To write about Hemingway in Paris is to risk drowning in the vast array of musings and information surrounding him and his compatriots of the Lost Generation. This infatuation that writers have with Hemingway’s legacy intertwined with that of the city’s is profoundly unique; despite its position as the epicenter of publishing, New York City fails to inspire the same kind of romanticism in the young American writer. Guidebooks, articles, and Midnight in Paris all paint a picture of a city still dripping with their aura, rattling off a list of addresses that their lives encompassed while living in Paris. And while some visitors may still feel this way, the notoriety of these locations has resulted in an over-saturation of tourists that has soaked up any remaining molecule of their prolific essence that once lingered. Any time I’ve ever wound up in Les Deux Magots, the number of selfie sticks and expensive cameras clicking away took away from its transcendent past. It is noisy and crowded which are not attributes that I am drawn to in dining experiences, let alone in a writing environment.
But then there is Le Sélect: unassuming, calm, and charming. Sitting near the corner of what used to be known as “le Carrefour Vavin,” this French bistro has remained as much of a well-kept secret as an establishment frequented by those of such historical renown can remain. Situated in the Montparnasse district, it came to prominence during that short-lived era of rowdy abandon and loose responsibilities between the end of the Great War and the stock market crash in 1929, thanks to its Lost patrons. These were the days before St Germain-des-Près, when the seedy streets of Montmartre were left to those remaining from la Belle Époque and the next generation of artists and thinkers took up shop on the Left Bank. Le Sélect became part of a colony of businesses offering respite, financially as well as socially, for this wave of starving expatriated artists that flocked to the city, with each group of nationals adopting one bistro or the another. Though this southern migration may have seemed haphazard, the area of Montparnasse already had a long tradition within the arts, right down to its name. In Greek mythology, the nine muses of the arts and sciences lived on Mount Parnassus and this location was held sacred by Apollo and Dionysus. Montparnasse, now located in the 14th arrondissement of the city, inherited the name during the 17th century from students who would gather at this outpost, at the time, to recite poetry and rehearse plays.
Arriving as the afternoon faded, I spotted the illuminated script of its sign from down the street. The yellow light bottled up within the winter patio’s walls, silhouetting the forms of the clientele, gave the impression of intimacy that one needs on a birthday spent on one’s own. Stepping into this halo, I quickly understood that this was not just an impression. A server greeted me with what really felt like sincere warmth but without the pressure of making any decisions. The sleek wooden bar stood near the entrance, the helm of this rich art deco interior, and the seating area was partitioned to accommodate the diverse preoccupations of its patrons (and which I suspect contributes to the agreeable level of noise). Mode apératif generally takes places at the bar or on the terrace, mode pensive artist occurs in the back room, mode very important business spreads out in the side dining room, and mode I’m just here for the food is sprinkled throughout the restaurant. Of course, these categories are fluid but this is how the biosphere appeared to be divided on the day I came.
I took my time deciding where I wanted to sit, walking through each section before opting for a table at the front of the side dining area, where I could enjoy the splendid yellow, dark green, and maroon decor, as well as a view of the street. I started by ordering an espresso to sip as I jotted down some thoughts but ended up staying for dinner: duck confit with potato gratin and salad. Did I mention it was my birthday? Every exchange with the waiter was friendly and attentive, to the point that I can say without exaggeration that Le Sélect provides the best customer service in Paris. Point final.
As I sat at my table-for-one savoring every bite of this tasty meal, I did not feel lonely. The elegance of my surroundings mixed with the knowledge of those who sat here before me filled me with excitement and a feeling of certainty that “presence” does not always have to be tangible. On a day that ties me to my past and propels me forward at the same time, I was grateful to feel the weight of those spirits, of Hemingway and of my own. Spending your birthday alone in a big city is like carrying around a secret, a mischievous grin spreading across your face when it occurs to you that despite the unexceptional list of tasks for the day, it is not just an ordinary day. In this eternal city, only the souls of those I encountered at Le Sélect were privy to my secret.