8 December 2017- Morning train from Ingolstadt to Paris with stops in Munich and Strasbourg. Arrived at Gare de l’Est in the evening. Retiring from the platform towards a rainy and somewhat empty Paris. There were two middle-aged Parisian women in fur coats in a cafe across from the station. They sat there, with ceramic coffee cups, likely waiting for a friend or relative to arrive from Strasbourg. Their Dachshunds asleep under the coffee table.
In my camel topcoat, merino gloves, navy and red scarf, I began walking in the light rain. Dragging my suitcase over the narrow cobblestone footpath down beside canal Saint Martin within the 10th arrondissement. Cutting East onto the 11th onto Boulevard De Belleville. Located on the street corner was my hostel accommodation for 4 nights, Les Piaules.
What lay behind that front door was no less than splendid. The sight and atmosphere a welcomed experience to now a tired traveler. There was a warm Parisian café with a long thick pine bench on which it was used to order, eat, converse or read. Copies of the French papers and the international edition of the New York Times folded down at the far end of the table. Students from the University of Paris studying on two of the tables across from the pine bench. At the far end of the café was a fireplace, bookshelf and a pair of old sofas.
My room was located upstairs on the 2nd floor. It was small with 6 others to share. The main feature was a prominent window from which one could look out onto the boulevard bellow. The rain was now heavy. Hammering the tarpaulins placed over the vegetable market in the center of the boulevard. The 5th floor opened out onto a rooftop terrace from which one could see the whole of Paris. Sacré-Cœur imposed. The Eiffel tower in the distance, lit in light seen across the whole city. A photograph of this skyline does not give justice. It is the noise that is the most interesting and profound. From that rooftop I heard the whole of Paris, chaotic, cosmopolitan and a champion for thought and expression itself.
9 December- Awoke early. The rain had subsided to frost. Lit the fire downstairs. Collected the New York Times to read while waiting for croissants to bake. The smell of freshly baked croissants and french pressed coffee beside a fire can only be enjoyed by those who brave a European winter. Paris in the winter! No tourists, still frightfully expensive and frightfully beautiful. On February 4th 1922 in The Toronto Star Weekly, a Mr Ernest Hemingway commented on Paris in the winter. “Paris in the winter is rainy, cold, beautiful and cheap. It is also noisy, jostling, crowded and cheap. It is anything you want – and cheap.” How times they are have changed.
All the papers this morning both French and international press held the same cover. It was announced that President Trump will shift the Embassy of the United States in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The consequence of this policy will no doubt solidify the position of the United States as an adversary of the Palestinian people. What was left of any peace process now come to an indefinite hold. Indeed, until Palestine itself consolidates and unifies under a signal government, with a clear appropriate national interest, and Israel itself departs from zero-sum policy thinking towards an open, creative and common-interest based negotiation strategy, peace in the Middle East is limited to an abstract ambition.
When Israel and Palestine do reach an understanding and resolve their differences, one of the two relationships will be formed that can bring perpetual peace to the Middle East. The other relationship that between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab peoples.
My roommate was a young gentleman from Baghdad. He looked about 25. Scruffy black curly hair and a distinguishable beard. He came with a free spirit attitude towards life which perplexed me as he grew up within conflict after conflict. In Baghdad the man worked in a women’s makeup shop. He knew no French, little English, not much about France itself nor Europe as a matter of fact. Nevertheless, he was here in Paris for a holiday and to Instagram the glamour back to his 20,000 follows in Iraq.
There was a protest against the announcement to move the US Embassy on Place de la République. My new companion and myself came across the unfolding event on our way to the football match between Paris Saint-Germain and Lille. Paris convincingly overcame the Lille defense despite Neymar Jr out for injury. Di Maria and Calvani both played well.
10 December- 9 AM I walked down to Notre Dame. In Paris you will find that if you are walking downhill you will reach the Seine. Back again moving uphill you will eventually reach Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur. So it is difficult to get lost beside the fact all the town houses look the same.
