The Japanese Bridge – Jenna Wassell

The lens focused; the shutter swirled open and, as I released my finger from the button, snapped shut. Click. I lowered the camera and gaped. The branches descended like herringbone over the pond below, while the viridescent leaves reflected across the glassy surface. I edged closer, seeing the clusters of water lilies that hovered in the centre of the pond. A shadow veiled the water, inching toward the lily pads. Above it stood a bridge: green and canopied in leaves the colour of snow peas. It had become commonplace, a stock image suspended in waiting rooms. Yet, here it was, framed by two deep-crimson shrubs and flooded with capris-wearing tourists.

* * *

It was early. My half-opened eyes scanned the foreign apartment around me. Light streamed through the French shutters, illuminating the small dining table, fireplace and bed facing towards it.

The mattress felt like kneaded dough beneath my back. Hannah’s dormitory-floor was now a fleeting nightmare, only plaguing my muscles for a night.

I hurled the duvet off my body and wandered into the kitchen. Opposite the single wall of kitchen cabinetry—and beneath a second window—laid a doona-covered mound on the pull-out-lounge.

‘Hannah… It’s almost nine, do you want to get up soon?’

The duvet moaned back. Pitying my previous sleeping arrangements, she had volunteered to sleep on the pull-out lounge.

The kettle gurgled. I emptied two Nescafé sachets into a pair of mugs—our attempt at being frugal. I pulverised the powder into the simmering liquid, then gulped down a mouthful. A ball of dry powder touched the tip of my tongue. My face contorted with disgust; the undissolved ball plummeted into the basin.

‘Hannah, I am already sick of these coffees. I’ll leave yours out, but I’m chucking mine down the sink. I might get a coffee at the patissier on the corner.’

‘Yeah, and we should get a baguette for breakfast. I’m starving.’ Her eyes were now open and glued to her iPad.

‘What if we aim to leave by ten? I still really want to buy some groceries before we leave for Giverny, so we can maybe make dinner one night.’

‘Sounds good! I might just have a shower.’

We arrived in Paris the night before, yet clothes were already strung across the apartment. I clawed through what was left in my suitcase and slipped on a dress and a jacket.

The whistling of water stopped and Hannah emerged. We were both dressed in all black and white.

‘Monochrome sisters!’ We laughed in unison.

Hannah pulled the door shut as we began our descent down the five flights of stairs. The thumping of our shoes echoed around the small stairwell and connecting hallways. I began to tiptoe down, but the floorboards continued to creak. The owner of the apartment insisted that we: ‘be as quiet as possible in the apartment, particularly in the stairwell.’ Hannah had spent the night and early hours of the morning flicking between music channels, moving to the throbbing bass. We turned the volume down, but I imagined the bass still permeating the walls and waking our French neighbours. As our panting reverberated across the foyer, it was clear that our attempts to be quiet would again fail.

* * *

I left my parents at the departure gate. Tears welled from their eyes; my eyes followed suit. This was my escape from the sheltered walls of my home: a self-constructed prison. Stepping out from my room full of paint and books, to explore the world for the first time by myself.

* * *

We peered into the patissier on the corner, but it was empty. I would typically yell out to shopkeepers until they came out of hiding, but the thought of repeating ‘bonjour’ to an empty room felt unnatural—did the French even say ‘bonjour’ to gain someone’s attention?

Supressing our hunger for caffeine, we passed the pastry-filled window, turning left and then right, gawking at the compact rows of cars lining the streets until the navigational persona beamed, ‘You have reached your destination.’

Chill emanated from the freezers on each side. The shelves were packed with cheese, butter and meats. Everything was different from Woolworths: there were meats I had never seen, labels laden with words I could not understand. I knew what buerre was and picked up a small block. I also knew what lait meant, but was clueless as to which bottle was whole, or of the skim variety. The blue-label looked familiar, like I had seen blue-labelled milk in my parent’s fridge, so I picked it up.

We picked up a few rolls of overpriced toilet paper, a bag of madeleines, and then scanned the aisles for baguettes. They were beside the cash registers, housed in a long wicker basket like arrows in an archer’s quiver. I picked up a roll and emptied my armful of products onto the conveyer belt.

‘Bonjour,’ I delivered in my best French accent. The cashier lifted her head, shot a glare towards the two Australians at her register, before lowering her face to the groceries. A smug look passed across her face. Perhaps my French accent was not as French as I had hoped. We piled the loose items back into our arms and walked back to the apartment.

