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Peter Frank

Peter Frank

Posted: May 4, 2010 02:36 PM

Blague d'art: Frank vs. the Volcano

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This comes in about a week late and doesn't discuss any exhibitions, but otherwise it's a genuine Blague d'Art. All blague, no art. I'm still recovering from a near-fortnight spent in Europe - falling out around 9 pm, ravenous at 4 in the morning - but what I'm really recovering from is having spent the just-shy-of-two-weeks in the wrong places. The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico has doubtless replaced the volcano in Iceland in your consciousness (as well it should; all together now - "Spill, baby, spill!"). But the (all together now) Eyjafjallajökull eruption did upend the lives of tens of thousands of people, I among them.

So I'm minding my own business, flying to Berlin, had an opening to attend, and in fact hadn't checked out the German capital since the Wall came down. Way overdue for a visit to the European art scene's answer to Los Angeles. As capitals go, however, I wound up in the wrong one. We knew on take-off that an ash cloud out of Iceland was forcing us into a more southerly route. But not long before we were to land in Heathrow (where I was to transfer to a flight to Germany) I noticed on the flight-info channel that that info was now available in French as well as English, and was advising us we had "1 heure à Paris Charles de Gaulle." Heathrow, the abashed flight attendant announced soon enough, was closed. Eh bien, I wouldn't be lightening my pockets of the weighty pound coins I'd packed, I wouldn't be dealing with those frightful English security inspectors (who make ours look like pre-school teachers), and I would be assigned a Paris-Berlin flight. A little adventure, and it all fell into place (despite the usual crowds and chaos at CDG) as anticipated - until the plane to Berlin itself turned back in mid-flight, depositing me back at M. le Général's airport close to 10 p.m. I was able to secure a flight for the next morning and a hotel near the airport for the evening, but I suspected that the next morning's flight would turn out to be chimerical.

What I didn't expect is that the hotel itself would turn out to be whimsical. I was advised that this last hotel room in the CDG vicinity was on the grounds of the Parc Asterix, a theme park based on that vaguely droll cartoon Gaul upon whom the French so dote. The hotel, quirky enough, was mercifully free of the park's theme, and the night desk manager was half-Californian, so reassuring in his guidance and idiomatic in his English. The next morning, of course, I found out that I was not getting to Berlin - nothing was flying, everything on the ground was booked, and the event I was to attend was taking place that evening, so I shouldn't even try. I took a short stroll around the grounds, quickly finding myself between a lovely Barbizonesque woods, birds a-trilling and rabbits a-frolicking, and a rattling roller coaster, its riders issuing an ongoing concordance of screams that would be the envy of any modern chorus.

Now the tasks were to ensconce myself in Paris and to get to Utrecht by Monday, whence the second leg of my trip could at least commence as planned. The good news was that Paris is inhabited by a friend with an extra room (and that the weather was gorgeous, almost mockingly so). The bad news was that people, including the Brits stuck in my hotel and the Parisians about to start their spring vacation, were desperate to leave town, and on top of the other nonsense - spring vacation!? - there was a partial SNCF strike, stanching the flow of trains in various directions. It was impossible to book a railway seat, at least on-line, and car rentals seemed to be going for upwards of $600 a day.

When I took off from LAX I was expecting to land in a Wim Wenders film; what I landed in instead was something by Jacques Tati. It only got more Traffic-esque when I spent half my Saturday afternoon wandering up and down the ever-expanding Gare du Nord in search of an international-route ticket window. Warn't none. The automatic ticket dispenser was happy enough to determine me a ticket to Utrecht, but wasn't at all cooperative about accepting my credit card. Nota bene, dear readers: in all probability, your American card lacks a certain device encoded with extra data that allows a machine - a European machine, in any case - to accept it without requiring you to sign. Your card's lack of such a device will sabotage your transactions at (per the corollary to Murphy's law) exactly the wrong time. I recall reading that the newest American cards, at least many of them, are now outfitted with that magical little addendum. But, of course, you do not have the newest card. I gave up, my fate still in abeyance, and went to feed my art jones.

The gallery scene in Paris, I'd been noticing over the last three years, has caught up with the rest of the world, and its April offerings were rather impressive (about which, more in an upcoming column). While stumbling through the Marais I came upon the "John Tevis Gallery," clearly an Anglophonic enterprise, but with a familiar ring. As I entered, the proprietor and I stared at each other in "of all the gin joints" semi-disbelief and realized that we knew each other from LA, where he had been partners in one of the earlier Chinatown galleries. Again, more anon on the art John had on view, but he did provide valuable advice: you can buy rail tickets to anywhere at any station, including the smaller gares on the Rive Gauche.

So the next day I hied me to the Gare Montparnasse and queued up warily. While I waited I heard announcements broadcast, in French and English and Spanish and/or Italian, to the effect that there were no more bookings to the south of France, to Spain, to Italy, or to Eastern Europe until midweek at the earliest. Little family groups, their faces riven with consternation, would drift away from the lines at the sound of these warnings, huddling in the center of the station like tears collecting on a tabletop. I was able to purchase a ticket to Brussels, whence my Dutch colleague could pick me up and take me back to Utrecht, to continue on the following day to Cologne and its art fair. And the attendant at the guichet accepted my card with no problem.

As I left the station, my triumph was tempered with survivors' guilt; I thought of the restless Englishmen at the Parc Asterix and the confused Poles and Turks in the Montparnasse station and even the annoyed nannies I espied from the bus window, herding their wards past the Invalides. I hadn't gotten to the New Berlin, but at least I still had Paris, and tomorrow I would escape. All they had was a round-trip ticket to Palookaville. How do you say that in Icelandic?