Once in Saint-Germain I ate in a restaurant frequented mainly by students—an unassuming bistro with red awnings out front and a queue of people of all nationalities waiting to get in, as they did not take reservations. The tables and banquettes inside were packed together and laid with paper tablecloths and mats, in which waitresses clad in unironic black-and-white uniforms, not unlike Jeanne Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid, scrawled down orders in pencil. In spite of a menu, everyone ordered the same: flank steak in green pepper sauce that would be sliced with such speed at the table as to make you wonder how all fingers stayed intact; with salad much like every salad one has ever had where it is not considered as a grand assemblage but like more of an expected filler at good value, and frites —hot, thin, deliciously crisp— served in such generous helpings that it was inevitable some would spill onto your lap.
It was crowded and too warm with body heat, but everyone seemed oblivious to it, laughing and drinking cheap red wine (all wine is cheap in such places, as it is the backbone of good cheer and appetite). Occasionally someone would venture dessert; ordering from the brown faux leather folders with their laminated pages, as resplendently Technicolor as they must have looked in the seventies, with their stock-photos of ice-cream, almost-neon maraschino cherries, mouthwash-green crème de menthe and fluorescent slabs of tinned peach.
There are far more chic and costly restaurants in the area, 2 and 3-Michelin-starred venues with wines as costly as the Hermès handbags some guests carry, and better places to be seen, such as the nearby Café de Flore. But I find it hard to believe that people there are happier than here; stealing the last frites from each other’s plates and forgetting to look at their phones as they lean in, smiling, to be heard above the din.
From the moment I sat down, the restaurant reminded me of Flicoteaux’s, from Balzac’s Lost Illusions: Flicoteaux, the friend of cash-strapped journalists and students, whose daily menu was decided by the availability of whatever foodstuffs were at hand—or at a discount, as with the distant yet infamous scandal of the steak said to be horsemeat. I did not for an instant entertain the thought that the meat before me could be anything other than what it was claimed to be; though a trace of everything we read remains imprinted on our minds, a reference to the possible.
When James Baldwin wrote of American expats in Paris inhabiting the Paris of their minds, he meant it in the context of them filtering the city through their culture-lens. But it is no less true that we filter the places we visit through the books we’ve read. It was Baldwin, in fact, who triggered my memory of the bistro that fit Balzac's description so well. When he writes of the poor Latin Quarter rooms in Notes of a Native Son, they made me remember Lost Illusions and Lucien Chardon—not yet de Rubempré—stuck in his cold, fireless garret, writing The Archer of Charles IX and dreaming of the riches that would grow from his pen; or of Eugène de Rastignac, the socially adept but threadbare rural aristocrat, now Parisian law student, still living in a boarding-house through Pére Goriot.
Not even Baldwin, writing of the cultural mirage of his compatriots, could ignore the applied romance of certain literary tropes. His line, ‘[a]ll the students of the Latin Quarter live in ageless, sinister-looking hotels…’ suggests that even if, as he said, it’s impossible for the American to live as a French person, perhaps the French are also captive to a Paris of their minds; that is, embedded in their literary heritage, or at least in the shadow of some aspects of it as apparent to the foreign reader as is to them. Literary history is history, and so it makes sense that some of its images are recreated—more or less unconsciously—in the architecture and the mannerisms of a culture.
But now that I have been in Paris for a while, re-visiting my favourites while drinking at small tables, I cannot help but look up from my books and see their characters materialising everywhere. Sipping espresso at a busy eatery during lunch hour, I glimpse the moustachioed owner of the place in his red cardigan extracting a baguette from a locked cabinet to slice it carefully on a board and place it, piece by piece, himself, in a basket for one of his waiters to take. Then, just as carefully, he brushes the crumbs into his hand before disposing of them. This is his establishment: the gravitas and pride of it made evident in the precision of his gestures; the same as old Grandet unlocking the cupboard every morning to measure out the bread and butter, flour and sugar for Nanon in Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet.
Driving down the Boulevard Haussmann and looking at the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps and the crowds of shoppers streaming in and out of them evokes Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames, in which young Denise finds her place and rises in the vast machine of the department store inherited from his wife, the late Mme. Hédouin, by Octave Mouret. The ambitious young man who, from Pot–Bouille to Bonheur, arrives in Paris and builds his fortune and knowledge on women, thinks himself unconquerable—only to find himself at the tender mercies of the Madonna-esque Denise, so different from the avid, glamorous women whom he uses and seduces in romance and commerce.
