Bathing At Hotel Sternen

by David Williams

This is an old essay that I wrote ten or twelve years ago about my time at the Hotel Sternen in Brienz, Switzerland. I spoke briefly about my job at the hotel in my second post for Trailwriters. Although the subject seems fairly innocuous and, at least to me, had some humor as well, it opened my eyes to things we have taken for granted in this country for really our entire history on this continent, particularly cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Figures I have seen repeatedly in articles on independent news sites the last few years claim that Americans represent five percent of the world’s population yet use twenty-five percent of the world’s resources. If these figures are accurate, and I believe they are, then what we have done and continue to do is tantamount to gluttony. Setting aside any entertainment value my essay may have, this profligacy should make it still relevant today. I hope you don’t mind if I dust off this old relic and include it here. 

Water and bathing quickly became problems for us three Americans working at and living in Hotel Sternen. Back home we were used to taking a bath or shower every day. In Europe we learned that water is more precious and the energy required to heat it more expensive.

Denise and Diane stayed in one of the hotel rooms. It had two small beds, a chair and small table, and most important, to me at least, a small sink with hot and cold water. This arrangement was common for lower priced lodging in Europe. The girls had to “bathe” in the sink; they had to sponge-bathe, as we often call it here. 

When I had arrived at the hotel, our boss and the manager of the hotel, Vreni Michel, had given me a room on the east end of the second floor hallway. It was not a hotel room and appeared to be set aside for workers like me. Unlocking the door to enter, I had first to make my way along a narrow path through a roomful of discarded and unused hotel furniture. The path led to the door of my room. I  liked my room. It wasn’t cramped, contained an adequate small bed, an old writing table and chair, a bedside stand, and an armoire in the far corner against the east wall. This wall also held a window that looked out over the town to the east and thus down the main street through the town. Standing at the window and leaning out slightly I had two lovely views: one to the right with the Brienzee and mountains on the other side of this lake; the other to the left with the towering mountains rising up above the town. In both vistas rooftops and houses from my vantage point on to the east. 

My parents visited Brienz in the early eighties and returned home with a brochure about Hotel Sternen; this and the photo below come from that brochure. This one is a photo of the hotel taken from a boat in the lake. My niece and her friend visited Brienz recently, quite a coincidence since she did not know that I had worked there in 1976, and said that the hotel is still open for business. . 
This view of the church and west end of the town is one that Diane and I saw only once, when our work was completed and we caught a ride with a couple from Florida who offered to take us as far as possible towards Geneva. We would have seen this view  on the way out of town, turning around in the back seat of their car for a final look. 

There was a sink, as I recall, in the bathroom at the west end of the hall at the top of the stairs. Only cold water came from the tap. 

What I didn’t understand was how to bathe myself. When I asked Vreni Michel, she raised her eyebrows inquiringly,—a typical response from her—mumbled something to herself in German and said, “Yah, I’m finding something for you now.” She disappeared into the kitchen and promptly returned with a red plastic water pail. It held about three gallons of water. 

“Me thinks you using this now,” she explained, and thrust it into my hands. 

And thus I learned how to sponge bathe and did so in my room every evening after work. Filling the pail with hot water from the kitchen or, if I could find it open, the laundry room, I carried it to my room for my evening ritual. First I poured out some water to shave in. After shaving, I took a quick sponge bath, and while the water was still hot, I soaked my feet, a heavenly sensation after being on them on the hard floors all day.  

In the two months that I worked at Hotel Sternen, I went through this bathing routine every evening. Well, there was one exception. 

Within a week of our arrival, we discovered the large, deep bathtub in the laundry room on the second floor. Diane worked as a chambermaid, cleaning rooms and changing linens on beds. The used linens she took to the laundry room, so she probably spotted the bathtub first. Naturally, she and Denise began to discuss the prospect of a deep, hot bath. This idea seemed to grow and take on added dimensions of meaning as the days passed and they tried to adjust to bathing themselves in the sink. I didn’t envy them that sink either. It was small and probably held about half the water of my bucket. There was no way you could soak both feet in it at the same time. As for shampooing hair, I have no idea what they did. Well, the girls worked themselves into a state of longing and expectation that only a deep tub of steaming hot water would satisfy. You might say that they were obsessed with the laundry room bathtub. In reality, they likely would have been obsessed with any tub. Or a shower for that matter. 

