5.3: France, Partie Trois
Pour Margot. Pour Brooksy. Et pour Moi.
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Bonsoir, Ernie & Hadley,
I hope this finds you both flea-free and chasing wind-blown leaves of yellows, reds, and greens all about the yard. My favorite New England season, this is the time I knew I’d miss most.
But then, there is Paris.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t succumb to the tired cliches of so many before me, those who have anthropomorphized this City, falling in love with its vibrant culture, architecture, history, food, fashion, art and more. My stay at Philippe and Francois’ [5.2: France, Partie Deux] had given me a leg up on that promise, and so I was feeling pretty confident that I wouldn’t return home and be found sitting in a booth at Meldgie’s, a dogeared copy of Sartre – in French, of course – in the pocket of my well-worn blazer, drinking impossibly small cups of espresso and waving an ashing cigarette while derisively telling Doc and Marty they will never understand that Paris is not simply a place – But that she is a living, breathing, beautiful lover! – all while they just continue eating their omelets and telling me that I sucked passing the puck at that morning’s skate.
I would soon discover, however, that Paris was not about to go down without a fight.
As has been the case several times along this trip, my missteps – and there have been more than a few – have generally led to unexpected blessings. Call it reversal of fortune, or just happy accidents. For had my stay not gone so terribly awry at 126 Rue de Rennes, I would not have found myself in Room 17 at The Stella Hotel, at 41 Rue Monsieur le Prince, in Paris’ Latin Quarter.
The Stella, admittedly, is not for everyone. It has several floors – my room was on the third – but no elevator, and its hallways are dimly lit. The wooden stairs are old and creaky, worn shiny smooth. My room was very small, the bathroom hardly larger than an airplane’s, even with the standup shower. The room had pink wallpaper that was likely all the rage in 1800, and a bed in which someone, somewhere along the line, had most certainly died. And beneath the radiator, the bed, the small desk and armoire, lay dust that was much older than I.
But, it also had double windows looking out onto a courtyard, and blooming flowers on the sill’s outer ledge. I opened the windows and slid the desk and its chair directly beneath, opened my laptop and a bottle of wine, and voilá, just like that, this little room, in this seemingly dingy little hotel, had become, in a word, perfect.
As I descended the stairs a couple of hours later, I poked my head into the equally dusty, knick-knacked reception room of my host, Anne.
“I just want to say I absolutely love my room, Anne, thank you.”
Anne looked at me a moment as if she were waiting for the punchline, and then, realizing she didn’t need one, laughed so heartily that I’m convinced it was the first time anyone ever said that about Room 17 at The Stella. Possibly any room at The Stella.
She would laugh like that again a short time later, when I asked if there was availability to extend my stay.
“Only for a year,” she said, waving me off when I tried to pay. “Pay later, pay later,” she said, her laughter still echoing down the stairwell when I reach the ground floor. I couldn’t shake the image of Jack Torrance from The Shining, and Anne mouthing the words, “Pay later, Peter, pay when you leave…but then, you have always been the only guest in Room 17, and you never leave…”
The Stella aside, there are reasons the two of you, Ernie and Hads, might actually find Paris to your liking. For instance, you’d both love the way Parisian cats just sit in the open doorways of so many cafés, boutiques and bookshops, with seemingly little care or desire to step beyond the threshold, content in watching passersby with a level of disdain that could only be more intense if they dismissively flicked away an unfinished cigarette as you approached, as if your mere presence had ruined its taste, then spat on the ground as you passed.
But there is also a personal connection of which neither of you may be aware. Paris, and the Latin Quarter specifically, is the setting of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his early years living in Paris as a poor, struggling writer. His address during that time was 74 Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, just feet from Place de la Contrescarpe, and he lived there with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
It’s after the two of them, Ernest and Hadley, that the two of you are named.
Having already walked the Cristo-wrapped Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Shakespeare and Co. and many other traditional landmarks, I would retrace Hemingway’s footsteps, addresses, and old haunts.
I would retrace my own footsteps as well, for I was in Paris long before either of you were born, way back in the 1990s. It’s true. I stayed in the Hotel Des Grands Hommes, in their most romantic room, with a tiled, wrought iron balcony directly overlooking The Pantheon.
