To say that life imitates art may have become a trite expression, but it does happen, and the experience can seem unreal. In my case, the time was 2001, just a few days before 9/11. The setting was the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The cast of characters included a mysterious stranger, an art museum guard and a dignified woman in black.

As my wife and I waited for the museum to open, the lines were long, and I remember feeling sympathy for those who did not have a pass. But these feelings turned to annoyance when, very abruptly, a nervous young man with a black satchel cut into the front of the line. Not being familiar with French customs, or the French language, I resisted the temptation to direct him to the back of the line. True, he and his black satchel did seem odd, but what did I know? Perhaps he was merely an art student who had brought art materials to copy a painting.

In the excitement of being in Paris, he was quickly forgotten. The cavernous interior of the museum, a former railroad terminal, was of interest in itself and invited comparison with our Central Terminal in Buffalo. Bold contemporary elements contrasted with the astonishing opulence of the Belle Epoque, and that was without mentioning lunch served in a grandiose mirrored room that Louis XIV himself might have envied.

Since there was no reason to hurry, we moved through the upper floor galleries at a leisurely pace. Compared to stodgy and arrogant portraits of French nobility we had seen earlier in the Louvre, the collection was refreshing, exciting and a delight to see. There were several paintings by van Gogh, whole rooms of Impressionists, exquisite still-life paintings by Chardin, a Poussin landscape recalled from Art History 101, and yet another delicately rendered fanny of Mademoiselle O’Murphy by Francois Boucher. Perhaps most exciting of all, on loan from the Philips Collection, was Renoir’s “Boating Party.” For a while, it seemed as though time had stopped somewhere in 18th and 19th century France.

But the excitement mounted when, in the room ahead, we caught a glimpse of a dignified American woman. Although known to virtually everyone of any importance in the art world, we never expected to see her in Paris. Except for a white scarf, she was dressed entirely in black and sat motionless with her hands folded. It was only a hurried glance, but we were sure that we recognized her.

Just as we were about to enter the room, a guard suddenly blocked the entrance. Firmly, calmly, courteously, but with no explanation, we were asked to leave. “But that’s Whistler’s Mother,” we protested, “Can’t we just …” Our entreaties were to no avail. Even when we realized the building was being evacuated, we were more curious than alarmed. Everything seemed strangely quiet and unreal, but there was no panic.

Earlier, there had been announcements in several languages regarding a suspicious black bag, but we paid little attention. We even saw the bag, the same one carried by the mysterious “art student,” but we assumed that he had probably just grown tired of carrying it around.

Truly, we were innocents abroad. We knew nothing of bomb threats. The tragedy of 9/11 was still a few days away. Although we missed seeing the famous American lady in black, the overall experience was memorable.

Albert Sterbak, an artist and art professor who lives in Amherst, reminisces about a 2001 trip to Paris.