Since the laundry room was kept locked, we had no way to get in for a bath unless we could come up with the key. A stout, attractive, middle-aged woman of Italian descent, Chaussi, worked in the laundry room a few days a week, and it was to her that the girls went first. Chaussi explained that she could not give them the key, that she had to take and return it each time she came to work from the rack of keys on the wall near the cash register in the restaurant. 

This left them with only two possibilities for bathing in the tub. They could either take the key while no one was looking and bathe without being discovered by Vreni Michel. Or they could ask her for the key and permission to bathe. The first option seemed all but impossible. So someone would have to go to Vreni Michel and ask for the key. 

The girls:

“Go on, she’ll let you have it.” (Diane)

 “She likes you.” (Denise)

“She’s not going to beat you or fire you just because you ask for the key.” (Diane)

“The worst she can do is say no.” (Denise)

So one day after lunch and just before our three hour afternoon break, I approached Vreni Michel in the restaurant. 

“The girls would like to take a bath,” I said. Well, it was partly true. She looked at me, puzzled, with that wonderfully expressive face. The eyebrows rose on her forehead, drooped a bit, rose some more. She studied me with that face, her eyes piercing me as she did. 

“What?” She must have been incredulous.

“A bath. The tub in the laundry room. We want to take a bath.”

My words registered, and in her face I could see her processing them, mulling them over briefly; a fleeting look of disappointment and annoyance, maybe even betrayal, passed over her features. She turned and reached up to the rack of keys. 

“Me thinks I’m giving it to you this time,” she said, and handed me the key.

I took it straight to the girls, who were waiting with anticipation, and a bathing queue formed, with me at the end. I didn’t mind. That afternoon we had our baths. We each ran a deep tub of hot water, soaking and luxuriating in it, indifferent to the cost for the hotel, for which Vreni Michel was ultimately accountable. The hotel, under her management, had fallen on hard times, and I wonder all these years later if she fretted over excesses like ours, which must have increased operating expenses. Well, it was only three baths. 

Tourism and wood carving are the two main drivers of the economy in Brienz. Busloads of tourists passed through the town most every day, and walking along the main street of town one could stop and look in the doors of small wood carving shops. My parents brought home a gift from one of these shops, this carving of a boy and his book. I began reading, as most avid readers probably do, at an early age; as an adult I probably never visited home without bringing along a book. 

It was inevitable that we would ask for another bath. Less than a week later the girls once again sent me, their bathing ambassador, to ask for the key. This time, however, the inquisitive, puzzled look did not show in her features. There was hardly any hesitation.  

“No, I’m not giving you the key this time. No more. The girls they having the water in the room, and you have the…the…”

“The bucket,” I said.

“Yah, that. The bucket. Is enough. You not asking any more the key.”


And that was the end of bathing in the big bathtub at Hotel Sternen. What remained of our time—about a month and a half—I bathed with the bucket. I don’t recall any hardship or inconvenience either. I don’t look back on that time with bitterness. Using the bucket simply became an established routine, one that I quickly grew used to and hardly gave a second thought.  

This house was fairly typical of the houses we saw in Brienz. In the afternoons we were given about three hours off from work and we usually walked though the town and along a small paved road that led up the mountainside out of the town. 

A decade later I would build a woodworking shop on my parents’ land in central Texas. After it was completed I added on a small bedroom and lived there four years. As in the days at Hotel Sternen, I bathed with a bucket most days since I didn’t have a bathroom. Outside, I built a privy—an outdoor toilet. In the shop itself there were two water spigots, both with cold water. In the summer I heated water for bathing and washing dishes on a hotplate; in the winter I used a wood-burning stove. 

This is a view of the south end of my wood-working shop/home, where I lived and worked from 1987 to 1991. The clothesline, incidentally, is not an anomaly; I’ve never owned a clothes drier and have seldom used one.

Looking back on those years, I remember no significant hardships or difficulties because there was no bathroom. I also lived without air conditioning and other conveniences. I still believe that I lived very comfortably. Once I settled into a routine and established what I would need in order to live well—a refrigerator, a wood stove, a hot plate, a fan to sleep under in the worst heat of summer, and yes, later, a telephone—I never longed for the conveniences that people today see as necessities. 

After four years I left the shop and since then I have lived in houses with bathrooms. And although I bathe or shower daily, I remember humbler times and that helps me not take for granted the availability of water and the energy to heat it. Those humbler times began at Hotel Sternen, in the middle of the Swiss Alps, in a country that most people would consider as having a high standard of living. We might look around the world sometimes and take a lesson from others.



