When I was little, I had a collection of books that I read religiously, over and over again. Most of them were whimsical fantasy tales set in the English countryside. But among the Enid Blytons, Edith Nesbits and J.K. Rowlings were two books which gave me a taste for French life well before I ever set foot on Gallic soil. The first was Odette, the story of a lonely old man who plays the accordion in the Luxembourg metro station, just outside the gardens of the same name. One day, the man is passing below a tree when a baby bird falls out of its nest and lands on his hat. A wonderful friendship ensues and the chick, who the old man names Odette, joins her friend in the metro, accompanying his accordion music with birdsong. The two become inseparable until, in a bittersweet parting, Odette must fly south with her fellow birds for winter. About ten years after I was first given my copy of Odette, I visited the Luxembourg gardens for the first time and felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a place I felt I already knew.
The second Frenchie book I loved as a child was Linnea’s Garden, the story of a precocious young girl whose grandfather takes her to Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. The book was partly the story of Linnea’s personal love affair with Monet’s paintings and partly an educational, non-fiction piece on the master of French Impressionism. Despite taking quite a few Art History courses during my undergraduate degree, I’ve never really learned anything about Monet that I hadn’t already read in Linnea’s Garden (a fair feat for a children’s book). I adored Linnea and even had the official Linnea rag doll, decked out in her signature ensemble of green-and-white-striped overalls and little straw hat.
Since the days of thumbing through Linnea’s Garden, I have seen numerous Monet exhibitions in various cities, been to the Musée Marmottan in Paris and to Giverny itself, about an hour outside the city. Every time I see a water lily, poppy field or green Japanese bridge I’m reminded of Linnea’s adventures and how important they were to me as an Australian child, thousands of kilometres away from the whimsy of Giverny. But while the Marmottan has the largest Monet collection in the world and Giverny was Monet’s great artistic inspiration (and home), there really is nowhere like the Musée de l’Orangerie for experiencing his waterlilies, or nymphéas, as Claude himself would have called them.
In arguably the most stunning location in Paris, on the border of the Tuileries gardens, in the shadow of the Louvre and a stone’s throw from the Musée du Jeu de paume and Place de la Concorde, le musée de l’Orangerie is one of my favourite Parisian museums. A small venue, the lower levels have a lovely collection of Impressionist and Naïve paintings, including some Renoirs, Degas and even Picassos. However, the highlights of the Orangerie are the circular waterlily rooms, the walls of which are covered in Monet’s signature mottled blooms. Standing in the middle of the installation, you almost feel as though you are immersed in the luminous, pastel-coloured pond, the dusky lilies bobbing around you. Monet designed the paintings for the rooms themselves, so the effect is intentional. It’s such a special sight, something tells me Linnea might have preferred the dreamy lilies of the Orangerie to the real-life versions in Giverny. At least, I know I do.