“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young (wo)man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
I came to Paris to write. This aspiration was planted in my head two summers ago while living in the South of France. Amidst July’s burning heat of the Mediterranean sun, I longed each day to escape the harsh realities of Marseille – the toothless smiles of homeless men who reeked of urine and alcohol; the open palms of Roma women with flowing dresses on their legs and chubby babies in their arms; the faces hiding under black burqas that scurried like bugs through the streets under the hours of beating daylight to avoid the gaze of neatly-groomed white men who waved their fingers, incredulous at what they not so delicately framed as a “failure to assimilate”; the insomnia I experienced from the unrelenting mosquitos, the thick summer’s heat, the strangling cigarette smoke, the daily fresh coating of construction dust, and the angered Arabic voices that vibrated through the thin walls to keep me awake through the night in my city-center wifi-less apartment; the political climate that fostered terrorist attacks in Nice, Brexit, and pre-Trump sentiment; and my fear that I would hopelessly fail to articulate the faces and feelings of humanity that I witnessed into the black and white constraints of a research paper.
My most effective escape from my two-month stay in the unforgiving city was to bury my nose deep into books. I read with fervor and passion, quickly flipping pages from the lost generation – the literary movement forged by American ex-patriates in Paris who filled the shelves during the golden age between the first and second world wars. This generation was characterized by a sense of aimlessness and wandering in the midst of their post-war trauma, a sentiment of disconnection with the frivolous wealth that they brushed elbows with, and disenchantment with the American Dream. My heavy heart was lifted and my mind was tranquilized by Hemingway’s newspaper-style descriptions of his simple yet richly wonderful Parisian writer’s life in A Moveable Feast. Thus, on my weekend trip to present my summer’s research findings in Paris, rather than prepping for my presentation, I spent each spare moment meandering through his footsteps in Shakespeare and Company - the independent English-language bookstore where he gathered with fellow writers like James Joyce, Scott F. Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Sylvia Beach; and sipping old-style hot chocolate in Les Deux Magots and kir in Café de Flore – the signature cafés where he people-watched and worked alongside Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Camus.
As I wandered in summer drizzle through the paths that these artists forged, a seedling of profound clarity was planted into my chaotic mind. Perhaps if I lived in Paris one day, I could be inspired by the history, the culture, the language, and the legacy of the lost generation each moment that I opened my wonderous eyes. Like Hemingway, I could find a home through my café to work in, my café to meet friends, and my café to receive my mail. Empowered by the legacy of creators that graced the city’s café culture, I could finally truly write with meaning.
6 months ago, as my world came crumbling down with the fiasco of my Austrian PhD program, I excavated the remnants of my Parisian writing fantasy from the tear-filled rubble of my broken academic dreams. I spent sleepless nights sketching out my book plan – formulating words that had little value on paper. I could have been writing about organic deodorant, apple strudel, or anything under the sun. Yet the mere sensation of passion that pulsed through my veins provided me incentive to halfway believe that one day the words just might transform to something of tangible value. On a whim of blind faith, I acted on those words, booking myself in for a month in an AirBnB writer’s garret with an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower.
After settling into my miniscule studio space in Paris, dusting off my digital voice recorder, and sinking my teeth into a first week of “research” for the book, I felt poised and ready to write. Although I knew my confidence was premature after only a week of fresh material, I was sitting on a lifetime of feelings, and I was itching to produce something. On my first Friday morning in the city, I acted on is craving to create, stashing my laptop in my backpack for a day of writing in the glamour of Parisian cafes.
My first stop of the day was Tigre Yoga Club Marais, where a teacher had invited me to attend her Kundalini class. I was running late this morning, and felt as though I sprinted the 4-km distance from my apartment, arriving sweaty to my mat for class. Lucky for me, Wild And The Moon had a satellite café in this ritzy club, and I planned to set up shop after class alongside a rose latte. To my disappointment, the café was unexpectedly closed today (because it’s France), and the studio owner smiled at me from her seat with an expression that said, “Please buy a 7 Euro juice if you’d like to use our wifi.” Gulp. Onto the next location.
Aside from writing, one of the items on my daily agenda was to finish taste-testing for an article assignment on the best vegan dessert spots in Paris. This meant walking 2.5-km from the yoga club under the summer sun that had now turned up its intensity by a few giant notches. I arrived to Vegan Folie’s hopefully optimistic that it would be work-friendly vegan bakery. Unsurprisingly, it was not. I handed the baker at the cash register 6 Euros for my slice of vegan cheesecake (gulp), took a seat alongside a set of non-functioning outlets, and began hunting for nearby coffeeshops to work. A co-working café popped up on my Google search, and my heart dropped to my stomach as I remembered the shock I experienced yesterday when I accidentally showed up to a co-working space disguised as a trendy, laptop-friendly coffeeshop. “That will be 5 dollars per hour, please,” said the barista with a smile when I went to pay for 3 hours of a very watery cappuccino. Gulp.
