Life, Literature and Chocolate in Paris
They Came to Paris, 2003
Coming out of the legendary Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris at our mid-morning break, I stretch into the sunshine on the Boulevard St. Germain and feel more fully alive than I have in years. I’ve just participated in a discussion of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. But not just any discussion: a discussion around marble cafe tables over hot chocolate in a restaurant frequented by Hemingway, in a dazzling city full of life and legends. My discussion partners are lawyers, administrative assistants, doctors, retired librarians, teachers, writers, musicians, computer consultants who have come to Paris to discuss the “Lost Generation” of American expatriate writers living in that richly fabled city between the wars.
Classical Pursuits has pulled us from Toronto, from Chicago, Seattle, New York and elsewhere and plucked us down on the Left Bank for seven glorious days of discussions in the morning at cafes, followed by sumptuous lunches, guided walking tours on some afternoons, lectures and concerts some evenings, and loads of free time to put up our feet on the green metal chairs at Luxembourg Gardens, or just sit dreaming in cafes over our café crèmes.
In this morning’s discussion of Hemingway, we were a comfortable group of 13 sitting in a rough circle around scattered tables. My fellow participants use phrases like “it seems to me” and “my recollection is” to preface their comments. We are polite and considerate of each other’s opinions, and nobody is ever put on the spot. Joe, our discussion leader, and a writer himself, draws us out gently with his open-ended questions. “Why does Hemingway open the book with the story of Robert Cohn?,” he asks, and away we go, unpeeling layer after layer of the story, that we had never even noticed when we had each read the novel on our own.
Classical Pursuits discussions are like that. They are based on the principle of “shared inquiry,” the same principle that guides the Great Books discussion groups in the U.S. There are no right or wrong answers, just impressions, ideas, thoughts, interpretations, that flow along in a subtly guided river. In his quiet way, Joe, like the other discussion leaders we have later that week for Gertrude Stein and then F. Scott Fitzgerald, draws us out, and gets us thinking, and talking. Before we know it, it’s time for the typically Parisian (read: delicious) lunch that the waiters with their long white aprons bring out to us.
We bond after that first session, and during the week, we find our way together to sit outside the Rostand opposite Luxembourg Gardens, sitting in the sun, sipping Kir, and telling our own stories, loosened up by the sunshine, the gorgeous setting in front of the black and gold wrought iron fence of Luxembourg Gardens, and the frank discussions about what we’ve read.
Our walking tour guide in the afternoons is Lisa, a Canadian poet living in Paris. She is articulate, knowledgeable, and funny. She tell us about Gertrude Stein carrying her dog for a “walk” in the Tuilleries, the dog dangling painted toe nails. Lisa is full of wonderful stories. Her information is often practical too – she points out Angelina’s, Stein’s favourite place to stop for hot chocolate, and tells us that it still serves the best hot chocolate in Paris. (Of course I can’t resist a visit on my own the next day, to check it out: best hot chocolate I’ve ever had). Another day Lisa takes us to Hemingway’s neighborhood, where he lived and worked, and then to Sylvia Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company bookstore where most of the expat writers dropped by to borrow books. She talks about the writers of the “Lost Generation:” and shows us where they walked, where they ate and drank. She tells us there is a new group of expat Canadian and American writers living and working in Paris today (she among them). Along the route, Lisa points one of the top 3 chocolatiers in Paris, and of course, on the way back, I sneak in to buy some truffles.
Some evenings, we have a discussion of the art and music of the period by a vivacious history teacher at New York University, working in Paris. Christina shows us pictures of Stein’s collection of paintings, and tells us that once Stein bought a painting by Francis Rose for one reason only – she liked his name. She explains to us how the cubism of Picasso (a friend of Stein, Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s) that abandoned traditional structure to get to the essence of a thing from many angles, is echoed in the fiery jazz music of the time, and also in the bare simplicity of Stein and Hemingway’s prose.
One morning, at the Select in Montparnasse, with Mecca, the big silver cafe tabby rubbing at our ankles, we discuss an achingly beautiful Fitzgerald short story with our leader, Nora. The story had captured the era of the “Lost Generation” perfectly – both the freedom and the emptiness. Nora, an expatriate American living in France, draws out, seemingly effortlessly, our very personal and always interesting reactions toward the story’s array of characters.
That afternoon is free, so I browse the streets of Rue Buci and find raisins soaked in Sauterne wine and covered in dark chocolate. I munch them while I watch a dozen music students performing a Mozart concerto in the square in front of the Sorbonne, just down the street from our hotel. I never want to leave.
One evening, when we are walking to a restaurant for dinner, I fall into step beside Tom. He is 78 years old, an articulate, thoughtful and forceful retired lawyer. I ask him how our week compared to regular Great Books discussions that he attends back home. He prefaces his comments by telling me he has been attending Great Books discussion groups for a very long time – for 53 years, to be exact. The he delivers his verdict in his slow drawl. “The first two sessions we had,” he says, “were the best sessions in which he had ever participated.”
On the last evening, there is a dinner at Le Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris. In the mirrored and gilded high-ceiling room, we hug and say farewell after our fabulous dinner, promising to stay in touch. Our table stays on, and orders coffee. Then we stay on longer, reluctant to end the wonderful week. To prolong the evening, Jackie, from Seattle, the “Winemaker’s Mother” (her son owns a winery) orders a lovely full-bodied red wine for the table, and we drink to life, to Paris, and to literature, yet again.