It is difficult to resist the siren song of Paris when I am so close to its attractions. I find myself with a three hour layover between my arrival from Auxerre, and my departure for Germany. Traveling on the Metro to the Gare de L’Est entails two changes, and already I begin to feel immersed in France’s capital, at least in its subterranean realm. Nonetheless, I opt not to store my suitcase at the East Train Station and hurry through one of my favorite cities for a few brief hours. I content myself instead with observing fellow travelers and merchants, alongside doves and sparrows which seem to materialize in every place where humans consume food. On a more somber note, I don’t recall heavily armed police carrying machine guns here before, a reminder of our new, sad reality.
I reminisce about previous voyages to this metropolis on the Seine River. Whenever I am here, I feel the need to visit the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Sacré Coeur, but during my most recent trip a year and a half ago I also retraced some of the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, and the artistic circle that gathered at her Paris Salon in the early twentieth century. My initial curiosity had been kindled by a highly entertaining Woody Allen comedy, “Midnight in Paris”, and fanned by “The Paris Wife”, by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage.
Gertrude, an American expatriate, was unconventional, to say the least. Independent, lesbian, progressive, modernist are only a few of her epithets. An avid art collector, she recognized the potential of diverse painters before they found fame, for example of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Pablo Picasso and Dali, too, frequented her social circle. She assembled around her future literary greats as well, among them Ernest Hemingway whom she mentored in his formative years, even though they later had a falling out. He represents the prototypical “American in Paris” whose life was forever altered by the cultural mecca Paris has always been. Some of his experiences are immortalized in his first novel, “The Sun also Rises.”
Seeing the sites of these seminal happenings was inspiring. Hemingway’s apartment was on the same street as James Joyce’s, the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine which likely facilitated their legendary drinking sprees.
Sylvia Beach, another American expatriate and owner of the original bookstore “Shakespeare and Company” published Joyce’s “Ulysses” at great financial and professional risk because no publisher was willing to touch his manuscript. Unfortunately, all these dwellings are in private hands, affording the present-day visitor only external glances. One exception is the successor to Beach’s venerable book shop. Though situated in a new location on the left bank of the Seine, it still invites the potential reader or writer to linger and interact with kindred spirits.
Gertrude Stein harbored her own literary aspirations and published essays, poems, novels and plays, mostly written in experimental styles. In the works I tackled, I found her stream-of-consciousness technique challenging, and threw up my arms in frustration more than once. Because of Gertrude’s presupposition that her long-term partner would never write her own life story, she composed “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” in Alice’s stead. Neither Gertrude who died in 1946, nor Alice who survived her by 21 years returned to America, but chose to be buried at the city’s largest cemetery, Père Lachaise, in the company of many with whom they had mingled in life.
As my train gathers speeds through the suburbs, I am slightly wistful, can relate to the desire of never wanting to leave this fabled locale. Even so: Au revoir, Paris. Au revoir, la France . I hope to return some other time.
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