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Hemingway had the right idea when he decided to live in Paris to write his books…the cafés, the Seine river, the energy, the anticipation, the calm, the periods of reflection helped along by stunning views, the writers that surround your life…decades couldn’t change these attributes of Paris, so let it be known: Paris is a damn good place to write in!!
But let it also be known: all these wonderful things can be the devil in disguise! That’s right, just as easily as Paris can inspire you like no other place in the world, it can also sweep you up into the vortex of new experiences and great memories, a vortex that tosses your pen and notebook out the window, distracting you from the very task you came here to accomplish.
Right now I’m doing okay, because along the way I have always had a self-awareness for the ebbs and flows of Parisian distractions…or the “outside of Paris” distractions (like running off to London last weekend!). Today I must’ve spent a good ten minutes talking about the freshness of baguettes from Eric Kayser Boulangerie, particularly at the unexpected “freshness hour” of seven p.m. (part of the conversation with my equally stunned baguette-eating friend: “HOW is it so crusty on the inside and so soft in the middle? Oh my god!!“). Then there’s those times when I take detours on the way home, so I can walk along the river for a while, and simply watch the ripples of the water. That’s another twenty minutes gone. I can’t help it, I mean it’s PARIS goddammit, and I’d be a fool to ignore my surroundings just to crank out the word count; I mean really, what’s the point of being in Paris if I’m not even going to see, smell, and taste it?
Indeed, but then how do I beat this devil dressed in pain au chocolat and endlessly beautiful sunsets?
Like this: I make workback schedules, I freak myself out over how little time there is to finish, rewrite, and edit my book, and then, suddenly, from the negative reinforcement called the fear of failure, the words will flow.
I made the schedule after I got back from London this weekend, and according to said schedule, if I don’t finish the first draft before I leave for my three-week Europe vacation in fifteen days, I will fail in making my self-imposed publication date for book three. Which means I will have failed as an over-achieving Indian-Canadian.
And excuse me, but over-achieving Indian-Canadians were not made for failure.
So I’m on it, for those of you who’ve been reading the Year of the Chick book series; I’m on it! And book three will be released in the end of September!
Part of this pact means the regularly-scheduled blogging I’d originally intended will not be so regular in the next two months; I think that’s okay though, because maybe it’s better to spill the best of my “Confessions from Paris” after the dust has settled; take some time to reflect and all that.
I’ll still blog from time to time this summer, to be sure! But for the most part the season of crazy book-writing is upon me, so you can follow more regular updates on my Facebook Author page, sound good?
PS: Here I am in London this weekend, being a tourist and so NOT being a writer…
Sometimes in Paris you get this remarkable feeling that you’re amongst famous ghosts from the past, sometimes you feel as though the simplest thing like a charming street has transported you back in time, and sometimes you wonder why it’s not how you’d hoped or thought it would be (now’s about the time that you should watch the movie “Midnight in Paris“).
I was curious to know what sort of feeling I’d be left with after visiting the famous “Shakespeare and Company” bookshop in Paris. And now, after making a few trips there, I think I finally have my answer…
…As you make your way to 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, with the river close by and the Notre Dame cathedral in view, you’ll find yourself in the overwhelming footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Actually that’s not true at all.
There are actually TWO Shakespeare and Company bookshops in Paris’s recorded history, two separate entities in two separate eras with two separate histories.
Most people figure this out by the time they arrive in Paris, as Wikipedia and any good guidebook will tell you the same. It was Sylvia Beach who started it all in the early twentieth century, with a bookstore and lending library popular with the “Lost Generation” of writers. It didn’t quite end with her though, for when she died in 1964, a colleague inherited the name for his very own bookshop in Paris, along with some of her private collection of books.
“The 1960′s to present day” Shakespeare and Company has a fascinating history of its own, with the late George Whitman at the forefront. Not only did his regular customers include the likes of Anais Nin and Allen Ginsberg, but he created quite the socialist refuge under that little roof, with book displays converting into beds after closing time, and writers welcome to stay for the simple cost of a short biography, one or two hours of work in the shop per day, and the promise to read a lot of books (books that would be vetted by Whitman’s keen eye…crime thrillers need not apply). Not to mention the Sunday tea sessions, poetry readings and more.
With a history like that, and a Canadian author who wrote a memoir based on the months he lived in the shop (“Time was Soft There“), I was full of naive notions before my visit, tempered by the reality that Whitman had died and his daughter now ran the shop (Sylvia Beach Whitman is her name, and it’s a much more clever name than “North West”). Maybe things would be different now, but not so different that I couldn’t travel back into the past…right? Right!
