Wednesday, November 19, 2014

My Date with Hemingway

Yes, I admit it's true. I had never read anything of Hemingway's before coming to Paris. In fact, I knew very little about him and suspected I wouldn't like his writing very much. But everyone in the bloggersphere seemed to say that reading Hemingway in Paris was the crème de la crème of experiences for writers visiting Paris. So I began planning a day lost in the Saint-Germaine quartier, a date with Hemingway.

I walked down Trocadero in front of the EIffel Tower to snatch up a Vélib' (have I mentioned I love Vélib'!), and--after checking the tires and brakes carefully--I set out along the Seine.

This is one of my favorite places in Paris, the bike paths along the Right Bank, from Alma Marceau to Hotel de Ville. The heavy rain the night before had darkened the bark of the chestnut trees so they looked like long robes of black velvet. Stubborn leaves hung glittering from the the bottom branches, refusing to yield to winter. The bright yellow contrasted against the black all set against the luted grays of the Seine would have made Picasso proud.

But it wasn't Picasso's date, it was Hemingway's. So instead of my usual leisurely pace, I pounded the pedals like I was on a lion hunt, flying past Concorde, past the Tuileries,  and past the Louvre. I crossed the Seine via the lovely Pont Notre-Dame, skirting by the gargatuan cathedral, and finally finishing the 4.5 mile trek off Saint-Germain Blvd. By the time I parked my Vélib' and set out for my first destination, I was all decked out for my date in a healthy layer of sweat, and my mane of untamed hair had risen to the height of a Haussmannian hotel. But it didn't matter, because I was alive and healthy and I could feel that. I think Hemingway would have approved.

The date began as any Hemingway date should, in a rickety little table at Les Deux Magots with a cup of hot chocolate and the first chapter of A Moveable Feast. My waiter was a rather handsome, severe-looking man who seemed annoyed I was only getting hot chocolate, but I was annoyed he was annoyed, so it evened out. I stayed for about an hour. The hot chocolate was decent, but it couldn't compete with Angelina's. Nothing ever can.

My view at Les Deux Magots... bring on the people-watching!
Next stop, les libraries. There are a great number of bookstores in Paris, many independent and thriving, a trend don't see in most countries with the onslaught of the dot-com era and E-books. But France wouldn't stand for its literary haven to be undermined by technology. A law which fixed pricing on all books across the country keeps independent bookstores in the market, and besides, they are just too darn cute to shut down!

I hit the four major English bookstores on the Left Bank: San Francisco Books, Berkeley Books, the Abby Bookshop, and last but not least, Shakespeare and Company. Each had something very different to offer.

San Francisco Books is second-hand shop with an extensive non-fictional section spanning French history, cultures from around the globe, music, art, literature, and religion. There is a rather jumbled bit in the back for fiction lovers, piles of books seemingly haphazardly stacked in any such order. The books are quite decently priced since they are second-hand. But the real treasure of the visit was eavesdropping on the conversation being held by the two store owners, two elderly gents with opinions on everything from Iraq to Christian Bale playing Moses in the upcoming "Exodus: Gods and Kings" movie to how overpriced online books are. Simply adorable, and without a care in the world if they sell a single book that day.

Berkeley Books is just a stone's throw away (depending on the arm, not mine), around the corner from San Francisco books. This has a much different feel than its neighbor, far more space to browse, but also lacking that local bookshop charm. The books here are more orderly, with a focus on literature and fiction. I found a picture book of Hemingway in his older days. He was fatter than I imagined.

Berkeley's might be a good stop if you prefer some breathing room in between you and book covers, but it lacks that essential ambience of sagging. exposed wooden beams, musty shelves hosting little dust parties in the corners, and books covering every square inch of space. To find this, you must move on the the next spot on my list.

The Abbey Bookshop is my favorite bookstore in Paris. It has all the qualities above, plus the added charm of being hidden in a pretty little alleyway that makes one feel as if they are stumbling upon it for the first time, every time.

As you step into the store, the front windows are piled high with towers of book on France, Paris, and all things interesting to a francophile. This quaint little shop is Canadian (note the flag) and boasts a huge stock of 35K titles, both new and used. from the website:
"The shop sits on rue de la Parcheminerie, originally named rue des Escrivains for the scribes and scriveners who were the heart of the Parisian book trade until parchmentmakers replaced them in the late Middle Ages. On July 1, 1989 the Abbey Bookshop brought the book trade back to this historic street."

