It's a curious thing, when you revisit a city for the second or third time. You somehow imagine that it'll be just the same. That nothing will have changed. It'll have the same shortcuts and smells, the same cafes and (to be sure) the flowers will be in bloom. Yet, somehow, everything is always different. Even the people.
We've just returned from a few days in Paris. It'd been at least half a decade since we last strolled the streets. On the surface of things, and as our memory serves, everything seemed just like it was before. As we looked closer, however, everything felt just a little bit mismatched. Maybe it was us, trying to escape from our busy lives, half-way committed to a hurried vacation, running around to see this or that. Or, maybe it was something else, perhaps a muted or displaced recollection. At least the Eiffel tower was just where we'd always known it to be.
Nevertheless, this time, something felt different about Paris. It wasn't just nostalgia. Which is to say, it's not that Paris isn't a constant source of inspiration, but rather that it felt like it had lost just a bit of it's glowing enthusiasm. And then we read, only today, that when Orson Welles was prompted to write an article for Vogue on his love for the city, he couldn't think of anything particular to say. The article, he quipped, should be entitled, "Why I Loved Paris". Welles goes on to explain:
"When I could walk on the sidewalk in Paris, I loved it, but now I have to climb over automobiles. Soon there won't be any real Paris left, you know. Or real London or real Rome. Because a few untouchable monuments are not gonna keep a city…I think all the cities of the world are in decline. Because the idea of supporting cities has ceased to be part of world culture. We're all moving into shopping malls…Maybe I'm just reactionary", confides Welles. "If I am, it doesn't bother me much, though. I'm perfectly content to be reactionary - to belong to my own time."
This question of the real. It haunts us still. You see, Paris is such an enchanted city. It's full of so many dreams and memories. You can't help but feel a sense of purpose and pride, a sense of excitement and despair. You're not quite sure if you're living a moment, or reliving a memory. In many respects, it feels as if you are a part of something that's just about to happen, or something that happened centuries ago. It can be very disorienting.
As we strolled down the St. Germain-des-Pres, squinting just so, we could almost see Hemingway sitting at the Brassier Lipp, enjoying a strong dry martini. Like any "good tourist", we picked up the latest edition of the Moveable Feast at Shakespeare and Co - which is, in one way or another, not quite the same since George Whitman passed away. Needless to say, the same observation was probably made when Sylvia Beach moved to the rue de l'Odeon.
We read in the introduction to the new edition of the Moveable Feast, in a lovely piece written by his grandson:
"In November 1956, the management of the Ritz Hotel in Paris convinced Ernest Hemingway to repossess two small steamer trunks that he had stored there in March 1928. The trunks contained forgotten remnants from his first years in Paris: pages of typed fiction, notebooks of material relating to The Sun Also Rises, books, newspaper clippings, and old clothes. To bring this precious cargo home […] Ernest and his wife Mary purchased a large Louis Vuitton steamer trunk. I recall as a child seeing that trunk in my godmother Mary’s apartment in New York, and I can still remember its smart leather trim with brass fittings, pervasive Louis Vuitton logo and the gold embossed initials, “EH.” The trunk itself was easily big enough for me to fit into, and it filled me with wonder at the grand, adventurous life my grandfather led."
It's such a strange thing, revisiting a city, reliving a memory. To imagine, and to truly believe that nothing will change, that the city you knew and loved so well, will somehow stay transfixed, that your heroes will still be walking around. Well, in a way, they are....