I thought it would be cool to swing by the shop to see a live performance, so I wandered my way over at seven p.m. (Toronto is for power-walking and Paris is for wandering, in my experience at least). The crowd was already gathering, and before too long, famed guitarist and songwriter Gary Lucas took the “stage” in front of the bookshop. Throughout the performance the crowd grew and grew, along with the number of jaws dropped in awe, as this man let his magic fingers tell story after story, with all the best notes played at mind-boggling speed.
It was a great way to start my journey at Shakespeare and Company.
But then…the crowd.
After the concert, too many people tried to squeeze their way into that tiny hole called a door. As I barely squeaked into the shop amidst body heat and American accents, the first thing I saw were stacks of modern books; today’s bestsellers, last year’s bestsellers, Harry Potter…it was slightly reminiscent of a Barnes and Noble, but hard to tell because the walls and ceilings and bookshelves felt so beautifully archaic.
The crowd was too thick to explore any further, so I resolved to make another visit, one where I’d make my way deeper in the back to find something better (it’s like grocery stores, where they put all the important stuff like milk and cheese in the back).
On my following visit the store was filled with tourists once again, but this time I managed to make it to the second floor. Here was the Childrens’ section and the library, a place where you could sit and read from leather-bound books all day long. Now that’s more like it. The first thing that struck me was George Whitman’s famous motto hung up on the wall, a simple token that transported me back in time, to the glory days of “angels in disguise” making their home in the shop. Next I saw a typewriter, which immediately brought me back to the writing nook that was used by actual residents in the shop, as recently as the early 2000′s. Only here the typewriter was on display atop a shelf. Like a museum artifact.
Next I saw a surprising real-life message board. It was filled with hundreds of love notes to the shop over the years, with people stating their country and date of visit, along with some special words about their experience at Shakespeare and Co. That was something I’d never even heard of before, and seeing those notes written by people from all over the world was pretty remarkable.
Even so, I got no sense at all of an organic presence of writers living in the shop (although I’ve heard that does still happen), but rather an overwhelming feeling that I was in the way of someone’s touristy experience, so I should probably get out or pick something to buy and get in the queue.
So I left the shop for a second time, now totally confused by my impressions.
Soon after, a fellow Ex-Pat writer told me about a writers’ group every Saturday at Shakespeare and Company. “Go to give feedback, go just to listen, or go and bring copies of your work for a critique.” As someone who had put all kinds of effort into forming a writers’ group in Toronto in 2009 only to watch it fizzle due to people’s lack of commitment, I was intrigued by this fully-formed group (and five Euros a session wasn’t bad for attending a writers’ group in an inspirational city such as this).
When I showed up on Saturday, my initial reaction was to cringe, when the shop was so crowded that they couldn’t let in more than three people at a time. It was like Best Buy during a “Black Friday” sale. I wonder what Hemingway would’ve thought of that. Luckily I was able to skip the queue and head straight upstairs to the library for the workshop.
In the next two hours I heard a lot of poetry and prose being read, and some really useful feedback being given. I chimed in a couple times, but mostly I was there to listen which actually proved to be invaluable (you wouldn’t think that feedback on a poem would be applicable to the first draft of my novel, but you’d be surprised!) After the workshop the writers all converged at a cheap watering hole, and even though I was late for a previous engagement so I couldn’t make it (oooh, I’m so popular!), I’m certain I’ll be back on a different Saturday.
Three visits, and three very different impressions. I’m sure my impressions will continue to grow, like if I see the next play performed outside the shop (I missed “Much Ado About Nothing“), or if I attend one of the many upcoming literary events.
I guess what I’ve learned then, is that time does change all things, but that doesn’t mean their value is diminished. Shakespeare and Company has been featured in books, articles and movies, and so change would’ve been inevitable with a level of exposure like that. I would never begrudge an establishment for achieving success, so even though Best-Buy-like measures are required at times and some of the shop feels like a museum, it’s managed to retain a good community, for those who are willing to participate. Now I’m reminded of what someone told me earlier this week: “I shouldn’t HAVE to make an effort to find a great community in Paris; it should already exist like it did a hundred years ago. But it doesn’t anymore.” (I might be paraphrasing a little). If you ask me, communities are built and maintained by people, so how would you ever tap into that without making any effort? Human interaction…try it sometime!
And so, the writing community in Paris continues to grow as I experience it; I’ve got “The Abbey Bookshop” for random conversations and aperitifs and meeting writers just like me, I’ve got two weekly open mics now, where a great group of people converge (“Spoken Word Paris” and “Paris Lit Up“), and I’ve got a great new place to get writing feedback at Shakespeare and Company.
