My goals for the months in Paris were modest: I wanted to be taken in a by a ragtag group of expatriate merrymakers and bons vivants. I hoped to be discovered and taken under the wings of whoever the 2005 equivalents were of Hemingway and whoever those buddies of his were – I was vague as to the historical details. I wanted to be swept away by art and romance, sit around a table in a bistro drinking wine and smoking long cigarettes and wearing berets and cradling baguettes to accordion music and every other French cliché you can think of. And if I fell dramatically in love with a ravishing Frenchman and never came home, well then, so be it.
Like every journey, my trip was not as I had envisioned while safe at home. Although at first I was entranced (Outdoor markets, dangling veggies and meats! Quaint and ancient cobblestone neighborhoods! The toilets flush with buttons!) as I settled in I found it reminded me a lot of New York or any other big city. Glossy stores, shopping malls, dog feces, homeless men sleeping in subway tunnels.
I was also surprised at how lonely I was. And yet, walking among the towering curlicue-d buildings, consulting my pocket size book of Plans de Paris to navigate the geometric scribbles of streets, watching winter give way to spring, staring into the inky waters of the river, loneliness seemed somehow beautiful and appropriate. Before I left, one of my poetry teachers advised me to spend lots of time staring from bridges. He was totally right.
And although I never did locate the throbbing epicenter of the romantic expat literary lifestyle, just when I start to give up on it, I would walk into a fleeting whiff of that scent, a memory in the air. Vestiges of the bohemian Montmartre artistic vibe were still around, though many had been shellacked with a generous patina of tourist-friendliness, polished to smoothness by so many people’s love for them.
And while I never did spend a night in a dark cafe pounding a table with literary greats, it still seemed their ghosts lingered everywhere, as if I had just missed them. And when I walked through the threshold of the cheery, dingy yellow façade of Shakespeare and Company, I felt like I had found the porthole to their dimension.
After long weeks and months of the alienation that came from knowing only superficially the language that floated through the air, to find rows of English-language books waiting for me was like a reunion. I only bought one book there-- a fat collection of short stories by Carol Shields-- but I was captivated and spellbound by it in a way that no other book has done for me before or since. In the disorienting, French-language hustle and bustle, these words in English tasted exquisite to me. I savored and drank them like a thirsty person given water.
By the Seine, skeezy drageurs in leather jackets would patrol the walkway along the river, looking for girls to hit on. They said “Il faut profitez,” meaning, let us live to the fullest, while we can, drink deeply, live for the moment, squeeze all the juice from this thick fruit. It was a line of course, but I agreed with the sentiment, even if at the time I could never quite make it work. I never felt that I was doing the whole European adventure thing quite right (too timid, too broke, too studious…)
But when I discovered that bookstore! Its old craggy wood shelves; narrow staircase; the bored, hungover-looking traveler sitting at the front register -- I felt like I had made a great and personal discovery. And the clues upstairs to the travelers who were welcomed there overnight: flea-bitten blankets hastily put away; outside the window, set on the roof just below the windowsill, the remains of a true bohemian feast— bread and crumbs in a plastic bag, a half-finished bottle of wine.
A hand-painted quote above a door said “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” And it made me feel welcome there in the crowded book-filled haven, in a city which could indeed seem inhospitable and too fast, and where I did indeed feel strange.
The crazy white-haired guy haunting the cluttered shelves, ancient, hunched, I later learned was the famous George Whitman. He was like the ghost of all those greats come alive, just shuffling through. He was a link to them, and just as he had dined with them and invited them in, his shop invited me in as well.
I went to a reading there of an American poet. At the end she suggested that aspiring writers in the audience could mail her their poems, which I did. I will never forget what it was like to listen to the voicemail she left me asserting that I had talent, and that she would allow me to come to her apartment for her to critique my work. I was riding an escalator. My insides felt like bees.
I remember, at the reading she read a poem about being invited to play tennis with Elizabeth Bishop, how young and awed she felt. I could relate.
So this is a love letter to the ancient guy named George Whitman and the little store he owned on the banks of the river Seine called Shakespeare and Company, and all the strangers he welcomed, and all the stories he was a big or small part of.
Also this is a drinking-straight-from-the-bottle toast to the things we do when we are twenty years old, the courage it takes to up and leave, even for a little while, to learn a new city, a new language, a different world.
To the back alley cobblestone romance that always seemed to be just out of reach, just around the next corner.
To the outsize expectations that led me to Paris to chase whatever I thought all those famous literary dudes were chasing: color and shimmer, bright lights, transparency, vigor, blood pumping through the veins, sex, aliveness, everything, and to digest it and proclaim it to be good.
To the chemical high that those who were in love with the written word back when we were young and foolish can still remember, can still almost taste on the tips of our tongues, and which leads us on still…still typing, still scribbling, still pulling over to the side of the road to jot down some notes.
A love like that changes you in ways you only realize as time goes on.
And isn’t that why we do these sorts of things, tell stories, write poems, make a storefront into a bohemian legend – so that even when we die, we live.
Rest in peace George Whitman, ghost of giants. Wherever you’re going, I hope you’re welcomed as an angel in disguise.