Looking back on my semester here in Paris, my mind is a jumble of mixed emotions. I feel like I’ve learned so much about myself, but for some reason, I find it so hard to articulate these thoughts; nonetheless, I’ll try! Let’s start with the good. First of all, thank you, Paris, for strengthening existing relationships and for introducing me to amazing new friends—I even got a new roommate for New York out of my semester abroad. Throughout the past few months, I’ve met a bunch of new people, who not only have forced me to broaden my interests, but who have also illuminated for me exactly what it is I look for in a friend. In other words, I’ve learned a lot about the type of people I want to surround myself with. To come abroad, someone has to be adventurous and outgoing—or at least striving towards those qualities—and that is the person I want to befriend and learn from, as I’m always trying to push myself to get outside of my comfort zone.
That being said, studying abroad has solidified in my mind that the scariest things are always the most rewarding. The most obvious example is studying abroad itself. I was so nervous to travel thousands of miles from my friends and family and transplant myself into a new and foreign culture. Now? I’m 99.9% sure that choosing to study abroad was the best decision I’ve made in my life thus far. Just this past week I learned how to surf at Guincho Beach in Portugal. The week before that? I jumped off of a boat into the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Being abroad has given me the opportunity to conquer fears and to do things I never dreamed I’d be able to.
Another thing to come from my semester here? I’ve been bitten hard by the travel bug. I returned to Paris only two days ago from a two week long Spring Break, during which time I traveled to seven cities. I can’t deny that I’m exhausted, but that hasn’t stopped me from already dreaming up a list of more places I’d like to visit in the future. India, Egypt, Israel, Thailand, South Africa, Australia—these are just a few from my long laundry list of must-go places. Plus, that’s just my international list! There are so many states and cities in the United States that I’m itching to go and see, too. At the top of my list right now is Nashville. Why? It just seems like a fun and happy place filled with friendly people and great music!
Okay, now for the not so good. I think the toughest problem I’ve faced in Paris has been the language barrier. I do speak French, but not fluently. There are some days I get excited about the opportunity to go out and practice speaking my French in the real world rather than just in a classroom. Other days though, I’m just plain lazy. I don’t want to have to think about every word that comes out of my mouth when ordering a coffee or going to the grocery store. While I was away on Spring Break, I visited cities like Rome and Lisbon. While these cities aren’t entirely English-speaking places, there is no pressure on me to try to communicate in Italian or in Portuguese. In Paris, on the other hand, I feel an unspoken obligation to put my French to use while I’m here. Like I said, sometimes that can be fun, but not when you’re exhausted, hungry, or simply in a rush.
All in all though, the good most definitely far outweighs the bad. In fact, I wouldn’t even call the language barrier or anything about my experience abroad “bad.” When things don’t go your way, you simply have to take them as learning experiences and all part of the process. Otherwise, you’ll end up wasting your precious and fleeting time abroad on trivial matters. What you’ll remember when you leave to go back home are the good times. The times you pushed yourself to try new things and meet new people. When I get back home, I hope to continue to force myself to seek out adventure and to do things that no one would usually expect of me.
If you’re considering studying abroad in Paris, I have only two words for you–DO IT! Paris has become my absolute favorite European city, as well as home. Why is Paris so great? I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll try.
First of all, I want to shatter stigmas and stereotypes that exist surrounding the mythical city of Paris. It’s not true that Parisians don’t like Americans. I’ve met incredibly friendly people in the city, none of which have ever expressed anti-American sentiment. It is true, however, that if you try to speak French to a Parisian, they will likely answer you in English if they are able to detect an American accent. Don’t let this get you down. It’s not necessarily because your French sucks! They simply like to practice their English, just like we like to practice our French. So, even if they respond in English, just keep speaking to them in French.
