Masha Obolensky: France

August 28, 2009

This photo is of the Jean Cocteau museum in Menton.  Menton borders Italy and seems to be the place where Italian families from across the border come for the beach.  It is known for its lemons (the juice of these lemons has a higher sugar content than other lemons)  and I made sure to try a lemon curd pastry.  It was exquisite.  But back to Cocteau! Inthe 50s he helped to turn this 17th century fort into a museum devoted to his work.

cocteau musee


My favorite pieces were his mosaics made of pebbles like the one that is seen above.  The floors inside the museum continue in this style – the pebbles were found by Cocteau on the beaches of the Riviera.  He supposedly spent many of the hours of his days collecting these.

beach pebbles

The museum had a small collection that included drawings, tapestries, watercolours, pastels, ceramics, and these mosaics. While that sounds like a lot – I found it to be a bit limited in scope.  This might have been because the collection displayed adhered too closely to a theme which I found to be a bit redundant and restraining.  But the building was like a child’s magaical toy castle and again, what I appreciated most were all the details he incorporated into the building itself.  From what I understand, another museum is going to open soon in Menton that will have a much larger collection of Cocteua’s works (in addition to those in the current museum.)

After the museum, I visited the town hall, where the wedding room amazingly enough was designed by Cocteau.

town hall

salle des mariages

This is not a museum piece, but the actual room in which civil ceremonies are performed.  Anyone getting married in Menton must have a civil ceremony performed here.  It is pretty fantastic that this room that would normally be purely functional has been transformed into a very much alive and celebratory piece of art.  Cocteau designed everything in this little room including the chairs, the lamps, the alter, the animal print runner…  And the walls and ceiling are covered in murals much like his Villefranche chapel.

Tomorrow I return to Boston.  There.  I said it.  I have had an incredible journey and feel ready to embark on the writing process. Actually being in the places where Colette, where Cocteau, lived, breathed and created has been an invaluable contribution to my process.  Being immersed in another culture for a significant amount of time has unlocked my habits and opened me again to other ways of living and being.  It had been a long time since I had taken a trip out of the United States – such a gift!  I hope to return very soon.



August 20, 2009


Villefranche Sur Mer is often referred to as Cocteau’s Villefranche.  The reason for this ongoing identification of the town with Jean Cocteau makes sense to me now that I am here. Cocteau came here in the 1920s to heal after the un-timely death of his boyfriend, Raymond Radiguet. He lived in the Hotel Welcome, where his presence can still very much be felt.  I went into the lobby and wandered around looking at photos of him and various artist friends that he received while living there in the 20s and the 50s: Colette, Picasso, Man Ray, Stravinsky, Isadora Duncan- to name a few.

hotel welcome

Evidence of his overflowing creativity is all around the Hotel Welcome and the town.  Across the street and on the edge of the sea, is a tiny chapel, built in the 14th Century, and painted by Cocteau in the 50s.  It is the centerpiece of the town and when I first saw it – it took my breath away.  His love for Villefranche is so perfectly expressed in this chapel. He referred to himself as an adopted son of the South of France.


I wish I was allowed to take photos of the inside because this place is something very special.  I smile thinking of it. It is playful and loving and I felt as if it was a peek inside of Jean Cocteau’s heart.  I am not a church-goer, but I would worship here!

Outside, along the marina is a bust of Cocteau and on the plaque below is inscribed: “When I look at Villefranche, I see my youth. May it never change.”





August 15, 2009


Burgundy is beautiful and the soil is so rich that it grows the grapes of some of the world’s finest wines. But I must admit to having the occassional pang… I miss Paris already!  Not to say that this new place, new experience is being wasted on me.  In Paris, I had one friend, someone I worked with in NYC years ago – and she was the person through whom I could see what I could not otherwise as a foreigner – the non “touristic”  as she would say.  Otherwise, my interactions with Parisians were about exchanges of goods for money.  Un noisette s’il vous plait.  Merci.  Au revoir. I observed others talking and watched their gestures for clues as to what they were saying. But since arriving in Burgundy, I have had several people show an interest in engaging in conversation (in English of course.) On the train from Auxerre to Dijon, a young woman asked me if I needed help with my bags and then asked where I was from.  She had a friend who had won a contest as a musician and was awarded with a trip to Boston… and so the conversation started and continued on until our arrival.  In Beaune, a jewel of a city in the heart of the Cote d’Or, I walked down into the cellar of a small local winery hoping to experience a few of the wines of the region – the son of the winemaker and his girlfriend were holding down the fort while his parents vacationed in Portugal. They were both sports teachers.  The next three hours we spent in the cellar talking about education, wine, politics, family… Then the inn keeper where I am staying – he and his partner are so lovely and breakfast is spent chatting with them.  Periodically I battle the restless American in me “Well I better go. They must have to get back to work.  I have to get back to work.  What time is it?”  But this voice is getting more faint as the days go on.  I miss the magical Paris, and I will miss Burgundy as well.  I find myself almost trying to get lost in the labyrinth like streets of these medieval villages — this seems to me the point.


