In 2013, the day before on the train from London I read the entirety of A Movable Feast and I became completely obsessed with both Hemingway’s idealized ‘20s version of Paris and Ernest Hemingway himself. This was partially due to my unjustified fixation with Shakespeare and Company.
During my first trip when I was finally able to get to the bookstore, I was in awe. I spent a full 15 in store, dropping about 25 Euro on one Scott Fitzgerald book, declaring it as my favorite place in the world. I dreamed of becoming a Tumbleweed and living in the store with other artists and writers and making lifelong friends. To be quite honest, I still fancy myself a Tumbleweed but I realize I neither have the want nor the social capacity to live in that communal space. Temporarily living in Europe has made me very self aware when it comes to my socializing limits and my incessant need for solitary time.
While my dream of living in a bookstore with a bunch of English-speaking artists has faded some, my weird admiration for Hemingway has not. I, at the same time, absolutely worship Hemingway and believe he’s an overrated masochist pig. It’s a combination of my two stereotypes—white English literature graduate and perpetually angry feminist—clashing with one another.
I have read (almost) everything he’s ever written, frequently list him as one of my favorite authors on anonymous questionnaires and quote him in essays, diary entries, letters, etc. At the same time, I wholeheartedly champion his female friends turned enemies such as Gertrude Stein, Martha Gellhorn and Zelda Fitzgerald. I completely abhor his flagrant sexism, racism and homophobia, finding his fragile masculinity absolutely hilarious. If you’ve ever read his profile in the Paris Review, he comes off as a senile, egotistical, name dropper.
But I love the man. I probably always will. Because despite everything, he can write five-word sentences that make feel things entire books could not.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway is prime Hemingway. In his foreword, he writes, “This book contains material from the remises of my memory and of my heart. Even if one has been tampered with and the other does not exist.” Here’s the thing, how pompous does he sound here? It’s already hilariously ‘edgy’ to describe one’s self as heartless but especially in the foreword to your book about how much you love a city. It’s classic Hemingway.
He’s young and virile and arrogant and naive and sweet and rude and hungry and angry and depressed and happy. You can feel all the attitudes of The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Farewell to Arms in his early writings and in his reflections of his own life.
He writes: “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.”
Hemingway’s reflections on Paris are interesting because they are almost exclusively the story of an American in Paris. Not the story of Americans observing Parisians or Paris, not Americans thinking of America while in Paris, just purely Americans experiencing Paris as Americans. He talks about going to the racetrack, trying to write in cafes, cheating on his first wife with his second wife, loving/hating the Fitzgeralds, love/hating Gertrude Stein, loving/hating James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford, etc. From Hemingway’s own admissions, the book is partially falsified but the major truths in the stories stand out.
Interestingly, he interacts almost exclusively with other Americans or other English-speakers. I can understand the impulse to look for other Americans while abroad. I say this fully knowing how arrogant it sounds but Americans in Paris are usually very annoying, myself included. But there’s something charming about the bumbling way we say ‘merci’ or how arrogantly confident we look even though we’re on the wrong train. Yes, hearing ‘ohmygod’ said as one word over and over again as a crowd of them trample you while swarming the Mona Lisa or realizing that for some reason American accents are the loudest on the Metro is incredibly irksome. However, Americans awed by the Eiffel Tower or the Seine or just an authentic croissant are my favorite kind of people.
As much as I liked to sit in cafes and parks pretending to be a Parisian with a full grasp of the French language, I missed being able to talk to someone, however mundane. Your personality tends to change as you speak languages other than your own. In French, I have no personality, I am timid and dumb. In your native language, you can understand the subtleties, the tone shifts.
I liked sitting in a restaurant called Breakfast in America not because the food was particularly good and not because I missed American food (if anything, I missed Mexican food the most), but because the waiters were American, English and Australian and I could understand them. Listening to them bitch about their shift changes, other coworkers and the weather was actually delightful. In French, I spend so much time confused that I lose all of this. I don’t think Hemingway would admit it but he probably felt the same way.
It’s also important to note that after the Paris terror attacks of 2015 where 130 people were killed, A Moveable Feast became a bestseller in France. It’s interesting that a book half a century old resonated with Parisians so well. Maybe it’s because the book doesn’t idolize Paris in ways other media attempts to. Hemingway tells stories of fisherman and cafes and parks, not extravagance and tourism.
He and perhaps the other members of the Lost Generation did not seem interested in becoming Parisians and did not intend to die in Paris. Paris was magical for them in the way Cancun or Rocky Point could be magical for a frat boy. They weren’t there to become better people or escape the U.S. or become European. They were just there to be there, to create work, to live. It’s almost too simple. Because the magic of Paris isn’t seeing something as grand as the Eiffel Tower, or the cream-colored flats or the croque monsieur. You are able to lose yourself in the city in ways you’ve never known before. It reminds you that you are alive.
Secretly, I’m terrified to leave Paris. Just as I was the last time. I’m afraid I won’t ever see this magical place again. Four years was too long and I can’t even consider another four. Whenever I’ve expressed this to people, they usually reply with, “Well I’m sure you’ll have fun the rest of your trip.” First, thank you for that completely unhelpful response. Second, there’s just something heartbreaking about leaving a transformative place. Paris has the ability to feel foreign but like home. I’m comfortable, familiar but I’m never bored.
Paris made me feel alive in many ways I didn’t know I could feel. I didn’t know I could just feel so delightfully happy walking down a street, or filled with crippling sadness lying in a bed. I only spent a month in Paris but it felt like a lifetime.
I’m going to leave this with a Hemingway quote because of course I am. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” Goodbye Paris, I will see you again soon.