Notre Dame is beautiful, breathtakingly so on the inside. The Cathedral is not to large nor to cold. The church has not lost its character or purpose very much still the spiritual heart of France. Listening to the organ was listing to the French story itself, a drama, tragedy, comedy or perhaps none and still much unwritten. The gargoyles of Norte Dame have all very pleasant faces, all with good intentions except two. On the North-East side of the tower are two gargoyles, gazing out over the French capital towards Germany. One devours a helpless dog whereas the other looks down over France with a triumphant smirk.
After an afternoon in the Louvre I meet two Australians and one American girl named Lilly about my age from DC. One of the Australians was named Jarrod, the other escaped my memory. At 3 AM we concluded what was a heavy night of drink and stories of our adventures.
11 December- Breakfast with Jarrod and Lilly in a small café beside the bookshop Shakespeare & Co across the river from Norte Dame. Jarrod promptly took his leave to catch his train to Milan so we bid him good luck and farewell. Together with Lilly I spent the morning in the bookshop reading in the attic and putting the piano to use. The bookshop even has it’s own pet cat. I purchased Old Man By the Sea which I scornfully admit I had not read.
We walked along the Seine to the Louvre over a clear blue winter sky. There were no tourists, painters or booksellers beside the Seine. Paris was ours. Although I was here yesterday I could not find any English or American landscapes despite the brochure confirming there is a collection. Half an hour until closing, after two days within the museum I struck gold. Behind the landscape and portrait gallery of the Spanish Renaissance there were a flight of steps. These steps led to a toilet. Behind the toilet, hidden in a typically French manor in a room corner I found what I had come to see. One dreamy melancholy beach by John Constable and it’s neighbor, an abstract impression of color from Turner.
After closing we walked towards the Eiffel tower past Pont Alexandre 3rd. Perhaps when one does go to Pairs one should see the tower up close. But only once. It is more romantic at a distance. We dined at an empty Pizzeria and then walked on into the park.
Later that evening we found ourselves in a Jazz club named 38 Riv on Rue de Rivoli. The bar and club was underground in a old, arched wine cellar with terracotta colored stones. It is in bars like these where conversation moves freely, and the most interesting of people converse, relax and plan their next day. There we met at the bar the most eloquent girl. she was alone so asked if she could join us (after she had overheard our English). I wish I remembered her name. She was Canadian but had lived in New York city dancing in the Ballet. Last night she had flown out to Paris, arriving into the city this morning and completing an audition for the Ballet in Paris. She got the part! Consequently at that moment she decided with us that she would move to Paris to pursue her dream. Paris, still a magnet for dreamers and want to be dreamers.
It was about 1 AM, which on a Monday night bars began to close. I thought of one bar that would perhaps still leave the doors open, if you can get in. Earlier in the morning I came across a story during my reading in Shakespeare & Co. The story was as follows; during the Second World War, on the attack of Paris from the Allied forces. Hemingway, with a small detachment of infantry led to liberate the ladies bar at the Ritz Hotel, as Hemingway was overly fond of the bar. The hotel staff did not allow arms to enter the building. It was recorded that Hemingway opened a tap for 51 dry martinis in a mission to liberate the Ritz. I was personally confounded. How could a man drink 51 Martinis? I convinced Lilly to come and together we would discover the truth by asking the barman of the legendary bar itself.
In the early hours of the morning, acting like we owned the world waltzed up to the Ritz. With no questions we were let in, attended to and I asked a member of staff for directions to the legendary bar. The Ritz was dressed for Christmas. I must have counted at least Eight Christmas trees. It took only one stair case to reach the bar, as it is located at the back of the first floor of the hotel and now aptly named the Hemingway Bar.
We were introduced to the head barman Colin Peter Field. He had a large sophisticated smile and a larger ego. He claimed he was the best cocktail maker in the world. We asked the head barman if Hemingway did drink 51 martins in a single tab. Mr Field did confirm the legend but admitting, pulled out a small shot glass from under the bar bench. “This was a standard 1940’s martini glass” he dutifully informed us. Nevertheless, despite the size of the glass I was impressed by the legend’s authenticity. I ordered the two most expensive dry martinis in my life. Worth every Euro. After a Colin Field cocktail, I wondered why he does not have a bigger ego.
Photography courtesy of Callum Osborne. A good photographer but a better friend.