Paris, Encore

By David Williams

It’s December and I am in Paris again–probably my last time. This makes five consecutive years here, my usual stay ten days. This year I have scheduled eleven, with hopes to go to Amsterdam to visit the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum. That won’t happen; there’s a transportation strike on here and public transport is at a bare minimum.

I’ve been lucky with hotels and one Airbnb the last four years, but my luck has run out this time. My hostess is a kind woman, but her place is hopelessly cluttered, and it’s not easy to clean around clutter. The two trash cans in the kitchen floor were both full to overflowing when I arrived; the kitchen faucet is broken but functional after a quick lesson; in the bathroom the sink faucet flops around when you work the handle; there is no shower curtain.

To get to my room at the back of the place I must walk through a small open-air courtyard with–what else?–more clutter, most of which is absolute trash. (This courtyard could be a charming place with a little effort and a dump truck to haul off the junk.) The mattress on my bed is a lumpy mess; one of the covers is an old sleeping bag unzipped and opened to cover the full-sized bed, the lone pillow almost flat as a pancake. The north wall of this room is covered in bookcases, with just enough room in one corner for an armoire, this latter apparently not for my use since it is already full of clothes.

There is also a desk in the room with enough open space on the top to put some of my things. The chair bottom is broken down and needs a pillow on it to keep the sitter from falling through. A small electric coil heater stands by the desk. I read at this desk in the morning with coffee, in the evenings with a glass of wine. (I decided to bring Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky; I read it about thirty (or more) years ago and have wanted to reread it; great story)

On the positive side, the room does shelter me and provide me with a base from which to get out in the city. In the mornings I can make coffee and have a little breakfast, both important items on my daily agenda. It rained often on this trip but never very hard, and the sound of it on the apartment roof with two skylights was as pleasing as the song of the meadowlarks at home.

The apartment is in the twentieth arrondissment, on the far east side of Paris; it’s quite a walk into the center, about two miles I’d say. However, it’s not far to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and the nearby Place Voltaire, where I stayed in a good hotel in 2015, and from there it’s not far to the Bistrot Paul Bert. That first day I was exhausted from the transatlantic flight, having slept very little, so I ruled out a visit to the city center and walked over to the Paul Bert for an early afternoon meal.

Bellville Park – The area I stayed in was a working class neighborhood; my hostess told me about this lovely park, so I walked up there a few minutes one day.
Park in Belville 2Park in Belville1

This bistro comes highly recommended in most guide books; I eat there each year at least once, often it’s my main splurge for dining out. For dinner, with wine, and coffee afterwards, the bill can be seventy or eighty dollars; lunch can be had for around thirty dollars–no wine. This year for lunch my first course was three small pieces of breaded fish with the best tartar sauce I’ve ever tasted. The main course was beefsteak, not very large, a cut I could not identify which seemed a little tough when I cut it up but wasn’t when I ate it; it was juicy and delicious. The steak came with French fries and mayonnaise (This last combination I was first introduced to in Amsterdam in 1976. It’s a good combo.); dessert was a slab of chocolate cake in a pool of light-colored cream sauce, excellent, too.

I had a lot of good food in Paris this time, mostly Middle Eastern and Italian. I found several hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops where you could get a hot meal for ten to twelve dollars. My favorite was a vegetarian sandwich shop that served a wonderful falafel pita pocket sandwich. The proprietor prepared it by drizzling the inside of the PP with hummus, sprinkling in some lettuce, dropping in four or five falafels, then handing it off in a paper sleeve to the customer who could then add toppings from an impressive array of chopped delicacies, vegetables and sauces. Whoa! Then came a sleeve of French fries and a bottle drink and voila: a fine dining experience. $12.

One more thing on food and I’ll stop (I’m getting hungry). Last year I found a good Italian restaurant, La Comedia, on the Rue Monge, where I ordered an eggplant and ham lasagne that was divine. I returned there twice this year and ate the same lasagne the first time and a lasagna with two types of salmon the second. At the tables around me happy customers were enjoying pizzas, salads and pasta dishes. In front of me sat a middle aged man and his son, who each ordered a pizza and proceeded to eat every bite, crust and all. My waiter was a young man who reminded me of an Italian version of Pee Wee Herman. I asked him how long he had worked there, and he said twelve years.

