PARIS, France—If you searched all the suitcases that arrive every morning at Charles de Gaulle Airport from American cities as far and wide as New York, Miami, and San Francisco, there is one item you would almost certainly find in each of them (besides jean shorts, that is).
For some reason, a huge percentage of American tourists in Paris seems to bring with them a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—the classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, when, naturally, Hemingway would write in cafes all afternoon, hobnob with other (wealthier) expatriates, and, perhaps less naturally, actually capture and kill real, live pigeons when he no longer had the money to dine out.
At first, this ostensibly literary obsession is charming, almost cute. So charming, in fact, that, for a while, fanny packs, white sneakers, and mom jeans all become somewhat tolerable—well, at least forgivable—when you see the same mullet-headed men and frumpy, sunburned women (whose behavior would otherwise impel you to feign an accent and pretend to be Canadian) happily en route to Hemingway’s first Paris apartment just off Place de la Contrescarpe or to the Café de la Paix, where he famously couldn’t afford his 1922 Christmas dinner.
“Hey,” you almost want to say to that section of French public opinion that insists America is a country that persecutes “intellectuals” like, say, Roman Polanski. “Looky here! My countrymen have come to Paris to retrace the footsteps of an artist who isn’t Jim Morrison! Suck on that!”
While almost no one would argue that the Lost Generation represents anything but a remarkable moment in the history of Americans abroad, I have to wonder about the need to traipse through the streets of what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful city in search of the various bars in which Hemingway once drank. (The answer: all of them! A more interesting question would be where that man didn’t drink.)
More importantly, however, I question the need to see Paris through someone else’s eyes, to search in vain for the Paris of the rosy past in order to avoid the inconvenient truths of the Paris of the present, whose cafes are no longer cheap and whose personality is hardly the same as that of the city in Hemingway’s memoir. A good traveler should make the effort to see a city as it is rather than as it once was, to forge his or her own impressions of a place instead of accepting at face value the recollections of a writer active long ago.
After all, Paris after Hemingway has been invaded in a World War, transformed—at least in terms of population demographics—by an influx of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa, and rocked by the growing sense of unrest among those immigrants who, to say the very least, found the City of Light to be a bit less than welcoming after they arrived en masse.
That’s the Paris of the present, the Paris that any traveler has an obligation to see. And as eloquent a love letter as A Moveable Feast may be to the French capital, it alone is not enough to guide one through the city; it is no substitute for the Paris of the present or for one’s own impressions of that Paris, a bit seedier perhaps but, nevertheless, the real thing.
The other day I found in my apartment a copy of Bob and Roberta Smith’s classic Make Your Own Damn Art, which, as the title might suggest, urges readers to rage against the machine and create the art that moves them, based on the lives they themselves have lead.
Well, folks, the same seems true for Hemingway’s memoir and the City of Light: Make your own damn Paris!
James K. McAuley ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Currier House.