across the road started packing up. It must have been around half eight (the restaurant wouldn't get busy for another hour) and Xavier, seeing that the waitress was standing around idly, asked her if she knew anything about the man across the road. She understandably looked bemused by the question, as though she expected a query about finding the Holocaust museum nearby, or the village of St Paul, but said she had heard certain rumours but had no idea if they were facts. She spoke a little English, but spoke mainly in French, and said to Xavier that the man's name was Andre and that he'd had the stall for a few years, that he opened it after coming back from the Balkans with a wife and a war wound. His grandfather had been Bosnian, and when the war broke out he went and fought for the Bosnian cause. He came back with a scar in his side that he would occasionally show passers by when he got drunk, and a wife who would very occasionally take over the stall or work on it with him. People would say he sometimes had these drunken episodes as a way of dealing with what he had seen. Others said he liked a drink long before he went off to fight.
That evening I explained to Xavier why I supposed I hadn't said much about the trip. For most of my stay in the Balkans I did what many people do if their budget is limited; I stayed at people's houses. They would be waiting there as you got off the bus, and would offer a room in their house as accommodation. In Mostar there was a sympathetic looking woman with a little card, not much bigger than my own paintings, offering a room for rent at about half the price that I had expected to pay. I walked silently with her to the house on Mladena Balorde, and was surprised by the number of books in the corridors and in the sitting room. She offered me a tea, and called to her son, who was about twenty, and he translated what she said into English: meals could be included and I could pay her a bit extra at the end of my stay. I said that would be fine, and after she went off to make the tea, I talked with her son. I asked him about the thousands of books. He laughed and said that during the troubles he thought their house would be still standing after all the others fell down because even if the walls fell down the books would hold up the roof. I wanted to ask a few more questions, but he seemed to be someone who talked only when he was ready to do so.
Over the next few days we talked a lot. I liked Mostar, liked the frozen yogurt and walking around by the river. I couldn't get over the colour of the water, and was reminded of Rilke's short book on colours, a series of letters trying to describe and make sense of them. One evening with the owner's son I went to a basement club that was at the bottom of a bombed out building. I seemed never to ask anybody any questions not because I wasn't interested, but because I felt trivial questions were irrelevant and difficult questions impertinent. Yet a number of people talked to me of their experiences, and nobody more so than the house owner's son.
That evening after the club it was almost dawn and he said maybe we could walk and he could offer me a sightseeing tour of despair. He showed me numerous buildings that were damaged and explained what had happened, who had opened fire, who had died. But I never saw him so moved as when he talked about his sister. He explained that near the end of the fighting there were numerous people from other parts of Europe who came and fought for their cause. No doubt some were paid, but many volunteered; either with a sense of general injustice or with a blood tie: a few came because their families were from the region. One of them his sister had married, though she wasn't certain whether she especially loved him, but her father had died and they were not sure how they were to survive. At least if she married a foreigner, the family would have the chance of some outside help. He said they were now living in Paris; that the husband did various odd jobs, even though the family he came from was wealthy: his grandfather was a successful immigrant who had often come back to the village and was known to have contributed to various causes in towns throughout Bosnia. It wasn't that his sister married cynically - it was more that her feelings for him were less strong than the needs of her family, and yet his blood was at least Bosnian.
That was my last day in Bosnia. I slept for a few hours at the house, said to the mother that I needed to catch my bus, and she said she would say to her son that I had said goodbye. I never saw them again, but yes I did now wonder whether the person selling books on the Seine was the man who might have married into the family I had stayed with in Mostar. Xavier thought it would be a strange coincidence, but why shouldn't it be possible, and we discussed over the rest of the meal that we often credit to fate the things we notice when they are not especially based on obvious cause and affect. We agreed there are numerous events that would coincide if we only paid them attention, but that our lives are so based on egotism and logic, on the centrality of our own lives and insisting on cause and effect in our actions, that we miss numerous connections that can create surprise and meaning in our existence.
We sat there drinking our Turkish coffee until long after most people had left, and as we asked for the bill, and as the waitress was no longer so swept up in the customers' demands and off her feet, we also asked a few more questions about the seller on the Seine. We asked if she knew for how long he had the stall, whether he did it as a hobby or a profession, whether she knew anything about his family background: we explained that it was possible that I had stayed in his wife's family's house in Mostar years before. As Xavier translated the questions I proposed I noticed that at a certain point he was no longer interested in the question; more in the waitress. Equally I could see she was answering the questions with a flirtatiousness that allowed my curiosity to be merely the means with which they could express an interest in each other. It reminded me of a discussion between an acquaintance, my ex-girlfriend and myself about a film we had all just seen, and knew during the discussion that she was no longer interested in me or the film, but in him.
The waitress said that he was rumoured to come from a rich family, but didn't know why he was working as a stall-holder. Xavier asked where she heard such information, and she said it gets passed along. You are standing outside with the chef having a cigarette and you ask an idle question about someone across the road, and you get half a life story, whether it is true or not nobody really cares; it is simply a way to say a few things whilst smoking: it is a premise for something else. It was exactly what I suppose Xavier and the waitress were doing as they translated my questions, and she answered them happy it seemed to still be talking to Xavier. Eventually the chef asked her to finish clearing the tables, and we said we had better leave. Xavier asked for her mobile number after we paid the bill.
A couple of days after that I returned to Edinburgh, looked through the many postcard sized paintings I had taken on the Bosnian trip, including one of the house in which I had been staying in Mostar. As I did so I felt moved almost to tears but by what exactly I didn't know. Was it that I sensed Andre's wife didn't love him, as my partner who was now with that acquintance no longer loved me, or was it that I somehow felt that a painting I had done years before suddenly had now found its pertinence?
The next day I put the painting in an envelope along with several others from Bosnia and also some that I took of Andre and his stall in Paris, and posted it to Xavier with a brief note asking if he could give them to him. I also said if Andre wanted to sell them, or to keep them for himself, that would be fine. I knew in the process I was perhaps creating the concrete and the perversely abstract. I was of course giving Xavier an excuse to see the waitress again if he needed any, but also creating a question mark in Andre that could only be answered if he found himself speculating on who might have sent him these tiny paintings as much as I had found myself speculating about him. My Paris trip was as meaningful as any I had done, so meaningful it had created added meaning retrospectively concerning another trip altogether, even if to make sense of it has required the aid of language, and couldn't quite have been offered in the form of small, obscure paintings.
© Tony McKibbin