On to Burgundy

August 7, 2009

I leave Paris tomorrow morning… My internet connection will be spotty for the next week and then I will reconnected.  Sorry to leave, but excited for the rest of my trip.  Half way through – and not thinking about the fall!  Here are some parting photos:

tour de france










More photos

August 5, 2009

FERME. Woke up on Sunday to a significantly less populated Paris. Everywhere – clothing shops, boulangeries, cafes.. closed until September. It is time for a break.


But for those who are not so fortunate to take off for the Cote D’Azur… there is a section of the bank of the river Seine that is turned into a beach for the summer. I love this city.


Sand, palm trees, the works. (No sand in this photo, but further along the river.)

Opportunities for relaxation and interaction are everywhere in Paris. The life along the banks of the Seine is a perfect example. It is set up in such a way that people are invited to congregate and enjoy the beauty of the river. And people really do. Come dusk, picnic blankets cover the ground – there are clusters of friends and families all along the river eating and drinking and enjoying each others’ company. It is a beautiful thing.

And my other favorite place for leisure and gathering in Paris: The Luxembourg Gardens:

luxembour gradens

And then of course, the cafes:


blue glasses

And back to August in Paris. There is still much to do. On Sunday, I walked past all the signs detailing dates of return – and went to the Pompidou. Museums are free on the first Sunday of every month, I took advantage of this, as did many others:

pompidou lines

Went to a fantastic exhibit: 


An entire floor devoted to work by contemporary women artists. It was a thrilling exhibit. More on that later.

And the inevitable Colette connection: In the permanent collection of The Pompidou, a portrait of Colette painted by her dear friend Jean Cocteau:


More of the friendship between Cocteau and Colette later as well.

Before I sign off… something else… Colette also vacationed in August. Her place of choice was Rozven, a tiny coastal Brittany hamlet. In fact, August has been the month for Parisians to vacation for a long time. I took note of this when reading a biography on Colette, but I was “back home” then and did not fully realize just how much of an impact it has on the city until now.



August 3, 2009

Interesting article in the NYTimes today about the way that many tourists do not engage with the art in the Louvre, but instead photograph it presumably to process it later.

This phenomena is hard not to notice — I have included a photo I took in the Louvre that was attempting to convey this. I think that something that adds to this tendency to click a photo and move on is that b/c of the sheer number of sights and museums to see here in Paris — many choose to save money by purchasing a “museum pass”  which allows for as many sights as you can fit into 4 days (or if time allows, 6 days.)  So this also feeds the frenzy to rush to the major attractions, take a picture and move quickly on to the next.

Click photo!

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci   - check!                                                                         

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci – check!  Click on ‘View the Feature’.

And then there are the crowds… I remember seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time when I was 10 years old.  She was not behind bullet proof glass back then and my memory does not recall the masses of people that surround her now. As a child I was, like so many others, totally fascinated with her.  I remember passing back and forth in front of her, moving around the room trying to trick her ever watchful eyes. for years after I kept a postcard of the Mona Lisa on my bureau, and the fascination didn’t fade.  Back in Paris, I was eager to see her again “in person” – but she is quite the celebrity.  I could have elbowed my way up to her, but taking time to contemplate would be a near impossibility.



public intimacy

August 2, 2009


I took this photo in the Louvre.  I have seen a lot of incredible art here in Paris and of course countless statues of nudes.  But this one stopped me because the nudity was so very … naked.  Not to stretch the Colette connection, but it did in fact make me think about her work.  Her writing was remarkable in its time in that she wrote about female desire in such intimate detail and then she also turned things around, often making the man the passive object of the female gaze .  She thrust her reader into the position of voyeur with her lurid depictions and then openly admitted that her novels were to a large degree autobiographical.

