À la recherche du temps bizarre

À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS BIZARRE

Paris and Spain with Carolyn, JoAnn, Joseph and Tom, 1991

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Ernest Hemingway

« …ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier; il me semblait que j’étais moi-même ce dont parlait l’ouvrage: un café, une voiture, la rivalité de Hemingway et de Gertrude Stein…. »

“Let’s go find Hemingway!” JoAnn had announced as our plane descended towards Charles De Gaulle airport. JoAnn’s happy enthusiasms can become an idée fixe; one yields to them as to a force of nature.

“Hemingway? A tedious bore whose linen was usually wrinkled, whose cigars were bad and infrequent, whose conversation was painful and whose writing was unreadable.” Ford Madox Ford, Paris 1927

“Hemingway stole Marshal Ney’s sword from the statue in front of the Closerie des Lilas to hunt elephants with. Really, the detestable man made a great noise because he lacked a real penis.” Alice B. Toklas, Paris 1929

“Hemingway should have been shot before he got to Paris.” Obergrüppenführer Heinrich Ernst Brummer, XVI Panzers, Paris 1944.

JoAnn and I had, ourselves, become enthralled with Paris after reading A Moveable Feast before our first trip to Paris together in 1986. We stayed in a charming little hotel on the Place du Panthéon, and from there, followed Hemingway’s walks, through the Place Countrescarpe, where we danced on Bastille Day to the dixieland jazz of the pompiers, past Hemingway and Hadley’s digs at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, down the Boul’ Mich, past the Cluny and St.-Germaine to the Seine.

“Sounds like fun,” Carolyn said.

“Sure,” I said, already caught up in the enthusiasm. I sometimes have a problem with excessive enthusiasm myself, and since I was appointed the chauffer for the trip but we were presently on foot, Hemingway was a good bet.

After arrival and customs, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into a small Renault taxi driven, clearly, by a blind man … or a suicide looking for a spectacular death.

Île de la Cité, s’il vous plais,” said Joseph, “Place Dauphin et le Pont Neuf.”

Bien sûr,” said the cab driver, and launched himself gleefully into the murderous traffic.

“Wow!” I thought. Impressive.

Ayiiieeeee!” cried Carolyn, in really good French.

This first thing one does in Paris, it seems, is look for a hotel. On foot. Reservations are for tourists. So Joseph set out to find us lodgings and we waited happily by the statue of Henri Quartre eating ice cream. The cabbie was happy, too, since the meter was still running.

“There is nothing here,” said Joseph. Let’s try Rue Jacob.”

“Bien sûr, monsieur,” said the cab driver, still smiling.

There are 10,483 hotels in Metropolitan Paris, over a third of these (rated two stars or above) are in the Left Bank, so we had lots of choices along the Rue Jacob.

“This one’s no good,” said Joseph, coming out of the first hotel we tried.

“Fine,” said Carolyn.

Joseph darted into another hotel and came right out again. “Complete,” said Joseph.

“Fine,” said Carolyn.

I wanted to stay at 44 Rue Jacob where Hemingway lived in his very own room. Since they advertised five rooms where Hemingway had stayed, I was sure we’d find a place.

“Too expensive,” said Carolyn.

“Fine,” said Joseph.

“Fine,” said JoAnn, who was enjoying herself almost as much as the cab driver.

“Let’s get a drink,” said Joseph, so we paid off the cabbie and collapsed in a small outdoor café. I didn’t mind. I figured drinking with Hemingway was better than sleeping with him any day.

We ultimately settled in at the Deux Continents, (which actually was a fine hotel) and started out re-acquainting ourselves with Paris. After the long, mostly sleepless overnight flight from New York (a huge improvement, however, from the Icelandic Air marathon in the 1960’s), the one thing one mustn’t do is sleep. First stop, of course, the Deux Magots, across from Brasserie Lipp and St.-Germain Des Pres.

A couple of demis and a croque-monsieur later, we resumed our walk towards the next nesting spot, the Rhumerie. Nothing like rum to keep you going … or put you under the table.

“I ordered a rum St. James and kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and my spirit. A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.

I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in my story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.”

A Moveable Feast

Joseph, Carolyn and JoAnn chatted about what we should do next. I looked out the window at the people passing by and made up stories about them.

“One must see Paris first as a penniless student to capture its essence,” I had been told. On my first trip in 1963 I was a penniless teacher, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. I wandered around, sleeping in bad hotels for 2 New Francs a night and looking for a pretty girl to put in my story. I took lots of pictures of famous places.

