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Paris tour – moments with Madeline

In Paris... in a straight line

In Paris… in a straight line

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… I love the story of Madeline, the little girl who knew how to frighten Miss Clavel, and who lived in a city full of sights I’ve always wanted to see.

So when we had the chance to visit Paris as a family, I took Madeline along as our guide.

Complete with chestnut trees

Complete with chestnut trees

Ludwig Bemelmans, the story’s American author and illustrator, lived some of his life in Paris, and his whimsical paintings give you a tour around some of the city’s greatest places.

Indeed our edition of the book even helpfully lists the locations at the back in case, like me, you haven’t visited them all before.

Never mind that Jonathan (11) had broken his arm at school during his SATs (whoops), we were off for an adventure.

Our first Madeline Moment was at the Eiffel Tower, which appears on the book’s cover. We took the lift up high enough to see Paris spread before us, the Seine, the Arc du Triomphe, and the Hotel des Invalides, before taking a photo at ground level.

Sunnier in Bemelmans' picture

Sunnier in Bemelmans’ picture

We enjoyed whizzing about on the Metro, which helped us fit in a trip to the Sacre Coeur and a wander through Montmartre en route to our next stop.

Then, our second Madeline Moment saw us braving the busy roads around Place de la Concorde.

During the revolution, the guillotine was kept grimly busy here.

Historical colour such as this came from our parallel guidebook, the Dorling Kindersley Family Guide to Paris – one of the Eyewitness series that give you so many extra details.

Restful Tuileries garden

Restful Tuileries garden

Still, apart from a jewel thief running by, the Place looked peaceful in Madeline’s day – and we caught a glimpse of the Arc du Triomphe at the other end of the Champs Elysees.

Third on our tour of Madeline Moments was the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre, where we could also pop in to see Monet’s Waterlilies in the Orangery Museum.

During lunch in the garden, I have to admit, my creaky French caused me to order ‘a wine of red glass’ which did not even cause a flicker on the waiter’s face. Perhaps I am not the first overexcited visitor to Paris he has met.

On a rainy day in between our Madelining, we took the Metro to La Villette to spend a very interactive time at the Cite des sciences et de l’industrie. Hands-on exhibits fill every gallery, on topics from Leonardo da Vinci to sound engineering. For an 11 and 8 year old – and their parents – this was a great place to visit, and their cafe had crepes.

In rain or shine, there was Madeline

In rain or shine, there was Madeline

Finally on our tour of Madeline Moments, we walked to Ile de la Cite to see Notre Dame, which was even more beautiful than in Bemelmans’ painting. He shows it in the rain, but we caught it in spring sunshine.

Other possibilities the book offers are The Opera, the Place Vendome, and the Gardens at the Luxemboug, but those will have to wait for another visit.

With Madeline’s help, this time we saw sights, we drank Orangina, we walked miles and got a feel for the history, science and art. We recommend her as a tour guide.


Yes, and: taking my own advice

Great writing tips were the focus of this year’s Successful Freelancing session in Birmingham last week. As part of the Careers Cafe strand of the Museums Association conference, I’d planned to share good principles for working out your tone and style as a freelancer, your message and how to put it across simply. And as it turned out, I needed to put my own advice into practice immediately… here’s why.

A key idea of the session was the need for freelancers in museums and heritage to take a ‘Yes, and’ approach to work, life and creativity. I’d encountered this from Tina Fey, the comedian and improvisation expert, who in her book Bossypants tells us:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike… In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

I do believe that if you take the ‘Yes, and’ approach to your work as a freelancer, you are more likely to find that obstacles become opportunities, and difficulties can turn into chances to build relationships. You are someone who helps clients solve problems, using your experience from a wide range of projects and institutions.

So this was all good. And then, the day before the conference, a book review I’d written appeared in the new edition of Museums Journal. The piece was about good writing in museum text – specifically art interpretation – and the need for clarity and simplicity. But through an editing snafu, now there was an error in the first paragraph, a mix-up between the word implies and its often-confused cousin infers. My article about good writing now contained bad writing.

If you are thinking ‘don’t worry, no one will notice’, perhaps you don’t spend much time on planet museums+heritage. When I arrived at the MA conference to give my session, the very first person I ran into said: ‘I was reading your piece in Museums Journal on the plane over’. He hesitated and looked suddenly shy. I said: ‘Did you see the error in the first paragraph?’ He said ‘Infers and implies? Yes, I was wondering whether to mention it.’

Professionally, it’s pretty important that my clients know my grammar and spelling are up to scratch if they’re thinking of employing me as a writer, interpretation consultant or trainer.

Yet that isn’t the whole picture here. Everyone makes mistakes. As we say in the TextWorkshop writing courses I give with Dea Birkett, everyone has a blind spot for some grammatical nicety or common spelling. In one exhibition for which I wrote text, somebody in-house consistently changed my minuscule back to miniscule so that the incorrect version eventually appeared on the panels.

And we are all still learning. I discovered the unexpected meaning of the word pulchritude only the other day. (Click it if you don’t know! You’ll be surprised.)

So how could I emerge from the episode with bruised grammar-ego restored, and also with relationships strengthened? How could I maintain my positive freelance tone and style?

I emailed editors at MJ explaining the problem but without assigning any blame. After all, they wouldn’t have changed the opening paragraph if they hadn’t felt it could be improved. I then suggested that if anyone wrote in pointing out the irony of the error, that we could craft a response together. Maybe we could try to make it light-hearted.

MJ responded immediately with an apology, offered to print a correction and change the online edition. I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that and I’m very grateful. In the end, instead of asking for a correction, I wrote a letter to MJ which will be published in the next edition. I hope when you see it, you’ll feel that I have captured something of the ‘Yes, and’ approach to freelancing.

I’ve also discovered an entire book about applying ‘Yes, and’ thinking to creativity and collaboration. It’s by people from The Second City theatre in Chicago, where Tina Fey trained. I’ll report back.