Adventures in Paris
Not every New Year feels fresh and new, but this one sure does. This will be my fourth year of The Hemingway Project, and I could not be more optimistic about everything!
This past year was filled with travel and surprises for me, a year of slow but steady growth. To move forward into the new, I had to let go of quite a few familiar comforts, but I did, and am so grateful to have taken the risk.
There were a few moments when I wondered who and sometimes where I was, but twice, as I was walking in a foreign city, I saw my reflection in a store window and thought, “that woman looks happy.” And laughed to discover that I was looking at myself!
I spent the first half of 2012 in Chile, living in a tiny town outside of Valparaiso called Concon. We met some of the most genuine people on earth in this little fishing village, whose kindness we will never forget. From our rented apartment, we could see the small colorful fishing boats the men used to fish for sardines and reneta each night. Living in Chile was a quiet time for me, a rebuilding time.
I came back to the states for the summer, to attend the Hemingway Society Conference in June and then Hemingway Days in Key West in July. In August, we packed up our house to move to Spain. By September, we had found our home in Andalusia. Although we may go back and forth for a while, Spain is home.
There is something oddly comforting to me in the way one detaches from everything in a foreign country. Hours, days and weeks take on a different proportion. Everything in one’s life is measured newly against these fresh hours, this clean light – a completely different backdrop. Certainly a big part of it for me is the language barrier. But I have to admit that I kind of like hovering outside of the concerns of daily life in a foreign country – I pick up the essence of people and situations, rather than the details. In fact, I am blissfully alone and can keep my focus inward. When I do engage in my surroundings, it is without hurry, simply to learn and enjoy.
What emerges from this detachment and sense of deep and abundant time is joy – a sense of gratitude for life and an unshakable feeling of safety that I carry within. By traveling, I have learned to drop much of my personal history, and came awake to the present moment. I have learned to treasure each stranger’s face, every slant of light and shadow. I can see. In this timeless space, I think I can feel, for lack of better word, eternity.
This year, I am going to merge a lot of my travel writing on The Hemingway Project, especially about Spain.
But for now, in the spirit of travel, I want to tell you a story about my visit to Paris this past November.
When I packed up for Spain in September, I tried to narrow down the books I was bringing to just ten or so, knowing that the rest of the books would eventually get shipped when we could do it. For a book addict, this was an excruciating decision. It took me weeks to narrow down a stack of fifty books to just fifteen, which used up quite a bit of my allotted suitcase weight. I was so focused on my choice of books, that I later realized that I neglected to bring a coat! (Priorities, right?)
One of the books I brought with me was H. R Stoneback’s gem, Hemingway’s Paris, Our Paris. I chose this book because I will be interviewing Mr. Stoneback soon, and I wanted to have it with me as a reference. I also wanted to reread it while I was in Paris. Stoneback’s book is a meditation on time and place – a contemplation of Hemingway as a young writer, and the mystical qualities of Hemingway’s writing and of Paris itself. I was and am, particularly interested in the way Stoneback’s own life is entwined with Hemingway’s – which is ever the subject of this blog. I will write more about this later –
I spent a glorious week in Paris, with this little book tucked inside my bag. At some point, it occurred to me that the writer might enjoy a picture of his book somewhere in Paris; someplace classic – the Eiffel tower, or Montmartre. So from that moment, wherever I went, I was looking for a classic shot.
Of course, there were hundreds of perfect places to photograph this book, and I started to get fussy about which one was best. Here is the first photo I took, on a café chair – a distinctive Paris sight. I sent the photograph to the author with the simple caption, “A Stoneback sighting.”
But the next day, there were other places I saw that seemed even better, like this one:
Now, there were multiple Stoneback sightings in Paris. Something unusual was happening in Paris, this book was becoming omnipresent! Here is yet another one — — in a small bistro at Montmartre. (I assure you no flirting was involved in the process of getting this photo)
They say once a book is published, it has a life of its own. This one lives in Paris. Here is it, quite at home in Montmartre.