Click photo!


Hermaphroditos Asleep – Ancient Roman Statue on Mattress Sculpted by Bernini in 1619 – Now in Louvre        

“The ambivalence and voluptuous curves of this figure of Hermaphroditos, who lies asleep on a mattress sculpted by Bernini, are still a source of fascination today. His body merged with that of the nymph Salmacis, whose advances he had rejected, Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is represented as a bisexed figure. The original that inspired this figure would have dated from the second century BC, reflecting the late Hellenistic taste for the theatrical.”   (Louvre)


More photos to come very soon…



Returned to Père-Lachaise Cemetery

July 29, 2009


In 1954 Colette became the first woman in France to be given a state funeral. Because she had been divorced twice and did not receive the last sacrament, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Paris decided that the church would not be involved with the funeral. Because of this, there is no cross on Colette’s tomb.


Postcard from Masha


gathering imagery

July 27, 2009

My sister recently said to me that one gets from the great cities of the world beauty, truth, or goodness.   I have come to Paris for the beauty.  It is my fifth day here and I feel the beauty of this city  inspiring me. It is after 10pm right now and darkness seems far off.  The evening sun does not set until late here and the life on the streets surges come 9pm, when the cafes fill with people who are settling in to begin their leisurely dinners.  At 12:30 a rush to the last metro can be heard, but the lights in my neighborhood don’t seem to start to dim until after 2am (not the official reason for Paris being called The City of Light but….)  I myself am a night owl and so feel buoyed by the nightime movements of others around me. So far I have been doing much of my writing at night – mostly working on re-writes for a play that will have a production in Boston in February 2010.  During the day I am spending at least three hours reading — I am working my way through Colette’s Claudine series (which she wrote under her husband’s name: Willy).  Next week I hope to visit some of her many residences here in Paris.  I have taken many photos but realized that I did not bring my usb cable to download them – so the photo postings will have to wait until I get another. I have been gathering imagery that somehow evokes Colette’s world for me.  Tomorrow the Tour de France finishes in Paris and I will be there.  I was interested to read that Colette wrote an article on the Tour de France for her Le Matin weekly column “The Thousand and One Mornings”.  I will post it here when I am able to find it.

on the other side of jet lag…

July 21, 2009 

I arrived on Sunday and stumbled around on Monday attempting to get settled.  Those simple tasks like taking a shower, buying groceries, making a phone call — become monumental when sleep deprived in a foreign country.  Come Tuesday, I had caught up on the sleep and it started to sink in that I am here and am going to be for awhile.  i am so accustomed to the vacation that is not really a vacation because it is squeezed in and then crammed full.  But this is different — I can take my time, process, engage. 

Yesterday and today I had one thing on my “agenda” and otherwise I let the days happen.  The place of interest on Monday was the Pere Lachaise Cemetary, la cite des morts, where Colette among many many others rest the eternal rest. I didn’t even make it to her grave before the gates closed.  I had taken the city bus #69, which rides through many of the sightseeing districts and gives a great overview of the city.  The last stop on the bus is the cemetary.  On the way to Colette, I found  the tombs of Oscar Wilde, Moliere, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Edith Piaf, and Chopin.  Then bells starting ringing and the guards came and ushered us all out.  I will return … because there is time!  What a gift. Today I walked around the Left Bank and ended up in The Luxembourg Gardens, which is, I think, one of the most amazing places I have been – ever.  I will return there as well – many times. I saw people in various states of activity and relaxation.  I envied those who were sitting and reading or writing and decided that this will be one of the places where I will go to write. 

I am deeply grateful for this time away and can feel myself restoring and rejuventaing already. 

I will be back with some pics of my apartment and neighborhood.

july 19, 2009

i have arrived! the place is perfect. the church bells are chiming and i can see the eifel tower… — masha


Masha Obolensky

I will be spending six weeks in France retracing the steps of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (please see her photos below) and her long time friend, Jean Cocteau (please see his art below). Starting in Paris and heading South to her hometown in the Puisaye region (the setting of her “Claudine books” and her novel “My Mother’s House” and also the home of the Colette Museum) and then further south to the Cocteau Museum in Menton. I can’t wait to begin this journey!





colette_smock1-167x3001 fontenoy_village1-300x2441