Monday, December 12, 2011

Paris, day eight

This is our last full day in Paris. Tomorrow we catch the overnight train to Barcelona.
Another glorious day here - we have been amazingly blessed by good weather.
It does occur to me, on reflecting on today, that we have perhaps been too eager to wring every last bit of history - and by that I mean (I guess) 'worthy' - moments on the trip. Today, however, was a rest day - a day when we 'don't do much' and that means we don't plan to see one of the big, destination things. But, in doing this, we might be missing something about the city. Oh well, perhaps the next time we visit.
Today, I was adament that I (at least) would visit the erstwhile residences of the Fitzgeralds, Stein and perhaps Hemingway (if feeling that much goodwill). I (re)found the website I had found and lost a few days ago that nominated some walks you could do to see all these places. The great thing about this is because I don't have my books with me, and I can't actually check, I might just be visiting whatever on the advice of whoever. But I chose to believe. It is easier that way. I also wanted to check out a bakery called Poilane that has been in the 6th arrondismont since 1932 and apparently has the best sour dough bread in the world. I discovered this on David Lebowitz's blog. I didn't know who he was until just recently and he waxed lyrical about this bread. And when I investigate further, I discovered that Salvador Dali was a fan and commissioned a whole bedroom made out of bread from Poilane. They obliged which made me like them even more. And as the bakery was close by to the Fitzgeralds and Stein, it seemed like destiny. With the gorgeous weather at our backs, we set off for the Luxembourg gardens. This was a rather lovely part of the city and the gardens were glorious. We firstly saw where the Fitzgeralds lived in 1928 - 58 rue Vaugirard and then onto Stein at 27 rue de Flerues.
It made me think about the 'empty' present and the 'full' past. I guess it has been on my mind since watching 'Midnight in Paris' on the plane, but Woody Allen (and I) are not the first to contemplate this in terms of Paris, and in terms of their own place in the cycle of history. MFK Fisher writes about Paris and how she felt sorry for anyone who hadn't seen Paris when she had in 1929 when Les Halles were still open (at least, I think that is what she laments. I'm not sure - I can't check. I hadn't realised how often I check things in books. I miss my library. Daily). When she calibrates this with her husband of the time - Dilwyn Parrish - he tells her that he feels sorry for anyone who didn't see Paris when he first did; with boots muddy from the Western Front in 1916 when there were still chestnut trees (somewhere, but where?). This is the mythical Paris, the one that isn't ever quite there - just floating in the past, beyond our reach. Perhaps this is the magic of Paris, that you don't ever quite land - you are looking around, trying to capture something. Fitzgerald wrote about this in Gatsby (though not about Paris) and then in a short story called 'Babylon Revisited' (is that right?) when he tries to explore the past through the geography of Paris. I have written before on this blog that Paris is haunted. But perhaps I mean this more - that Paris is elusive. I wanted to be where the Fitzgeralds once were, share something like the elements they once knew - the green of the gardens their apartment overlooked, the white shutters, the grey streets, the air. The bright light of winter. But it isn't what it is (if you see what I mean). It is more like some kind of moment of nostalgia that doesn't share anything. It is just me wishing on a building that they once spent some time in. Having said that, it did give me some peace. A building is a building is a building after all.
Paris is of course, nothing like the city is was in the twenties, predominantly because it is not longer a cheap option for those seeking a place to live and create. You have to be wealthy (or at least have a decent paying job) to live here, and you have to be seriously wealthy to write here - to sit in cafes hour upon hour in the hope of hitting the right sentence, or to walk the streets for inspiration, or even to drink with other writers. This is not that city now - the economics of it are all changed. Hemingway writes about Paris in his last book - 'A Moveable Feast' - where he claims if you see Paris as a young man (he was all about men), it stays with you for the rest of your life. Perhaps that's right; I'm not a young man so I don't know. But what might have actually stayed with him was the opportunity to be in a city with just enough money to spend your days and nights contemplating creating. And have the good fortune to share that with others at the time. I want to share with the Fitzgeralds, but they are not of my time. I need to move through time like Allen's hero, or wade into my own time with good grace and enough respect for the past to appreciate what I might have the luck to discover.
Stein's place when I saw that was more grounded for me. The door is glass and you can see through to the garden. I think I remember this from her writings and the biographies; that they had a garden and a kind of atelier outside where Stein could work. There was a plaque too for her, which made it all the more concrete. When we took photos of this place, people stopped to allow us to do so. They must be used to it.
The other thing about these few moments this morning is how ordinary the neighbourhood is - how they must have sallied out daily for bread, how life is just what it is - not fireworks or explosions or great moments of epiphany.
Off we went to visit the bakery, this quite real and of the moment bakery called Poilane. We found rue du Cherche-Midi pretty readily and walked up to number 6. This was a lovely little street with shops and apartments. Number 6 has biscuits hanging in the window, and tourists all over it taking photos. In we went and bought half a loaf of sour dough (they bake huge loafs and you buy it by the kilo). I also bought some Christmas biscuits cut into the shapes of stars and hearts. If this were my local bakery, I might be happy for ever. Perhaps I could learn how they make their bread and open a branch in Melbourne.
We wandered back to the gardens. I wish I had found this shopping area earlier. I found a great shoe shop with the perfect shoes at good prices. I will return tomorrow.
The gardens are just what you want in a busy city - enough bird life to keep you company and some terrifically comfortable chairs to sit on in the sunshine. Myles fell asleep.
When we got home, I ate most of the bread. It really is THAT good.
The afternoon we whiled away on the joys of washing at the laundrette. But clean clothes are important ...
This evening, Myles and I went off to have a drink in a local cafe (not 'The Local' downstairs). We ended up in a little square up the road, drinking exotic cocktails because it was happy hour and everything was five euros. And there, without the ever present horror of the traffic, and with Christmas lights mesmerising us, and local people walking to and fro, buying bread or stopping for a beer, it was a moment - a little embedded, quiet piece of time that was right now. I didn't write a novel, or find the perfect sentence (the one that didn't leak according to Stein - she like the Great Gatsby for this reason, and both her and Alice loved the dedication: 'Once again, for Zelda'). But I did have a campari on a mild clear night in winter in Paris and was happy. There might have even been chestnut trees; I can't be sure.
I'm blowing kisses to the past that has been a guiding light for so long; achingly long.
No photos today; the camera sighed and quietly gave way. We are hoping it is a battery thing.

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