Now–where to live. NYU Paris has great dorms in the 11th arrondissement, and although I lived in an apartment, I think the dorms are a fabulous option, because it’s a great great way to meet people. If you decide to go the apartment route though, I have a few suggestions. My apartment is in the Latin Quarter, which is a great option ifou want to be within walking distance of your NYU Paris classes. If you don’t mind taking the metro, biking, or having a longer walk to class, then I absolutely recommend living in the Marais, which is made up of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. The way I describe he Marais is like Soho in New York, but way way better and less touristy. It’s the youngest and most hip neighborhood in Paris, in my opinion. The food is outstanding, the bars are fun, and the shopping and art galleries are incredible. Also, the Marais is the only neighborhood in Paris that stays open on Sundays–this is something important to keep in mind and something I wish I’d been prepared for before arriving in Paris! Don’t leave your grocery shopping for Sunday because nothing is open unless you go to the Marais, which, depending on where you live, could be inconvenient.
As for sites, there are an insane amount of places and monuments to visit in Paris. There are the obvious ones, like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre. But be sure to also visit smaller sites and museums, like l’Orangerie, a beautiful museum. I won’t harp too much on the sites because that would take forever and it’s pretty easy to find them once you’re in Paris. So, here are some tips you may not find in a travel guide. When it gets nice out, picnic as much as possible. The second the sun comes out as it turns from winter to spring, you’ll find people lounging in every garden or park around the city. My personal favorite spot to picnic at is the Tuileries garden, which is right by the Louvre. It’s also nice to lounge by the Seine.
Speaking of the Seine, that river is partially what makes Paris so charming. The Seine is truly magical. Yes, sometimes she looks brown and dirty, but walking along the river on a beautiful, sunny day, or even on a drizzly night, is an unbeatable feeling. You’ll feel like life can’t possibly get better. Aside from the Seine, Paris’ size also makes her a perfect city to study in. Upon first arrival, the city may feel big, but it’s so easy to learn your way around, and it’s even possible to walk most places if you’re more or less centrally located. And if not, both the metro and the public bus are super convenient. You will never get bored in Paris, I can promise you that. A semester is not enough time to visit all the sites and museums and gardens, or to try all of the fabulous restaurants and cafés.
How to prepare to study abroad in the weeks easing up to your arrival? That’s a difficult question to answer. In my opinion, the most important thing you can do is make sure you have the right attitude. It’s more than okay to be nervous–I certainly was. But you should also be excited and most importantly, open-minded and ready to experience new adventures. Things may not go as you expected them to, but that’s just part of the study abroad experience. Plus, you have the support of your peers and the NYU faculty. Studying abroad will be the best decision you ever make, and if you choose Paris, you’re choosing wisely!
Just a few days ago, I took a trip to Florence with Liz, one of my best friends. We were in Rome for the weekend, and had decided to do a Tuscan day trip to Florence to ride vespas and check out the countryside. When we arrived at the office (called Walk About Tours in case anyone is interested), we met Julian, a guy in his 20s who would be teaching us to ride, and acting as our tour guide. We got to know Julian, who had grown up in Seattle with his mother, but spent every summer in Florence with his father. He’s been living full-time in Florence for the past four years, working at the tour company, riding vespas and vintage Fiats (what a life). The talk eventually turned somewhat serious though, as we had to sign waivers in order to ride the vespas and Julian cautioned us about crazy Italian drivers who like to cut people off.
Liz and I had arrived to the office super excited and gung-ho, but slowly started to become more and more nervous. We were the first to arrive and waited anxiously to meet our fellow riders, who slowly trickled in after us. There were two couples, one English and middle-aged, and the other older and from Arizona. The seventh and final to arrive was a man from Japan who didn’t speak the best English. We were an eclectic bunch to say the least, coming from a variety of backgrounds and comprising an age group from 20 to mid-70s.
Soon it came time to learn the basics of Vespa riding. We all walked into the alley way outside of the office and in front of the entire group, Julian individually tested our skills. It was nerve-racking to wait for my turn, and when I finally got on the Vespa I felt awkward in the seat, unsure where to place my hands or feet. With Julian’s help and the support of my fellow riders though, I relaxed pretty quickly and got the hang of it–although to be honest I was probably the weakest link of the group.
