Think of ‘a studio in Paris’, and what do you see? A quaint little apartment in an old building? Heavy stairs, winding up almost to the roof – stairs so worn down by centuries of feet they slope alarmingly and are almost as slippery as glass?
It’s an image familiar from French films. The rooms may be tiny, but they have so much character … and the view, the view out those weathered casement windows leaves you breathless: slate roofs, orange chimney tops, perhaps even a monument or two not so far away.
The Australia Council’s Keesing Studio is not like that. It’s in a modern building (designed to match the old ones all around it) and, by Parisian standards, the one room that is for living, eating, sleeping and working in, is quite large.
The view through the big, double-glazed windows is of another identical building opposite. Other Cité Internationale des Arts residents are on show in their studios; so is an endless parade of dancers and fitness fanatics at the Dance School.
It’s a comfortable environment. Not a location you’d expect anyone to pounce on for the next film starring Juliette Binoche or Irene Jakob, but all you have to do is lean out the window, look up and down the street and you are right in the heart of Paris.
For two people, however, trying to live and work in that one room can be a challenge.
So, when Roman, the friendly theatre writer from Switzerland offers me his studio for a week while he goes off to a conference, I leap at the chance of having a room of my own to write in.
Atelier 5441 is on the top floor of an older part of the Cité des Arts. There’s no lift to get up there – just a very large number of very, very old stairs, which are both slippery and steep.
The ‘atelier’ – it feels too French to be called a studio – is perched just back from the Seine and the endless traffic along Quai de l’Hotel de Ville.
The main work room has four large windows, and through their glass panels, I can see leaves. Huge expanses of green leaves, on the plane trees which line the two streets between here and the river.
Above that, sky (mostly cloudy, with little erasures to show just a hint of blue) – and between the leaves and the sky, a line of buildings: the top floors of apartment blocks on Ile St-Louis, their dark grey roofs and attic windows and chimney tops, with occasional glimpses of cream walls below.
Through the window directly in front of my desk, I see the dome of the Pantheon, with its small structure on top, like a watch-tower, protected by a fragile black cross – and through the window furthest to the right, Notre Dame looms, its two square and solid high towers lit up as the sun comes out so that all the decorative stonework looks like lace and the tiered black shapes inside the bell towers are like a multi-frilled flamenco skirt, waiting for wind to set them twirling inside that decorative prison.
If I move my head a bit, there is the black steeple as well, the back of the cathedral where the roof has a line of green statues … and the outsides of two huge round, stained-glass windows, overlaid with their decorative framework like flowers.
If I put my head out another window, I can see the Eiffel Tower … Actually, even if I just press my face against the glass of the window I can see it – and that is preferable to opening the window and leaning out, as I get an immediate whirl of shock if I do that, as if I could lose my balance and go over the narrow railing, down onto the tops of the parked cars and the clamour below.
Just to walk into this studio is to enter a space electric with the idea of Paris. The grind of the traffic – so relentless, but excitingly active – is part of it, as is the constant flicker of the green water under the trees, and the banging of workmen near the long garden of red roses between the two streets.
But it is the view which makes me gape. To be so emphatically here, within the postcard vision, is shocking! I could almost imagine living in a studio like this for two months and being so alive and excited that I’d work, in spite of the noise.
It does remind me of the excitement of living here for the first time in 1994, when everything was new and remarkable, even the wake-up clatter of the garbage collection before dawn.
Now that the Keesing Studio is so walled in, without the view we had then of Hotel de Sens, it doesn’t feel so immediately Parisian. Whereas here, there’s no doubt at all where you are.
The jolt of excitement I get is like the inexplicable adrenalin hit which comes with any walk out of the building and into the air here. Some areas around this Cité des Arts address are quite familiar to me now, but it still surprises me to walk down towards the river and see people, bringing home baguettes bandaged in tissue paper, or paper pyramids hiding cakes. At any hour, day or night, there will be people, carrying grocery bags or Paris guides, disappearing behind doorways, or rushing to the Metro at Pont Marie …
Past the closed green cabinets of the bouquinistes above the river, a cyclist appears – and then another, coming the opposite way. A fawn fuzz is falling from the plane trees – seeds? – the footpaths are carpeted with this. What look like conkers – round baubles, some green, some brown, hang amongst the big green leaves.
Next door, someone is playing a flute. Practising … The sound comes through the wall like tiptoeing up and down steps between us and the sky.
The traffic churns past … And then a white boat along the Seine as well. Then another – it’s 11am – time for the tourists and the bateaux mouches to get busy? At night there will be a spectacular procession of them, lighting up everything as they pass. And in the distance, the Eiffel Tower will be golden honeycomb …
This is usually an artist’s studio. Someone has left drawings. And canvas. Even frames. There are two large easels …
I can imagine Martin clipping paper for his drawings there … I’m starting to think I’ll offer this work space to him instead of using it (that will give me the Keesing Studio all to myself during the day), because really the noise will probably overwhelm me before long (already my ears feel full and my head feels as if it’s being shaken inside – as for sleeping here, well, perhaps it is a little quieter in the small separate room at the back where the bed is – perhaps … Yes, it is, but only if you shut the door and if there were two people here, the beds would fill the room and the door would not shut!)
After I go into the comparative quiet of the bedroom, then come back, what do I find? The noise is noisier, the possibility of sitting here for a whole day feels very dubious.
When Martin suddenly rings – the phone coos as gently as a pigeon compared to the grind and erratic roar of the traffic – I don’t mind saying I’ll quit here, go across to the muted space of our modern studio for morning coffee, and let him have this atelier for the rest of the day.
It’s exactly as I’ve imagined a Paris Studio should be, this old atelier. It’s thrilling – and I’ve loved my visit. But could my Antipodean body cope with it for more than a short time? Probably not.