2013 for a writer in Paris; not too shabby at all…
My seven-week anniversary of living in Paris is just days away, and it’s right about the time when my existence here feels more established. And so I will bestow you with some highlights and favourite things.
The first is an inexhaustible highlight; it regenerates day after day (depending on the weather), and much like the renewable resource of bio-fuel that’s used to power at least some of the city buses in the greater Toronto area (as far as I can remember since Toronto seems a distant memory), it won’t run out until the earth is destroyed by an asteroid, and the human race along with it.
It’s sunsets in Paris by the river.
The sun sets at a weirdly late hour in Paris (what is this, Iceland?), but I don’t mind, because to me it equals better odds of making it in time for the view. One evening, as I was leaning against the bridge, watching the sun do its’ disappearing dance, I totally lost track of time. It was beautiful and nearly tear-evoking (if only I wasn’t made of stone…just kidding I’m like a wailing infant most times), and if not for my peripheral vision which alerted me to a strange man standing beside me and giving me hungry eyes, I’m sure I would’ve stayed for a twilight view. Maybe next time.
Another highlight (though much less gorgeous as it involves two sweaty middle-aged men) occurred when two French businessmen from outside of Paris asked me for subway directions. In French. And I actually knew where they needed to go. And I knew exactly how to say it. In French. That was the big, big highlight of last week, which is shocking because aside from sunsets I only expected to have food-related highlights in Paris.
When it comes to a few of my favourite things, these will be exclusively food-related (I knew there was a reason why I didn’t have food in the highlights section). There’s this Lebanese place in the Latin Quarter called Topoly, and it, in my opinion, sells the best chicken pitas in Paris. I’ve had the one in Marais that’s renowned as the best place around (for falafels, at least), I’ve made the mistake of trying one of those pitas stuffed with not only meat but French fries, from one of those Greek food stalls in the Latin quarter that all look the same (it was dry and horrible!), and I’ve even enjoyed the spicy chicken kebab pitas by the Oberkampf metro station, but nothing beats Topoly! And why? Well it’s all about the bread! These angels of food service don’t give you a pita out of a bag, oh no! They actually roll the dough out in front of you, and cook it on this giant metal dome before your eyes! The result is the thinnest bread which is truly the key, just like it’s the key for a good thin-crust pizza. I cannot extol its virtues enough; go to Topoly and ask for a “Poulet pita au four”, less than six euros my friends!
This next one is the most unassuming, “couldn’t have predicted that!” kind of thing. It falls into the dessert category, and while you’d think I was getting ready to talk about a velvety chocolate mousse or an irresistible crêpe, you’d be totally wrong. Because I’m talking about…good ol’ American apple crumble. In Paris. I’m dead serious. Beginning at Montmartre, you’ll slowly wander your way down from Sacre Coeur, along the charming cobblestoned streets of Rue Norvin, and you’ll find yourself standing in front of The Consulat. The people-watching opportunities on the terrace are some of the best, and its exterior is the famous subject of many postcards. But no one knows about its’ apple crumble! The dollop of whipped cream, the scoop of vanilla ice cream, the hot apple crumble where the apple’s not sweetened too much (like with all apple pastries in Paris compared to North America)…c’est parfait! Tell them I sent you.
My third favourite thing is the simplest of all, and I discovered it at one of the nearby food markets. It’s at Place Monge in the Latin Quarter, open Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. On my very first visit I was on a singular mission: to find strawberries that weren’t disgustingly over-priced, the way they are at all the chain grocery stores in Paris. Well, not only did I find twice as many as I’d usually buy for two thirds the price, but they came direct from a family farm that grows strawberries and rhubarb. People were snatching up the rhubarb stalks like they somehow contained the secret to eternal youth, but since I’ve only heard of rhubarb being used in rhubarb pie and I don’t have an oven, I refrained. The strawberries though? They smelled magnificent (i.e. I started to open the fridge and untie the bag just to smell them; long hard whiffs. It’s like cocaine, but less side effects).
Once Paris is all said and done, I will certainly compile a formalized list of the best (and maybe the worst?) for the Paris book that emerges out of this experience, but I know that what’s listed here will make the final cut.
I’ll continue to explore and see what I encounter, will report back soon…
Last week I nearly forgot that I live in Paris, which is something I vowed I’d never do in my six months living here (and I’ve only been here five weeks!). It was one of those cold rainy days that wasn’t typical of May, or so the locals assured me. I was annoyed because I hadn’t been able to write anything decent all day long, pissed off because the cheap replacement umbrella was no match for my original ladybug-printed umbrella I’d accidentally left in a bar (yes, it’s gone, and some French man who likes cute umbrellas is probably using it right now!), and cursing all the stores that were closed on Sunday, when all I needed to do was buy some chicken.