Towards the end of the week, the book and I went to Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where they no longer allow photographs to be taken. I spoke with the beautiful young man at the front desk about this book’s particular journey through Paris, and asked him if he could make an exception to the rule. He asked to see the book. As he flipped through it, “All-night letter to Paris” is what caught his eye. He handed the book back to me with the slightest little nod; “be discreet,” he said with a smile, and I was —
I was having a lot of fun with this book.
Then came the day when the book and I had only one more day left before returning to Spain, and I was wondering how I might end this lovely lark. The end came suddenly, unexpectedly, that afternoon.
What happened next was a sublime reminder of how the Hemingway Project started and why it is so much fun. Read on:
Someday I hope to be able to write the full story of how I came to start the Hemingway Project. It began with A Moveable Feast and my first trip to Paris in 2009, but it really began after a magical, hilarious encounter with two strangers in a hostel in Bilbao. They were young backpackers from Australia who had been traveling together for almost a year, day in and day out, and on this particular night, they were having a quarrel about Ernest Hemingway.
It was like a lovers’ quarrel, really – they were best friends who had just spent too much time together in the close quarters of tents, hostels, buses and trains. Their discussion started out as a light-hearted yet opinionated debate about the value of Hemingway’s contribution to literature, but their lines of argument quickly unraveled. Soon they were leveling personal accusations at one another, interspersing barbs in a once purely literary argument.
One friend accused the other of being cheap and miserly during their travels, while the other countered that his friend’s unwashed socks were so stinky that they prevented both of them from meeting European girls. “What girls?” the first one asked, “We’ve been stuck together for 8 months!” “Remember the French girl at Shakespeare and Company?” the other cried indignantly, and then it went back to one calling Hemingway a hack and the other one defending him. This circular back-and-forth about Hemingway’s books and life begged the tender question, “Will we still be friends after this trip is over?”
It was, of course, a conversation fueled by wine and perhaps loneliness, saturated with fraternity and made possible by the strong bonds of friendship. I think Hemingway would have relished the good-natured, bar-room combativeness of these two young people bantering, and on a good day, he might have roared with laughter over their dialogue. It was such a poignant moment at the end of my travel that I somehow knew that Hemingway, and meeting people and talking about Hemingway, was going to be my subject.
On my last day in Paris, I was sitting on the metro looking at a map. The seats were placed so close together that I was touching knees with the young man across from me who was deeply engrossed in a book. After a few moments, I noticed the name “Ernest Hemingway” on the spine. I smiled to myself: of course I would be sitting directly across from a stranger on a train in Paris reading Hemingway, of course!
I tapped him gently and he had to pull himself from another world to see me. Looking up, he said politely, “Yes, can I help you?”, possibly a little irritated to be interrupted.
“What is the book you are reading?” I asked.
It was For Whom the Bell Tolls, he said, and he was just a few pages from the end.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“Oh yes, it is the best book I have read.” He said, and continued; “I am only sad that he is a communist and not an anarchist”. (I don’t know if he meant Robert Jordon or Hemingway).
I told him that I like Hemingway too and about the blog I was writing. My stop was the next one so I stood up. As I did, I remembered something in my bag. “I have another book,” I told him, “It’s about Hemingway in Paris.” And without thinking about it, I handed him the book. “It’s a gift – “
I asked for a picture, and abruptly, we said good-bye. For a moment I was sad to see the book go – I had plans for it. But the delight of the moment trumped that small pang of loss. The look of happiness and wonder on his face as he accepted the book from a stranger was worth it. We did not even know each other’s names, but he can write me if he finds the blog.
Our stop was Pere Lachaise, and the metro spit us out. We were at the gates of the cemetery but I just couldn’t summon up the right mood for it. I was so awestruck, and so joyful about what had just happened.
I walked around the cemetery with a feeling of delight for my travels and for strangers and for all things Hemingway, past grave after grave of people who were lucky enough to live in Paris and were now resting. As we left, I put a chestnut in my pocket for good luck.
So, the book is not going to Spain with me after all – truly, it has a life of its own, and it insisted on staying here in the city that inspired it.