The first time JoAnn and I went, we took lots of pictures of each other. The next time, we were nursing a sick friend all through Paris and didn’t take any pictures at all.

When I got back from this trip I found I had taken lots of pictures of bars.

By now, all of us were feeling quite fine, indeed, so we resumed our walk, into the arcaded cobbled Rue De L’Anciennne Comédie with its memories of Ben Franklin (I’m sure he found the girl with the black hair…) down past the open markets on the Rue de Buci, along St. Andre-des-arts where we stopped and listened to a cross-dressing singing accordion player doing his best to destroy Edith Piaf’s reputation.

The Boul' Mich

The Boul’ Mich

We walked to a café on the Place St.-Michel, across from the fountain by the Belle Époque Metro entrance where Carolyn told us about the ancient “tweet tweet lady” who used to haunt the Metro station and Joseph recalled the rat man who hung out there for years, scaring the women tourists with his fake rat.

We had a simple meal that couldn’t be beat, and as the lights came up around us all over Paris, we walked, arm in arm, back to our hotel, listening to the jazz that sprinkled brightly out of the cafés that we passed, full of the pleasure of discovering Paris yet once again for the first time.

“That was a fine day,” said Carolyn. And she was right.

If you wanted the perfect guides to take you through Paris, it would be the Borlos. Joseph was born, I think, speaking French (or maybe it was Dutch… but the French followed shortly afterwards. Plus along the way he learned to speak English.) Carolyn’s mastery of French was achieved by dint of patient, disciplined, thoughtful study…and love.

As I’ve heard the story, they met and fell in love in Paris. They returned to study at the Sorbonne, their infant daughter Sarah sleeping in the top drawer of the dresser in the little walk-up flat they rented on the Left Bank. Sarah was baptized in Notre Dame. On the day they were supposed to meet the priest to make the arrangements, Carolyn showed up, and was led, past the gargoyles, to a porch on top of Notre Dame overlooking the Left Bank. The priest and Carolyn spent a lovely time, sitting on lawn chairs on the porch in the sun, sipping sherry and discussing liturgical niceties and ceremonial obligations in French. Joseph had gotten trapped in a café. He never made it.

“You will raise your child Catholic, of course?” asked the priest to Carolyn, who had been raised a Mennonite.

Bien sûr,” said Carolyn.

“And your husband?

Bien sûr,” said Carolyn.

It was, by all accounts, a lovely baptism.

The next day, we set out in search of Hemingway.

Deux Magots - St. Germain-des Pres

Deux Magots – St. Germain-des Pres

After a coffee at the Deux Magots, we checked in at the Brasserie Lipp. Hemingway wasn’t there. Neither were Proust, Chagall, Camus, Jean Genet, or Simone Signoret.

Happily, the 1926 art deco ambiance was still very much alive, with Léon Fargue’s cheerful yellow tiles and floral Belle Epoque ceramics complemented by mosaic panels and decorated mirrors, subtly tilted so that you can see what was happening in every part of the main room.

We were told Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzeneger had recently been there, but we didn’t see them, either.

We then cut up the Rue Mabillon to Saint Suplice and  went on through the Luxenbourg Gardens to Closerie des Lilas.

Joseph ordered a cognac.

JoAnn started paging through A Moveable Feast to read about Hemingway, Hadley, their son Bumby, and F. Puss the cat, wondering if the small apartment where they lived above the noisy sawmill on Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs still existed. “He never should have left Hadley,” JoAnn announced, sadly, looking up from her book. Years later, Hemingway would say the same thing.

Carolyn sat and relaxed amidst the tall plane trees that have replaced the chestnuts in whose dappled shade Hemingway wrote his first story, “A Big Two-hearted River.” For Carolyn, relaxation is an art form − one to be practiced diligently in the continual search for perfection.

Closerie des Lilas

Closerie des Lilas

I went inside to look for Hemingway. “Of course, I remember him,” lied the obliging waiter, and pointed towards the brass nameplate on a bar stool with the name “E. Hemingway.” It was right next to more bar stools named after Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Henry James, Picasso, Apollinaire, and Lenin. It must have been pretty crowded at happy hour back then.

“Here’s where Hemingway wrote,” he said, pointing towards a small table to the right of the bar and away from it, where the windows catch the early morning sun. Hemingway would sip his café crème and listen to the rumble of the horse-drawn wagons over the cobblestones of the boulevard du Montparnasse. Today the clip clop of horse’s hooves is replaced by the steady roar of traffic, but inside the greenery, it’s still quiet.