Eventually everyone proved that their skis were decent enough to handle the 3-hour long ride, and we were off. In the beginning, I was at the very back of the group, riding the slowest and definitely the most awkwardly. To top things off, it began to rain, and I had to blink 100 times a minute just to see. We headed away from the city center and into the countryside. Our first stop was an old church, and when we got off the vespas, Julian told me I looked like a pretty awkward rider. I laughed but after that definitely felt the need to prove myself!
So after our stop at the church I forced myself to relax and just go with it, rather than overthink every single turn and uphill climb. Soon, I was having the time of my life. We went through narrow, tree-lined cobblestone paths and around bends that gave the most beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside, complete with the lush greenery and gorgeous villas. Even the fact that it was cold and rainy didn’t bother me. In fact, it was even more exhilarating. Who else can say their first time on a Vespa was riding through the Tuscan countryside in the rain! It was truly one of the best experiences of my life. Not only did I meet fun and interesting people and get to see one of the most beautiful places in the world, but I also proved to myself that I can handle adventure.
A couple of weeks ago I was on the metro with a friend, en route to see the opera Rusalka, which NYU had gotten us tickets to. It was a hot day and the metro was crowded, so I wasn’t in the best of spirits to begin with. Then, all of a sudden, I felt someone come up behind me and press their entire body weight against me, pinning me to the door of the metro car, unable to move. Thank goodness I had my backpack on, because otherwise the drunk man standing behind me would have been WAY too close for comfort–not that he already wasn’t.
He started to talk incoherently to me, all the while still pinning me to the door. I looked around me, visibly uncomfortable, silently willing someone to help me. There was a young guy standing right next to me and I kept looking at him hoping he would do something, but he simply averted his eyes. Not a single person on the crowded metro car did a thing. Finally I was able to squirm away from the man, and ran out of the car at the next stop. He got off behind me and continued to try to talk to me, but I walked away as fast as my legs could carry me.
After I got out of the metro and was above ground, I was really disturbed–not so much by the creepiness of the man, but more so by the fact that none of the bystanders were willing to help. In psych classes, you always learn about that theory that claims when there are many bystanders around, no one acts because each person thinks someone else will step up and be the one to help. I always thought the theory made sense, but had never experienced it myself. I was pretty livid. Who wouldn’t help a young girl being harassed by a clearly intoxicated and aggressive older man?
Just a couple of days later, I was waiting in line to get a coffee, and once again, I felt someone touching my shoulder. I turned around, assuming it was my friend, but nope–another drunk man! Luckily this time I wasn’t in a crowded space, so could easily move away. Nonetheless though I was pretty annoyed. When had I become such a target? I left the coffee shop and walked home.
When I got home, I tried not to stew. I’d had a bad week in Paris, yes. But it wasn’t the end of the world. It could happen to anyone and anywhere. If anything, at least in the case of the first incident, it was an interesting lesson on societal behavior. In fact, I was telling my friend about the metro incident just a couple of days ago, and she wasn’t surprised that no one had come to my aid, as something similar had happened to her. This could be a sweeping generalization, but it seems to be part of the Parisian societal customs to keep to yourself, and avert your eyes when less than favorable things are happening right in front of you.
All in all, even though I was pretty angry about the situation, I’m not bitter about it. Like I said, that psychological theory about bystanders makes sense, so I can’t say I’m surprised. I’m moving on, I’m not scarred or anything. I’ve taken the metro since and all went well. All you can really do when something bad happens to you is take it with a grain of salt and keep on living life.
My friends and I were in Positano on the Amalfi Coast of Italy just a few days ago. On our last day, we signed up for an all-day boat excursion to visit the island of Capri. As we waited to board the boat, called Lady L, we quickly realized we were the youngest four people taking part in the tour. As a result, the strangers we met that day, some of whom we became friends with, were all middle-aged or older.