Now even all you history buffs are drooling. I know, right? I happened to overhear a conversation between a couple of young clerks there (I was a journalism major, eavesdropping is a gift and a curse), and realized they were also au pairs. We quickly bonded over the joys and trials of our jobs, and I promised them to return very soon. They invited me to lunch with them, but my date with Hemingway was not over yet. I had two very important stops left.

Ah, Shakespeare and Company, the mothership of the Anglo-saxon literary world. A mecca for aspiring escriteurs, a haven for English-speaking bookworms. This is your first stop in Paris if you consider yourself addicted to written word. The store is top notch, with prices to match. They do have some really lovely editions, so this is the ideal place to buy a book to read and then display. (No photos allowed inside, sorry.)

It was entirely too crowded (as it always is), and I made my way up the narrow stairway in the back to Sylvia Beech's library. There one can read copies from her personal collection, books that other great writers borrowed and read at one time or another. Hemingway, since he was very poor during his first few years in Paris, would often come and borrow books and money from Sylvia. I wondered which were his favorites (I would soon find out as I read further into A Moveable Feast). I read that book for a bit in that wonderful worn leather chair they have placed just so in the corner. Someday I will do a post on the importance of a great reading chair.

Reading and walking is surprisingly wearing on a person, and I was famished. It's the good kind of hungry, the kind that makes you know you have spent a day well. Perfect timing for the last of my expeditions with Hemingway. When Hemingway had worked all day and was famished, he went to none other than Brasserie Lipp.

I was seated in the back (the front window boxes are for the Lipp's prominent guests only). I had wrestled with the menu for a good five minutes in the front, deciphering which French concoction translated into Hemingway's favorite. I almost left when I looked a the prices. This may be a date with Hemingway, but it's this poor au pair who is footing the bill.

I decided it was a one time deal and ordered a demi Lipp biere (7€) and the cervelas rémoulade (10€) and let that be the end of it. Normally Hemingway would have also ordered the pommes 'a l' huile, but at 12€ a plate, I figured the French potato salad couldn't be that good. I then settled in for some serious people-watching. I was the only person sitting alone, a young woman in all black at that. I felt very mysterious and straightened my back and turned my face blank to fit the role as I surveyed the restaurant. Lots of tourists, it seemed. The waiters were all done up in their black tails, and the coat girl had a pretty white apron over her plain black frock. The ceilings were high, and I imagined that when the gaudy chandeliers were covered in candlesticks instead of lightbulbs, it might have cast quite a moody ambience over the walls muraled with exotic birds and mirrors. The restaurant was louder than your average French restau, and I grooved on the many conversations happening around me.

A little side story:

{ One such conversation began when an American couple was seated beside my table. I have seen many such couples since coming to Paris. Clearly hungry after a long day of touring, the man eagerly set into the menu, only to be disappointed that it was entirely in French. (READ THIS: If a Paris menu is in English, you should be suspicious. It even rhymes to help you remember. You're welcome.) The wife was my favorite archetype of visitors to Paris and gave me particular interest to watch and listen to. She was a woman of no particular qualities, downright unnoticeable if you asked me. But she countered this wallflower-esque syndrome with her own incredulous disdain of all things around her. No, she did not want a steak, no, fish doesn't sound good either, why can't she just order a salad, she just couldn't see how restaurants like this got on. Eventually the waiter brought out vegetable soup to the two, and after a spoonful, she made a disgusted "Bleh!" and pushed it away. Was that carrot soup? Potatoes? Whatever it was was not worth her condescension.

The dinner continued like this, and I wondered if she actually wanted to be in Paris, in a historical part of town, eating at a well-known restaurant that preserved its reputation for over a century. I wonder at people like this, people so set on being disappointed with life. And I wondered about her husband, and what had happened to the two of them that they could not enjoy this pleasant scene with its beer and servers chilled to perfection. They were in the city of love, but the tension was as tight as a crossdresser's skirt in the Bois de Boulange. While it was sad, it was equally interesting. }

I myself was having a most enjoyable time, having finished off the cervelas (ONE fat sausage link the length of my finger halved and doused in a special mayonnaise--see price above, gasp in amazement, read on). Also, I generally detest beer, but the tiny Lipp beer was not bad either. For a one-time date with Hemingway, I rather enjoyed his choice of meals.

I paid l'addition and scraped by the Americans, relieved to have escaped unscathed by the woman's whittling gaze. The November sky had turned dark gray, and a soft rain began to fall as I walked to the metro.
"There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other."
I disagree with this last point of Hemingway's early memoirs of Paris. If I learned anything from my date with Hemingway, it was that Paris is a special city where one can slip into the shoes of a famous ghost and read the same books and walk the same streets and eat the same meals that he did a century ago. And no ghost can show you Paris like Hemingway.

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