Around Paris in 80 minutes

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Durham. Mid-winter. As I anxiously anticipate the predicted snow, the warm inlets and coves of autumnal Paris seem a long way off. Under climes, warmer in retrospect than reality, I was about to set off upon a literary tour of this hallowed city.

Literary tourism, I am excited to learn, has become all the rage since my trip to Paris. The website, Literary Tourist, now provides literary highlights for the most frequently visited European countries, as well as for some further afield, such as Chile and Japan. Picking a city at random (Barcelona), the website allows me to find details of all the ‘Indie Bookshops’, ‘Literary Places’ and ‘Literary Hotels, Bars and Cafes’ that are of interest in the city. Pascal Mercier wrote in his Night Train to Lisbon that the way to understand any city is through its literature. Literary Tourist, therefore, brings us closer to understanding the lifeblood of a city, to grasping fragments of its past and desires for its future.

To Paris then. Armed with a copy of Camus’ The Plague, I began at Les Deux Magots, tucked away in St-Germain-des-Prés. I managed to grab a table outside in the shadow of the nearby church; trees, dappled brown, partially obscured it from view. After the long walk from the metro station to here (about 5 minutes), I decided that I need refreshing, and a black coffee and croissant saw to that. It is here, perhaps in these very seats, that Sartre and de Beauvoir would meet. Downstairs, the French Resistance discussed the war effort, in bold defiance of the Vichy regime. The café acts as a beacon of tolerance, embodying the power of literature and ideas to rebel against the status quo. Unfortunately, this was not something that I could convey to the toilet attendant in my stammering French. Trying to ask about the meetings of the Resistance, I crucially stumbled over the words for ‘meetings’ and ‘Resistance.’ Alas, some things go best unsaid.

Next up, passing the words ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ stamped proudly into a wall, I arrived at no. 13 on the Rue des Beaux-Arts. Now an opulent five star hotel, called inventively (or perhaps just simplistically) L’Hotel, this was where Oscar Wilde passed away quietly in an upstairs room. Though this was off limits when I arrived, the receptionist kindly let me explore the grandiose environs of the ground floor. Ignoring the refurbishment, I could very much envisage walking upon the same floorboards as Wilde, in his languorous final days. He wrote that he could “resist everything except temptation”, so perhaps, like me, he would have been partial to the scallops and white truffle (€75), which jostled with the venison (€54) on the menu. Or perhaps the afternoon tea and massage on offer here, if indeed, it had been offered in his day. Unfortunately, I was lacking the €200 necessary to make use of this ‘Afternoon Retreat’, so I pressed on.

My route then took me under the shadow of Notre Dame and, taking the scenic route (basically wherever you go in Paris), I walked back over the Seine and towards Shakespeare and Company Paris.  Worth nothing are the Parisian bridges adorned with padlocks, which I passed on my way. Are they tacky and consumerist, or a genuine expression of a love striving towards permanence? I’m tempted to say the latter, but I always wondered what happens if people break up. Do they return to the bridge with a lock-cutter and throw the padlock lamentably into the Seine? Or is it just a reminder of potentiality, transience and what could have been? There is a word in Arabic, Ya’arburnee, which means a desire to die before a beloved, because life will be meaningless without them. I like to think there is something of that embodied within these padlocks.

To do this bookshop justice in my remaining 126 words is like trying to do justice to a sunset, or a moment of boundless happiness. ‘Shakespeare and Company Paris’ is basically my Nirvana; upstairs, they have a quote on the wall which reads, ‘Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.’ That is their ethos here; struggling writers can stay free of charge, provided they work in the bookshop and read one book a day. On another wall, scraps of paper are pinned, written by visitors from all over the world. One is from a woman who lost her husband; this is the only place where she can still feel his presence. Their love is eternal under these walls.

With thanks to TimeOut Paris (www.timeout.com/paris), which provided the loose basis for my walk and some background information.

Photograph: JD via Flickr

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