The first person to approach us was an elderly woman who had one of the warmest personalities I’ve ever encountered. She heard us speaking English and, realizing we were fellow Americans, asked us where we were from. We exchanged pleasantries and soon she told us that she and her husband had just arrived in Positano by way of Rome, where they were visiting their granddaughter who was also a study abroad student. By the way she and her husband spoke about their granddaughter, a Brown student, it was clear they were immensely proud. In a way, the couple became our surrogate grandparents for the remainder of the day. We spent the entirety of the boat ride on the upper deck with the couple, sharing “oohs” and “ahs” at each site we visited en route to Capri. We even all napped together on the ride back to Positano at the end of the day.
Oddly enough, the couple was an essential element in making our day memorable. Traveling unites people who otherwise likely would not have gotten to know each other. Also, as were among some of the only English speakers on the tour, we felt a common bond that allowed us to transcend the awkward strangers phase to fast friends. However, while in Positano I realized that even with a language barrier people can become friends.
During our stay there, we befriended an Italian man who spoke very little English. We first met him while walking along the dock, when his toy poodle, named Chica, came bounding up to us. We all fell in love with Chica within the first five seconds we saw her. As we were fawning over her, the Italian man (whose name we actually never asked) told us to feel free to come and play with Chica everyday–and so we did! Although we couldn’t converse much with the man, our encounters with him over the next three days were always friendly. Body language and hand gestures are, at least in this case, enough to transcend language barriers.
While studying abroad, I’ve found that it’s relatively easy to befriend strangers. At times I can be shy, but when you’re in a foreign country, it’s important to put yourself out there. The people in any given city are an important part of the culture, and it’s important to get to know them. And if you encounter overwhelming language barriers, then get out there and meet fellow tourists, fellow strangers to the city. That way, you can be strangers together. These are the things I always tell myself when I visit a new place, and so far I’ve found these reminders helpful, as I’ve met some of the most interesting people over the past few months abroad.
Paris Spleen is a collection of 51 prose poems written by Charles Baudelaire and published posthumously in 1869. I chose to read this book because I was intrigued by the genre of the prose poem—prose writing that simultaneously exhibits poeticism in its images and language. Despite the fact that Baudelaire’s views of Paris are from the stance of someone living in the 19th century, I find that the images he creates are still applicable to Paris today.
In “Venus and the Motley Fool,” Baudelaire recounts his sighting of a lonely man, the “Fool” of the poem’s title, gazing up at a statue of Venus, seemingly asking her to save him from his own grief. While the relationship between man and statue is interesting, what’s most intriguing is that the incident occurs on a “wonderful day,” which provides a stark contrast to the man’s plight. Baudelaire uses vivid detail to describe the day, with adjectives like “luminous,” “dazzling,” and “frenzied.” With this opening, he immediately drew me in, as I imagined myself walking around Paris on a beautiful day like the one he describes. What follows, though, is Baudelaire’s account of the “grief-stricken soul” and the “implacable Goddess” who ignores his desperation. This poem, for me, captures the double-edge sword that is Paris. On the one hand, the city is magical and there is absolutely no place like it, especially on lively spring days like today. On the other hand, as a foreign visitor to the city, I have definitely felt lonely.
Again, in “The Soup and the Clouds,” Baudelaire provides a juxtaposition that speaks to what it’s like to live in Paris. An unnamed narrator sits awestruck watching clouds go by: “I was looking out of the open dining-room window contemplating those moving architectural marvels that God constructs out of mist, edifices of the impalpable.” Immediately this poem resonated with me. Since coming abroad, I’ve found myself marveling at all of my surroundings, but especially at the sky and its clouds. Something about the clouds in Paris seem different than the ones back home in the States—there’s a magic to them. Or maybe I’m just willing them to seem different and magical; either way, I marvel at them just as the narrator does. The poem concludes, “All of a sudden I felt a terrible blow of a fist on my back, and heard…the voice of my dear little beloved, saying: ‘Aren’t you ever going to eat your soup, you damned bastard of a could-monger?’” Baudelaire uses the trope of the “nagging wife” to disrupt the narrator’s reverie. Similarly, life abroad can often feel dreamlike, or like an unreality; however, reality always comes crashing back in. Whether it be something as banal as homework, or something like having to get your apartment exterminated (as I had to do a couple of weeks ago), life in Paris is still life, complete with its unexpected and at times unpleasant surprises.
