I was a free man in Paris. I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody was calling me up for favors. No one’s future to decide. Joni Mitchell ‘Court and Spark’
Many years ago – 42 in fact – I lived in Paris. I was a student at the Sorbonne, although I rarely went to lectures, preferring to spend my weekdays in the Library at the Pompidou Centre. I was trying to write a dissertation on Cezanne, but I often got distracted, particularly by the fire-eater in the square. He was there every day and would bark huskily at the crowd, refusing to take a first slug of petrol until his hat was full of francs.
I have only been back to Paris a few times and for short periods. Last week I was looking forward to spending four days in the city with my friend, Valentine. A few days before we were due to leave, she tested positive for Covid; thus I arrived, by myself, at the Gare du Nord carrying my old diary from 1980 with some vague notion of retrieving my long-ago life in Paris.
In September 1980, I moved into an apartment in the 15th arrondissement. It was tiny but had huge French windows that overlooked a courtyard. My landlady, Dominique, was a dancer at the Folies Bergeres. Cite Falguiere is a former artists’ colony, built as studios and apartments: Gauguin, Modigliani and Brancusi all lived there. My favourite restaurant Aux Artistes on Rue Falguiere is still there, exactly as I remembered it and probably unchanged since the family first opened the doors in 1959.
When I lived at 3 Cite Falguiere in 1980, I had no telephone, so if my parents or my friends wanted to visit, they had to send me a letter. Sometimes I’d come home and find a note stuck to the front door. Passing through, but you weren’t home. I rather liked this arrangement. I was free and unfettered. I wasn’t accountable to anyone. Sometimes, if I didn’t feel like entertaining visitors, I’d pretend I wasn’t home.
Today, accessing apartment buildings involves codes and keypads, but I managed to sneak in behind a delivery driver. I followed him, first into the courtyard and then into the stairwell of No. 3. Everything was exactly as I remembered it – just a little spruced-up.
Encouraged by my success, I walked to the Jardin de Luxembourg where children used to race sailboats across the pond and a one-man puppet theatre performed in the shade of the plane trees. On the Ile St. Louis, I joined the queue for Berthillon, a fifth generation glacier and a Paris institution since 1954. My roasted pineapple and basil ice cream was delicately flavoured and delicious.
The following day I decided to visit one of my favourite places in the city. In 1980, whenever I grew tired of reading French novels, I would make my way to Shakespeare and Company, a cosy, ramshackle building on the Left Bank and the only place I knew in Paris that sold second-hand books in English. George Whitman opened his bookshop in 1951. All through his life, Whitman, who died in 2011 at the age of 98, invited writers and artists to stay at his bookshop (benches doubled as small beds at night) and in exchange for his hospitality, visitors were asked to read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours and write a one-page autobiography before they left. George referred to his shop as a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just liked the space and the books.
Shakespeare and Company has since been discovered. The queues are long and rope barriers determine the number of people permitted into the building at any one time. The rooms upstairs are now referred to as ‘Reading rooms’ and the books on display are for ambience. None are for sale. I asked a young woman stacking shelves about the change. This has always been a new bookshop she told me, in a tone of great confidence. You can’t buy second-hand books any longer, but you can buy tote bags and stickers; and you can drink lattes in the buzzing Shakespeare and Company coffee shop next door.
The city was full of people taking pictures of themselves and of each other. I was taking pictures too of course, although not of myself. I have almost no photographs of the 8 months I spent in Paris in the 1980s. I don’t recall having a camera.
I decided to make one last attempt at a Proustian experience and headed to my favourite cafe Les Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain. It was popular, even 40 years ago. Writers including Sartre, de Beauvoir, Joyce and Hemingway would meet there and it became known as Le rendez-vous de l’elite intellectuelle. We were students and going to Les Deux Magots for ‘chocolat chaud’ was an expensive treat. We always asked for the same table outside so we could watch the street performers.
I had been told that it can take 30 minutes to get a table at Les Deux Magots and so I arrived with low expectations. It was lunchtime on a sunny Saturday and every table was taken. Then, as if by magic, a smartly-dressed waiter unclipped the rope and guided me straight to my old table. The chocolat chaud arrived on a silver tray in a china jug. It has the consistency of thick soup and I can say, without hesitation, even 40 years later, that it is the very best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I wanted to hug the waiter. I resisted and left him a generous tip instead.
As Marcel Proust said: Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were. My old diary recalls the freedom I had as a student in Paris, but it also describes a time in my life where isolation was my response to feelings of vulnerability and separation. The four days I spent alone in the city helped me reconcile the idealism and peculiar melancholy which I have always associated with the 8 months I lived in Paris.