Au Bonheur—the store—was a shimmering drove of materials, toiletries, novelties and whatever delight could catch the passing fancy of its shoppers. Nothing changes, not really—not in fiction, not in life: the tables and racks are still cluttered with everything from sumptuous clothes and perfumes to gourmet snacks and sleek personal technology. Perhaps the only real change is that the mercantile giants have expanded their appetite from women to everyone: after all, there is no great distance between the seductions of the body and the credit card. And Baron Hartmann’s investment in Mouret is, of course, a thinly veiled allusion to Baron Haussmann’s investment in Paris itself.
I am now walking, driving, watching Paris through the filter of the Paris of my books: from the Rive Droite where I stare—awestruck—into the storefronts of jewellers (and especially of JAR Parfums, where a single ounce of fragrance can cost something in the region of 900 euros), to the shop beside the Hôtel Costes, where I timidly slink in and ask for a bottle of their namesake scent; to the Rive Gauche, where I am staying at 13 Rue des Beaux Arts, in the same hotel where Borges passed time and Wilde died—legend has it, whilst quipping about the surrounding wallpaper. A framed letter by him graces the entrance lounge, and there’s an ‘Oscar Suite’ which I am sure I’ll never be able to afford, though it pleases me to sleep in a plush velvet-and-brocade mignon room and have cocktails in the leopard-print carpeted lounge.
That it is located at number 13 with a ram’s head hanging right above the door makes me hesitate an instant before thinking that, if there were some dark bargain to be struck in order to become a writer and stay in this hotel, I might welcome a bespoke Mephisto offering a Château Borges or a So Wilde with one hand, and a pen and a contract to sign with the other. This is, after all, the Left Bank, where Sartre and de Beauvoir drank and gabbed with fellow intellectuals at Les Deux Magots just a few streets away, where Hemingway devoured sausage and chugged beer at Brasserie Lipp. Sitting upfront with a platter of what (I think) must have been the choucroute moyenne and a demi of light ale, I wondered what he would have made of the constant stream of couples of both new and old wealth greeting the mâitre by name.
What is so striking about the Paris of these whereabouts is how Paris they feel they must be—the Paris of the tourist, no matter what kind—where the (mainly white girls) are all slender, smoke insouciantly and are immaculately un-macquillage-d; the men are groomed, well-dressed (and mainly white). It’s on the fringes of these sectors, in making one’s way further from the centre, that one starts to see the real Paris; the Paris that is rich in its variety of colours, accents, skins and tongues, in which all of a sudden one is met with the intoxicating scents of food from the cafés libanais and other myriad restaurants that line the streets, and the women no longer look Paris, but Paris proper. This is where you look and smell and think to yourself that—as an outsider and as an in-betweener, as a person with a country but without—you might fit better here.
I made my way to a bookshop where, after some fruitless but agreeable browsing, I picked up a book that jolted me: Vita Sexualis, an erotic novel in which the protagonist was based on the author, Mori Ōgai—Japanese. I read “When I was…” and it rang strangely familiar, as if I had finished the first lot of edits on a memoir about identity and sex. I bought the book and pondered how appropriate it was to find my Japanese half in an American shop while in the French capital, where I kept asking myself who-am-I in every café, at the turn of every new arrondissement. I then sat, sheltered from the rain and sipping mint tea from a faded, gilt-rimmed glass, watching, listening, wondering if anyone among the crowd before me saw me and recognised something—not me personally, but that in-between look, something that they couldn’t place, but felt— or if they saw me in my skinny jeans and boots, with my dark blue coat with an upturned collar and silver-streaked, pulled-up hair, and decided I was just another woman who could pass well enough for Paris. I thought about how I had always worked to pass even in my home country; to be accepted just enough as an American to be ignored.
In Baldwin’s Paris essays, he notes the false camaraderie Americans build in the city—that of strangers who convince themselves over a drink that they may know each other, perhaps to take away the chill of isolation in another culture, or to validate their place in the world. American accents here are mainly weighed down with frustration: questioning tax on l’addition, marvelling at the obliqueness of a place that is not home (as if all places should be like theirs, though so many of the ones they’re in now were there well before those.) Maybe that is just the way of people who are left outside of what is known to them: they’re left grasping for acknowledgement and affirmation, for lack of context. And I’m amused by this, as I have always grasped and looked for that same validation, that sense of identity, and known that there is no one country that will ever be able to provide it. It’s a peculiar luxury that some of us do not, and maybe cannot, have access to: identity aligned with place.
