Sweat poured down my brow and my back in self-conscious trickles. Wide eyes glared straight at the reddening rosacea on my cheeks. My brain felt foggy, my heart leaped into my throat, and my stomach flipped. Was that pungent pit odor mine? Could they hear the crack in my voice? The fifteen students and faculty closed in to a half circle that backed me into a Parisian café.
There was no way out now.
I was a perimenopausal woman leading a Hemingway tour.
At 49, I expected the hot flashes, but not a panic attack. My nerves were a complete surprise really. I’d taught thousands of students over a 25-year teaching career, I had lectured on Hemingway for decades back in the States, and I knew this group was kind and excited to be in Paris studying writing for the month. Keep it together, it’s all in your head I told myself.
“We are in the 5th arrondissement where Hemingway and his wife Hadley lived in the 1920’s. They frequented the cafes at the Place de La Contrascarpe and shopped along the market street of Rue Mouffetard,” I shouted to the group trying to project over the Saturday afternoon crowds and accordion music on the square. “Hemingway’s book A Moveable Feast is like a love letter meets travel log of his time here. He wrote, ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ ”
I kept talking, but all I could think about were the words a young man. I had read that phrase countless times before, but this time it stung. What if I wasn’t a young man? What if I was a middle-aged woman? The weight and substance of youth felt more and more ephemeral. Throngs of vibrant students bustled in the square, lovers flirted and clinked biere and vin glasses in the cafes. They all seemed in their roaring 20’s, the same age Hemingway was when he lived here. Paris was clearly for him. For them. But was it for me anymore?
Our group walked away from the crowds towards 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where Hemingway lived in an apartment with his wife Hadley and their son Bumby. The little money Hemingway made from working as a journalist at the Toronto Star afforded only two rooms, no hot water, and a WC down the hall. I translated the plaque outside:
“From January 1922 to August 1923, the writer lived on the third floor of this building with Hadley, his wife. Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961. The neighborhood, which he loved above all else, was the real birthplace of his work and the minimalist style that characterized it …, This American in Paris had a familiar relationship with his neighbors, especially the owner of the dance club attached. ‘Such was the Paris of our youth, at the time when we were very poor and very happy’ (Paris is a Party)”
The Paris of our youth. There it was again. That emphasis on innocence, vitality, and virility. As I felt an irritating hot flash take hold, I snapped, “Hemingway notoriously loved young women, married four times and had many affairs. He embodied youth culture of extreme sports, adventure, and risk, living large and drinking to excess.” I on the other hand noticed a strange draping on my neck, an inability to process alcohol, and a disturbingly low energy level. The attention I used to get from men in Paris seemed now reserved for my younger compatriots. I would hardly have been Hemingway’s type anymore.
Journeying deeper into my own sense of irrelevance, I lead the group down 39 Rue Descartes, the apartment where Hemingway rented a heated room to write. The street was quiet and cobbled with a wicker-chaired café on the bottom floor. We all stretched our necks to see the 5th-floor room with French windows and iron balcony. In A Moveable Feast Hemingway wrote in detail about his writing process here, reminding himself when he had writers’ block that he should “write one true sentence.” I read to the group from the book:
“If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline.”
Perhaps Hemingway was not just a machismo legend, he was also a complicated and sensitive writer who had self-doubt and thoughtful insights. Could that mean perhaps I wasn’t just an old maid either?
We continued our walk to the stone steps of St. Etienne-du-Mont, where the character, Gil, from A Midnight in Paris was picked up by the old Peugot and taken back to the 1920’s. Past the Dome of the Pantheon where Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola were buried. Down to the rustic Polidor restaurant where Gil met Hemingway in Midnight in Paris. And down to 12 Rue de L’Odeon, the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore.
As the group snapped photos of the Haussmann style building and now boutique clothing store where the bookstore once was, I shared some information about this famous spot.
“In 1919 Sylvia Beach opened this English language bookstore, where famous ex-pat writers like Hemingway, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Joyce gathered and borrowed books. Shakespeare and Company also daringly published the controversial Ulysses when it was banned in England and America.” Hemingway wrote affectionately about his frequent visits to Sylvia and the bookstore in A Moveable Feast. “On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”
Sylvia was a formidable woman. Not only did she own one of the most influential bookstores in Paris between two world wars, she also did so as a middle-aged, lesbian woman. She supported the publication of Hemingway’s books, encouraged their sales, and always made sure he had enough to eat. Hemingway loved Sylvia and the bookstore so much that he allegedly liberated it at the end of World War II. It struck me that Sylvia was 49 years old during the peak of her career and the height of the bookstore’s success. My draping neck suddenly lifted a little higher.
After a ten-minute walk, our last stop was at 27 Rue du Fleurus, Gertrude Stein’s apartment. The plaque outside unceremoniously read, “Gertrude Stein 1874-1946 American writer who lived here with her brother Leo Stein and then with Alice B. Toklas. She received many artists and writers. 1903-1938.” Beyond merely “receiving,” Stein was a grand dame of the literary community, and she used her apartment as a salon for expat writers to connect with each other and discuss their work. She coined the term “lost generation” for the nihilistic post WW I men, who felt directionless and purposeless. Stein was a guiding force in many of these artists’ lives. She critiqued Hemingway’s writing and regulary advised him with a powerful confidence. 25 years his senior and an open lesbian, she hardly felt irrelevant and hardly felt Hemingway’s admiration stemmed from her youthful beauty. No, Stein’s stalwart build and wise presence seemed to shout to the world I am here and proud of it.
The walking tour concluded, the group dispersed, and I wandered back home through the manicured Luxembourg Gardens that now showed its evening rose-tinted light. Around the circular fountain, sitting in the metal green chairs, I saw an elderly couple holding hands, a professor lecturing to some students, and a middle-aged woman sketching a statue.
A cool breeze blew in my hair, and from somewhere behind, I swore I heard a gentleman say to me, “Quelle Magnifique.”