Our thigh muscles cramped as we reached the fifth floor of the building, our arms now contorted, juggling the groceries.

After eating half of the baguette and refrigerating the milk and the butter, we tiptoed back down the staircase in pursuit of Convention metro station. Our tour to Monet’s House and Garden was scheduled to leave in the early afternoon and we did not want to be late.

The intersection was surrounded by scarlet cafés, the Metropolitan sign obscured by leaves. People bustled across the cobblestones: the men donning tailored jackets, the women clad in black. Following the crowd of Parisians, we walked down the steps to the metro. I pulled out our tiny tickets and, navigating our bodies through the turnstiles, made our way towards the M12 line, in the direction of Concorde.

The train emerged from the dark tunnel to our right, the brakes screeching along the metal tracks. We hovered in front of the train door. It did not budge. A woman pushed past our dazed faces and, lifting the lever, the doors flung open. Seats stretched across a single-level carriage. I sat on a fold out chair in front of the door and sat clutching my handbag—I had heard about pickpockets in Paris and did not want to fall victim.

Eleven stops passed. Doors opening, doors closing, my bag still in my hands, clenched. At the twelfth, we stepped out of the carriage. We rose from the underground and into the sun-soaked street. Shopfronts etched their way onto the footpath: rotating stands filled with postcards of Le Tournee du Chat Noir had taken up residency on the pavers, while protruding rows of chairs and tables faced the road as if they were facing an audience.

We sauntered along Rue de Rivoli until we reached an intersection enclosed by stucco buildings with grey slate descending from their roofs. On the far corner was the tour office. Hannah and I peered into the windows before entering and handed our receipt to a lady at one of the desks.

‘Your tour will depart from Stand Two in just under an hour.’

We strolled up the long road toward the Palais Royale, took a few pictures of the masterful architecture, and walked back before the hour was up.

Turning back onto Rue des Pyramides, we saw a double-decker coach parked at Stand Two. Our strolling turned to sprinting. A long line rolled out of the coach. It had just arrived. Panting, we joined the end of the line. As the line grew, we were sandwiched between two groups of American tourists gloating to each other of their travels. I rolled my eyes; Hannah looked unperturbed.

As we stepped onto the bus, the tour guides greeted us in English and handed us each a fluorescent sticker to wear. We took a seat on the second level and placed our stickers on our chests. I peered out the window and up the road. A golden light reflected across the stucco and shop windows, causing an inerasable grin to spread across my face.

I sat, ears perked and eyes alert, listening to the guide’s commentary as the narrow streets of Paris merged into the vast French countryside. She listed off details about the Impressionist movement, what defined it, and how it originated. Although I had read a few books on Impressionism during school, I still found myself engrossed by every word.

* * *

I would set up an easel in the school courtyard and paint. A mixture of fresh air, the smell of oil paint and the repugnance of turpentine encircled me: en plein air (in the open air) like the Impressionists. Every lesson, the sounds of nature and the distinct amalgamation of smells consumed me. Art was not necessarily about technique: it was an all-absorbing endeavour for the artist that would be portrayed on a canvas—the artist capturing their experience, to share it.

* * *

Hannah had, as per usual, taken the coach ride as a signal to close her eyes. We had—much to her advantage—made a decision that one of us would always stay awake while the other slept. As the guide concluded her speech, my eyes longed to mirror Hannah’s.

Two hours later, the coach slowed, parking beside several other coaches. Everyone hopped off the bus; gravel grinding under our feet. Hannah and I shadowed the tour guide as she navigated her way through the underground tunnel, and then handed us our tickets at the gardens entrance.

From a distance, the garden looked untamed. Splotches of raspberry, violet and lemon stood atop the green shrubbery. Like paint strokes altering from artwork to artwork, the petals changed shape and intensity from plant to plant. Unfurled petals revealed a textured stigma in the centre, while others clustered on top of a single stem, bursting in opposite directions like fireworks. The dense clouds diffused the sun, yet a dewy-warmth seeped through, causing sweat to trickle down my back. I rolled the sleeves of my leather jacket up to my elbows, while juggling my phone in one hand and my camera, which dangled from my right wrist.

The tour guide edged further up the aisle of flowers toward the dusty-pink house carpeted in vines and green shutters. Swinging my camera up into my palm, I tried to capture a flower that looked like a caterpillar with a tuft of lilac hair. The photograph captured the furriness of the plant, but also gave an uncharacteristic furriness to the surrounding leaves and pink florets behind it.

