September 1, 2022
By Lynnell Edwards, associate programs director
"It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write."
Ernest Hemingway had been walking in the rain on this day he recounts in A Moveable Feast, the collection of essays written late in his life about his time after World War I in Paris as a young writer. He had made his way through the Latin Quarter past the Place du Pantheon onto the Boulevard Saint-Michel, then past the Cluny to the Boulevard Saint-Germain until he had found that “pleasant café” he knew on the Place Saint-Michel. He might have very well walked by the very block we stayed during our residency week in Paris this summer, looking for that perfect place to write, that place of familiarity and anonymity where we can find ourselves and find space to put that self on the page.
For the participants in the travel and professional writing workshop that I led, the moveable feast that is Paris was the grand subject of our “choose your own adventure” approach to writing, and an opportunity to write where we found ourselves. We generated brief capsule reviews and micro-memoirs that documented our time as writers and adventurers, pursuing our interests in food, in history, in art; in architecture or public spaces; in shopping and in Paris style. No subject was too large, too small, or in the case of Annie Howard’s visit to Les Catacombes de Paris, too dead. Of her afternoon tour there, she wrote: “The creepy tunnels seem to go on and on during this 1500 meter (just under 1 mile) tour with bones stacked floor to ceiling with an intentional design, varying between long femurs and humerus and skulls. There are carved quotes and poems and dedications to those whose nameless remains are kept within these hallowed walls.”
Above ground, Paris offered a full palette of sister arts to sample, including a concert at Sainte-Chapelle in the twilight glow of its thirteenth-century stained glass windows, a visit to the home and gardens of Claude Monet one morning, and a pilgrimage to the last residence and grave of Vincent Van Gogh that afternoon. We walked up the steep and narrow road out of the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, past the Gothic church he famously painted, across a gold field under a wide blue sky to the enclosed cemetery where the troubled painter rests beside his brother Theo. There, Drema Drudge quietly observed as “A young man prayed beside Vincent’s tombstone. A couple signed and positioned one another for photos. One man took a quick video, zooming back on the grave after panning away. The ivy on the grave was festooned with wheat shocks. Two tiny apples balanced on Theo’s tombstone; wilted flowers on Vincent’s.”
For Taylor Graham, Paris was a site for taking in the styles, particularly the effortless style of the Parisian women discussed in her review of the book How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits: “It only took one hot day for me in the area to really understand that a Parisian woman will never look less than her effortless best.” Even at 106 degrees, “the classic Parisian woman claimed my attention: confident, effortless, and unfazed by the heat her waist swished side to side. She didn’t have a care in the world. She even decided to light herself a cigarette as she walked past.”
For most of us, our daily commute to class was a pleasant twenty-minute stroll (swishing our waists or not) through the Luxembourg Gardens, a grand and historic park full of hidden beauty and shady retreats. This was no ordinary walk in the park, as John Jennings reflects: “Don’t be surprised if you feel like royalty, as you stroll the white graveled footpaths that lead to the Palace, a re-creation of the family home of Italian born Queen Marie de Medici. Constructed in 1612 over twenty-three hectares, the emerald lawns, towering sycamores, and manicured flower beds form a landscape that seems ethereal and romantic.”
Barry Drudge found, like Hemingway, that pleasant café just one block from our hotel where the locals ate and drank: the bistro Les Ursulines. And he whiled away at least one afternoon in the rain while I sat nearby reading and drinking coffee, which later became wine, which eventually turned into dinner with colleagues who were also seeking a shorter, rather than longer, walk through the rain to find dinner. Les Ursulines is that neighborhood place we all know in our hometowns, and as Barry observed: “Find the locals sitting out front of the café during happy hour, enjoying one another’s company as [sibling owners] Phillipe and Max keep the service running smoothly. Quick wit and courteous suggestions kept me smiling while trying out Duck Confit with the best-prepared fried potatoes and green beans I have ever had. Ever. had.”
But these are just a few of our adventures, and just the ones that we recorded in writing. There was the dinner cruise on the Seine, the first night; tapas in a crowded bar after the concert; sparkling lectures from our faculty; and the conversations about the writing life we pursued over wine and coffee and bread. As Hemingway reflects in the final essay of 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 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.”
For some of us, it was a first trip to the City of Light; for others, like me, a return after thirty years when, newly married, I saw the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower for the first time. After a wondrous week, we gathered for a closing dinner at the glorious Le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon, to celebrate, full with all that Paris returned to us, ready to take our pencils from our pockets and write.
Lynnell Edwards is associate programs director for the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, where she is faculty in poetry and professional writing. She also serves as book reviews editor for Good River Review. Her five collections of poetry include This Great Green Valley (2020); Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop, Covet, The Highwayman’s Wife, and The Farmer’s Daughter. Her book reviews, poems, and short stories have been included in numerous journals including Pleaides, New Madrid, American Book Review, Sou’wester, and Waccamaw.