Eating Lasagne at La Comedia

I went to one art museum each day except the first day and the last. Here’s a quick (I hope) rundown:

Modern Art Museum at the Pompidou Center: There was a special exhibition here, the work of Francis Bacon, with emphasis on writers such as Conrad, Eliot, and Nietzsche who had influenced the painter. After the Louvre, the Pompidou must have one of the largest collections of art in its permanent collection of any museum in Paris. I spent three hours here.

Marmottan Monet Museum: One of my favorites, this small museum had a special exhibition this year of the early figurative work of Piet Mondrian. I loved these small landscapes, portraits, etc. in simple wood frames, paintings that Mondrian chose for his biggest collector, Salomon B. Slijper. The permanent collection of Claude Monet’s work, though not large, is astounding.

Piet Mondrian Paintings

Mondran Abstract
Mondrian Landscape
Mondrian Tree In Winter
Tree in Winter
Mondrian Farm Near Duivendrecht 1916
Farm Near Duivendrecht

Claude Monet: Japanese Footbridge. Toward the end of his life Monet was almost blind, and his work apparently reflected it and became almost abstract.
Monet Japanese Footbridge

Louvre: I went on a Sunday and enjoyed three hours wandering around this huge museum with its vast collection.

Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques-Louis David , end of the 18th century – The Louvre

Orangerie Museum: The only museum in the area I found open on Monday, with a special exhibition dealing with the influence on the art world of Felix Feneon. I visited the two rooms of eight Monet water lily paintings, too, which are part of the permanent collection.

Monet water lily painting, one of eight large works of water lilies in the Orangeries Museum

Quai Branly Museum: This large collection of indigenous art from around the world is always worth a visit. This year the special exhibition featured metal working from Africa, work performed by hand with very rudimentary tools, artists all unknown.

Taurine Figure – African Indigenous Art, Quai Branly Museum
Taurine figure Quai Branly M

Picasso Museum: Only my second visit and a disappointment this time as the permanent collection was closed. The temporary exhibition: Picasso, Tableaux magiques. Dave’s Picasso Theory: this painter was so prolific, I figure we could take about half of the total, the minor works of course, and give all the retired teachers in Texas one, and we could all exclaim, as we visit our old colleagues, “Hey, I see you’ve got a Picasso, too.”

Orsay Museum: There was a special exhibition of Edgar Degas (opera paintings?), many of ballerinas, which I breezed through except for a few paintings that stopped me for a moment in my tracks, with rich, sublime colors and forms that deserved a stop. To be honest, I went in the museum to see the Van Goghs one more, last time. Imagine my dismay when the section was closed. Off I trudged to the opposite side of the museum, only to find that the museum is being re-ordered, works are being moved around. I liked the first new section I encountered, one of my favorite Orsay paintings was the first work on the right wall, Rosa Bonheur’s large oil painting of oxen plowing, two large teams (I included the photo of it in a previous post). Then I found the Van Goghs and other great works (impressionist and post-impressionist) from the closed off section. There were eighteen Van Goghs in two rooms; and, as a little something special, as I stood looking at a self-portrait, three women walked up and one of them began, in English, to analyze and explain it to her companions. It was mesmerizing. It is obvious looking at the self-portrait, that Van Gogh was deeply troubled as he rendered himself. The woman, who was probably a hired quide, explained how the artist’s use of color and line plus probably a few things I have forgotten, contributed to the overall effect. When it comes to art museums in Paris, there are many good ones, naturally, but this one is certainly a gem.

Constant Troyon: Oxen Going to Labor, Morning Effect – Orsay Museum
Constant Troyon @Orsay

Modern Art Museum of Paris (Tokyo Palace): I like this museum and have seen several temporary exhibitions that were wonderful. This year did not disappoint with a showing of the paintings of Hans Hartung, a retrospective of his entire body of work. Unfortunately, the permanent collection was closed.

Paintings by Hans Hartung – 

Self Hartung


 Rodin Museum: My last museum visit, another favorite, many fine works inside, and outside some of the great bronze sculptures: the Gates of Hell; the Burghers of Calais (a poignant story of self-sacrifice); a controversial rendering of the French writer, Honore de Balzac; and the Thinker. (The Thinker actually had a controversial beginning, located at one point in front of the Pantheon, during a tumultuous period, removed apparently so as not to incite the masses.) Also inside, one Monet and one Van Gogh, plus  other paintings that belonged to Rodin and some that he painted as well. A small visiting exhibition of sculptures by Barbara Hepworth furnished an appropriate ending to my last museum visit in this great, troubled city.

