“Il faut bien servir à quelque chose…”
… said Paul to the man standing at the bar. They clinked glasses and took a long swig of what each was drinking. It was at this moment that a boy of about five or six came running around the corner of the bar, dodging in between the chairs of the tables by the large windows, overlooking the cobbled streets of Barbizon. He was playing some game with his sister – it might have been tag – and she was laughing by the knees of her father, who was playing his own adult game at the bar.
The children breathed life into the greying décor, and a couple, no older than seventeen, sat and wanted to hold hands, because it was cold, and looked into each other’s eyes while all around them darted the stares of newcomers who had just sat down to take a hot chocolate. Two plates of food were carried out by a waiter of the brasserie, delivered to a patient table and set upon like a winter feast.
With his most recent professional accomplishment, Paul was spending his time gambling in so-called PMUs, which gave him the time to unwind. Usually on the horse and chariot races, in this bar there was only the bingo to while away the time. This he did with consummate professionalism in a hobby, going out for smokes and drinking half pints of cheap beer.
A man with a hat on his head had walked in a few hours ago and was standing to the left of Paul at the zinc. He wore this hat to keep out the cold, but when it was summer he wore a hat to hide a scar on his head. When he came in, he ordered syrop au citron and thought about the times he was living in, and being artistic he had to plenty to consider, standing at bars in brasseries, wondering what the hell is going on.
He said hello to Paul, who respected his seniority and asked him what was what. He replied that he was a painter, trying to catch the minutiae of a village with two centuries of printed history. A fine task, said Paul with little reflection, for he was occupied with what his next professional engagement might be. No rest for the wicked.
All of a sudden, one of the children fell over a chair, having misjudged the amount of space to give a chair leg, but did not burst into tears. The father put down his betting pencil for a moment, ready to pick up the child if necessary. The couple stopped their chitter chatter to see if the boy was alright, and even the local drunk turned an eye from his beer to assess the scene. Yet the boy simply looked at his knee, rubbed it and ran off to rejoin his sister.
In conversation with the painter, Paul admitted to taking a little break from his work, omitting that he had recently been charged with obtaining information about the forthcoming French elections and had needed to interview some very high personalities. He had come to the countryside to take some fresh air and to march among boulders in this ancient domain. The older replied that he lived there, exhibiting paintings in the village’s largest gallery. Paul could not help but be impressed.
The man had a bag by his side, out of which – like some terrible cliché – a brush and palette stuck out. Paul was intrigued by this and asked him to show him what he had in there. “Si vous me payez une bière”, replied the older man.
Paul considered. He could see the people around him and did not want to disturb them. In this little corner of France, they talk about guns between themselves and the military. Ostensibly, they do not support art that is not nationally their own. But in Barbizon, there is something more, Paul had learned, and the locals do appreciate the artist. In their own way.
“Allez-y,” said Paul and the older man removed from his bag a sketch book and soft crayon, which the older man was very well accustomed to handling, as well as dealing with the curious eye of the public. Why do you think he drank so much? He had painted all over the world, from Japan to the west coast of the USA and thence further East always, in some spiral to refind his birth place and to rest his ashes in his homeland. He was stuck in Europe.
He and Paul continued their conversation over a cigarette outside and noticed that it had started snowing. Paul thought of the final story from the Dubliners, remarking on the universal nature of art and its ability to combine the high and the low in one story. “Vous êtes un méchant”, said the older man.
This pricked Paul’s attention, who then questioned him. But instead of saying anything about it, the conversation became political. As Stendhal would say, the pistol was fired in the theatre; the older man asked whether Paul thought Sarkozy was going to win the elections. He did not exactly, so Paul gave his own two cents and they both returned to their beverages at the bar.
“C’est l’heure pour moi, je crois” said Paul. “Avant de partir, je vous fais votre portrait”, replied the older man. Flattered, Paul accepted, thinking his witty conversation had earned him the honour. After all, passing through an artist town, one has one’s portrait done. He stood at the bar, still like a shark, and surveyed the room around him.
When the portrait was done, proudly displayed on the bar, the other clients looked at it, looking at Paul and mostly nodding in approval. Paul could not tell if they had done this before. Even the couple holding hands in a tight embrace broke their attention to snatch a glimpse of the art of Barbizon. Paul felt both intimidated and proud by this moment, and so he asked for the bill.
When it came, shortly before his taxi back to the station, he offered the older man a beer, who accepted it. He clinked his glasses, threw the rest of his beer down his throat and strolled out of the café. The couple stood up to pay their bill, silently nodding at the artist, and opened the main doors into the snowing night. The father ushered his children along, telling them to stop playing, and left the brasserie. The artist finally sat back on his chair, raised his glasses and said to himself “Il faut bien servir à quelque chose”.