The scent of sacramental candles

from an imaginary Lucerne diary, 2010

I went to some of the museums today. I took a sketchbook and some coloured pencils with me, and inside the Picasso Museum I settled down before a painting from his high Cubist phase and began to draw from it. I tried not to look at the page as I was drawing, and instead tried to move the pencil in the direction that my eyes were moving. Occasionally this means that the pencil strays off the edge of the paper, but that’s all right. I find that as I relinquish the feeling of wanting to control my hand, I start to draw more slowly, in longer, more continuous strokes. And then when I look back at the page, it turns out that everything is more or less in the right place; even if it isn’t, an interesting drawing of some kind is always there.

This way of drawing induces a meditative state, where you stop hearing and seeing what’s going on around you. But after I had been sketching for maybe twenty minutes, I began to notice a couple arguing a few feet away from me. They were American, a man and a woman in their sixties, and they were arguing about me.

“Is that pencil or crayon?” said the woman to the man.

“That’s crayon, definitely crayon,” he replied, in a tone that implied ‘how can you be so stupid.’

They went back and forth like this for a while, without even looking at me. So at some point I held up the pencil and said loudly:

“They’re definitely pencils.”

Their reaction was not what I expected. Their heads whipped round towards me, as if I had just grabbed them by the arm, and instead of looking grateful that I had settled the argument for them, they looked almost hostile, like I was interfering in their private business. The man was almost sneering at me as, taking his wife by the right elbow, he steered her away from what he evidently considered to be some form of danger.

When I left the museum, I overheard another conversation between an old man and the person at the admission kiosk. He was also American, but not well-dressed like the arguing couple. He had thin grey hair that was plastered over his scalp in oily tendrils. He was hunched forward in a way that suggested he couldn’t really straighten his back. He was asking the admissions person how much it cost to go in. She told him the price, clearly not convinced that he had the money to enter. He rummaged through the pockets of his long, shabby tweed overcoat and pulled out a few coins in shaking hands. As I went around him to get to the exit, I caught the faint odour of sacramental candles.