Saturday, January 24, 2015

Paris and Pianos

Paris has dominated the news headlines this January, for all the wrong reasons.  It's been a grim month marked by terror attacks, mass grief and heightened security.  Scenes of heavily armed police and military personnel on street patrol disrupt the romantic images cherished by travelers who love the French capital.

I've been reading a wonderful non-fiction book set in Paris in the 1990s, a time frame that presents a softer, kinder, more inviting city.  The Paris of yesteryear with its quiet quartiers, specialty shops and inner courtyards provides a nostalgic backdrop for Thad Carhart's book "The Piano Shop on the Left Bank."

When Carhart, an American living in Paris, decides to take up the piano, he embarks on a quest that brings a wealth of discoveries about music, history, craftsmanship and himself.  A piano shop by the name of Deforges becomes the source for acquiring a good quality secondhand baby grand, and in the process of making this purchase, Carhart uncovers a goldmine of expertise and a cast of interesting characters.  The world of the piano comes to life as the author fine-tunes his amateur skills at the keyboard through private lessons and master classes and finds answers to questions about the construction and mechanics of the instrument.  His extensive research is conducted primarily through face-to-face encounters with individuals who are knowledgeable;  a pre-internet style of learning that is almost a lost art.  Carhart's focused absorption and gradual probing into an area of specialized interest contrast the superficial, impersonal information-gathering that Google offers computer users today.

The shop owner and piano repairman Luc becomes a friend, teacher and guide.  Their relationship is structured by European manners and Carhart is a particularly sensitive, empathetic observer capable of navigating adroitly through cultural differences.

" It was plain that we shared a love of pianos, but it was equally clear that his interest was of an entirely different order from mine.  His passion was his profession, while for me it was an avocation, an engaging diversion from my responsibilities.  He was infinitely patient with my questions and I think he saw right away that my curiosity was genuine, not just for the magnificent instruments that abounded but for his strange merging of art and commerce. What for him was an ongoing business seemed rare and wonderful to me at the end of the twentieth century: a master craftsman with a personal connection to his clients, his suppliers, and - most intriguing of all - to the very artifacts that he repaired and sold.   Without holding up a mirror to his activities, I think the pleasure I took in his atelier reminded him that it was outside the realm of the everyday. This was a form of flattery that he welcomed without ever talking about it."

"I enjoyed the slow unfolding of a friendship where, beyond our conversations about the pianos in the shop, certain things were tacitly understood.  Luc and I virtually never asked about each other's personal lives, although details came out as we talked.  This was understood as respect rather than lack of interest, a sometimes surprising notion for an American used to the rapid divulging of facts and the urgent expectation of intimacy in new relationships.  The pace was different in the atelier and I learned to give things time."

This is an engaging and beautifully-written firsthand account of exploration and discovery, one that recalls the pleasure of a leisurely walk around Paris in springtime, many years ago.  It sets a good example for the reluctant adult learner by showing that there are endless possibilities for transformation behind closed doors and in unused corners of the mind;  a cache of insight, skills and artistry worth developing.

Marche des enfants rouges

Street musicians

Medici fountain,  Jardin du Luxembourg

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