A Birthday with Hemingway

A Birthday with Hemingway

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.

99 boulevard du Montparnasse
99 boulevard du Montparnasse

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.

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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.

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My ego wants you to read this

My ego wants you to read this

The “creative process:” a term used to describe one of the most satisfying and simultaneously frustrating ways of life. I refer to it as a way of living because should you choose this existence, it dictates the course of your days in a similar manner as the sun, organizing your day around its appearance and cursing your bad luck when rain clouds appear.

I try to catch it early in the morning before the residual fog from other lands has completely cleared from my head, allowing my pen to drift across the page and roll out the words along with the mass of condensation. In this hazy state where word choice ceases to become a decision and simply an electrical impulse of synaptic activity, I am free in a way I cannot guarantee later in the day when this energy has been depleted, all channels blocked so that no creativity can flow. I am funniest in the mornings (ehhh, on the page, not in person), words, thoughts, and observations bubbling out of me, pressing to get to the page, with a similar urgency that hunger or having to pee may drive you out of bed in the morning. Dawn is the golden hour of creative possibility, our egos still resting snug under the covers (because naturally, she needs the most sleep of any other part of the psyche). We are not afraid of putting pen to paper out of fear that it will not be great or completely incomprehensible. We just write, the way we just wake up while sipping our tea or coffee.

These blue-lighted sessions, when there is a still humming in the air, a promise of life and purpose, carry me through the rest of the day. That one drink at dawn stokes the fire so that its embers will glow throughout the day through every task so that every situation seems made to be written down. On the street, on the bus, in a café, between whatever other commitments I have for the day, I can sidle up next to that fire and thoughts will tumble freely onto the page. Ego is content, warming her fingers and toes by that fire as well, occupied just long enough for me to write a paragraph or two without caring if it’s brilliant or if it’ll be liked.

But as the pages are filled and the minutes tick past, light shines through the window and parts the remaining wisps of dreams hanging in the air. The mind is fully alert now and Ego is starting to take hold again, an angry friend banging on the door after you forgot to invite them out with everyone else. I sigh, fully breaking the spell and getting up from my seat to let her in. She is inescapable, a bad boyfriend who, for some reason, I just can’t let go. As petulant and demanding as she can be, she bolsters my confidence and optimism in what I do. I need her as much as she needs me, a cycle of codependency that can’t be broken.

Some days, I miss this jump start and she follows me around all day, perched on my shoulder and spitting into my tea once I finally get the chance to sit down and write.  I try to ignite that spark again but she distracts me with her incessant chatter and critiques.

“Are you really going to use that word again?” she sneers, peering over my shoulder and casting a shadow the page.

Or, “I’m bored,” yawning loudly in my ear just as I’m struggling to piece together the plot line of a story. Her authoritative, arrogant demeanor convinces me that she is right and I shut my notebook, mournfully looking over at my bookshelf and wondering how all those writers were able to create such captivating stories. But Ego is satisfied with this end result, stretching her obnoxiously long, toned limbs (she’s just SO perfect), saying “You deserve a treat. Let’s go get some chocolate!”

Other times, she’ll just leave without warning, upset because I told her she is not actually a very good writer at all. She punishes me with her absence until I start to believe my own words and I am rendered useless without her. She doesn’t come back until I send her a text crying out for help because suddenly any ounce of inspiration I thought I possessed has disappeared. While I sit miserably at my desk, trying to form some kind of image in the blankness of my mind or coming up with a thousand other tasks I need to accomplish, she reappears, as unapologetic and smug as before. But in my desperation, I’m so glad she’s back, filling the room with her stories and witticisms, turning the most ordinary detail into an intriguing tale. She sees the discarded pen on the floor and places it back in my hand and coos, “Of course, you’re a good writer.” And in this way we vacillate, the most imperfect pair.

I guess I’m stuck with her.