Now I am finally at the Café de Flore, sitting under heat lamps and an awning, once again out of the rain. I’m eating a club sandwich I would balk at paying such a price for anywhere else, though here it seems natural to do so, because I’m also purchasing the ghosts of the establishment with it (and all the ghosts of this arrondissement come at a premium). Passages from Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London drift through my head as I chew. Though he was writing of his time in the hell-depths of a Parisian hotel beyond the swinging kitchen doors, the machinations of service have changed as little as the lures of the department store. Someone assembled this sandwich: toasted the bread, boiled the egg, cooked and sliced the chicken, washed the lettuce and tomato. But I will never see that someone or hear the cacophony of the room where it was made—only the supple gesture of the aproned waiter sliding it silently before me with a soft Madame will be allowed in my purview.
Whomever has worked in kitchen or food service is a duck: calm above water and furiously paddling below. As I eat, I recall working at a little bakery-deli when I was eighteen. Early mornings were spent arranging fresh bagels and sweet rolls on trays. We would ‘accidentally’ drop something nice, because to do so meant it couldn’t be sold but we could have it later. I remembered customers’ orders while fixing them their sandwiches as fast as possible; bagging up leftover stock for the day-old rack, taking home whatever didn’t sell from it by the end of the next day. I may have spent half a year subsisting on anything that could be made out of a stale bagel or bialy—and sometimes, on those alone.
There was the woman who complained to my boss when I didn’t put change in her hand gently enough during the morning rush, and another who confided her midweek hangovers and nighttime adventures to me as she picked out her bagel. There were the men who flirted with me while I stared impassively at their ties, and whose passes I sidestepped by asking would you like any cream cheese with that? I got to know the regulars and what they liked and, more importantly, what they expected of me. With regular customers, it is either a master/servant or a therapist/confessional relationship. Whenever I see someone being arrogant or rude to waitstaff, regardless as to why, I think of that long chain of labour and how those who behave like that do so because they probably have no idea what it’s like to be part of. It’s so little to acknowledge the invisible effort encompassed by that sandwich or that bag of bagels, but it’s never enough to subsist just on money, especially in service. Whether in Milwaukee or in Paris, there are people on both sides of the transactional divide.
I am always curious about money in Paris. Walking around and about the Rue des Beaux Arts, almost every shop is an art or antiques gallery, or an empty bar staffed with an elegant employee. A peek in the vitrines shows these are places for the wealthy—most having no prices noted except for a few, smaller objets. Do the rich shop like we do? It seems absurd to believe that someone might simply go from the hotel into the tiny gallery that specialises in the work of Francis Bacon down the street and walk out with one under his arm, wrapped in brown paper. I’m sure these transactions are done by proxy; if not in person, then on the phone. Does one say, this year I’ll be collecting Russian icons, or find me a Louis XIV desk with adjustable legs, and the buyer know what is expected of him? These shops are there every time I visit Paris, so these mysterious buyers and collectors must exist. But then I ponder my own modest obsessions—books and perfumes—and how I go about procuring them when I’m particularly haunted by a subject or a fragrance note, and I think I would be an ideal person of money, at least from the perspective of a shop or gallery owner. Netsuke, photographs by Eugène Atget and Man Ray, chaise longues re-upholstered lavishly in Manuel Canovas’ Cabinet de Curiosities (Amethyste) or Rhodes (Caraibes) tissu, vintage Boucheron, automata, and books, books, books, and yet more books. I’ve been curating this fantasy since the day I saw an ad for some fantastically vulgar Sherle Wagner bathroom taps hewn with rose-quartz in an Architectural Digest, when I was about ten. It wasn’t the gilding that captured my imagination as much as the idea that someone would make something as functional as bath and sink taps out of semiprecious stones—something that would strike me as not out of place in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” a few years later. So it will come as no surprise that I glance into every window, pretend I can afford every last thing, and then make my selections.
But as with every city, in Paris there is the juxtaposition of extreme wealth with no wealth at all: outside some of these galleries with their almost invaluable items are the homeless, wrapped in paper or plastic, like things. They have long since ceased to be people in the eyes of a world that requires everyone to state their worth tangibly. Inside those shops, deals are made for wanted objects; outside them, real want is considered too unpleasant to attend to with the same care. I know that, but for luck, that too is me, and that such fortune or lack thereof sometimes hinges on the slightest detail. (And I’m only writing this because…I don’t know why, exactly. Perhaps I was wanted and the risk it involved was deemed as negligible by someone; but even so, once, I was only a risk. I constantly remind myself that this was so because money was not an issue for them. But it is an issue for most of the rest of us—it is, almost always, the issue—). Money is interchangeable with luck, and it can make the difference between walking these streets with delight instead of sleeping on them in squalor. It hardly matters what the country is, they’re all the same in this regard. And yet as I walk about Paris, looking into windows from the outside-in, I feel the sharpness of what it means to lack financial security—of what it means to have had it and lost it—more severely than anywhere else. I feel, that as with a possession, I could slip into the body of the person laying on the pavement and wake up believing my previous lives were a dream.
