*Note: The Husband-Type Man wanted to write about our Adventures in Zurich, so his installment’ll be posted as soon as he’s finished with it, but, considering that right now this week his priority is shopping for insane amounts chocolate, it may take a little while!
June 22, 2005
Perhaps, more than any other place, the thought of visiting Paris has always intimidated me. In fact, many of my earliest Where Adventure Goes to Die experiences were based on expressing a desire to go to Paris, and being told: “You know, they hate Americans there. If you don’t speak French, they’ll treat you like shit.” “ Paris is so dirty and dangerous.” “You don’t want to go to France; they love to cheat American tourists.” “You’d better be able to speak French fluently.” “My mom’s friend’s aunt’s cousin’s sister went to Paris, and, because she didn’t speak perfect French, the waiter at the restaurant yelled at her and told her to get out.” “You know, they hate Americans in Paris.” “ Paris?! Why would you want to go there?!”
(I’d’ve taken French in high school, but of course, Hypocrite High didn’t offer it. Hell, we were lucky to have German one year, along with the usual Spanish.)
As I continued in my academic career, though, even though my concentration is primarily American Modernism, all the writers I was drawn to, it seemed, ended up in Paris, which profoundly affected their work. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Stein. Millay. cummings. Joyce. H.D. Without intending to, I realized I was focusing more on the expatriates and their unique perspectives and experiences… America filtered through Paris, Paris filtered through Americans. I discovered scratchy old Edith Piaf recordings in the early 90s, and was soon hording Moulin Rogue-era café tunes and music hall stuff – Yves Montand, Chevalier, Lucienne Boyer, Charles Trenet – before anyone even knew Ewan McGregor could sing. Even my trashy Judith Krantz reading influenced my increasing interest in Paris; it’s sad to admit that I first learned of Kiki de Montparnasse not from reading biographies about Man Ray, but from Mistral’s Daughter. And later, I started reading and experimenting more with the gamut of Parisian cuisine and cooking.
But I still never realistically thought about visiting there.
Once, when I was at Penn, The Husband-Type Man and I had an opportunity to spend a long weekend in Paris, but I opted for the linguistic and cultural safety of visiting London again, instead. When we’d decide where to go on our increasingly-adventurous vacations, I always ruled out Paris immediately, because we didn’t speak French.
That sense of nervousment (TM The Carvin House Gals) remained, ever intimidating.
Hell, I’ve been practicing simple phrases with the help of my Learn French in the Car lesson CDs, and I’m still nervous!
But more than being nervous? I’m getting really, really excited. Because we’re less than a half-hour away from Paris on the train right now.
This has nothing to do with the whole “Oh, Paris is soooo romantic” let’s-drink-wine-and-kiss-on-the-Eiffel-Tower shtick. At least, I’m not looking for “romantic” in the typical all-American sense of the word, but more like what we experienced in Venice… that evocative sense of history. Literary history, in particular.
I’m finally going to go to 27 rue de Fluerus! *shrieking*
At least now I’m fairly confident I can pronounce it semi-properly.
More later; je suis pressé!
It’s later, and I want to jot some quick impressions about Paris. First, it’s much bigger than I thought it would be: the buildings are bigger, the streets are wider, the sites and monuments are bigger…. And the overall size of Paris is bigger, too; I always assumed, on the map, that the Parisy part of Paris would be concentrated in the middle, along the Seine, and the rest would be more like suburbs or outlying areas. But it’s all Parisy-Paris, and the scale of it reminds me of New York, with all its neighborhoods and nooks and sub-neighborhoods and main areas scattered around.
And that’s the second thing: Paristotally reminds me of New York, except it’s far more beautiful architecturally. All the buildings, it seems, are gorgeous 17 th and 18 th and 19 th Century, with beautifully sculpted windows and vaulted roofs and lots of detailing and scrollwork. But it still has a New Yorky scale, a New Yorkish feel to the people with their fashionable clothes and purposeful walks, and a New York feel to the areas and districts, even down to the shoddy Parisian Newarks and Parisian Elizabeths that you have to go through on the train before getting to the real thick of things.
Third, and continuing with the New York thing, I’ve decided that drivers in Paris are as scary as drivers in New York (and I’ve driven in New York, y’all!), but where NYC drivers are homicidal or suicidal or both, Parisian drivers are just insane; there seems to be few traffic rules, and I regularly have seen people turning left from the right-most lane, just cutting across several lanes of traffic, par for the course. Three abreast, even.
Fourth, I still can’t get used to the daylight; even at 10PM, it’s as bright outside as if it’s 6PM in Southern California.
Fifth, did you guyses know there’s massive heat wave in Europe? No, really. Not that a huge city isn’t lovely when it’s NINTEY DEGREES AT 7 O’CLOCK IN THE EVENING! Good Lordy!