In Baudelaire’s “Epilogue,” he pays his final homage to Paris. He paints the city as his mistress, “whose hellish charm resuscitates,” and continues, “Whether in morning sheets you lie asleep / Hidden and heavy with a cold, or flaunt / Through night in golden spangled veils, / Infamous City, I adore you!” In these lines, Baudelaire aptly captures the spirit of Paris yet again. On the one hand, the city is simultaneously wild and unpredictable; nonetheless, Paris is dependable for her constant “charm.”
When asked to think about what is quintessentially Paris, or the “spirit of place” that exists here, my mind jumps first to the people. In my opinion, it is the locals—from their clothing to the way they spend their afternoons sitting idly at their neighborhood cafés—that give Paris its unique flavor, always slightly mysterious and intangible to outsiders. While I hesitate to make generalizations, I feel fairly confident in the claim that Parisians have mastered the art of “casual cool.” In other words, they know how to make everything they do seem effortless, or as if they’re not really trying to look trendy, hip, or sophisticated—they simply are. I think this is especially true of French women. If you pick up any fashion magazine, from Vogue to Elle, you would more likely than not come across an article attempting to shed light on the mysterious, “cooler than you” French woman. In fact, an article on Vogue.com entitled “How to Tie a Scarf like a French Girl” begins, “It’s a popular trope that French women do just about everything—eat, dress, raise their children, do their hair—better than those of us on this side of the Atlantic” (Borrelli-Persson).
In just the past week, I’ve had two experiences that felt to me so definitively Parisian. Last Wednesday night, I went to meet two friends who were in Paris for the week for dinner at Le Relais de l’Entrecôte, a restaurant much-loved for its steak, that, despite its popularity, still manages to feel like a family-run business. As the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, there is typically a line out the door of people waiting to be seated; however, the line always moves quickly and the food is so good that no one minds the wait. On Wednesday, my friends and I were chatting as we stood in line. A hostess approached us and asked how many we would be, then turned to the woman in front of us, who replied that she’d be dining “toute seule,” or all alone. The woman, who was probably mid-forties, spoke with such confidence while she stood holding the latest issue of French Vogue. She exuded the air of a chic Parisienne, comfortable enough with herself to dine alone, let alone at a steakhouse.
She eventually struck up conversation with us, asking, as she heard us speaking English, where in the States we came from. In equally typical French fashion, she was delighted to hear that we studied in New York City. It’s often said that the French revere New York as its own entity, separate from and better than the United States as a whole. After a brief but lovely conversation about the magic of Manhattan, the woman wished us luck with our studies and then walked off to her table.
The second typically French experience I had this week occurred just hours ago. Some friends and I stopped at a café by the Tuileries for what was supposed to be a quick lunch, but inevitably turned into a two-hour outing. I can’t think of anything less French than rushing; in everything that the Parisians do, whether it be picnicking at the park or stopping for an espresso, they take their time, relishing each step, each bite, or each sip. Sitting amongst Parisians today on the crowded terrace, we found it impossible to rush through our meal, instead taking social cues from those around us, who spoke softly but passionately, and without a seeming care in the world. While it’s an impossible task to give a brief definition of Parisians, I’d definitely describe them as confident, and most importantly, exuding a simultaneous nonchalance and passion for life—characteristics that transcend the people and give the city its simultaneous charm and sophistication.
A few weeks ago, I started getting down on myself because I had at that point only visited one museum, Centre Georges Pompidou. Every Tuesday, I have a three and a half hour break between classes, from 10:30am until 2pm; so, one Tuesday morning, after walking out of my French & Expatriate Literature class, I decided on a whim that it would be the day I finally made it to the Musée d’Orsay. I had been dying to visit in order to see the vast Impressionist collection.
