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Tuesday, 26 February 2008

A Vagabond's Guide to the City of Lights

Written by Sara Whitford
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Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

--Ernest Hemingway

While I was eating a flower-shaped ice cream in the Saint Paul Quarter, my mom watched Paris burning in flames on Fox News. I could see the first signs of spring, but no signs of civil unrest. In reality, 14 year olds were getting tear-gassed only a few neighborhoods away in the Republique, but for me Paris felt very peaceful.

Parisians say putain merde (which roughly translates as dirty whore) about everything: the traffic in roundabouts, the weather, metro delays, etc. An art history class at the University of France Paris Research Center brought me to the city during spring break and, in this instance, the season’s weather was proving to be putain merde. I was forced into cafes about every 10 minutes and my money slowly disappeared. Still, you can be poor and travel to Paris. While it would be nice to be independently wealthy or have a trust fund, would it really be satisfying to buy a $300 Louis Vuitton belt and a €4 café crème on Champs-Elysees?

Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell were dirt poor and living in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s—their experiences inspiring great works such as a “Moveable Feast” and “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Hemingway lived in a shoddy apartment with no running water, and when Orwell was not running from landlords, he slept along the Seine or in homeless shelters.

I optioned to stay at Shakespeare and Company, the famous bookstore across from Notre Dame where Hemingway borrowed books when he was a struggling writer and also where the owner, Sylvia Beach, discovered James Joyce. If you are poor and a writer you can stay upstairs for free, provided that you help open and close the store and shelve books for two hours a day.

And while it is free, you pay a price. I slept on a foam mattress in the children’s section with sheets that probably had not been changed since before the war. There are also no shower facilities, but there is a sink and a tea-maker. There is also a smoke alarm that constantly beeps just to let you know it is on, (thank you so much, you putain merde smoke alarm), and a temperamental black cat that seeks to cuddle and bite you at the same time at the unfortunate hours of four or five in the morning.

The other people staying there were young, eccentric vagabonds who were also dirt poor, but were drawn to expensive Paris for the same reasons I was: the history, the beauty and the culture. Such as Hannah, a lesbian pulp fiction writer from Sweden who was working on her first novel. She and I enjoyed the simple pleasures of Paris. We would wander around smoking rolled cigarettes and find the cheapest sandwiches and falafel. (€3 for a refillable falafel at Maoz Falafel in the Latin Quarter, and a sandwich and a drink for € 2.50.) Occasionally we would splurge and go to Les Artistas, a hip bar close by that played reggae and lounge music. We would order fresh mango juice (which equaled two falafels each), and talk about whatever crossed our minds.


Throughout my visit, I was working on a screenplay about occupied France during WWII. The image I had of myself — staying at the bookstore and writing upstairs in the reading room, looking out the window at the view of Notre Dame — was very romantic.

Here I was, a starving ex-pat writer in Paris, just like how the literary greats started out. This fantasy was quickly shattered by the fact that my head was starting to itch from not showering for five days.

My friend Tyler from Kansas said that he had not showered in a month. He had only one set of clothes and smelled like carrots. For the next six months he had €300 and was planning a trip to Amsterdam. His plan involved sneaking onto a train and then hiding in the bathroom when the conductor came around for tickets. His food would be a rationed supply of carrots and baguettes.

And then there was John, the Irishman, who had an obsession with philosophical logic, the kind that can give a normal person a headache. He would sometimes trap me on the staircase, his face wrinkled up in turmoil. “If I equals the self,” he would say, “then the self is nonexistent except in our perception of it.” He would then go on and on and on in the same manner. I just wanted to shake him and say, “Just enjoy life, you fool!”

And that was just what we did after the shop closed to customers. John would play the guitar, Hannah would sing along, and Tyler and I would listen and drink cheap red wine and eat baguettes with chocolate Nutella. In the morning John and Tyler would go to the bakery down the street for chocolate croissants and baguettes, and Hannah and I would straighten up and make tea. Then we would all have breakfast together and wait for the bell of Notre Dame, our signal that it was time to open the shop.

And so it went until it was my last day at the bookstore. In less than 12 hours, I would be meeting my sister and taking a shower, so the fact that I got yelled at for popping the bubble wrap when I was supposed to be moving the biographies to the film section was insignificant. I was counting down the hours to the moment when I would be submerged in water. I said my goodbyes and exchanged e-mails and was on my way to meet my sister.

Heidi was an hour late because her friend had gotten them stuck in a roundabout and then got into a minor accident, which garnered many putain merde’s from Laurent, a smelly but very chivalrous Frenchman. Laurent was the kind of person who would buy two €20 bottles of champagne even though he’s unemployed (it was my graduation celebration), or lend you his really smelly jacket if you were cold. He was bitter of the fact that Paris had gotten so sterile. Most of the old dives had been cleaned up, but we managed to find him a slightly dirty Irish pub off Montparnasse, one of the few dirty bars left in that neighborhood.

The trip was winding down. We were leaving for home the next day. I only had €4 left, just enough for one last round of coffees at the bar. It had been a good trip—spectacular even. The city warmly accepted me into its arms and I was happy to be there, grateful for the excellent bakeries, the delicious, but overpriced daily café crèmes, and for not seeing any strip malls or fake bricks, only beautiful, old buildings with intricate art nouveau balconies. I had eaten a raw steak and been over-charged in a taxi (tourist tax). I witnessed from a safe distance a historical youth protest, something I may sadly never see in America in my lifetime. I met some sparkling gems I still stay in touch with. It was my pilgrimage to a city that reserves the right to the most obvious of clichés. Rich or poor, the city will welcome you with open arms, if you let it.

©Sara Whitford

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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