And sixth? Even in Paris, tourists still suck ass.
Paris itself doesn’t, though, and I’ll write more about it later, natch!
June 23, 2005
Trying to distill the last 36 hours into something even remotely coherent is going to be difficult indeed.
As some of you well know, and others might’ve gathered, I have been, by nature, a very timid and scared person. As a child – hell, even as an adult! – some of the most seemingly simple activities could throw me into a bit of a panic: Calling someone on the phone. Going to the doctor. The first day of school. All those therapy sessions helped, of course, but there are Big Life-Type Things that, before I actually do them, can intimidate and/or scare me a bit. Or more than a bit. For years before!
So obviously, I’ve often had the no-shit revelations that things aren’t going to be nearly as scary as I thought. That doesn’t stop me from having my own personal little stress-hierarchy, though. There are numerous things I worried about well in advance of their happening… sure that once I attempted it, disaster would strike… and discovered instead, no shit, when I did them, that they were amazing, wonderful, joyful, exciting and fulfilling: Shaking Up with The Husband-Type Man. Getting Married. Speaking at conferences and teaching. Grad school. Meeting My Boyfriend.
And one of the things high up on that list for the last dozen years? Going to a café in Paris and speaking French.
Sure, it was on my List of Things to Do, which is why it was so scary (or maybe it was so scary, and that’s why I put it on my List). But it was still a Really Scary Thing.
It was also a Scary Thing I had to do on my own.
I had a wake-up call at 7, and by 8, I was in a cab on my way to the Left Bank. I’d carefully mapped out my route the night before, and had the driver drop me “Ici, monsieur, s’il vous plaît”: the gates to the Luxembourg Garden on the Boul’ Mich’ side… Jardin du Luxembourg, where Hemingway used to walk to from his and Hadley’s nearby apartment, where Faulkner would sit on a metal chair to write short stories and watch children sail boats in the fountain, where Henry James set impressionistic vignettes, where Stein would walk her giant poodle improbably named Basket, where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald might’ve taken Scottie to play… if they’d actually been, you know, active parents and, well, sober. Even though it was early, it was already getting too warm, but the trees were leafy and shady, and I strolled along, enjoying the quiet park. The first thing I saw was a gazebo-like pavilion, where two men were practicing boxing. Ah, Hemingway, it’s a sign, isn’t it?
One of the nicest things about the garden is that there are chairs and benches everywhere… mostly empty at that time of day. So I strolled, sat, read, visited with ducks, took pictures, and strolled some more. I admired the statues and flowers and fountains and even the sprinklers before crunching my way across the gravel path to the gate “de Fluerus.” And you know what that means!
It was all bigger and busier than I expected, but very sunny, and the buildings are all 18 th and 19 th Century, very grand and lovely. My excitement grew as I watched the addresses: 5. 12. 20. 23. 2- Oh! Don’t let it be the building with the scaffolding!
But it was the building with the scaffolding. Darn. The signs were partially obscured, and I couldn’t get a good view of the whole building, but that was okay… I still pressed my nose against the glass entryway doors to peer through to the courtyard, seeing just a smidge of their ground-floor apartment to the right.
Gawd damn, the people that’d crossed this threshold, shared that space. Holy-
Well, just holy. At least to me.
I wandered around both sides of the building and the block, taking pictures of what I could, including the apartment down the street where poor Hadley first lived with lil’ Bumby after Hemingway – after first securing his Wife, Version 2.0, naturally – booted her. Then I headed back to the garden to sit and read myself, but, even by 10, it was already getting crowded with joggers and WAY too hot, so I hied myself to a shady walk up one side of the Palace, heading towards the Boulevard Saint-Germain, following the route Hem would take on his way to Sylvia Beach’s and his favorite cafés. Shakespeare & Co. is no longer there on 12 rue de l’Odeon, but more on that later. The façade that’s there looks nothing like the store’s used to, but that hardly mattered when I was standing underneath the little plaque about Ulysses, in front of the store where e. e. cummings used to come pick up his copies of The Transatlantic Review, where Katherine Anne Porter would see her volumes of short stories in the front window, where T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound gave readings, where Janet Flanner gossiped and Robert McAlmon edited, where Hem used to receive his mail, where just about EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY FAVORITE AUTHORS AND LITERARY FIGURES HUNG OUT BECAUSE THIS WAS THEIR FREAKIN’ EXPAT CLUBHOUSE OR SOMETHING!
Luckily, it was so hot outside that the puddle of drool I made evaporated quickly.
