Tag Archives: Montmartre

Of all the world’s places this was Paris

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Le Sacre-Coeur

As a young man I didn’t place much importance on the City of Light.

I knew it as the home of the French Revolution, the cradle of the Enlightenment, a place of love and rivers and religion (or a famous cathedral at any rate).

And so I didn’t travel there until I was 35. When I did the city I encountered bore some resemblance to the cast-in-absinthe Paris of the popular imagination.

The guide-booked Eiffel Tower, Ile de la Cite, Sacre-Couer and Montmartre were present and correct, busy with July tourists.

But in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, where we stayed, ate and drank, the city was faster, pushier, live, loud. This Paris was traffic and dirt and people – office workers, beggars, mothers with strollers, groups of teenagers. An aroma of cheap pizza and cigarettes blew above the pavements; more than once I dodged dogs’ deposits underfoot.

Le Quai Saint-Michel

Le Quai Saint-Michel

This was the moving city. It was – and is – a city of difference. The walk from Gare du Nord station across Boulevard de la Chapelle and onto our apartment at Rue de Clignancourt took us past north African, west African and Asian homes and businesses.

In a side street in the shadow of the Sacre-Couer my wife and I ate bun bowls at a tiny Vietnamese cafe. Sitting in the shadow of Notre-Dame, on the Quai Saint-Michel, I had a lunch of falafel above the Seine. Searching out breakfast on a Sunday morning we came across a small cafe on Rue Lamarck, which served a mix of French, Greek and Indian food.

We visited, ate and drank, the other Paris too, of course.

But as the news worsened by the minute last Friday night my thoughts went back to the 11th, and to the last morning I spent in the city, walking in the light through the Sunday morning Bastille market, surrounded by a mix of faces, languages, cultures and foods. The morning’s hundreds shared a common tongue, a place, a sense of tradition.

And a feeling that, of all the world’s places this was Paris, and there was nowhere else to be.

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Le Marche Bastille

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Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine

At 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Ernest Hemingway’s ghost has long since fled the Place Contrescarpe, in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, and is likely easier found now in San Sebastian, Havana or Ketchum.

But Paris being Paris, the building where he lived in the early 1920s, “very poor and very happy” with his wife and newborn son, still stands.

I discovered this on a visit last weekend, when my wife and I walked up the winding Rue Cardinal Lemoine, away from the bustle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

There are more famous literary landmarks in the City of Light, and more famous Hemingway ones even.

But, on a pristine Parisian afternoon this small symbol of domesticity, hope, ambition and youth in a life later strewn with great success and personal wreckage was our destination.

The book which brought us there was A Moveable Feast, the collection of vignettes Hemingway wrote in Cuba in his last, declining years, at a remove of almost half a century from “the early days”, as he described them, spent as a journalist and sometimes-starving writer eking out a living in the cafes of Montparnasse.

The work famously contains distilled and stripped portraits of fellow writers, not least Hemingway’s fellow ex-pats Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein (revealing how the latter borrowed her famous ‘lost generation’ comment from a local mechanic, no less). But written into and between these accounts are fascinating small details of the writer’s day-to-day acts of work, love, eating and drinking.

Clare and I had travelled to Paris from Dublin exhausted, pulled taut by stress, sleep-deprived and weary. Hemingway’s accounts of a less-complicated (on the surface only, of course) domestic and working life had appealed to us for sometime. And so we found ourselves outside a chipped blue door, beneath a simple white plaque, stepping aside as a resident returned home with her shopping.

Hemingway in Paris, 1924

Hemingway in Paris, 1924.
Pic: Ernest Hemingway Collection (JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

In 1922 Hemingway lived with Hadley Richardson on the third floor at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, “a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor”.

Lunch there was “little radishes, and a good foie de veau with mashed potatoes and an endive salad. Apple tart”.

Rising early Hemingway walked to work daily, to a garret-room at a nearby hotel on Rue Descartes, where he would attempt to write “one true sentence, and then go on from there”. He later declared: “Work could cure almost anything, I believed then, and I believe now.”

Sitting on the Place Contrescarpe, dry and bright unlike its rain-lashed, impoverished appearance at the opening of A Moveable Feast, Clare and I discussed these simple pleasures and truisms.

Very poor rarely means very happy. And the opposite is not the case, either. So we go on seeking the balance. Some days or hours or nights, we find it.

That evening we returned to our rented apartment and later walked the hill at Montmartre to look on Paris below. Hungry, we went on to Le Comptoir des Belettes on Rue Lamarck, where we ate tartines and characturie and drank rose.

Then we returned home to the night breeze on our balcony, the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur above and the murmur of the streets below.

And we were happy.

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e

Charcuterie plate at Le Comptoir des Belettes, 18e


All quotes in this post are from A Moveable Feast

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