I could’ve been walking down any damn street in any damn city as I had these annoying thoughts, and I may as well have been, because second-by-second I was losing my sense of Paris.
A few days later I was annoyed again, this time because of something I “might” (might!) categorize as “matters of the heart,” so when my pal invited me to a friend of a friend’s backyard party an hour outside of Paris, I couldn’t have been more thrilled for a little escape.
As we peeled our way out of the city, past gorgeous weathered buildings and scenic river views, I realized it was the first time I’d ever left Paris, which instantly made me compare it to the day I arrived. I recalled how I’d looked upon cathédral Notre Dame for the very first time, and how its stunning grandeur may have literally made my heart skip two beats (quickly followed by my heart resuming its regular beats, because obviously I’m alive today and writing this post!). I also thought about the first time I’d sat on a café terrace, and how even with no distractions like a cell phone, I was totally happy just to watch the world go by. It seemed like a far off time, the way photo albums remind you of ages and trips you can never go back to.
“But I’m still here!” I cried (to myself, inside my head). So why was I becoming a spectator of my life in Paris?
There wasn’t much time to over-analyze it, as I suddenly became aware of lovely green fields and crops on either side of the road. It was the least amount of people (zero) and most amount of nature (everywhere) I’d seen since moving to Paris. And it was nice.
A few minutes later we turned into a nice neighbourhood, with charming-looking houses set far apart, which spared it from appearing like a crammed North American suburb.
Oh, and in the neighbour’s sprawling yard or acres of field or whatever you want to call it…I saw a horse.
You’re not in Paris anymore, Dorothy.
I was immediately welcomed into a wonderful family’s home with the classic French kiss on either cheek, and from that moment on I was no longer a stranger from a foreign land who had squeezed my way into a party, I was one of them!
Okay, so maybe I technically WAS a stranger from a foreign land, when one of the main hosts kept asking me to say “Bonn-juwer” in my Canadian accent as he introduced me to people (so he could laugh at how I sound in French), but that was a small price to pay for being around twenty or so amazing locals of all ages (and two dogs!).
On that night, I witnessed army buddies who hadn’t seen each other for eighteen years reunite…and then proceed to insult each other in French (great practice for my language skills!), I enjoyed some smackin’-good ribs that were made by a professional chef from France who’s been living in LA for a while, and I even got to listen to a live band they had playing in the yard (a band that performed amazing cover songs of all the classic hits—my favourite was their rendition of “On Broadway”).
But best of all, and I mean truly, simply the best, was when a fifty-year-old French man sat next to me.
Typically, introductions of fifty-year-old men in my life are strongly associated with a “creep factor,” but wait, there’s more! (And it’s not creepy!)
First, he said he was going to speak to me only in French to help me improve my listening skills. Awesome.
Second, he asked me how long I’ve been in Paris (I did the math and quickly answered).
Third, he asked me what I think of Paris.
It must’ve been the fact that I had to answer in French which meant I had to talk more slowly, because the more I heard myself say each word, the more I really listened to all the amazing things I’d seen and experienced.
But that’s not all!
He told me he’d been living in Paris for his whole life.
Now I clasped my hands nervously, waiting for him to tell me how ugly he thought the Eiffel Tower was, or how there were way too many tourists, or how it wasn’t like the good old days.
The first thing he said was: “Apres tout ce temps, j’adore La Tour Eiffel.”
I never would’ve expected a Paris native to tell me he loved the Eiffel Tower after all these years, but that was only the beginning. He went on to say that in fifty years his love for Paris has never waned, and that he loves it just as much as he always did, or maybe more. He believes the city has so much life and spirit, and at night he’ll go driving around on his motorcycle, choosing all manner of winding roads, because he never tires of how beautiful the city looks at night. He added that while he’s driving he sees the Eiffel Tower from so many different vantages, and each time it’s like he’s admiring it in a new way. By now his eyes were glowing, and mine were practically welling up with tears, at this chance I was getting to hear about his earnest love.
But he wasn’t done.
He went on to add that in his real estate work when he’s showing houses, he’ll open a set of doors, look out a window, and still after all these years, he’ll see Paris in a way he never saw it before.
And the Chantilly cream on top of this whole speech? (I’m trying to be French here…) He said that even when it rains it’s okay, because the rain lets you see the city of lights reflecting off the puddles, a gift you just don’t get when it’s dry.
Who is this guy? Santa Claus?!
I’m not sure, but I truly believe it was fate that I wound up at that party, and fate that he ended up sitting next to me.