All this worship can make a woman hungry, so I decided to go check out Brasserie Lipp’s for some brekkie, and continued my stroll. Lipp’s was still closed, I discovered, when I finally saw the famous awning and sign, and wouldn’t open until 11:45. And, dang it, it’s barely 10:30! So I strolled the block, because across the street was another familiar name, the Café Les Deux Magot, where Hemingway used to treat Joyce to drinks and talk shop. There were scores of little marble tables, and people sitting and sipping from small cups, watching people, reading papers, smoking. I circumnavigated the block twice, almost just sitting on a bench away from everyone to observe, but somehow that wasn’t good enough.
Feeling stupid, feeling like an ass, I approached the café and stepped hesitantly inside. No response from the harried waiters, so I grew bolder, and went outside to a shady table to settle myself.
I waited for what seemed like a half-hour, but was likely less than five minutes. Finally, a garçon, dressed in what might as well have been formal starched livery, approached. This was it.
“Bonjour, Monsieur.” I ventured brightly, remembering Number One’s advice when he studied briefly in Paris several summers back that one of the keys to Parisian transactions is to always, always greet someone before asking questions.
The waiter’s manner immediately changed to one of welcome. “Oui, Madam?”
“Oui! Oui, Madam! ” he smiled. “La carte?”
Suddenly, I belong here.
“Non, merci. Un chocolat, et… l’eau… plat, naturalle? S’il vous plaît.”
And he didn’t start chastising me or throw me out, hissing “Bah! Stoopeed Americahn peeg!” He smiled and said “oui, Madam” and asked me if I wanted bottled or tap water and I understood what he was saying and he understood what I was saying, and it was all okay!
I belonged, even for a brief hour, to that café, to that street and neighborhood, to Paris!
I felt tingling, alive. Like a cat basking in the sun, I did what Parisians were doing… I slowly drank my delicious chocolat, I read, I wrote, I just reclined in my chair and – dare I say it? – watched the Movable Feast of Paris go by.
That was just the start. To prove the experience wasn’t a fluke, I strolled to another café, and did it again. Brasserie Lipp’s stayed closed, and, at noonish, I walked by and overheard – and understood, to a degree – a conversation between the waiter and a potential customer as the waiter explained that there were no available reservations for lunch. So I stuck my head in the local Monoprix for a bit, which was special… like a Target or TJ Maxx with a Bristol Farms downstairs. You wander past the displays of makeup and jewelry, go downstairs, and there’s… a HUGE frommagerie! Not a lot of tourists in this neighborhood, either, so it was most delightful just wandering the streets, popping in and out of places that looked interesting, chatting politely with salespeople, before stopping at another sidewalk café further up the street and again bustin’ out with my “Bonjour, Monsieur. Puis-je? Ici?”
And, amazingly enough, it worked again. I got great service, and a tasty salad with chicken and bottled water and no one spit in my breadbasket or shrieked “Ugly Americahn! Go now! You leave our city! I fart in your general direction!”
So I did it again an hour later, and stopped for more water (because it was fucking HOT) and read some more – yes, A Moveable Feast, which is one of my all-time favorite books anyway, but, even though it’s silly and contrived to do so, I had to read it at a Left Bank café… or two, or three, or four. Because I could. I could stop into Parisian sidewalk cafes and order. And I did. Multiple times.
It was a long, hot afternoon, and I ended up walking well over five miles, and possibly more… wandering all around the Left Bank, up to the Seine, and from the Musee d’Orsay to Notre Dame, unable to catch my breath sometimes because of the beauty of the buildings and sun blazing on the water… and because it was fucking HOT! I browsed the bookstalls and talked to people working there about how hot it was and Josephine Baker and Mistinguette, and I of COURSE bought lots of postcards and trinkets for friends (Parlance, alas, no Jean Cocteau stuff! I’m sorry!) and, at one place, an “authentic” (ha!) street address sign: 27. I bought more bottles of water and took pictures, and made my way in the direction of my final destination: the new Shakespeare & Co.
But before I got there… a problem arose. I suppose it’s quite telling to ‘fess that one of my primary anxieties is being out in public and needing a restroom and being unable to find one. And usually the second I think “Say… I’m not in an area where there’s an easily accessible bathroom. I sure hope I don’t have to-” I will, for whatever psychosomatic reasons you can imagine, IMMEDIATELY need one. So, sweaty and worried, I wondered about how to solve this problem. Should I find a restaurant? Go back to the hotel? Keep going to the bookstore and hope they had a loo? Wait! There’s a café! I beat tracks, ducked around a table of local gents smoking, and, almost crying with relief, spied the door with WC beckoning. And, thank GOD, it actually looked reasonably clean (which is another one of my Bathroom Anxieties… dirty public restrooms. Airplane bathrooms will TRAUMATIZE me! *shudder*), I was pleased to note by the light from outside. I reached for the light switch and-
I tried again. No. I fumbled around outside for another switch, but nothing. The table of smoking men was right there, too, so there wasn’t the remotest possibility of leaving the door cracked while I got… um… settled.
