Les Vaches maigres

Ever dream of just chucking it all in ? Riping off your necktie, throwing away your Blackberry, and walking away from responsibility? You might have the bohemian spirit. A new exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris celebrates 400 years of free spirits with 118 paintings that span Da Vinci to Picasso. The exhibit will be open until January 14, 2013. If you can’t get there, or want a teaser, here’s a video. The exhibit was designed by Robert Carson, the producer of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Opéra de Paris and it captures the spirit of the impoverished artists of Montmartre or the Latin Quarter who have long called the City of Light home. One gallery is even set up as a reconstituted café that evokes the end of the 19th century.

Bohemian has two meanings: people who travel rootlessly around Europe, less kindly known as gypsies, and those who live an artistic and unconventional lifestyle. The label was applied to the Travelers because they were believed to be from Bohemia, a province within the modern Czech Republic. As for the other kind of bohemians, Charles Aznavour immortalized their lifestyle in his classic La Bohème. Each group has its own floor in the exhibit: gypsies, fortune tellers, and nomads are on the first floor; starving artists are on the second.

Today’s expression, les vaches maigres (lay vahsh mehgruh) means “the lean cows.” It’s a Biblical allusion to the lean years that came to Egypt under the reign of Joseph. His wise management under the seven fat years that preceded them allowed the people to survive. For those living the real vie bohémienne, there usually aren’t any fat years, just lean ones and leaner. Picasso apparently ate the soles of his own boots to get through his vaches maigres. That lends new mean to the brand Lean Cuisine.

Montmartre, Paris (Artist in Snow, 1968)

About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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