After waiting at least twenty or thirty minutes for the bus at St. Michel, eating away at my break time, I was finally en route to the museum. Once there, I began to feel anxious because I had only a little over two hours to peruse the works if I wanted to make it back to school in time for French. So, I made straight for the fifth floor, which houses the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Édouard Manet, just to name a few. Any anxiety I had melted away as I was stopped in my tracks first by the beautiful big clock that looks out onto the Paris streets, and then by the scenic paintings.
Although it would be difficult to choose a favorite painting among them, the works of Monet seem to speak to me the most. Some of his paintings, like Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Harmonie Verte, I had seen before; nonetheless, the soft blues, greens, and purples in the water lilies and the idyllic, quaint bridge struck me just as hard. Monet’s works, more so than any other paintings I have thus far encountered, have the power to transport me out of reality, as I involuntarily and automatically imagine myself standing in his beautiful landscapes.
One such work of his is Coquelicots, which translates in English to Poppies; this one I had not seen before. It depicts in the foreground a woman, accompanied by a child, walking through a poppy field in the French countryside. In the background, what looks to be another woman and child follow behind. In the far distance, one can see the glimpse of a country home, perhaps a chateau where the women and children live. What first drew my eye to the painting was the vivid orange-red color of the poppies, which provides a pleasing contrast set against the green grass and blue sky. While at first I felt transported into the painting’s countryside, and imagined myself rolling down the grassy hill, only a moment later I was transported yet again—this time to the Mojave Desert.
In the Mojave there is a beautiful poppy reserve located in Antelope Valley. Although I grew up in Los Angeles not too far from the reserve and have always wanted to visit, for some reason I never have been able to make it there. For this reason, Coquelicots momentarily made me feel nostalgic for home, as well as slightly irritated at myself for having yet to visit the poppy reserve. Shortly thereafter though, I began to feel amused as I wondered what the people standing around me associated the painting with—surely not the Mojave Desert? Was I the only observer to ever make this seemingly grand leap from the French countryside to Antelope Valley? Probably not, but who’s to say for sure? I eventually walked away with a sense of awe, as I realized just how vastly differently people might interact with and react to works of art.
The next painting to catch my eye was set not in the countryside, but in Paris—recognizable to me immediately, even before reading the title, La rue Montorgueil, fête du 30 juin 1878. The tall apartment buildings and ambling street (not to mention the numerous French flags) made the painting feel so quintessentially Parisian. Although I’ve only been living here for a couple of months now, looking at the painting felt like looking at a representation of home.
In “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings,” Dean MacCannell writes, “The motive behind a pilgrimage is similar to that behind a tour: both are quests for authentic experiences. Pilgrims attempted to visit a place where an event of religious importance actually occurred. Tourists present themselves at places of social, historical, and cultural importance” (592). When reading this quote, one thing stuck out to me—the lack of agency associated with tourists. Whereas the pilgrims made a long journey with a religious-affiliated goal in mind, tourists, according to MacCannell, merely “present themselves.” As you could surely categorize me as a tourist, I at first felt offended after reading this comparison; however, after some thought, I realized that MacCannell has a point.
When I first arrived in Paris this semester, I did as all tourists do and paid a visit to the Eiffel Tower. As I had seen it before and gone to the top when I was ten or eleven years old, I didn’t feel the need to actually enter the tower this time around. So, once I arrived at the tower’s base, I snapped a couple of photos, and then simply stood there. You could say I “presented myself” to the Eiffel Tower, and waited for some grand feeling to set in—of awe, of wonder, of excitement, of anything really. That feeling, however, didn’t come; all I felt was cold as the sun was starting to set. I meandered around the area for about half an hour and, in retrospect, the disappointment I felt could definitely be categorized as a reaction to “staged authenticity.”