Rodin Sculptures

The Thinker
The Thinker was a controversial sculpture that once stood in front of the Pantheon.
Honore de Balzac – Rodin’s bronze of the great French writer caused a big stir in the art world when first presented to the public.


Barbara Hepworth – Elegant Wood Sculptures, Rodin Museum

Sunday, December 15, was my last day, and I decided to visit a few churches on the Left Bank. I had planned to go to mass at St. Severin, as I did a few years ago, but I missed the time so I just went inside and sat down a few minutes. This fine old church is in the thick of a tourist zone, with lots of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants on its north side.

The Church of St. Severin

St Severin 3
St. Severin at Night
St Steverin 2
Inside the Nave
St Severin1
An aisle behind the nave-note the unusual stained glass.

Leaving St Severin, I strolled up the Boulevard St. Michel a ways, then crossed over to the Luxembourg Gardens. It was the best day of my trip for weather, and many Parisians were out; the tennis courts were all in use. From parts of this garden you can see the round towers of the nearby St. Sulpice church. I had only visited it once so I stopped in again. This is another massive church, with a few murals by Delacroix. Victor Hugo and Adele Foucher married here in 1822. At the back of the church there is a famous organ with seven thousand pipes; a twenty-five minute recital follows the 10:30 to 11:30 mass. I regret that I did not go to one of these. Shame.

Church of St. Sulpice –  in the heart of the Latin Quarter

St Sulpice2
Two asymmetrical towers flank the church
St Sulpice
The Nave

Notre Dame, the great lady of Paris, begins the long process of renewal. Note the barricades, scaffolding, wood supports for the flying buttresses and construction cranes.
Notre Dame

I usually walk a lot in Paris and use the metro, too, but with the strike I wore myself out walking every day. Paris has a lot of bicycle lanes now, and many people were using them. But like most large cities in the world, Paris is ruining itself with the automobile. Lung cancer is the leading cause of death in the city, some of that likely caused from smoking. Two years ago I flew home on an airplane full of hackers, and twice I’ve returned with upper respiratory infections and needed antibiotics. And the curse of the automobile is not simply in poisoned air. Both Lewis Mumford (The Highway and the City) and James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) discuss other shortcomings of autos, aesthetic issues such as the uglification of the world. Our love affair with these machines may prove these problems intractable; indeed, the car and oil companies have fought mass transit, fuel efficiency and emission controls every step of the way, and have often won.

In addition to the car problem, the major metropolitan centers of the world, Paris included, share another, even older, problem. Edward Gibbon wrote about it in his history of the Roman empire, and although I can’t quote it verbatim, I think I can paraphrase it well enough: Gibbon claimed that the fertility and abundance of Rome’s agricultural lands filled the sewers of Rome. Think about what must come into a city like Paris, not just in edibles to feed several million people, but in many other products as well. (I read just the other day that France’s largest oil company, Total, is now drilling and producing oil in Libya; the result of another NATO war passed off as “humanitarian intervention” or some such euphemism, but really having ulterior and dubious motives.) And what do our cities return to the countryside as replacement? Probably very little. Better minds than mine have written about these issues–Wendell Berry comes to mind–and the understanding that our ways of dealing with waste (so-called because it is wasted) and fertility and the proper care of the land are unsustainable.

In closing, another contemporary problem deserves mention, or at least I think it does; that is the cellphone. I don’t have a cellphone, and I don’t want one, but today it is becoming difficult to travel without one. Although it bothers me to borrow a phone, I find myself forced to do so at times. Starting a few years ago, I arrived at DFW airport and could not find a pay phone with which to call my shuttle service. Last year, after calling my shuttle service on a borrowed phone and waiting forty-five minutes, I had to borrow a second phone to call again.

On the streets of Paris, as you can imagine, hundreds of pedestrians were using cellphones, some with Bluetooth devices so that the phones were tucked away in a pocket, but most of them with phones in hand. Some could even text while walking, after a fashion, but a couple of times I encountered this: on a busy sidewalk, in the center of town, darkness having just fallen and people heading from work to home or to a rendez-vous with friends or to a store for Christmas shopping, a lone pedestrian, completely stopped and heedless of those around her, punching on her phone. The flow of foot traffic split and went around this woman on both sides like the waters of a stream around a large boulder.