I slung my camera back onto my wrist and strolled up to Hannah who was almost at the top of the aisle.

‘Man, everything is so pretty!’ I called out to her. Hannah smiled back, and seeing that the guide was now waiting in front of the house, we strolled along the pebbles and gathered around her.

‘Welcome to Monet’s House and Gardens! You’re all actually very lucky that you chose to come today. Yesterday it was, uh, very busy, making it hard to move around, and also to see all of the flowers. Mind, if you were to come back in two weeks time, the entire garden would be different,’ the guide began, commenting on the team of gardeners that would plant and replant the garden.

* * *

I envisioned Monet’s canvas stretched across a wooden frame: blobs of viridian oil paint alongside swipes of scarlet, then, after they had dried, mauve flowers painted in place of the scarlet—a constant rearranging of pigment and light.

* * *

The guide, adjusting her scarf, reiterated that the coach would leave at quarter-past-five and disbanded the group.

We dashed into Monet’s house, wary of the minimal time limit. To our left was a room brimming with tourists, the walls laden with copies of Monet’s paintings; camera flashes gleaming across the oil paint furnishing the canvases.

‘No photos, please,’ demanded an employee.

We attempted to examine each work individually: a woman with a parasol, a group of boats, waterlilies, and the Japanese bridge.

Dragging ourselves away from the paintings, we walked up the staircase to Monet’s bedroom, the walls of the stairwell filled with Japanese ink paintings.

‘I love these paintings, Jenna!’ Hannah remarked. I agreed. The lines of navy ink were clean. Intrinsic detail.

After plodding back down the stairs, we walked through a yellow-drenched dining room and a kitchen enrobed in the colour blue, before exiting the house.

Nature’s paint palette surrounded us. We wandered down another aisle of pigments and through an underground tunnel, reaching Monet’s Japanese garden. An oasis: verdure hunched over the pond, green pigments reflected across the glassy surface. I positioned my camera and released my finger from the button. Click. Unfurled bulbs sat on top of the lily pads, like cup and saucers floating on an aquatic tablecloth. Above it stood a bridge brimming with capris-wearing tourists.

It was ever-present, but conventional. Displayed in lounge rooms, waiting rooms, adorning placements and coasters—a serene image with universal allure.

Growing up surrounded by straw-like grass and faded gumtrees, the vibrant flora Monet had depicted in his paintings were mere dreamscapes; such vibrancy was unimaginable. But in front of me, the dreamscape materialised, the Japanese bridge—the nucleus.

The sound of scuffling peppered the tranquillity; sneakers stomped upon the planks leaving specks of dirt, dulling the green paint. It felt sacrilegious. Hannah and I edged closer toward the bridge, waiting for a few pairs of sneakers to alight.

Looking down at the wooden bridge now underfoot, I became conscious of the pilgrimage I had completed. I was at the source of the work that was suspended in my living room; of the set of placemats my siblings and I spilt spaghetti bolognaise on.

It was an intangible epicentre of memories of home, of my infatuation with art, and of my family. The sand-coloured stucco reminded me of the innumerable times my family and I had watched Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris; Monet’s blue kitchen and Japanese prints reminded me of the willow-patterned dinner set my grandparents used—slices of familiarity in an unfamiliar country.

Monet’s legacy, not merely sown in the soil at Giverny, but through the understated, framed pieces mounted in the background of our lives. A universal familiarity portrayed through erratic strokes of paint.

The bridge consisted of ordinary planks of wood, stretching across a semi-ordinary body of water, yet its essence transcended time and setting.

I looked down at my phone. It was late.

‘Hannah, we should probably start walking back to the coach now.’

‘Sounds good.’

I zipped my camera away in its case, as we journeyed back through the tunnel and toward the coach.

We saw a pop-up stand further up the road. The owner was serving an American, his accent distinguishable from down the road. But, as we moved further toward the stand, the sun reflected off a platinum machine, flaring into our eyes.

‘Hannah! Coffee!’

Jenna Wassell

After studying at The Fashion Institute in Sydney, Jenna decided to pursue a career in fashion journalism. Since interning for Bauer-Media’s Shop Til You Drop and Sassybella.com.au, Jenna has been appointed editor of YuStyle. Here she has developed her skills in copyediting, online content writing, and social media. Jenna's writing interests also include personal memoir and Gothic literature.

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