Friday, June 15, 2018

#22b. France. The Moveable Feast.

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

For a nostalgist like me - Hemingway's time in Paris seemed the perfect life. Living a humble existence with his young wife and small son on a street near the Luxembourg Gardens. Waking up and going to the review office for a few hours, then making your way to a cafe patio to write into the late morning and in the late afternoon to the basement of the American Club to box. Getting by with doing what you loved, but still just getting by, to the point that after your bills were paid you chose between buying 'pictures' or 'books' because that's what really mattered (or so Papa would have us believe... many biographers have pointed out he was making the equivalent of $60k while living this 'humble existence' in Paris - quite enough for pictures and books and even a drink here and there). When evening came, surrounding yourself with a group of friends living the same life as you: Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. Doing it all over again the next day, only to be split up by the occasional trip to Pamplona, Milan, or Chamonix. I've followed him on some of these journeys: to the town of Burgette in Northern Spain where he brought wine skins and stored them in the Irati river while fishing for trout before the bullfights... to the plains of Amboseli, Kenya where he served as game warden and wrote True at First Light and developed his lifelong passion for safari and Africa ... but I'd never followed him to Paris - his home base throughout all of this adventure. And now here we were. 

You've probably sensed now that I have an obsession. If I had not been forced against my will to read Old Man and the Sea in 11th grade it may have even began earlier. As a high schooler I remember how dry it was. His simple straightforward writing style about a not all that interesting topic in a totally uninteresting setting was a bore to me. It wasn't until much later that I came to appreciate how all of this illuminated the ordinary things. How it made one find romance in a trout stream or an old wooded cabin. Coming to Paris marked the next and probably most significant chapter in this search for Papa H, and there were many chapters to this book by now. 

So naturally, on arriving in Paris, I tried to recreate his idyllic and romantic time here. Oh hey! Nice little patio to have a drink and enjoy people watching, sure, we'll sit down! Two hours later after bad drinks, poor service, and a mediocre hamburger (yes, hamburger), I often found myself disappointed with my little recreations. But then I managed to convince Jenn to walk far out of the way to visit Closerie de Lilas one night (she had after all dragged me to all the best known bakeries all across town). Closerie was his favorite place in Paris, where all of his first serious works began to take their shape... Up In MichiganIn Our Time, The Sun Also Rises... it kept warm in the winter and the patio was pleasant in the spring, or so he said. This was the Hemingway equivalent of Da Vinci, Edison or Michelangelo's workshop . So we went and sat down one evening on the patio. The menu had a big picture of Hemingway on the inside cover. O.K... Cheesy. But it was tastefully done and I can't say if he would have loved it or hated it. I ordered a drink that he would have liked (read: any of them) - and the nerding out was underway. I remember at some point telling Jenn that this was my version of Disney world, all the while spewing out to the poor girl all of the useless Hemingway trivia I could remember. The patio was clean and nice and well lit. They had good cheese and a very decent piano player. And that's all Hemingway would have said about that.

The rest of Paris was very much a series of boxes to be checked seeing as it was my first time in there, and there are certain things you just don't miss if you only spend one time in Paris. Versailles. Which made me so disappointed in my lawn upkeep. Even today when I trim my bushes I am never far from the thought that I would be making Louis XIV so, so disappointed  Then the Lourvre, with its people. And all the paintings I learned about in art history class. And its people. And the Mona Lisa. And the people crowding the Mona Lisa. Did you know it would probably not have been so famous had it not been stolen once? This was a fun tidbit our Scottish guide shared with us. Then there was the Champ de Mars which we visited at night. At the top of each hour after sundown the Eiffel Tower glitters with a light show which is nice especially when enjoying it with your wife and a cheap bottle of Champagne in a plastic cup. There is some magic to the place that exists only in Paris. 

While living in Las Vegas a few times I'd gone to "Paris" before work, walked to the street-scape and ordered a cafe au lait and a croissant dreaming of this day that I would be there. These mornings my illusion was normally foiled by overweight 40 something women in Viva Las Vegas shirts stumbling about  with yard margaritas, but nonetheless I enjoyed the illusion while it lasted. So after the light show and some carefully composed night time exposures with the camera (none of which turned out well)  we got in an Uber, chatted about Israeli politics with the driver and returned to the hotel.

I have to imagine that Paris has lost some of its romance and charm since the 1920's when Hemingway roamed its streets. But to quote the always wise Woody Allen.. Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - it's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present. I don't know if he believed this, as it was voiced by Paul, the pretentious know it all in his comedy Midnight in Paris, and I have to image Woody is a nostalgist himself.  But it's difficult not to be when walking those streets. How they inspired not just Hemingway but generations of writers, artists and scientists who we still benefit from today. For the rest of my life, it will stay with me, for as someone once said: it's a moveable feast. 
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