These pernicious devices are finally beginning to receive some richly deserved negative press. A few weeks ago I saw one article on a major news site about a few celebrities who don’t like cellphones and don’t have them. A better article by Ross Barkan on the Guardian (US edition) website lamented the ubiquity of the cellphone and what it has meant for all of us personally and socially.  (The Smartphone Is Our Era’s Cigarette)
I don’t look for them to go away any time soon, however, and for those who like and use them and have to keep their batteries charged all the time, take heart: the recent coup in Bolivia, which the United States doubtless had a hand in, should allow Western corporations to lay hands on one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, lithium being of course important in the production of batteries.

Because of the transportation strike I had to ask my Airbnb hostess to help me with a taxi to Charles De Gaulle airport. She did it all on her cellphone, naturally, a complicated business that took multiple phone calls and texts. Finally a taxi arrived, and a hefty debit from my checking account and an hour later, I stepped out of the taxi at the airport. A long day of flying and hanging around airports awaited me, but at the end of it was home, and a decent bed, cleaner air, and the promise of more good days to come on the farm.

The Road Taken

by David Williams


“There is no reason why the camel of great art should pass through the needle of  mob intelligence.” – Rebecca West

It didn’t occur to me for some years that one reason I have traveled to Mexico and Western Europe for almost five decades was to escape the blandness and sterility of American life. That does’t mean that one can’t escape those things by staying home. My attempt at escape actually began at home, in 1973, when, at the age of twenty-two, I went to my first art exhibit. It was sort of a fluke, really. I was sharing a drab, cheap rent house on the north side of Fort Worth with a friend. We both worked for the same small company; my job was dull, repetitive and a good reason to return to college as a more serious student. My roommate and I both read the Fort Worth newspaper in the evenings after work, and it is probably there that we learned of this art exhibition at the Kimbell Museum. It was a Russian collection of impressionist and post-impresssionist paintings, a small but stunning group of forty-two paintings displayed for less than a month at the end of the summer.

Not long ago I contacted the Kimbell through their website to ask about the exhibition. So many years had passed, and many of the details of that 1973 visit eluded me. Katherine Stephens, a curatorial assistant at the Kimbell, answered my email and filled in some of the missing parts. The paintings came from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The exhibition traveled to five major U.S. museums and featured works by Braque, Cezanne, Andre Deraine, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Fernand Leger, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Sisley and Maurice de Vlaminck.

I learned something else from Ms. Stephens that was, in its own way, particularly gratifying. This exhibition was the first loan exhibition for the Kimbell, which had only opened to the public the year before, in 1972. It was an auspicious start for a small museum and has been followed by scores of other loan exhibitions.

The paintings affected me in a way that’s hard to describe. For one thing, having grown up in a small town sixty miles west of Fort Worth, I knew virtually nothing about art or artists. Honestly, I don’t know that I had ever seen an original painting. People in my family and community did not have the interest or resources to make art. My parents were working hard and, although they did not realize it at the time, struggling to rise into the growing middle class. Even the few people around us with money–usually large landowners–had no apparent interest in art. It was a different time, our world was culturally closed.

Labourage nivernais by Rosa Bonheur (1849)
Labourage nivernais (1)

One aspect of the paintings that I liked was the rich, yet not overdone use of color. I also liked the subject matter of impressionism and post-impressionism: landscapes, farm scenes and workers, fruit trees and orchards, still lifes of flowers and fruit, portraits of people who might be your neighbor or friend. I don’t remember much about the individual paintings I saw that day at the Kimbell, but I do remember the beauty that had been so finely rendered on canvas.

Labourage nivernais – Detail
Labourage nivernaisDetail

Today, in 2019, I look back at more than forty years of travel. In those years many of my travels took me to art museums in Europe, some to major museums in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. I have also seen a lot of art in Mexico. The last four years, in December, I’ve spent forty days in Paris, an amazing city and arguably the pinnacle of urban life and culture in the West.

The amount of art in Paris, in the permanent collections and the temporary exhibitions, seems almost infinite. There are also many gorgeous churches to visit, and of course the marvelous Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame. On my last trip in December 2018, I went inside the cathedral, only the second time that I had entered, the first being over forty years ago, in 1976. I have walked past this Parisian landmark–the heart of the city–many times, but the recent fire, which caused extensive damage to the roof, will likely close it to the public for years, so I was doubly glad that I went in. The interior of the popular cathedral is just as sublime as the exterior.