So I closed the door, locked it, and Helen Keller’d my way around the WC.
The toilet, Lordy, was up on a pedestal. Stumble, fumble, a ha! There it is! Okay, toilet paper, where’s the toilet paper? Scrabble, scrabble- Thank God! Flush? Where do I flush? Side? No.... Top? Ah! There’s the button! Sink, sink, please, God, where’s the sink? Okay, I managed to find where to turn it on, but where’s the faucet…? Oh, up there? Okay. Soap? More fumbling… soap! Towels! And thankfully, I have a passel of Handy-Wipes and antibacterial liquid in my purse.
Feeling profoundly triumphant, if as sweaty and red-faced as if I just emerged from a sauna, I grope one last time for the door. As I leave, the woman at the bar even smiles and cheerily says “Au revoir, Madam” and I gratefully “Merci boucoup” in return.
Thus, I was much happier when I finally found Shakespeare & Co., several long blocks down. And, it seems to be Scaffolding Day for me, because the façade of the store was undergoing restoration, and was completely covered up, so I didn’t dilly around taking pictures. Instead, I dove right in, because I’d planned for the book orgy to end all book orgies here!
It’s important to make sure y’all know that this isn’t exactly the same Shakespeare & Co. as the one Sylvia Beach started. This store has been around since the early fifties; Beach’s store was closed down during WWII. After her death in 1962, George Whitman renamed his bookstore in “honor” of Beach… although likely not with her permission. Now the two are sorta intertwined, and it’s still considered by most as the same place that published Ulysses (esp. judging from the volumes on display in the store). Anyway, the new Shakespeare & Co. also has a fascinating literary history, but, importantly for me, it wasn’t the same Lost Generation Expat stomping ground as the original.
That wasn’t going to stop me from my Book Orgy, however.
The store was bustling with tourists – young students, primarily, excitedly paging through books and talking about poetry with each other. *dreamy sigh* The only problem was that the store? Was FUCKING HOT! The requisite Bookstore Kitty was splayed across a stack of books, sacked out, and so lethargic that he barely twitched an ear when I petted him. But the heat didn’t stop me from shopping for an hour. It was a groovy store, but admittedly, I was a little let down by the selection; a few too many paperback bestsellers, and, surprisingly, a fairly thin selection of all but the more obvious Lost Generation selections.
I still bought some stuff, though, because I’ve been on a veritable novel-reading tear this vacation now that school’s out and I can read without trying to prepare important responses for class. I just finished a bunch of stuff in Zurich whilst all Headcold Snurfly, as well as on the trains; I read some Anais Nin for the first time (dang!), an in-depth guide to Hemingway’s Paris, and Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (fuck me, Scott can slowly and seductively suck your soul out, but he does it so beautifully, and this was no exception!). So I was in need of more stuff, and had a huge shopping list… but didn’t have much luck outside of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. I grabbed a copy of TheRuba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, because I’ve been meaning to read it, and also scored The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which I’ve wanted to read for years and, because of my workload of required reading, had to put it off, so I figured if I was gonna get it anywhere, it might as well be at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris! So, good stuff, but not the balls-out book-fest I’d anticipated.
By the time I’d finished there, it was so hot that my head felt steamy and brassy, and I knew it was prolly time to head back until things cooled off outside. So I found a taxi stand and waited in line… and got to practice my Surprising Ability to Communicate in Paris some more. At one point, when a cab pulled up for the next person in line, a woman dashed up the street and grabbed it, and refused to move from the back seat until all of us in line berated her and made her go to the back of the queue. So, when a gentleman on a cell phone got in line in front of me when I was the next in line, I knew that I’d have to say something to prevent another cab-ganking. “Monsieur?” I queried. “Taxi?” He looked puzzled. “Oui, Madam.” “S’il vous plait… queue,” I said, indicating the sign and the back of the line with a smile. “Oh! Oui, oui, Madam, pardon!” he said, also smiling and making “I’m an imbecile” motions toward his head. He didn’t berate me or laugh or say “Americahn feelth! I weel get the taxi before you, you George W. Bush merde!” Instead, he smiled and apologized and moved to the end of the line, and no one else in the line was pissed off at me, and it all worked!
And with that, I scored a cab, and was even able to direct the driver to the street and cross-street where our hotel was and talk about the heat and bad traffic.
Yeah, so, like with Italian, I only know about a half-dozen key phrases, but just WATCH me use ‘em to their fullest potential! Ha!
Much more later, Readers… we ain’t NEARLY done with Adventures in Paris yet!