When I returned to the city and back to the bustling Latin Quarter, I remembered that I lived in Paris, and this time I know I won’t forget. A pretty good test of this happened today, when I walked further and further down Rue de Monge, in search of any store that was open because I needed to buy mushrooms.
I was out of luck, but instead of huffing and puffing about a walk now wasted, I smiled because it’s Paris, and who doesn’t love a good walk? Nearby I noticed a boulangerie that was open, and decided to make some revisions to my original dinner plan. I didn’t expect much in the way of fresh bread at six p.m., so when the lady handed me the baguette and it was toasty warm, I wanted to giggle with glee; yes, giggle!
Then it started raining.
And I didn’t have an umbrella.
It was way too early for the light to reflect off the puddles, but I actually didn’t mind the rain. Note: this doesn’t mean I danced around in the rain like in a scene from a cheesy movie, it simply means I didn’t care if my hair got ruined ’cause it was already greasy.
Since my chat with the inspiring French Santa Claus, my love for the Eiffel Tower and experiencing it from different vantages is now even stronger than ever.
This is from earlier in the week, when I looked out the window of someone’s apartment in a neighbourhood I’d never been to, and suddenly saw the tower in all its evening glory. Magnificent. One day soon I’ll actually visit it close-up, but for now I’m enjoying this flirty dance we share.
Paris, je t’aime,
Scenario: moving to Paris to write.
Is there a default definition and image in your head when you read that?
There certainly was for me, and it involved: sitting on café terraces, wearing scarves (you know this is true, look how many scarves I brought to Paris!), gradually running out of money because there’s something bohemian and romantic about that (this book captures that perfectly: Time Was Soft There), and dressing casually all the time.
If I was a writer in New York City however, then perhaps my writer self would be closer to Carrie Bradshaw. But in Paris? Definitely the first description.
But that’s stupid!
I’ve realized the above stupidity after almost a month in Paris (my four-week anniversary is on Friday—time flies!).
Initially I tried to maintain the first “writer description” but found it difficult, because I felt like some of my behaviour was conflicting with “bohemi-topia.”
Like that time I was taken to a shoe store that specializes specifically in wedge shoes (yes!), and I simply could not help myself (I would’ve posted a picture of my feet in the shoes, but I’d prefer not to cater to the foot-fetish readers—and I know you’re out there, don’t think you can hide with your comment-free lurker blog visits! ). There was also the time I tried on ten-thousand-dollar earrings at Chanel in Place Vendome, because obviously I’m going to need earrings for my next book’s launch party in Paris! (Yes, I did post a picture of these, which means I’m probably now catering to readers with an earlobe fetish—and I know you’re out there too). And finally, when my new friend and resident Paris expert took me out to Plaza Athenée for fancy cocktails in the form of popsicles, I embraced that too, which meant finding myself next to a couple who snobbily brought their dog to this swanky hotel bar, only for their snobbery to be validated by a neatly-dressed waiter who arrived with a steel bowl of water (to satiate the canine’s thirst).
And all of the above was so much fun!
Despite my joy, I regarded the events as a shameful secret. I tried to hide my shopping bags when I attended an open mic later that night, and I didn’t dare speak of the exorbitantly-priced cocktails to my writer pals.
So who was I then? A material girl only posing as a writer?
Well no…because I also write in Paris. I have an outline for book three pinned up as a long row of Post-It notes on my closet, and I’ve been writing this blog twice a week, which is already inspiring the fiction (may the names be changed and the events somewhat altered, haha!). I also started putting down pages for the book’s first draft. Best of all, I read some brand new material for an audience at Spoken Word in Paris on Monday night, and I can’t even describe how exhilarating it was to share my work (not to mention watching so many other talented writers read their stuff).
So then…is it bohemian wordsmith or Carrie Bradshaw? Which is it dammit?!
Neither, or both…or who the hell cares?
The great thing about Paris is that so many other dreamers are here to make their own stuff happen, that no one gives a crap how you get your stuff done, or what you do for fun in-between, because there really are no labels beyond the thing you do; and for me, I write. Whatever else, no one cares. And I love that. It’s also highly possible that no one cared about these things back home, but since I spent so many years, hours, and days with the default professional label of “corporate rat” (which ultimately described how I dressed and what coffee I drank), I accidentally packed some stereotypes into my luggage on the way to Paris.
So now for the truth: I like basement bars and seeing writers perform their work, and I also like shoes. That’s perfectly fine, there’s a place for me in Paris, and there’s really no need to categorize it any further.
There’s also no need to assign any labels to people, since labels only belong on clothes I can’t afford (but will still try on…because it’s fun).