One of the first things that comes to mind for me when I think of Paris is art, cuisine, and literature. The Louvre stands as one of, if not, the greatest museum in the world. Filled with art, architecture, and history that spans thousands and thousands of years, it makes a name for Paris as a cultural center for art. Additionally, French food, specifically the Parisian subsets, has long stood as the pinnacle of gourmet cuisine around the world for decades. The Michelin starred restaurants, cafe culture, and fine ingredients of Paris work to form a cuisine unmatched by any. And, of course, the literature that was created in and the literature that describes Paris still today is studied in middle schools, high schools, and universities across the globe. Proust, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, the list of revolutionary writers goes on and on. But one cannot think about French literature without addressing Ernest Hemingway and his A Moveable Feast.
A Moveable Feast is a memoir written by Hemingway, accounting his life as a writer and journalist in Paris. He writes of moments in which he has writer’s block, of visits he has with his good friend Gertrude Stein, of the changing seasons. This memoir details a very personal, very intimate relationship Hemingway has with Paris- the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens. Because of this candid approach to describing his life in Paris, I chose to read A Moveable Feast for our first book.
I have never read Hemingway before and have heard a lot about how difficult it can be to truly understand what he writes about, but, for me, A Moveable Feast resonated easily and strongly with me. I have never really been big on journalling, but, ever since coming to Paris, I have been writing and drawing quite regularly. Reading Hemingway’s accounts of his everyday activities and interactions, it kind of felt as though I were just writing or rereading my journal. I felt myself connecting with the things he said, and even more so connecting with Paris as a city. Instead of sitting in my bed or hanging out in the academic building, I made sure to always read the book outside. Whether I was sitting in le Parc du Buttes Chaumont or dangling my feet over the edge of the Seine, I wanted to ensure that I was fully immersed in Paris while reading this book. Because of this, I feel as though reading A Moveable Feast has helped me to connect even deeper with Paris, its culture, and its people. I also made sure to write in my journal after reading a section of the book, just to channel and solidify that connection I felt and to make use of that positive energy.
While reading, I noticed a quote that I couldn’t help but read over and over. The quote comes at a time when Hemingway is describing people fishing along the Seine. He sets the scene of what these people look like, how their equipment is set up, and how this is a common practice of many local Parisians. He then writes, “Travel writers wrote about the men fishing in the Seine as though they were crazy and never caught anything; but it was serious and productive fishing” (38). I thought this quote was not only indicative of life in Paris, but also in travelling and observing foreign cultures as well.
Fishing can be used as a means of survival and, often times, it was used this way along the Seine for those who were low on cash and resources. While it may seem crazy to the untrained eye, it is a natural, everyday occurrence that took place in Paris. It was a means for the locals to gather together, build relationships, and sustain their families. It was a means for them to utilize the resources they were given (ie: river), in order to feed themselves and generate commerce. Travel writers and other tourists who don’t know much of the nuances of every day Parisian life misconstrued this as a silly past time, perhaps because they were fishing in the middle of a cosmopolitan city, or perhaps for other reasons. Regardless, from the outside looking in these people were judged for their very natural actions. The fact that Hemingway observed this indicates that not only is he thinking like a local Parisian, but that he clearly defines himself as a local Parisian. At this moment, he feels as though he belongs and as though he is in rhythm with the city.
This past weekend, I have felt similarly for myself. While I don’t by any means consider myself a Parisian (I don’t think I will at all during my months here…. I didn’t feel like a New Yorker until a year and a half being fully immersed in the lifestyle of the city), I do feel as though I can identify the local and appreciate the local customs and daily practices of Parisian life, as opposed to judging them. I read some interesting articles last spring in regard to “cultural tourism,” where people go to observe a culture, rather than try to adopt it. I think this is how I am approaching French life. While I have adopted some of the lifestyle patterns, like the cafe culture, I have stepped back to observe other aspects of life, appreciating it for what it is and the function it plays in the French every day. Just like Hemingway and the way he observes the public, writing of his moments sitting in cafes, and as opposed to the travel writers who write of people fishing on the Seine as some absurd activity, I feel like I have been able to observe and appreciate French life in this simple manner. It’s exciting and I hope that by the end of the semester I can observe even smaller nuances of the culture that a visitor here for a shorter amount of time won’t necessarily notice.