The waiter offered to sell me a post card from the time when Hemingway came there in the 1920’s, but I politely declined. The pictures in my mind were good enough.

I went outside and had a cognac. Joseph was working on his second cognac and considering ordering oysters.

“He’s not here,” I announced, “but La Coupole is right up the street. They have oysters there, and I bet the waiters are as rude as ever. Then we can swing by the Dôme and the Select.

“It’s time for a walk,” said Carolyn and JoAnn, enthusiastically.

Several brasseries and demis later, Joseph was near rebellion. Any sensible person would have been, I think.

Which is not to say Joesph was bothered by strolling through a city he loves. Joesph is, in fact, a prodigious walker. Several times he and I have made the trip into New York for St. Patrick’s day, starting in the morning to check out the bands warming up on the mid-town side streets, evaluating the offerings of the scores of Irish pubs, and gradually working our way up to 86th street. Joseph covers ground effortlessly and tirelessly; I trot behind him like a spaniel chasing a Great Dane. But somehow the idea of running around Paris looking for dead people had lost all its appeal for him.

“Hey,” I said. “We haven’t checked out Gertrude Stein’s. Maybe he’s there. And anyway, it’s on our way back to the hotel.”

“There is no one there. And whenever you get there, there is no there there,” said Joseph, quoting Gertrude Stein. He had a point.

But up we got, in various stages of relaxed, pleasant fatigue or amused boredom, and headed down Raspail towards 27 Rue de Fleurus. As with any self-respecting apartment, the door was locked, but I waited until I caught someone going out, and darted in. I considered knocking on her door and being greeted by Alice B. Tolkas, and thought better of it. “We liked Miss Stein, but her friend was frightening,” Hemingway had once remarked. I figured he would know.

Gertrude Stein by Picasso

Gertrude Stein by Picasso

I turned to go back down the stairs, and there was Miss Stein, herself, looking at me out of the floor length mirror on the landing.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m looking for Hemingway. We’ve been reading his books and I thought it might be fun to talk about them with him.”

“Hemingway is a dead man,” she said. “Why do you want to read a dead man? Can’t you see he’s dead?”

“But don’t great writers live in readers’ imaginations after they physically die?” I asked.

“Oh Poof,” she said. “And anyway, if he’s not dead, he’s certainly lost.

“I wonder if we’re not all a little lost?” I offered.

“Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,” she said. ”It does no good at all. You all have no respect for anything, you drink too much, and you’re a lost generation, une génération perdu, exactly as that garage keeper said.”

I sensed Miss Stein might be getting a bit confused. She probably didn’t have a lot of people calling on her these days.

I recalled what Picasso had said when someone had objected to his portrait of Gertrude Stein, “But Miss Stein doesn’t look like that.”

“No,” replied Picasso, “but she will.”

So I said goodbye politely, went back down the stairs and out the door where JoAnn, Carolyn and Joseph were waiting.

“He’s not here. But I spoke to Gertrude Stein, and she said he may have gone to Pamplona in Spain. Why don’t we look for him there?”

“Fine,” said Joseph. “Then there we go. Now let’s get something to eat and stop all this foolish walking around.”

On our last night in Paris, Joseph and Carolyn gave us two wonderful gifts.

Montmarte

Montmarte

From Joseph, Montmartre at night, with the city spread out and sparkling below us, standing on the steps of Sacre Coeur Basilica listening to a single trumpet player performing Bach. Then along the Place du Tertre with the street artists, small children darting everywhere, and the old people walking together – bright colors under the strings of lights and the sounds of laughter.

We stopped by the Dali museum, and Joseph bought JoAnn a Dali key ring that melted like a watch when she picked it up.

We walked by the Moulin Rouge and the windmill, finally winding up at the Claire de la Lune for what may, on reflection, be the best meal we have ever eaten in all our years of traveling. At the end, someone jumped up on a table and started singing bawdy songs with a bunch of drunken Irishmen. It might have been me.eiffel tower

Carolyn’s gift, on the way home, was characteristically simple and elegant − not a feast for all the senses, but like the last sips of a fine wine after a splendid meal − the Eiffel Tower, all shimmering in tracery gold, soaring weightlessly into the sky.

The next morning we would board the train for Biarritz and then Spain, still in search of Hemingway.

 

 

 

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