Thirty years after first reading The Sun Also Rises, I dragged Sherry to Le Select, the locale that seized my adolescent imagination and planted a long frustrated desire for a literary life.
We sat at the bar of this surprisingly small place, ordered two glasses of the house rosé and attempted conversation with the Gallic nose pouring drinks. This, according to legend, is the bar at which Hemingway wrote standing up (better to rest his hemorrhoids).
I had fantasized that the afternoon would be happily wasted here, but after the wine was finished, the fun was gone, too and we headed off towards Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Devil's Triangle of Lost Generation bistros.
Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore sit cheek-by-jowl across Boulevard Saint Germain from Brasserie Lipp. Deux Magots was where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir constructed the intellectual center of the Existentialist Movement. The bistro had entertained Oscar Wilde and later, Pablo Picasso.
Next door, Café de Flore was a rival for the affections of Sartre and Camus and today competes for local business, rather than angling for the tourist trade. Both bistros have their share of local patrons, but Deux Magots has a corner location that beckons passersby to sit at one of the tiny, crowded tables and tuck into a Crocque Monsieur. Don't do it. The wine is reasonable, but the menu has all the charm of a French TGI Fridays. A hard-boiled egg will set you back two euros (about $2.50) and that fried cheese-and-bechamel sandwich has probably been waiting in a warming tray for an hour.
According to recent surveys, the French are abandoning the cafes and bistros in droves, but here and around the city, you wouldn't know it. It's difficult to gauge if this is so because even though you will find yourself sitting within close earshot of many Parisians, you will not be engaging in friendly conversation. In this crowded city, the inhabitants protect their privacy and an effort to insinuate yourself into a nearby conversation will be met with confusion. Indeed, the only person to volunteer information and strike up a chat was a American ex-pat from San Francisco. We wished he hadn't.
Still, from what we heard, even at Deux Magots natives outnumbered foreigners and that allowed for the character of these places to remain against the impulse to internationalize, or worse, Americanize in search of patrons. I have to confess that the Parisian custom of minding one's own business and expecting others to do the same is rather refreshing. Sherry and I did not feel obligated to make nice with our neighbors, and instead paid more attention to what each other had to say, to talk about the histories of the places we frequented, or to concoct strategies to make our visit a permanent move.
One reason for the supposed flight from Cafe Society is that the old standards are too crowded and smokey. More "sophisticated" nightclubs where smoking is prohibited are said to be more and more popular with young Parisians as the centuries-old venues pack in Americans and Germans who, really, throw on berets and puff Gauloises in blissful fantasy.
But this is just a shift that is inevitable and in many ways, important. The Left Bank has turned from grimy to chic, with Dior and Armani taking up prime real estate. Instead, the hip Paris has moved across the Seine and staked claims in Montmartre (our quartier) Menilmontant and Bastille. Money still streams into the eight arrondisement, where one can buy a Mercedes and an iPod after a pleasing though oddly orchestrated dinner at one of the culinary palaces set up by absentee chefs. (More on the food later).
The Left Bank buzzes but does not throb. Danger and romantic poverty is living somewhere else now. Even a pilgrimage to L'Hotel, where Wilde expired complaining about the wallpaper, is informed by the impression that the present management might suggest that Oscar take his grievances, and his bill, elsewhere. Now, it's claimed that the Jaggers of the world make this a refuge, but I doubt it. The Madison looks more like Mick. I suspect that although L'Hotel offers some interesting amenities, it is the choice of a second tier celebrity and those of us springing for a touch of cramped luxury.
All this taken, the local, less famous haunts, the narrow maze of streets and the more pedestrian shops keep the quartier from becoming an adult amusement park. Near charcuteries that purvey culinary equivalents to Tiffany's, one still finds boulangeries selling 80 cent baguettes and tiny shops with beautiful, inexpensive produce. This is, after all, a neighborhood and even those who can afford to live here need to buy food that doesn't break the bank.
Back at Deux Magots we had a few glasses of wine and ignored the menu. The intersection of Boulevard and Place Saint Germain lent a bounty of people-watching and a welcome rest for my aching legs. We sat for a good hour-and-a-half, and we could still be sitting there for all I know. As everywhere, the bill was not presented until asked for. We plotted where to have our next meal (the very best use of time in Paris) and worked to conjure the spirits of dead philosophers and writers. It didn't work. Those days and those people are gone, and their spirits have moved on, too.
But this is Paris, and it is not to be set in the amber of a better age. Paris allows you to make of it what you will, to breath in the past with the knowledge that there is a connection to the present through a city with a memory and a future.
It's great fun to say that one got drunk in the same place Fitzgerald lived in his cups, but it doesn't mean much past anecdote. I have not yet decided what to do about this, but I do know that I intend to expend considerable energy finding out.