On that January morning, seven years ago, it looked beautiful: Paris as I had always imagined.
As I walked to my hostel, off the Rue de Vaugirard, the Eiffel Tower peaked out over the rooftops, welcoming me to the city. Like most tourists, I suppose, I made a note to head over and see the tower right after dropping the bags off at the hostel.
Traveling to Paris in the wintertime was an off-chance bet, but the gamble paid off. The weather was unseasonably sunny and warm, and there weren’t that many tourists at all. So generally, the cafes weren’t crowded, and the people were willing to speak English. The downside was, since I’d made the trip spontaneously, with scarcely any time for planning or saving, I was nearly broke when I arrived.
Two hundred euros, I believe, was how much I had – for a week. The train from the airport alone cost 10 euros, and I would need to save another 10 for the end of the holiday, to get the flight back to Prague. Fortunately, the hostel was pre-paid, and I was going to spend the last few days couch surfing at this guy Renaud’s flat.
But none of these things concerned me all that much the first morning … I was in Paris. That was enough – the rest would sort itself out. I thought of the narrator in Tropic of Cancer, broke, hungry, prowling the streets, leaving everything to Providence. As a youth in the Navy, years before, I’d devoured that book, and others, dreaming that I too would be there one day. Now that I was, wasn’t there a kind of poetic resonance in being broke, too? I thought of Hemingway, of those early days in Paris where, he wrote, “we were very poor and we were very happy.”
That’s the way I would have to approach it, evidently.
After putting in the obligatory Eiffel visit, I headed over to the Boulevard Montparnasse – the Paris I had really come to see. It was around lunchtime, and the broad boulevard was busy, but not packed. I strolled along, passing the famous cafes … La Coupole, the Select, the Rotonde, the cafes where so many literary and artistic heroes sat during the birth of Modernism after the First World War.
I decided on the Rotonde, and sat outside on the terrace. There was, of course, a menu with a detailed history of the café, of all the great personages who had spent evenings there … Picasso, Diego Rivera, Guillaume Apollinaire, to name a few.
A garcon asked what I wanted, and seeing that I wasn’t sure, suggested the inevitablepernod. When he brought it, the tall glass, with a tiny bit of absinthe, along with a carafe of water and a cup of ice, I stared at it dumbly. I’ll bet Hemingway never had to ask how to drink a pernod. Anyway, I ended up adding just a tiny bit of water, when I should have gone ahead and filled the glass. So I basically drank the meager bit of absinthe straight – nothing to write home about, in terms of its taste, unless you like liquorish.
But – I didn’t care. It was enough for my imagination to fill in the rest, to look out at the people passing in the street. The American girls – students – were easy to spot, with their newly purchased knee-high boots and florid scarves, talking in strident voices. But it was cosmopolitan, too, so you noticed lots of different skin tones, accents, styles as the people walked past.
I had two glasses of pernod, managing to make the second go a bit further than the first. Then, I paid and left, and walked up the street, letting the anise buzz from the absinthe carry the afternoon. I reached the Closerie des Lilas, tucked cozily away behind a cool, ivy-covered entrance. It appeared to be closed at that hour, for there was no one inside. Even Hemingway’s ghost goes out for lunch, apparently. The seats outside in the garden were empty, doubtless waiting for spring (and spring tourist dollars).
It was enough, though, to just look at the Closerie, and think about Hemingway, as he described it in “A Moveable Feast.” He and his first wife, Hadley, used to live above a sawmill nearby, and in the mornings Hemingway would go to the Closerie and write untilnoon over a single cup of café l’creme. Afterward, if the work went well or badly, he would reward himself with a few drinks.
I thought about these things as I left the Closerie and headed toward the Boulevard St. Michel, a long, straight road that stretches down to the Seine, passing the Luxembourg Gardens, the Sorbonne, the Rue St. Germain, and a host of other places along the way.
You really didn’t mind it, all that walking. Stopping in at the Luxembourg Gardens, you reflected that it was Monday morning. Back in America, everyone was at work. In Prague, everyone was at work. Here in Paris, people were working, too, but you were not. You were strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens on a perfectly fine morning in January. The trees were stark, with that barrenness of winter, the benches were all empty, except for a stray visitor; otherwise, the air was clear and warm. I’d brought along a book, some Maugham, stretched out on one of the benches and had a good read for an hour or so.
