Just awakening to the day, I fluffed a nest of pillows behind my back and sat up to stretch, careful to keep my body heat trapped under the duvet for as long as possible. Morning light, thin and frigid as the air outside my window, outlined edges and folds in silken threads across the bedroom. My gaze flitted from the objects in the room to the window on the opposite wall, then ventured beyond its borders. On a balcony across the courtyard a young woman, perhaps in her mid- to late-20’s, sat on an iron bistro chair, shoulders hunched and smoking a cigarette. Her hair was tied roughly at the nape of her neck, which was buried in layers of a knit scarf. A woolen coat was cinched at her waist by a belt. Hints of clothing under the coat, not quite pajamas, not quite daywear, suggested the woman was not at home but a visitor to that space. At the home of a relative? A friend? Her lover?
Maybe she was renting the apartment and was a sojourner, like me.
My daughter, Tori, and I had traveled to Paris during the winter break of her senior year of high school. We had been there before, but this trip hinted at the distance life would create between us when she left for college in the fall. Mature enough and familiar with the neighborhood, Tori left on her own each morning to return with fresh baguettes and pain au chocolat for breakfast. We even split up one afternoon, she revisiting L’Espace Dali while I enjoyed Le Musee de Montmartre for a few hours.
This trip hung over a precipice of change, and as I peered out from my vantage point, I couldn’t make out a single form. It wasn’t ominous, the way fog covers the road or a field, obscuring the next event. It was more like a painting being brought to life on canvas, awaiting a new load from the palette of paint and more strokes from the artist.
The smoking woman took her last long drag, exhaled a purposed stream, and crushed the cigarette beneath her shoe before disappearing back through the window. In my room, the filmy, orange drapery of the tall window now cast a warm glow over the writing desk at the foot of the bed. That glow tricked me out of bed each day, feigning warmth when the air was chilled.
I sat at the desk most mornings to journal, aware of the blue ink roller ball pen scratch-scratch-scratching on the pages of my Moleskine. The grain of the desktop was visible but smooth to the touch, and while I gathered my thoughts, I ran a finger across the carved trim that bordered the edges. I had purchased The Paris Wife by Paula McClain at the airport bookstore just before boarding our flight here, and reading the historical fiction about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Paris dislodged shadowy memories of my first trip to Paris about 25 years earlier. I recalled other travels, too – to Key West, Bimini, New Orleans – and realized Hemingway had preceded me in all of those places, too.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. I felt like that desk, Paris, old Papa Hemingway himself were calling me to connect with something deeper inside of myself. But to what, I didn’t know.
Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast was published posthumously in 1964. Longtime friend and editor, A. E. Hochner, named the book after something Ernest once said to him: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
The term moveable feast has been used in the literal sense to note a celebration that can happen anywhere. My friend Ann Kroeker used it in reference to an Instagram photo of mine from a more recent Paris vacation. In the picture, my portable writing workstation in the gardens of the Musee Rodin included a copy of On Being a Writer, the book Ann co-authored with Charity Singleton Craig. Ann commented, ”Ahhh … j’adore! We are in Paris enjoying a moveable feast with our friend!”
Moveable feast also refers to things that change over time. This meaning derives from the liturgical reference of feasts that fall on the same day but different dates each year, depending on the lunar cycle of the season. In the Christian tradition, though Christmas always falls on December 25, Easter is celebrated on a Sunday with a different date each year – a moveable feast.
As Hemingway reflects on his time in Paris in the 1920’s, he seems to project this meaning: “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris, as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” In other words, distance gives a different perspective. Had I portrayed my time at the writing desk in my Paris bedroom when it happened, I certainly would have focused on questions about my future or the disappointments I subconsciously clutched.
From this present distance, I see myself listening in the winter stillness, waiting for seeds tucked below the resting earth to break ground when spring arrived.
