Pat and I arrived in Marin County in northern California on August 5th and have explored each day since that move. It’s time to transition past Paris, but how does one ever move beyond Paris?
Stretched from the Eiffel tower to the tip of Ile Saint-Louis is one of the most spectacular cities ever conceived. Yet the first time I came here, I left disappointed. It was overrun by tourists and the sorts of businesses which pop up to support them—low quality restaurants, T-shirts shops, and independent scam operators. Hidden under this mess was Paris.
With each return, we walked further and further from the Seine. There we discovered the Luxembourg Gardens, Belleville Parc, and the bottom tip of the Rue Saint-Jacques. The Paris American Academy, and my writing workshop, was located on Saint-Jacques. Now, it is one of my favorite areas of the city—a street of inexpensive bistros and no crowds. During our three month stay, we entered the tourist core no more than five times. I didn’t miss it.
My last full day in Paris my writing teacher, Rolf Potts, invited me to coffee with travel writing legend Don George. This is the same Don George who was “one of the three people living or dead” who I invited to dinner during an interview in Bratislava. The same Don George to whom I once promised my kidney should he ever need it. (He doesn’t now, but would like to keep it on standby.) I brought along my 1904 Baedeker Guide to Paris, since we were meeting at Place de la Contrescarpe which seemed like the perfect neighborhood to explore with a 110 year old guidebook.
But I was mistaken. This area was just another market street before Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast plunged it into top tourist destination status. It is notably absent from my guidebook. Jim Morrison was not yet born, much less dead, so the section on Pere Lachaise focuses on notable authors and patriots versus drug addled rock stars. The eleventh arrondissement, where we stayed, is a place to avoid due to a preponderance of factories and blue-collar workers. My book describes a Paris before the arrival of 20th century writers and the more recent pop culture.
The location of my writing class, however, is covered in a two page description. The Schola Cantorum, the building which housed our classroom, is included in the book due to centuries of historical significance. This is where Ben Franklin once sat in meetings. It had been a convent, a music school, the place where King James the Second lived in asylum, lay in state, and where his remains were stored until a more amicable climate allowed them to be moved to Westminster Abbey.
My Baedekers led me about the neighborhood all day. At 284 Rue Saint Jacques, where we critiqued our writings in a modern classroom, stood a gate. This was the entrance to the convent to which Louise de La Valliere mistress of Louis XIV retired in 1675. I loved that simple sentence. What else do you do once you stop being the mistress of the King of France?
Nearby, on the Avenue des Gobelins, I learned of the tapestry factory of the same name which once supported the needs of the monarchy. For me (shame on me), this street was nothing more than another name on a Parisian map. When we return, it will be our first destination.
I ended the day in Luxembourg Gardens enjoying the explanation of the role Catherine de Medici’s Italian ancestry played in its design. How wonderful to travel with a guide not dumbed down to the lowest denominator–one written during Sylvia Beach’s first visit. What a gift to see Paris the way she saw it when she fell in love.
The next morning, we boarded a plane for home. As we banked over the city, I noticed the Eiffel Tower and followed the serpentine curvature of the Seine to the end of Ile Saint Louis. From here, with no tourists evident, Paris shined in the morning sun–a spectacular creation. I watched as that curve of land grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared.
Categories: A year in Paris