Later, I walked down St. Michel to the Seine. Notre Dame was nearby, and along the green-grey Seine you could see the artisans and booksellers. I thought about the fishermen that Hemingway used to watch, but there were no fishermen out that day, at least not there in the center. Maybe they fished further down nowadays.
I walked over one of the bridges and over to the Tuileries Gardens. Here was a true postcard moment: the Louvre, with the golden pyramid and its fountains, lay to the right, and over the shoulder on the left, stood the Eiffel in the distance, and you suddenly realized you were not far from the Champs Elysees … Paris! It all sort of cries out to you there, in a glorious moment, and you are standing on a revolving platform in the center of the world. You’re glad you came.
Early evening … Hemingway was right about the Boulevard Raspail being one of the most depressing streets in Paris. He may have had his own reasons. I certainly had mine. By now, I was really hungry. Passing the shops and restaurants, delicious smells came from inside, drifting into the nostrils. The prices outside were formidable, at least for my budget. So I just kept walking until I got back to the hostel. Earlier, I’d bought some bread and cheap, processed cheese from a supermarket, and so upstairs in my room, I lay on the bed, legs tired from all the walking, and ate the bread and cheese.
Later, I went downstairs. In the living room of the hostel, a bunch of students were watching “The Godfather.” I bumped into a young Scottish guy I’d met that morning upon my arrival. He was a young aspiring guitarist, and he and his girlfriend were planning to move to Paris, providing they could find work. The job search would begin tomorrow –in earnest, he said. But tonight, their first night in Paris, it was all about the enjoyment of arrival.
“Y’ up for a drink, mate?” he asked. Sure, I said. So we retired to a small café down the street near the hostel.
The girlfriend was already at one of the tables, sitting with a group of people from the hostel. It’s one of those little quirks about Paris you soon find out, that it’s cheaper to order your drinks at the bar rather than at the table. So me and the Scottish guy went up and ordered glasses of wine, then went and joined the party. His girlfriend was a friendly, spirited girl, and they were both very young. Their passion for everything was touching, and I envied their youth, their cheerful determination.
We sat and talked about how they planned to make it in Paris, comparing our impressions of the city. We talked about music, and my life over in Prague.
“Prague’s lovely, I hear,” he said. “Oh, yes,” I said. In fact, as we sat in the garden of the café, having drinks and talking, I thought about how Paris in that regard was not all that different from Prague.
“Another drink?” the Scottish guy asked. I told him I had to watch my money. They would have none of it, and cheerfully ordered another round for the three of us.
“After all, it’s your first night in Paris,” the girl said, smiling tipsily. I thought this a very reasonable way of looking at the situation, and conceded her point. We raised our glasses and toasted, “Sante!”
Sometime after midnight, we all made our way back to the hostel. The Scottish couple had to get up very early, to hit the pavement with CVs in hand. I had nothing in particular that I had to do, and not much cash to do it with, so I went to bed, figuring tomorrow would sort itself out.
The next day, I followed much the same routine, getting up around mid-morning. I walked over to the Luxembourg Gardens again, sat on the same bench, and had another good read for an hour or so. To be honest, I rather relished the illusion that this was my everyday routine, now that I “was” a Parisian. It was better to go at it this way, rather than think about all the things I couldn’t afford to do.
After awhile, I got up, stretched, and went for a walk. This time, I passed over the Seine to Montmartre. I went up the Boulevard de Sebastopol, crossing here and there, getting lost, and ending up somehow, by late afternoon, at the Montmartre Cemetery, and seeing the graves of Foucault and Zola, among others. Near the Avenue de Clichy, I stopped at a market and, thirsty from all the walking, grabbed a big bottle of water, and drank it in the street.
Consulting a map, I walked south, somehow arriving at the Avenue de l’Opera, and finally at the Place de la Concorde, near the Tuileries again. All in all, it was quite a long walk – I’ll bet even old Hem never made a circle as wide as I did that day.
It was getting towards evening now, with the short days. Also, the favourable weather that had held up so magnificently was beginning to fail a bit. The wind had picked up near the river, and it was starting to rain. I headed over a bridge near the Musee d’Orsay, and, very tired now, trudged back to the hostel. After another dinner of bread and cheese, I had a shower and went downstairs to the living room. That evening, “The Godfather, Part II” was the movie, and we continued the saga of the Corleone family in that little room. Some Italian students staying at the hostel watched it with us. “We love it!” one of them said. “It’s like a mafia soap opera!” I didn’t see the Scottish guy or his girlfriend that evening, and supposed they were out.
