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Left Bank Dreams

Paris has two faces.  Divided by a murky green serpentine river, it is almost two cities in one.  To some, Paris is the chic city of style, the Ritz and the Champs-Elysees; a flashy jewel of a city with broad avenues lined with tall chestnut trees.  The Rive Droite is as rich and expensive as the chocolate truffles sold in its elegant chocolatiers.  If Paris is the city of love, then the Right Bank is an elegant and sophisticated lover. 

Notre Dame from Whitmans apartment

But the Right Bank, to me, will never be the real Paris.  On the other side of the Seine, slightly obscured by the influx of modern commercialism, is the true Paris.  The Latin Quarter, historical home of Parisian students who spoke Latin until the Revolution, and St-Germain-des-Prés, birthplace of the intellectual café society, have a smaller-town feel to them than the business districts of the Right Bank.  They have their own chic elegance, but antique stores and second-hand bookshops abound, and there is a café on every street corner.  Moving away from the larger boulevards that were constructed in the 1850s by Baron Haussman in an attempt to modernise Paris, you will find yourself in a warren of streets filled with art studios and unusual little shops.  Even the names of these winding streets are quaint: rue Gît-le-Coeur, “lay down your heart,” and rue-du-Chat-Qui-Pêche, “street of the fishing cat,” supposedly the smallest street in Paris.

I discovered the city as a student, carrying adolescent dreams and a worn journal, hoping to be inspired by this famous city. I wanted to be a female Hemingway, occupying my discreet place at a corner table of a very French café, writing furiously with the passion of Paris magically infused into my pen.  Those romantic dreams would have to wait.  Knowing nothing about Paris, I booked myself into the cheapest hotel I could find.  A little walk from the Champs-Elysées, it was a stark, cold room with a broken TV and a hard mattress.  I was lonely and miserable, and ended up in a dark cinema watching an English film with French subtitles, wondering where the dream had gone.

Perhaps Hemingway felt that way sometimes, wandering through the streets of Paris hungry and poor.  When he returned to his old rented room on the Rue Cardinal Lemoine, did he regret his day sitting in a corner with a pen and a café au lait, skipping lunch because he hadn’t had a story accepted in a month? Or did Left Bank Paris keep him going, with its narrow streets and its village charm?  Of course, as an American expatriate in the 1920s, Hemingway’s Left Bank was nothing like today’s.  Now cars swarm the streets, and at night the headlights glare along the river banks.  Some of the quaint old bookshops have been bought out by tacky gift shops selling Eiffel Tower lamps and Notre Dame mugs. 

George Whitman himself..

But the old Paris is still there, if you look hard enough.  On the rue de Buci on a Saturday morning, the flower stall still spills out onto the pavement in an array of scents and colours. The cafés are still full of eccentric looking people, if you can see them past the crowds of tourists on the pavement outside.  Occasionally you can still see a woman sitting in a corner with a notebook, one hand grasping her coffee cup and the other moving across the page.

The true expatriate Paris may have died away with the Second World War, but remnants still remain.  Upstairs, inside an apartment on the Left Bank of the Seine, hidden behind blossom trees that turn baby-girl-pink in the springtime, live a group of quasi-expatriates.  Hidden amongst walls of books in Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookshop that has stood the test of time, these students and travellers have taken the place of the Hemingways and Joyces that once made Paris a literary capital for English writing.  Shakespeare and Company’s owner George Whitman, a white haired, shriveled little man in his nineties who still carouses Paris on his bright red scooter, calls these wanderers his “angels.”  He allows them to live amongst his books at a small price: they must help around the shop and read a book a day.  The mirror on the wall on the first floor is a testimony to George’s hospitality, with messages from his previous angels scrawled across its surface.

Perhaps George Whitman likes to think of himself as the new Sylvia Beach, surrogate mother of the 1920s expatriates and owner of the original Shakespeare and Company.  Hemingway, Joyce, Elliot, Pound, and countless other writers of the so-called Lost Generation were regular customers at Beach’s haven of books on rue de l’Odéon, which acted as a lending library as well as a bookshop.  These frequently nomadic writers often used Shakespeare and Company as their forwarding address.  Beach’s bookshop closed in 1941 after a Nazi officer warned her that he was coming to confiscate her goods the next day. If the Nazis ever arrived, they didn’t find anything. There was no longer a Shakespeare and Company.  Beach had recruited her friends to help her move books, furniture, and anything that could be transported out of the building, and she painted over the shop sign.  Shakespeare and Company never reopened.

