Thinking about my trip to Northern Michigan, I was reminded that I have another tale from last summer. It’s not about bookshops and it doesn’t really have a particular point, but here it is anyway. Maybe it has an underlying meaning unknown to me, like the woman’s story in the Times.
Last June, I had a business conference in The Hague and added an extra day to my itinerary with the idea I might go to Dublin. (The extra day was the 16th.) But when I woke up in my hotel room that morning, I decided that I just couldn’t face Dublin on Bloomsday plus 100. Perhaps it was the spirit of James Joyce whispering in my ear.
A week before, knowing I might decide to skip Dublin, I had looked into trains to Paris and figured I could probably get down there, see a little bit of the city, have dinner with a friend, sleep in a hotel by the train station, then reboard bright and early so I would arrive at Amsterdam-Schiphol in time for my 2 p.m. flight back to the States. Since I wanted to do this cheaply, I did an online search and found an inexpensive hotel near the Gare de Nord, checking a few online reviews to make sure the hotel wasn’t too terrible.
Early the next morning, bag over my shoulder, I took a tram from the hotel in the Hague to Central Station, and got on a train to Paris.
Sitting on the train I thumbed through my little red Paris par Arrondissement, looking for the Quai Francois-Mauriac, where a friend happened to be staying. No such street. How can that be? Later I discovered that my mapbook predated the construction of national library (the BNF), which remade large parts of the neighborhood on the left bank of the Seine below Pont d’Austerlitz. I felt a little like Melville’s Redburn, trying to navigate modern day Liverpool with his father’s old guidebook. Except in this case I was my own father. You’ll find that happens as you get older.
(At this point let me recommend Multimap.com, Europe’s equivalent of Mapquest.)
I arrived in Paris about noon and, after standing in line to buy my return ticket, walked two blocks over to the Hotel De Bruxelles et du Nord. I paid 60 euros for a room. Clean, secure, perfectly acceptable for a guy traveling by himself. Not picturesque but rather “pocketesque,” as Redburn would say.
As I left the hotel the manager yelled “key!” I forgot that about Paris. I gave him my key. If a Frenchman doesn’t smile, it means he likes you.
The forecast called for rain, but it was a beautiful, sunny day. I walked down the Boulevards Magenta, de Tour, and Beaumarchais until I reached the Rue de Rivoli, where I bought an apple at a little farmer’s market. Realizing I was near the Ile St-Louis, at the Place de Bastille I turned down Henry IV and walked across a corner of the Ile on my way over to the left bank.
Since this is turning into a mere litany of Paris street names, I’ll simply say that as soon as I arrived on the left bank, I followed the quais all the way down to Mauriac.
The journey took me through a university area (shady streets, students coming in and out) and then past the welcoming portals of the BNF. What a place. Reminded me of a Guy Billout drawing.
I arrived at the apartment building and no one answered the bell. I sat in the grass and read a newspaper. A few minutes later I heard a noise, saw the building door slam shut, and saw my friend disappearing into the lobby.
We went up to the top of the building, drank beer, and looked out on the library grounds. It was too hot up there, so we came inside for a while and talked. I browsed the bookshelves in the apartment and I found a copy of Tardi’s illustrated version of Celine’s Voyage au bout de la nuit. I had never seen it before. I checked to see if my favorite scene was depicted and there it was: a tiny drawing of the hero, pushing his trolley of auto parts, from the chapter based on Celine’s experiences as an employee at Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant.
We decided to walk north along the Seine. At one point we had to walk single-file atop a wall bordering a highway on-ramp. At a little concrete plaza we sat down, gazed out on the river, and talked about the upcoming election in the US. A few other people were sitting around too. In the center of the plaza, a man and women were solemnly practicing the tango.
(This is the crazy kind of thing you see in Paris. I remember a New Year’s Eve back in the early 1980s, sometime after midnight, sitting in a cafe with friends. Across the room, a lovely woman in her 20s, bored or drunk or both, was playfully pressing her face against the cafe window. People outside would stop, see her scrunched-up face against the glass, and laugh. She kept at it. Finally a boy of about fifteen passing by on the sidewalk spotted her and headed straight for the window. With a big smile on his face, he leaned up to the glass and gave it a kiss. Laughter, applause.)
After a while we walked back to have dinner at one of the restaurants along the river. There are a several old barges (peniches) on the Seine that now serve as nightclubs, with live music, dancing, etc. A few of them dock near the BNF, and in the same area a few outdoor restaurants are down along the river too. We had steak and frites and a bottle of wine sitting in one of the outdoor cafes.
When we finished, about 11 p.m., I reversed my afternoon path through the city, but crossing instead at the Pont d’Austerlitz and otherwise varying it a little so I could see a few more blocks of Paris. (If you’re keeping track, you’ll notice I’ve crossed the Seine three times from two different directions, just like the taxicab in “Babylon Revisited.”)
It occurred to me that I had never been to Paris in the summertime before. In the Marais neighborhood, the streets were crowded and the restaurants and bars were fairly overflowing with customers. I walked by the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which figures so prominently in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and where my wife once turned to me, gestured to an exhibit, and said, “Did you know Cyrus McCormick invented the cotton gin?” (She was joking.)
Halfway to the hotel, I was stopped by a French couple in their early 20s who asked for directions. A passerby heard our discussion and came up to me after the couple walked off. Late 30s, dressed in a business suit and carrying a briefcase, he looked like the guy on the cover of Toussaint’s Monsieur. With a serious look on his face, he said: “I just want to tell you: don’t listen to what the newspapers say. We love Americans.” What can you say to something like that? I thanked him, and he continued on down the street without another word.
I made it to the Gare du Nord on time the next morning, boarded my train, arrived at Schiphol with time to spare, and was home the same day.