On the last day of our trip, I had a few hours to myself while Tori visited with a friend passing through from Switzerland. It was cold, but the sun was bright and I didn’t mind. In the warmer weather, Parisian gardens herald festivity with roses as red as the lips of Cabaret dancers, moody purple irises, and poppies dotting the landscape in pink and orange polka dots. When winter strips Paris of her colorful silken garb, though, the raw design of trunks and branches rivals neighboring palaces with the complexity of their long shadows. In my wanderings I came upon an active fountain. The spray caught my eye as it glimmered like Swavorski crystals in the daylight, and I stopped for a few minutes, tuning my ear to the language all around me. Though the stifling summer heat was long past, people convened at the fountain, sitting alone, or chatting in groups, some chewing on baguette avec du jambon et brie.
Hemingway, too, had appreciated the humility of the season as he walked through the Luxembourg Gardens many years ago. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter…. Now you were accustomed to see the bare trees against the sky … the trees were beautiful without their leaves when you were reconciled to them…”
I took up my promenade and eventually rounded a corner to face the storefront of Shakespeare and Company, not knowing the history of the establishment or its connection to Hemingway’s past. Later, I would learn that he had befriended the original owner, Sylvia Beach, and frequently took books on loan when he was too poor to make a purchase.
Inside, I gently pushed by a storefront full of customers in line to cross a threshold where the sign read, “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.” Winding my way through floor to ceiling stacks, I made a sharp left, then another, to find myself in front of a wrought iron gate closing off a section of books. Poetry. It was tucked away like a secret garden. I swung the door as wide as it would go, turned sideways to squeeze through and let my eyes float like a leaf atop a moving stream across the spines of the books. I chose Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s European Poems and Transitions to come home with me.
Leaving the poetry section, I climbed a narrow staircase and found a nook containing a chair and a desk. Ducking inside, I discovered scraps of paper, handwritten notes, and a vintage typewriter with paper in the scroll.
I read notes left by others and knew that I wasn’t alone in my longing for a clear horizon. I recognized the whisper of an old hope, a muted dream, that asked to be released. How would I put that desire into words? Hemingway, who had been a part of so many past adventures, came alongside to help: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
I sat for a minute before my sentence was born. “A place where a closed heart’s opened to new life again. MAO 2/23/13”
I put the pen down on the shelf in front of me, startled at how easily those words flowed from pen to page. They seemed bold, yet I didn’t dig for courage to write them. Defenses down and eyes wide open, that was the beginning of a story that was writing itself through me.
The day I planned to begin writing this essay was a Saturday, the day after recent terror attacks in Paris. I had just returned from a Parisian excursion, and friends and family were texting to see if I was home or to say they were glad I was home.
Stunned into silence by the immediate news images, I couldn’t start writing about the Paris I have come to love. Not yet.
But as the hours passed through the weekend, stories of hope and love pierced the darkness of media accounts of the violence and destruction. #Fluctuatnecmergitur, the Latin phrase used as a motto for Paris since the fourteenth century, circulated as a hashtag and in captions of city photos on social media. Translated into French as “Il est battu par les flots, mais ne sombre pas, ” in English it means, “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.” I felt my body soften with this image of resiliency.
I watched a video of a blindfolded Muslim man standing in the Place Republique holding a sign that read, ”I am Muslim and I am told I am a terrorist. I trust you. Do you trust me? If yes, hug me.” The man is embraced, one by one by a crowd of tearful mourners. A tear slipped down my cheek. In another poignant YouTube recording, Antoine Leiris declares, ”I won’t give you the gift of hating you, ” defiantly denying the attackers any more victims. His wife, Helene, was killed in the Bataclan massacre.
Eventually, the dam of grief within me broke. As I cried freely for the tragedy, I also looked forward, knowing that love wins, and the spirit of unity and creativity and freedom in Paris would survive.
A Moveable Feast climbed to the number one best-selling book in France in the weeks following the attacks. Hemingway knew it: Paris stays with you. She has stayed with me, too.
Featured photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Michelle Rinaldi Ortega.
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How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
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