December 7th, 2014.
We woke up bright and early the next morning to get in line for the Paris catacombs before they opened. The entrance was a simple black shed-looking building that lacked any indication of the oddities inside. The line wrapping around the street was the only indication that we were in the right place. The queue to enter is legendary for its length and its duration, so we knew we had at least an hour or two (hopefully not three) to get in. The catacombs are so unique and singular, though, that we couldn’t imagine not at least trying to gain entry. The catacombs are located in a series of tunnels that used to be old mines, and they hold the bones of over 6 million people. In the 18th century, Parisian cemeteries had a serious overcrowding problem, and an extensive collection of abandoned mines, so it seemed like a logical place to relocate some of the remains. It was later converted into a mausoleum and tourist attraction in the 19th century, and people have been visiting ever since. (The tunnels are much more extensive than just the bit which contains the Catacombs. To read a very interesting Wired article about a group that once set up a secret restaurant and cinema in the tunnels, click here.)
Once we descended into the tunnels themselves, things got very creepy. Although I don’t consider myself particularly claustrophobic, I was hyper-aware that we were many stories deep underground. Stephen, on the other hand, was hyper-aware of how low the ceilings were, and he spent the entire tour hunched over and uncomfortable, like an adult in a kid’s playground. He couldn’t wait to get out and stand at his full height again. The narrow tunnels, the omnipresent sound of trickling water, the oppressive humidity, the piles upon piles of bones- I can’t really describe how unearthly and off-putting the experience was. We were pleased to have done it but disinclined to ever return.
After a quick bag check upon exiting to make sure we hadn’t squirreled away any bones (ew), we went to the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés to fulfill my request- a coffee in one of the those Lost Generation cafes. But first, we walked around the area a bit. It is no longer the intellectual haunt is used to be, but it had lively streets filled with students, a small Christmas market set up outside of a church, and an abundance of picturesque cafes. We fell in love with it, despite its possible inauthenticity, so much so that we vowed we would stay there the next time we came to Paris. And we did.
Les Deux Magots is about as big of a tourist trap as they come. But since it was once a writing spot for all of those twenties writers I admire so much, we had to stop in for a café crème.
We sat in a covered patio room, and we went ahead and ordered cake to go with our coffees. The rain outside wouldn’t let up, so we were more than happy to take our time. People ran with newspapers over their heads and struggled to unfold stubborn umbrellas. Those who didn’t dash into the nearest shop or find a dry spot under an awning were walking at a fast clip down the street, pulling their coats tighter around them to keep out the persistent drizzle and the chill, with their eyes lowered to keep the rain off their faces. Meanwhile, we were sitting inside this lovely warm room with its great windows, people-watching and sipping our drinks, with no place to be and in no rush to leave.
This luxuriant cafe experience is one of the things I love most about Paris. Cafe time is sacred. No one minds if you nurse the same coffee for an hour, or if you stay there with a book for two or three. No one pressures you to buy more or to give up your seat for someone else. You can sit inside away from the cold, wet winter, and sip your coffee and read your book for as long as you want. It is a culture perfectly suited for the readers and people-watchers of the world.
The lady at the neighboring table got up to use the bathroom, and I took that moment to get a picture of the inside without her head in the frame. It was only later when I was looking at the photos that I realized the book she had been reading was none other than Paris est un fête, my favorite Hemingway book. A Movable Feast is one of those books that I always feel guilty about liking. I don’t care for Hemingway in general. I especially dislike the way he airs his former friends’ dirty laundry in this book, portraying those people who used to be so important to him in such a terrible light, while showing himself to be vengeful and petty. (My opinion, of course.) But I love it as much as I hate it. It is like an exposé filled with all the juiciest bits of gossip. I love to hate it just as much as I love to read it.
After the rain stopped, we covered the blocks between the cafe and the bookshop as quickly as possible before the sky started to open up again. Our next stop was Shakespeare and Co., named after a former bookshop in the area that Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, etc. used to visit to get all of their English-language books. The shop is English only and filled to the brim with books. Every little nook and cranny is stuffed with interesting reads, and even when the shop is virtually empty, you have to duck under doorways and squeeze between bookshelves to see all of their inventory. For this reason, there is a one-in-one-out policy which can result in a long wait to enter. On this grey and wet day, we were able to enter immediately. Unfortunately, pictures are prohibited inside, or else I would have taken a hundred. I can’t imagine a more charming bookshop. The store even has small nooks with beds for reading by day and sleeping by night, and they allow struggling writers to sleep and work in the shop.
After Stephen convinced me I really didn’t need more than one or two new books, we walked further south to see where all of these famous writers used to live. It seemed like everywhere claimed to have once been home to Hemingway at some point. He took the term moveable feast literally.
After our walk, we had to rush to Gare du Nord to catch the train back to London. On the way home, we gushed about all of the things we had seen and all of the places we had been, but most of all, all the things we still hadn’t seen and done. We spent the rest of the journey making plans to return.