“It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.” A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemmingway… even if you’ve never read his books you’ll know the name. He won the Pullitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature and his best known works are considered classics of American literature. His is a big name and he was a big personality and his lifestyle was indulgent to say the least.
Hemingway lived in Paris in the 1920’s when he himself was in his 20’s. These were certainly his formative years and the relationships he developed with literary greats such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound had a profound influence.
Central to this literary community was Sylvia Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. In 1922 it moved to its prime position near Notre Dam and today it buzzes with tourists and literary types and book lovers.
Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris went a long way to distill the romance of the time and it portrayed Hemingway as the blokey and alcoholic persona that he seemed happy to propagate while he was alive.
I’m a big fan of his writing, and of Paris, so it was a pleasure to have time to stroll the streets of the city with Hemingway’s recommendations as a guide, mostly following his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast. It was published by his fourth wife in 1964, three years after his death; it charts his life in Paris in the 20’s and most importantly it describes, in some detail, his favourite café’s. Many of them are still operating today, aided no doubt by this literary fame, and it was these I was keen to check out.
“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” A Moveable Feast
Hemingway lived on Rue de Cardinal Limone with his first wife. It’s close to the Sorbonne University and sits at the top end of Rue Mouffetard. There’s a plaque above the door that explains Hemingway’s link to the area. The locals seemed unfazed by my interest and my taking photos.
I then headed North towards the river and got to Bloulevard du Montparnasse. Here I found a pair of Paris’ most famous cafés, both of which were old haunts of Ernest.
Les Deux Magots has pride of place on the streets corner. Fancy cars line the curb and, as is typical in French cafés, the tables and chairs are lined up side-by-side so diners have a view of the street, rather than each other. The place was packed and dripping in money.
Instead I went next door to Café de Flore. This spot is famous in its own right and there was a 2011 film named after it.
I strolled inside, there were no free seats outside. I was a little unsure about who to ask about a table, there was a lot going on in there and the waiters were moving quickly.
I turned around to find a small table tucked into the corner of a curved glass window. It was too good to pass up, the sun shone in and I had a clear view of the street without having to wrestle with the crowds vying for a seat outside.
“A girl came in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.” A Moveable Feast
Being a writer can be a lonely gig. It necessitates hours alone wrestling with your imagination and your self doubt. For me, writing in a café offers the perfect balance of sociability, distraction and inspiration. I’m not sure if Ernest felt the same way but as I sat at that table I felt a kindred connection to the old bastard. The squawking of tourists and my immense DSLR camera on the table didn’t help recreating the atmosphere of the 1920’s but to experience French café culture, to admire the professionalism of the waiters, to watch people as they walked by and eat pastries and drink terrible coffee…it was a treat.
Yes I wrote in my diary, no it wasn’t a poem and I’m not sure if it was profound.
The next day I headed South to Rue de Montparnasse to another of Hemingway’s old haunts.
Café de la Rotonde was easy to spot; it was far from shy with its immense red and yellow sign and deep red furniture. It was Monday morning and there was less competition for a seat outside.
I bought a magazine and sat alone and ordered a hot chocolate. It came, as I’d hoped, unmixed with molten chocolate sitting separate from warm milk – how it should always be served.
Inside La Rotonde was equally as fancy. It was red velvet, low-lighting and high backed chairs. Everything was ornate and laced with gold and it shone, it all shone.
I paid my bill to an un-smiling and brisk waiter. I wandered across the road to check out La Dome. I didn’t go inside.
Outside sat an old couple. They were the only two at the row of tables and they sat close together so they could hear it each other talk. They wore their coats piled high and drank coffee.
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.” EH