The Eiffel Tower is arguably the symbol of Paris—supposedly quintessentially French; however, the neighborhood surrounding the monument feels anything but authentically Parisian. Instead, vendors sell cheap and cheesy souvenirs and tacky lit-up signs hang from the numerous cafés, each one claiming to serve the most authentic French food. After I visited the tower for the first time, when I was about ten, I remember feeling such a sense of accomplishment and awe when I reached the top. To commemorate the occasion, I bought a keychain of the Eiffel Tower, which I immediately attached to my backpack. In other words, as a young girl and an inexperienced traveler, I fell for the staged authenticity.
I think the word “authenticity” has a dual meaning in this case though. On the one hand, it’s true that the Eiffel Tower has more or less become a tourist trap, drifting further and further away from a symbol of authentic French culture, or at least of French daily life. On the other hand, the emotions I felt when I climbed to the top of the monument a decade ago were indeed authentic. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if your monument visit or tour contains superficial elements meant to attract tourism, so long as the feeling you depart with is a genuine one. Of course, the superficiality can obstruct this process of discovering the “secularized sacred,” but I feel confident that it’s still possible to achieve so long as you take certain touristy elements with a grain of salt.
As for MacCanell’s reference to the “back region,” I think it can be hard at times to find one in an urban, highly populated city like Paris. While I have yet to throw the door open on clandestine or taboo practices, as did the young woman in the Damascus bazaar, I nonetheless have discovered my own, relatively secret gems in the city, from narrow rues filled with street-art unbeknownst to most tourists to my favorite spot in the Tuileries (594).
Ernest Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast in the 1950s as a memoir reflecting back on his expatriate days in 1920s Paris. The work, published posthumously, offers Hemingway’s opinions on his literary peers, including the likes of Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway also gives insight into daily life for an American living in Paris post-World War I. He paints a picture of Paris, as well as of himself, that is often romanticized; thus, we see that Hemingway, much like travelers today, is prone to seeing Paris the myth, perhaps more so than Paris the city, or as a reality.
One instance during which Hemingway romanticizes the city comes when he describes his first Parisian apartment: “Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities…With a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor, and pictures we liked on the walls, it was a cheerful, gay flat” (37). Hemingway paints himself here as the stereotypical struggling, but stoic artist. On the one hand, it is possible that Hemingway truly did find his address, “which could not have been a poorer one” pleasant (35). On the other hand, having picked up and moved himself, as well as his wife and baby, all the way to Paris, it’s likely that Hemingway, perhaps out of stubbornness or perhaps out of financial necessity, convinced himself that his artist’s life in Paris was better—more romantic—than it was in actuality.
Hemingway’s flâneur-like descriptions of the city also lend to Paris a romanticized air. One example comes in the first chapter of the book: “I walked down past the Lycée Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St.-Étienne du-Mont and the windswept Place du Panthéon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St.-Michel and worked on down it…until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St.-Michel” (5). Firstly, by referencing all of these marvelously French-sounding monuments and street names, Hemingway constructs a foreign and exciting world for his readers. Secondly, he brings life and accessibility to this world by filling it with observations of real people: “A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing…” (5). It’s important to remember that A Moveable Feast is a memoir; thus, Hemingway is reflecting back on his time in Paris many years later. Can he really remember this young girl in such vivid detail? Or is he merely attempting to build upon the mythic, romanticized image of Paris, in which every café holds the possibility of meeting someone young, beautiful, and French?
One interesting point to note is that while Hemingway romanticizes Paris, he is quick to judge others who view the world through “rose-colored glasses.” For example, when describing his chats with Gertrude Stein, Hemingway writes, “She wanted to know the gay part of how the world was going; never the real, never the bad…there were always strange and comic things that happened in the worst time and Miss Stein liked to hear these. The other things I did not talk of and wrote by myself” (25). Ironically, Hemingway criticizes Stein for something he himself is guilty of, as he attempts to place himself above her by rendering himself as a realist. To be fair, Hemingway indeed valued honesty, truth and realism, but his memoir, in my opinion, also hints at his desire to romanticize and aggrandize reality. Thus, Hemingway is not so different from fellow travelers or even students studying abroad, especially in Paris, who intertwine the ideas of Paris the myth and Paris the reality.