I’ve been fighting against the Paris-sized void in my life by reading about the city. It might sound like a silly thing to do, but I assure you it’s entirely involuntary. I began reading Paris was Ours on the plane from Chennai to prepare myself for the wonders of this grand city. As we moved further through Europe, I shelved it to allow the magic of the other countries to seep in; but then we returned to Paris for the flight back home, and its romanticism hit me hard again. I continued reading the book till I finished it a few hours ago, then went to my bookshelf to pick up another to temper the hangover. My fingers hovered over Gogol, Godden, and James, before being pulled against their volition towards that familiar green paperback that I’ve been saving up for a treat – The Sun Also Rises. You see, Paris won’t let go.
My first encounter with Europe took place – through books – when I was around eight. I read Heidi and was immediately smitten by the idea of the mighty Alps. For a long time, I actually nurtured the ambition of being a milkmaid in the Swiss mountains. In my head, it meant wearing billowing skirts and lying in the sunshine on a flower-strewn meadow. I obviously didn’t account for harsh winters or physical exertion, because what is the imagination for if not to gloss over bitter realities? Years later, when I started watching Formula One and worshipping Michael Schumacher, Germany was the country I wanted to visit. As an added bonus, I would have loved to be employed by an F1 team (Ferrari, to be precise). That I didn’t get an opportunity to set foot on the European mainland until two weeks ago put paid to all my lofty goals. Considering that by mid-2016, I was already deep in the exploits of writers who spent time in Paris in the 1920s, reading Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach, and Morley Callaghan, it was only fitting that our trip should start in its mystical boulevards.
And so it was that I arrived in Paris, starry-eyed and determined to channel the spirits of the Lost Generation. Gertrude Stein was undoubtedly harsh towards them, and despite Hemingway and Pound’s dubious reputations with regard to their private lives, I was determined to learn from the streets and the river that had shaped their literature. I wanted to have a conversation with the Seine and drink in the fragrances of the rain-washed nights that added depth and colour to so many dreams. I wanted to see what drew those giants away, in those distant years, from the shores that we so prize today. Failed attempts and wild-goose chases didn’t matter. What was important was that Paris had been a central character in their stories in the years between the two World Wars, keeping the flame of art and literature alive in those troubled times, and continues to be a source of creative inspiration today.
Three heady days in Paris marked the start of our trip to Europe. I espied the twinkling lights of the outskirts from the airport, and took in a deep draught of the air of the Continent. I was soon to learn why so many writers gushed about Paris, why so many film-makers decided that this was the home of undying love and beauty. In the music of the piano being played somewhere near the entrance to the Métro, in the polite “Merci, Madame”, in the utter absence of English, I saw a world I was unaccustomed to, and whose acquaintance I looked forward to making.
With our friend K. for our guide, we did not have to stop to think where we could find the best baguettes or croissants or falafel. She led us expertly down winding streets – even though she had a propensity for getting lost in the streets of her hometown of DC – to her favourite patisseries and restaurants. We ate clumsily on pavements, shrinking under the aristocratic gaze of Parisian passersby who mostly seemed to eschew eating in public spaces (to be fair, one of them did call out “Bon Appetit!” with a kindly, amused glance). We ate at a small pizza place near Moulin Rouge and at a vegetarian restaurant where we feasted on delicious tomatoes stuffed with rice (A., the chef, will disagree with the word “stuffed”, which he said was an inaccurate translation, but I forget the French word). We had the most succulent orange-flavoured tiramisu here, and K. and I drew a picture of it for A., who was also kind enough to bring us samples of some quiche-like pie he had just prepared. We ate quantities of bread, mango jam, cheese, and pain au chocolat. We ate pastries for breakfast: Poire Jasmin (smooth, jasmine-flavoured), Le Carla (succulent dark chocolate), Le Vollon (more dark chocolate with crumbly, crisp caramelly bits). We picnicked at the Luxembourg Gardens and on our last evening in Paris by the Seine, with a glorious sunset painting the sky every conceivable shade of pink and orange. As the colours spread fast, as if an invisible hand were wielding a broad-bristled brush furiously, we packed up the remnants of our picnic and ran to the Pont Alexandre III, joining other onlookers who had flocked to the bridge at the sight of the spectacular show the sky was offering us, accentuated by the electric lights of the Eiffel Tower.
And that sums up about half of what we did in Paris. Most of it was about food, as described, but we also did a few other significant things. Over the next few weeks, I hope to tell you about our pursuit of literary ghosts and of our travels through three other countries. As we go along, I also mean to continue reading about these places, because resistance is obviously futile. When you read about a city you’ve just been in and identify street names, you feel aware and knowledgeable. You know that the creative impulses it has aroused among countless others have, just for a few hours, touched you as well. For those hours, the city was yours.
I will leave you now with this poem by CK Williams that I’ve been championing aggressively. I hope you like it and feel about it as I do (or otherwise, because what is a world where everyone agrees with everyone else).