Part VIII: The Red Wheelbarrow, Second Time Around
December 7, 2014
On the train to Arles in the south of France that evening in 2009, and on the days following, I relived Hemingway’s days in Paris. On our last full day in Paris, five years later in 2015, I attempted to revisit the Red Wheelbarrow book shop on a cold Sunday afternoon in intermittent rain. We had walked to the Bastille market earlier in the morning to shop, and since the rue St. Paul was on the way back to our flat just across the Seine on the Isle St. Louis, we found ourselves retracing the same route, more or less, that Julia Rose and I had taken five years before. I had looked up the bookstore on the internet earlier that morning, found its website, and located the address on Google Maps. I had taken a screen shot of the map on my phone and used it to guide us to the store.
We found the address, but no bookstore, and I walked back to the flat in the rain with my family, dejected, though the mood lightened for a moment as we paused long enough to watch a string of thirty high school students trudging single file in the rain, loaded down with backpacks or pulling wheeled suitcases behind them, looking for their hotel.
If I had Googled much further that morning, I would have found the following blog post mourning the demise of several neighborhood bookshops in Paris:
The Red Wheelbarrow’s owners had to leave the city for personal reasons. They tried to sell the store but couldn’t find a buyer, so they sold the books and closed the doors. The sign remained for a while, but by the time I went looking in December of 2014 even the sign was gone. Parisian Fields: Exploring Paris One Blog at a Time is a good blog, and “Going, Going, Gone is a fine, sad post, well worth reading.
The author of that post, Philippa Campsie, captured some of what I think I feel about Paris. She writes about how something as simple as a book shop, even one visited ever so briefly, as I did once at the Red Wheelbarrow, can give a visitor a sense of belonging to a city. She writes: “[The bookshops] were never just about selling books. They hosted readings and launches, and they were places to go for conversation and news. At the Red Wheelbarrow, the people behind the desk recommended not just books, but the best boulangerie in the area. The staff weighed in on the merit of local cafes, and introduced us to other browsers crowding into the tiny space. You can’t get that in an e-book. In Paris, where sometimes it can be hard to find one’s feet and where much is unfamiliar, a space like the Red Wheelbarrow allowed us to feel on solid ground. Lost bookshops are lost friends. When a place like that disappears, it is not just the end of a business, it is the end of a friendship.”
How difficult it is to own a city you only visit—one undergoing constant change at that. (Campsie also mentions the author Charles Baudelaire, who mourned the city he remembered as it transformed in the 1850s: “Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! Than the human heart).”) Yet that is the reputation that Paris enjoys. Almost everyone who goes there buys into the sentiment expressed by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.” We feel that for the short time we are there we own the city.
The problem of owning a city you only visit is compounded even further because the real city is nearly inaccessible to the average visitor. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who lived in Paris for five years, writes about the changes the city is undergoing and the effects of tourism in “The View from a Bridge.” He writes:
“ . . . every city with mass tourism makes an implicit compact with tourists, which involves certain territorial concessions. No New Yorker would be really indignant to hear of an insult to the urban fabric of the South Street Seaport. Changing the guard at Buckingham Palace is a moving and entertaining ritual, and the Tower of London is a fascinating historical citadel. No real Londoner would be caught dead near either. Mass tourism doesn’t just overcharge its locales; it devours its objects. Our conversion experience to cities inevitably alienates us from the thing that first converted us
“. . . . If Parisians, of Venetians, tried to distinguish between mere tourists and true travelers and adopted visitors, they would never stop. Better to make two lumps—Them and Us, and stick to the Us places while surrendering the Them spots. Where the people who put up love locks insist that people have always been putting up love locks, Parisians pretend that the Pont des Arts is the kind of place you would have always wanted to avoid because it attracted the kind of people who put up love locks.”
The Paris that I imagine, the one inspired by Hemingway (whose café on the Place Saint Michel—a few blocks from where we stayed in Paris on either of our visits—is surely gone now), the one inspired by Buffett, is an idea or a concept more than a reality. The one that Woody Allen captured in that wonderful film Midnight in Paris is a dream. Even the Paris that my wife and I see on House Hunters International, a television program where couples shop for new homes in exotic places while routinely flouting a budget ranging into the millions of dollars, is a Paris that we will never be able to share. But despite all of that, the Paris that I shared with my wife and daughters, walking the streets, browsing the markets, cruising the tourist attractions, searching for bookstores, and lounging in a small flat that felt like home after nearly a month of living out of suitcases, where we could cook a meal, do laundry, and relax with a book or catch up on journals in comfort, is still Paris, and even though I could only borrow it for a short time, I would rather be there than almost anywhere else. Even though I never lived there, I feel I can share what Hemingway felt about the city as he closed A Moveable Feast:
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”