September 7, 2012

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy… We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent the first half of the day exploring Hemingway’s haunts in the Latin Quarter. The mystique of Bohemian life, the camaraderie and scandal of the literary ex-pats, the art that was produced out of the eternal spring following World War I, the sense that inspiration could be plucked from the very air of the city… it all makes my pulse quicken and yearn so deeply for a life I have not lived. No, not yearn, remember. I remember the life that I did not live, and it all swirls around me, and I am back there again, where I never was.

“To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.” A Moveable Feast

There was Hemingway’s writing studio and the quarters he shared with his first wife, there was the apartment where James Joyce finished Ulysses, there was the part of town that Victor Hugo details in Les Miserábles, when John Valjean flees from Javert, Cosette in hand. There is Sylvia Beech and Shakespeare and Company and the bars and cafes and the stories, stories, stories. It was the 1920s, and I remembered it, remembered it with heat and hurt and desire. God, but they were wonderful and overwhelming and beautiful and maddening, these memories I do not have.

“With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” A Moveable Feast

What… what must it have been like? To share drinks with the “lost generation” of the post-WWI era — Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound… I think this is what Woody Allen was going for in Midnight in Paris, though this movie is a flight of fancy of one man’s mind, and so the characters are often caricatures of themselves. I want to know what it was really like. Maybe it was like the movie. I don’t know. My falstalgic memory fails me.

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” A Moveable Feast

After the literary tour of the morning (provided by Paris Walks, whom I highly recommend, along with London Walks), I got a baguette and cheese and a carton of blueberries and walked up the Rue Mouffetard, past the markets, past the shops, past the cafes, over the cobblestones.

And now I find myself on the sitting on stone steps, my back against the wall of Saint Médard’s (the same steps, actually, on which the protagonist sits in Midnight in Paris before he is swept away to Bohemia)… anyway, I found myself on the steps, writing and eating bread and cheese and blueberries, and I thought, I thought, I just don’t think that things get much better than this. And I hope this stays with me, this feeling. I think it will. Paris is, after all, a moveable feast.

* * * * *

The illusion that Paris is a city full of buildings is convincing. From the street level, the buildings come right up to the streets. It seems like the buildings would then stretch all the way to the other side of the block. Instead, the façades of the buildings are only a few rooms deep, and then they open onto a courtyard, around which the rest of the apartments are oriented. At night, the door codes are activated. In the daytimes, however, you can often just walk through an inconspicuous door, under an arch, and then find yourself in a gorgeous little courtyard, cobblestones, trees, ivy growing up the walls, flowerpots everywhere.

I walked from Rue Mouffetard west, peeking into these courtyards, and eventually coming upon the Sorbonne with its grand entrance and large French flag hanging down. And then I explored the Musée National du Moyen Age, which is a museum filled with artifacts from the Middle Ages. For the most part, I don’t care too much about “things” (this is old and this is old and this is old and this is old), but I did enjoy the display of armor and weaponry from the 1300s and 1400s. Perhaps because of all of the fantasy reading I did when I was younger, or perhaps because of my current love for Arthurian legend, this stuff was incredible. The fact that people actually fought man-to-man, once upon a time, is something so interesting to me. (I mean, it was still ridiculous, what with all that armor and heavy swords, but at least it was one-on-one, with no one having the advantage of firepower.)

I then made my way north to peek in at Barbara’s shop (a haberdashery where all of the buttons and thread and ribbons are in their neat little places), and then went to a nearby office to pick up my tickets for Aida. A couple of days ago, I had a ridiculous time trying to research and purchase tickets for several shows, as the websites were all in French. I used the Google translator as much as possible, but the whole thing was nevertheless super silly. So, I thought that I had bought tickets to an outdoor opera performance for last night, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was, or where it was, that I had successfully bought tickets for it, or that it was happening, like, at all. So I was excited to find that I did, in fact, have tickets waiting for me, and that the performance was to be held in the central courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides.

I made my way there, but the curtain wasn’t until 9pm, so I stopped at a fancy French bistro by the Eiffel Tower and sat windowside, enjoying the food and writing in my notebook. (Whenever I eat at a place like this, at a tiny table by myself, I like to pretend that I am the visiting food critic, writing for some fancy guide or newspaper.)

When I arrived at the Hôtel des Invalides (a huge and formal building originally built as a military hospital which now houses several military museums), I hesitantly showed my ticket to the gatekeeper, still not fully convinced that I was in the right place for the right event. But he nodded me through and I walked up the expansive cobblestone drive and perfectly manicured gardens to the front arch. But it still all seemed so quiet. So it was then rather surprising to walk through the gate and come into an expansive courtyard with massive bleachers, thousands of people, and a giant and colorfully lit Egyptian set for Aida. (And, honestly, I felt kind of proud of myself that I had researched events, booked a ticket, and found myself in the right place at the right time, almost entirely in French.)

So, I don’t know anything about Aida. And I had intended to look up the synopsis when I had access to internet. But that hadn’t happened. The opera is sung in Italian, and there weresubtitles, but they were in French. So I didn’t really know what was going on, but I made up my own story that seemed to fit well. And the voices were virtuosic and the cast was enormous and the pageantry of it all was fun to watch, even if I didn’t know what the hell anyone was saying.

Tomorrow: Versailles!