Today, I decided I would forgo the unaffordable experience of a co-working space and instead be inspired by the natural beauty of Jardin du Luxembourg, which was only a kilometer away. Despite the short distance, I arrived with sweat dripping down the back of my dress in the now 90° heat, ate my packed lunch in haste, and curled my lips into a scowl as I realized there was no way I could sketch out ideas in my notebook like Hemingway once did. I had abandoned writing in notebooks years ago, and restarting the habit amidst the screaming gaggle of tourists was too troubling of a task.
I scanned my options on Google maps. Writing on the riverbank of the Seine would be the same situation with added direct sunlight. On the other hand, Hemingway’s iconic Café de Flore was less than 1-km away, and I seemed to remember freelancers working on the top floor 2 summers ago.
To my dismay, the café was still overflowing with late lunch-goers, and the outlets were disabled. I pulled out my phone, which was now at 10% battery, and saw that the Sciences Po branch of Cuillier, one of my favorite Parisian specialty coffee shops, was just down the street. I gathered my strength and crossed my fingers, remembering that last time I had tried to work here, it was unexpectedly closed (again, it’s France). During walk down the never-ending street, the skin on my arms felt as though it had started to burn to a crisp under the glaring sun, and my shoulders had hunched dramatically under the weight of my backpack.
When I finally arrived, I breathed a giant sigh of relief upon seeing an open space near a functioning outlet. I ordered my 5 Euro cappuccino (gulp), and rationalized the purchase in my head. 2 Euros from my student loans funds, 2 Euros from my savings for health insurance, 1 Euro from my Fiverr earnings, and NONE FROM MY PARIS BUCKET LIST SUPPLY BECAUSE YOLO.
I luxuriated for 2 hours over my hot drink in the AC-less room until I realized there was nothing more that I could do as a digital nomad sans wifi. I was still several hours away from dinner with a friend at Bodhi Vegan - a location too far from my apartment to return home now. In search of a next work spot, I gave up on Google Maps and began to wander, hoping that a wifi-wired specialty coffee shop would arise out of thin air.
I roamed with led legs past the Seine, toward the iconic Carrousel, through the Tuileries Gardens, beyond the Louvre, and to the entryway of Starbucks. I stared with dismay into the depths of the interior, berating myself for being tempted to enter a chain café that I avoid at all costs in America. Yet the 2.5-km walk through the sun had made me feel wobbly and faint. I felt the cool air from inside invitingly blow on my face, and an iced matcha sweetly sang my name.
The barista at Starbucks made my 5 Euro drink wrong twice, but I settled on his second attempt. With my icy drink in hand, I resettled my seat to three locations before finding a spot with strong wifi – one near the toilets, which flashed their scent of human excrement each time someone opened the door. Yet I finally sunk deeply into the plush bar stool that faced the Parisian streets but was sheltered from the bright sun. I realized that I only had a few hours left before another 2.5-km to meet a friend for dinner, which would be followed by a 3-km walk home. My legs were already fatigued even through the subtlest muscles of my calves. I thanked myself for forgoing my morning run to withstand a day of 16+-kilometers of wandering. The soreness in my lifeless limbs radiated as frustration up to my ears with the irony of escaping the states once again only to spend my work hours in an American coffee shop. Yet you can't get away from yourself from moving from one place to another. I comforted myself with the knowledge that if Hemingway were a writer in Paris today, hopelessly tethered to the wifi, the outlets, and the 5 Euro coffees that fuel our modern world, he would have done the same. Strangely, I was at home.
With another sip of my matcha and an inhalation (but not too deeply in avoidance of the rancid toilet smell), I closed my eyes to remember the stories of the toothless smiles of homeless men who reeked of urine and alcohol; the open palms of Roma women with flowing dresses on their legs and chubby babies in their arms; the faces hiding under black burqas that scurried like bugs through the streets under the hours of beating daylight to avoid the gaze of neatly-groomed white men who waved their fingers, incredulous at what they not so delicately framed as a “failure to assimilate”; the insomnia I experienced from the unrelenting mosquitos, the thick summer’s heat, the strangling cigarette smoke, the daily fresh coating of construction dust, and the angered Arabic voices that vibrated through the thin walls to keep me awake through the night in my city-center wifi-less apartment; the political climate that fostered terrorist attacks in Nice, Brexit, and pre-Trump sentiment; and my fear that I would hopelessly fail to articulate the faces and feelings of humanity that I witnessed into the black and white constraints of a research paper.
With a deep exhalation, I set my situational cynicism aside, promised to lock myself in my apartment tomorrow, placed my hands to my keyboard, and began to write.