The next day, I had to check out of the hostel. So, I packed my stuff and left early. The place where I was couchsurfing was on the southwest side of the city, way beyond the center. I got the metro and rode about ten stops. The cityscape here changes substantially; gone are the tender boulevards and arrondisements of tourist Paris, and one enters the dim, suburban landscapes of the world over. It was refreshing, in an odd way, to see the city from this perspective, not the Paris of postcards. This was not Hemingway’s Paris, and it felt good to be seeing something with my own eyes for a change, stripped of the double lens of literature and sentiment.
What did that Paris look like? A blur, to be honest. I was too busy watching the metro stops – too conscious of the fact that I literally could not afford to get lost at this point. By then, despite all my cost-saving measures, and literary fasting, I was down to my last 50 euro, and I needed 10 of that to make it to the airport.
Fortunately, when I arrived at my host Renaud’s flat, he was very accommondating. He was a mathematics teacher at one of the local high schools, and thus – as a fellow teacher – not unaccustomed to poverty. “My flat is only a very leetle flat,” Renaud said, apologizing. After giving me a quick tour of his “leetle” flat, Renaud handed me the keys. Out of concern for my comfort, he was letting me stay there alone. He would crash at his boyfriend’s place nearby.
I was overwhelmed by such a gesture – after all, I was a complete stranger! I thanked Renaud profusely.
In the classic, Parisian way, he shrugged.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “After all, it is only a very leetle flat.”
For the next two days, my last two in the city, I just relaxed at the flat. Again, there was the charming illusion of living in Paris. In Prague, I had the bohemian life. Here in Paris, there was only la vie de routine! I was all for it. During my long walks, I’d had the chance to see the city as I had always wanted to see it anyway. My only regret was that I hadn’t brought along a camera. Back in Prague, where over the past few years I’d perhaps grown too accustomed to living in a touristic European capital, I’d waived off the idea. I would have Paris here! (tapping my forehead, or perhaps it was my chest, I don’t remember)
Anway, the last night Renaud stopped in to see how things were going, again apologizing for the flat’s lack of size. He listened to my tales of walking the streets broke, and it clearly offended his French nationalist pride that I hadn’t had the chance to enjoy a proper meal. He busied himself in the kitchen, and while he cooked up a special family recipe from his native Avignon, he put on some nice music that I recognized.
When I asked him what music it was, Renaud abruptly stopped stirring the sauce, looked up at me and said –
“Amelie? You don’t know ‘Amelie’?” On his face an expression near horror was registered.“You don’t know ‘Amelie?”
It was my turn to apologize. A pretty barmaid in one of the cafes of my neighborhood in Prague used to play that music, and I always liked it without knowing what it was – probably liking it because I associated its beauty with that of the young barmaid’s – Anyway, dinner was served, after my now having twice in one evening shocked and offended my host’s sensibilities – first, for not having had one proper French meal during my entire visit to Paris, and secondly, for not knowing ‘Amelie” as I would know the very blood coursing through my veins. Poor Renaud: for a second there, he must have second-guessed his ever trusting the likes of me with the keys to his “leetle” flat.
Over dinner, Renaud’s boyfriend came home from work and joined in the meal. Then we had wine, and they showed me some pictures from their own travels. Recently they had gone to Venezuela, for instance, and they had gone to the Amazon. The streets of Venezuela are said to be very dangerous for tourists, so they had to go everywhere with their hosts.
Later, they rose to return to the boyfriend’s flat for the night. Renaud told me to just lock up and leave the keys under the porch rug when I left in the morning. Following the couchsurfing code, I insisted that he come and visit Prague someday, so that I could return the hospitality.
“Of course,” Renaud said. “Maybe we will sometime.” Actually, he just asked that I write a good recommendation on the couch surfing site. He enjoyed meeting people, passers-through, putting them up for the night.
I see now that we have got well past Hemingway’s Paris, and that perhaps is for the best. Paris, after all, may well be a moveable feast, but a feast served in a warm living room, by a kind host, and with plenty of wine to spare, is good enough.