Scribbled notes from ‘angels in disguise’

George Whitman’s story began a decade later, when he opened a tiny bookshop on rue de la Bûcherie and christened it “Le Mistral.”  He later obtained permission to rename his bookshop after the legendary Shakespeare and Company, which was to become a home-away-from-home for Allen Ginsberg and the Beat generation.  Even today, 50 years after George opened his bookshop, bohemians and aspiring expatriates are constantly moving through this “tumbleweed hotel” of books.

One May evening, after a dreamy day of wandering the streets of St-Germain and sipping extortionately priced chocolat chaude in the Flore, my friend Lori and I wandered towards Shakespeare and Company, wondering if it would still be open at 11 p.m.  Sure enough, the windows glowed yellow, and the store was still bustling with activity.  At the counter sat a ruffled looking twenty-something, with his shoulder length black hair flopping into his eyes and his ragged denim jacket hanging loosely on his shoulders. He nodded in acknowledgement as we walked in, and after a pause he said in a raspy American accent, “He’s upstairs, if you want to meet him.”

Books? You’ve come to the right place

You have to use hands and feet to climb the steep stairs leading to the aptly named “Sylvia’s library,” where the shelves are stacked with non-purchasable books.  We found George Whitman in a back room, speaking fluent Spanish to two girls with jet-black hair and excited expressions.  He nodded to us as we entered the room, and I couldn’t help but feel a little awed.  He looked so fragile, so delicate, and yet so very sharp and intense.  He asked us where we were from, and we stammered something in reply.  He invited us to his famous four o’clock tea the following day, but we told him we were leaving.  We were studying in the Loire Valley, we said, and couldn’t be there. 

Eventually I did get the chance to see George’s home above the shop.  After numerous visits to the “rag and bone bookshop of the heart,” as a W. B. Yeats inscription on one wall proclaims, we became recognised faces, and Whitman invited us to share pancakes with his residents.  We eagerly accepted, and one bright Sunday morning we arrived at the bookshop just as the bells of Notre Dame were chiming for mass across the water.  Climbing up the rickety wooden stairs and entering Whitman’s apartment, it was difficult to tell the difference between this cramped book-lined dwelling and the walls of books downstairs. Makeshift beds surrounded the room, and the scruffy looking residents sat around a table in the centre, from which cups of something masquerading as black tea were being distributed. 

Weekly Whitman poetry readings here

Feeling a little shy, we perched on a bed and accepted the tea.  It was terribly bitter and difficult to swallow, and the pancakes weren’t any better.  George is a much better bookseller than he is cook, but we enjoyed the company all the same.  Two Brits, an American, three Canadians and a Norwegian sat around the table talking incessantly.  They obviously knew each other, and they discussed eclectic literary journals and the art scene in Montreal.  Behind them, three Spanish girls sat silently on a bed, quietly observing and obviously unable to understand much English.  George was quiet when he appeared from the kitchen.  He looked older than he did the last time I had seen him.  I felt a little like a fly on the wall, watching myself sitting in a tiny room with these aspiring artists, the Seine slipping by under the bright morning sky outside the window.  I felt strangely inspired, as though I had discovered part of a dream of Paris that I had once longed for. 

Later that day, I sat in the Café de Flore once again.  Across the table from me sat a woman dressed up to the nines, her make-up and hair a work of art.  She wore designer clothes and a large turquoise feathered hat, and sipped her espresso with elegant delicacy.  I smiled to myself, and thought how strange she looked here on the Left Bank; what a contrast she was to the unkempt bohemians sleeping in a book-filled room above a bookshop.  The café was crowded and the hot chocolate was warm and rich.  I opened my journal and began to write.  It wasn’t Hemingway, and it wasn’t eloquent, but I was in Paris and I decided to give it a go.

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