Notre Dame Interior (2)
NotreDame2 (1)

NotreDame1 (1)

In addition to the churches and cathedral, Paris also offers other unique architectural works: the Eiffel Tower; the strange, Frank Gehry-designed Luis Vuitton Foundation; the strikingly odd Georges Pompidou Center. (Coincidentally, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou complex; Piano also designed the Kimbell’s most recent addition, the Renzo Piano Pavilion).

The Orsay Museum

Most art lovers know of the Louvre and probably the Orsay Museum, too, but what surprised me when I began to look online and in Paris guidebooks was the generous number of small museums: the Rodin, the Marmottan Monet on the west side of town, the Orangerie, the Picasso in the old Jewish Quarter (the Marais); two small sculpture museums, the Zadkine and the Bourdelle. And there are more than the few I have listed.

Most of the art museums in Paris have permanent collections, some so large that the art is rotated periodically. There are also temporary exhibitions all over the city. Last year, for example, Rose et Bleu, featuring some of Picasso’s early works, opened at the Orsay. Two venues without permanent collections, the Grand Palais and the Luis Vuitton Foundation, always seem to have temporary exhibitions. Last year for the second time I visited the Quai Branly Museum, which houses a permanent collection of indigenous art from around the world, where I found a special exhibition titled “The Art of Bamboo in Japan,” which included beautifully intricate, sometimes abstract, weavings of bamboo.

From the Art of Bamboo Exhibition

“I dream of painting and then paint my dream.”   Vincent Van Gogh


To get out of the city for part of a day on my last visit, I took a short train ride out to Auvers sur Oise. For years I’ve wanted to see this small town northwest of Paris where Van Gogh lived briefly and painted his last canvases, and where he died. He is buried there, next to his brother, Theo, against the north wall of the cemetery, ivy covering the graves, and two small, simple headstones: Ici repose Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, and a similar one for Theo. The cemetery is just outside the town proper, and if you go you will want to see the nearby church at the edge of town, the painting of which is in the small Van Gogh collection in the Orsay.

Van Gogh Gravesite

Walking from the church to the cemetery, one immediately comes upon fields, rising slightly, leveling out near the cemetery. The lay of the land reminds me of the painting, “Crows Over a Wheatfield,” considered one of the last the artist painted, now one of the works in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh’s Chapel
VanGohChapel (1)

I went to Auvers on a Monday, the small museum there, in Dr. Gachet’s house, closed, the cafes and restaurants closed, the town quiet. I stayed only a few hours and caught my train back to the city, where I took the metro out to the west side to the Luis Vuitton Foundation, located in the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. That evening I saw the temporary installation of works by Jean- Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele.

It pleases and amuses me that my travels of almost fifty years, which have taken me to many fine museums, started at the Kimbell in Fort Worth.That first exhibition of impressionism and post-impressionism in 1973 opened a door in my small provincial life. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is not necessary to travel very far to see great art if you live in north central Texas as I do. Just in Fort Worth alone, three museums–the Modern, the Amon Carter and the Kimbell–clustered together in the arts district, all within walking distance of each other, offer permanent and temporary exhibitions of fine arts to the public. Thirty miles away, Dallas has its own complex of museums.

A sense of urgency marks my travel these days. In my late sixties, I see the time coming when my travels will end. I walk a lot in these great cities and towns I visit–often five miles in a day, sometimes as much as ten–on hard surfaces–stone, asphalt and concrete. I’ve told family and friends that I don’t intend to be one of these oldsters, gimping around the streets of Paris or San Miguel. When the day comes I’ll be content to stay home–a good place after all–and, as Greg Brown says, “fiddle with my memories.” It’s enough.

My First Trip to Europe

by David Williams

When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.

SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.

We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two  hundred dollars I took off.

True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.

Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.

My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.

The Church of St. Eustache, Paris 

Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.

During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.

Eiffel Tower

These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Notre Dame

With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.

At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.

In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.

From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.

As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.

About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.

This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.

Arenas de Nimes
Urlaub in der Provence 18. - 21. Maerz 2008

There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.

And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.

Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden  painted by David Williams, 1986

Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.

I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.