These streets, these buildings and what they enclose are all reminders of constraint. Like Jean-Paul Clébert said in his tramp’s guise, gripped by hunger while observing the city for the book that would become Paris Vagabond, “it is a labyrinth where every street opens onto another … a labyrinth through which I make my way in fits and starts, like a blood clot … emerging from bottlenecks into empty space”. When there is no money, you cannot press your hand against a building, look at a street sign and lead yourself out of your maze of penury. Instead, the architecture can become another boundary that leads you deeper into an arrondissement that may not quite exist, but that is too well known. Are we inside a city or outside a life we cannot have?
Homelessness and its barely-walled siblings have their own design, they are ephemeral maquettes of living that appear and disappear like ghosts within a city that becomes somehow more real by dint of them. Again, I riffle through my fantasies of acquisition, filtered through these thoughts, and realise that I’m Perec’s Jérôme and Sylvie, desiring things because I have desired the semblance of stability that things provide, and trying to find and define myself, and life, through them. Perhaps the secret is to strip the mirage of its buoyancy, as Balzac’s courtesans did: things are the iterations of money, which is the keystone of the solid architecture they desire; they are what keeps the empty space from whence they came at bay, but they are not the basis for the building of contentment. Know the blueprint of your cravings and what can be build from it, whether it is inhabitable or not. Homelessness and its required wanderings, whether with “purpose” (Clébert) or as the unforeseen dealing of fate, by foot and through the eyes of those who dwell in the cracks between nothing and privileged freespace, are unaddressed. Everything (be)holds its opposite, and so the act of anti-flânerie exists, almost invisibly next to its preening, prestigious relation.
Who, then, is the anti-flâneur? It is someone for whom observation is existence, rather than resulting from an excess of the latter. While the flâneur feasts on the precipitates that are the products of a city’s better fortunes—surveying his domain with the indulgence and the distancing effects that are exclusively available to those who can take it all in—his opposite perceives the same, while knowing he is somehow, also, outside; a part of a city that is not of a piece with it.
The further we find ourselves from upscale Paris, the more a certain kind of anti-flânerie emerges. Walking performs the double duty of necessity and escape: whether it be into community or solitude away from the clamour of money, and into a moment that belongs to us and for which we don’t owe a soul. This is not a statement of power or freedom but the only thing that can done. And all too often, these moments come with caveats: don’t walk here at night. You can’t stop there. Why/what are you doing in this place.
In Paris I experience the duality of being a flâneuse and an anti-flâneuse, and not because I ever refer to myself as the former—I have always walked, because I’ve always had to. Flânerie will come and go in fashion, and there was a time where the driver/to be driven was its equivalent. But I was not driven to school at a time when all popular girls were dropped off in large new sedans. The car was a necessity of my father’s work. Fuel was expensive, so we did not use it for pleasure. We walked. Bemused, I find myself looking down the boulevards and hearing his voice in my head: Call it whatever you want, kid, it’s still just a walk.
Our flânerie involved escaping the money we lacked, walking in a park and instead of observing people and buildings, looking at the structures that no man could build: trees, flowers, hills. Beside its satisfactions, a walk meant learning. There seemed to be no such thing as an aimless ramble. Though we could not afford treats, my father plucked edible berries from bushes and I would pick gingko leaves and wildflowers to press between books at home. These walks were not without their strange luxury, either. My father had a fine collection of walking sticks, ones he bought from antique shops and lovingly restored or added decoration to, or carved himself from odd sticks of wood. It was both normal and out of place, these beautiful canes with their inlaid silver or carved bird's head handles fit for any boulevard dandy, within a house which sat firmly in a working-class neighbourhood. But the limitations of walking were impressed on me early as well: whenever we trod a certain lonely path through a large park, I was told, don’t walk this on your own. Later, when we drove to places like Chicago, we still walked: not in the richer areas of the city, but in the smaller neighbourhoods around it, with everyone jostling as a part of life, inseparate from everybody else. We were all others there.
I did not become acquainted with Benjamin, with his arcades or with the concept of the flâneur until I was well into my thirties, and even now, a part of me laughs at the notion of being a flâneuse. It’s just a walk, kid. My instinct, even here, is to walk further, to walk away, to walk until I’m just one of the others once again. It’s as impossible to grow out of otherness as it is to live without blood—to do so would be death itself, or a death of the self, at least. So I walk past the splendid shops and cafés and remind myself that this is a walk, in a street, in a city. I will be welcome in some places and less so in others, because the world is the same to me as an adult as it was to me as a child. And I am glad that this is what Paris is for me, because then I can see it unclouded, through that other childhood comfort that I found in books.
Image: Tomoé Hill