In the old days, people would ask you how your crossing was–was it a rough crossing, or a smooth one? they would want to know. That was when the only way to get to Paris was over the thin, choppy stretch of sea called the English Channel, and it was much more of a production.
Now there is no crossing: only a long, swift, sweeping motion, like a wave of the arm–you fall asleep in Paris and wake in London, and there is just a tunnel, a fast train between two cosmopolitan cities. At the station everything is in French and English and all the announcements are made in both languages. Even at this early hour people are reading newspapers and preparing for their day in suits or swish trousers and high heels. It is impossible to tell why they are making the journey. I myself am making it to get my visa stamped.
“Is this your first presentation?” the man at passport control asks me about the visa, and I nod.
We stayed first in a cheap hotel and then at a friend’s crumbling, recently sold apartment. On our last evening there we were having a meal on the mattress–cheese, paté, wine–when a girl came into the apartment to take away all of the furniture. It was embarrassing because our friend had forgotten to tell us she would be coming and had forgotten to tell her that we would be there. We slept without a mattress that night (last night), in the August heat, but it was okay somehow.
We walked around a fair bit, but because he had sprained his ankle the night before we left we had to take it easy. I read The Flaneur by Edmund White; it reminded me that Ernest Hemingway was hungry and poor in Paris, too. There is a passage in A Moveable Feast that I had forgotten until I read The Flaneur; it’s long (less a passage and more a chapter) but the start of it goes: “You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food”. Then he describes how he used to wind his way around the city avoiding all the places that made him hungry and tempted to spend money. But also he writes: “We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” So there’s that, and it’s a far nicer thing than being able to afford a fancy hotel with a mattress or to enter every museum or shop for souvenirs and clothing that will just take up space anyway.
We drank café au lait facing the street so we could watch all the people. Our biggest expense was coffee, not accommodation or food. It was a good thing he had bought me The Flaneur, really; “the flaneur,” White writes, “is…in search of a private moment, not a lesson.” And, “Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone.”
We had a kir each at Sartre’s café, Café Flore, across from the Lipp where Hemingway eats in A Moveable Feast. Because the drinks were so expensive we drew them out, sipping slowly and delicately, enjoying being able to rest our feet while other people walked on by. The waiter brought us a plate of green olives and I sucked them from a toothpick and we picked the pits out from our teeth.
There is probably a lot more I could write but I’m tired. We’ve been on the road for most of August, it seems. We’ve been to Cambridge, the Cotswolds, Brighton, and Paris. Oxford has emptied completely, taking a tiny breath before she fills with students for the term. Even the Cowley road this morning as we walked back from St. Clements seemed wide and quiet; only a few cars trickling past, hardly any other pedestrians. I’m uploading photos and going to have a nap. It’s September, and part of me doesn’t know how this came to be, even though I’ve seen it happen so many times before.