So I’m back from my 2+ week holiday in Paris where I wandered the streets, sat in cafes, ate as much bread, cheese and meat as a human possibly can (and cakes and ice cream) and even saw a few friends.
Basically, my summer traveling was a total success.
As I said before, I had a theme of my trip: writers. I started with Hemingway not because he is my favorite writer, but because he left heavy fingerprints all over the city during his brief residency. Guide books and websites are filled with Hemingway haunts and if Hemingway went there often he was usually just one of many literary figures to patronize the place. Other writers like Fitzgerald, Camus, James, Joyce, James Baldwin etc have frequented them too.
But I started my trip with the man himself and I booked myself a Latin Quarter tour (where Hemingway lived and worked) with an American writer. His name was Chris (I found him on airbnb) and lucky for me I was the only one, so I had a VIP tour.
We met at the top of a street called Rue Mouffetard and Chris showed me pictures taken of the same road 100 years before. Amazingly, it is exactly the same. I could recognize everything in these old pictures! He told me Paris has some strict laws and regulations about building and renovation (aka, basically everything must stay untouched) and I got all excited thinking that the square we were in was exactly the same in Hemingway’s time. Chris took out his well worn copy of A Moveable Feast and read a passage about the place we were standing:
The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the window misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run cafe where the drunkards of the quarter gathered together and I kept away from it because of the smell and the dirt bodies and the sour smell of drunkeness.
The cafe des amateurs was the cesspool of the Rue Moufftard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led into the Place Contrescarpe. The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night.
As I looked around the cheery square, filled with cafes, cute shops and a bubbling fountain in the middle I realized that I was wrong. While the exteriors of the building had stayed the same from Hemingway’s time, the atmosphere (and the interiors) had been updated immensely. Rue Moufftard is now a cute tourist destination (with normal toilets and sewage systems) and bares little resemblance to Hemingway’s depressing description. Although it still is a “wonderful narrow crowded market street.”
After that we went to the building where Hemingway lived, the building where his office was, we passed by the street in Midnight in Paris (where the old car picks up Owen Wilson’s character for the first time) and we ended up at Luxembourg Gardens where we sat down for 20 minutes and did our own writing.
After that perfect start, I made cafes, parks, bookstores and art centers the focus of my days. I went to La Select (which Hemingway writes about in The Sun Also Rises and was visited by Isadore Duncan, Sartre and Beauvoir) Luxembourg Gardens (where I went back again and again and it was my favorite place to spend the afternoon reading or writing–and it is said Hemingway would stalk and kill pigeons there to bring back home to eat) and of course, the world famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company (yes, I know the new location is different, but it is still an iconic place).
I also spent a few days in London where I went on an old pubs tour (led by an Irishman who happened to also be a writer) and the pubs tour had a surprisingly literary bent. The Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub was rebuilt after the great fire in 1666 and feels as old as it is. Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Samuel Johnson (the man who wrote the first English dictionary next door) were all frequent patrons of the bar. And yes we went to a few Shakespeare pubs as well and passed by one of his former houses. I also made sure to explore all 4 levels of the largest W.H. Smith bookshop in downtown London.
I did a ton of writing. Despite all the places filled with literary history my favorite spot was along the Seine, right across from Notre Dame cathedral. They have these big worn, stone steps down from the street, and they had a stone railing that was wide enough to sit down on. People were bustling around me, but I had the stone seat all to myself and a great view of the water and Notre Dame. (And I was lucky enough each time to catch the bells ringing at the start of service. The chiming went on for more than 5 minutes.)
I have been to Paris several times before and I never got why it was called a romantic city. I mean, I know Parisians are romantic and what-not but as a traveler I never felt it. But this time I got it. It’s not romantic because of the people or the culture, but because of the beauty. How can an artist not be inspired sitting by the side of the Notre Dame, or in a cafe on the street looking at beautifully designed architecture all around you? Beauty does inspire creativity and I get why all the artists, both professional and amateurs, flock to the city of lights.
I also should apologize to all the nice people I met. As a writer I need solitude and silence. I hung out with my friends a few times (more on that later) and I chatted with people when I was doing the tours, but in general I just wanted to be left alone. Several times I met and started chatting with people (one guy even bought a dessert and gave me half so I could try it!) but every time when normally it would have been “let’s meet up later,” I refused them all.
Meeting people while traveling is one of the biggest joys of traveling. But this time I had a goal and a purpose and meeting people would only hamper that. So while I felt like a jerk refusing the the Spanish woman’s offer to walk around Brussels together, and throwing away the French dessert buyers phone number, I did both.
Sorry guys, it wasn’t you…it was me.
It was great to take this inspiring artistic break, but also great to be back. Now I can put all my plans schemed up on the streets of Paris into effect!