Rather than with my girlfriend at the time, however, I was there with Dave Wight and Bill Hogan, the three of us getting incredibly drunk while on our way to meet Erik Hanna and Dana Bradley in Pamplona, for the Fiesta de San Fermin. And the closest we got to anything remotely romantic was drinking wine straight from the bottle while sharing a baguette in Luxembourg Garden, taking photos of BiIl while he sat stuffed into a bathtub two sizes too small, and Dave reenacting scenes from Dances With Wolves, his ad-libbed Lakota name, “Wine In My Hair,” echoing through the square at 2AM.
Needless to say, we would not be invited back.
I would spend at least a part of most days lounging in Luxembourg Garden, watching people and time pass, couples on first dates, young kids playing with small boats in its iconic fountain, old men playing pétanque. I would walk to Gertrude Stein’s, imagining the writers, artists and very history being made in her parlor on any given night. I would see the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo. I would see dozens of Van Goghs, and Monet’s stunning Water Lilies, having had no idea how large they would be. And I would see the works of countless other masters while walking the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Musée de L’Orangerie.
I would hang about the church, the steps, the bars and cafés from the most memorable scenes in Midnight in Paris, a personal favorite of mine, including the restaurant where Gil meets the character of Hemingway, which, by sheer coincidence, happened to be attached to my hotel.
I would become an early morning regular at Le Sorbon café, where by the end of my stay its owner would be preparing my cappuccino and croissant before I’d even taken my seat. I like to imagine he thinks of me often, and wishes me well.
But despite all of the wonderful art, walks, cafés and more, the best part of my time in Paris was, by far, the time I got to spend with two friends from home. One old, one new, Margot and Brooksy, who by my great fortune happened to be visiting at the same time I was passing through.
We’d arranged to meet the evening of their second day, I as the third-wheel at a private piano concerto in honor of Brooksy’s birthday. Knowing Margot for as long as I have, I must admit that when she told me it was a private concerto, I half expected it to be some old Paris friend of hers with an upright player piano in her flat, on which she might play a party tune or two before flipping it to automatic while we drank wine and laughed and shared our stories.
But no, this was Beate Perrey, a real live concert pianist, performing on a Steinway, for us alone, in a room only slightly larger than the piano itself, while we drank champagne and ate cake baked by a famous local pastry chef. She’d had the Steinway lifted by crane to her flat many years before, and its sound enveloped the room – and the three of us – as she performed. Before each piece, Beate would tell us a little bit about its composer, where, why, and how it was written, allowing us to understand the notes and nuances in an entirely new way, like you might see a painting differently after you’ve learned the meaning, symbolism, and state-of-mind of the subject matter and its artist. I’d never listened to music like that before. A couple of the pieces she performed ended with a single note, which Beate would let hang in the air from a hand she held aloft, not letting it go, each of us stunned by its impossible length, feeling it reverberate long after it was gone.
I’m confident that none of us will ever hear Mozart’s Fantasy, which elicited similar and yet uniquely personal feelings for each of us, the same way again.
While it’s safe to say that Margot had knocked this one out of the fucking park, it wasn’t all good news – I was beginning to weaken to Paris’ charms.
After the performance, the three of us would walk to the Seine where, having come across an impromptu Latin Dance Party along its banks, we’d sit and enjoy a bottle of Bordeaux. We would drink a bottle by the Seine the following day as well, after visiting Musée de L’Orangerie. And after seeing the Live Dali exhibit, we would escape a sudden downpour and find ourselves in a wonderful little café, eating cheeses and breads and enjoying even more wine, before taking a post-rain walk in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
I could go on and on about the wine, but my brother Jon had begged me to send a photo, one photo, any photo, of me enjoying a piece of fruit, or maybe a salad, anything that told him the euros he’d slipped into my hand as a parting gift weren’t all being spent on booze…
While I certainly saw a lot, did a lot, and walked a lot, I also did a lot of nothing beyond simply being while in Paris. I could have stayed another week, a month, a year – or perhaps forever, if Anne got her way. And then Margot reminded me that I actually could stay. I had no schedule, after all. And she was right.
But, I decided to stick to my original plan, and left a day before she and Brooksy returned to the states. In the end I’d decided that I would rather remember Paris as the perfect place it is, full of reasons for which I longed to return. And if I’d remained there after they’d left, it would still be Paris, but I risked there being an emptiness, a feeling of it all being slightly less complete without them there, and I didn’t want anything to change the way I felt about Paris at that very moment, and the way I feel about her still.
Sonofabitch…it seems she got me after all.
“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, A Moveable Feast