Paris is iconic. As an icon it has many smaller icons, petites images that the mind automatically gravitates towards when you think of the famous city. Many people hear Paris and bring to mind the Eiffel tower, berets, croissants and macarons and the Mona Lisa (which I find ironic given that the lady hails from Italy). But for more literary minds, Paris may just conjure up chic little cafés filled with posh wine-drinking-cigarette-smoking people.
To the people who were lucky enough to be exposed to the equally iconic characters of The Lost Generation, Paris is a symbolic space for creation and one of the most important places where this creation takes place is in cafés. No author makes the case for cafés as beacons of creativity as much as Hemingway. His books are packed with vivid scenes of cafés; his memoirs make clear that these are the places where some his most memorable works took their first breath.
It should come as no surprise then that as a lover of words, I expected Paris to become for me that creative space that was so coveted by Hemingway and company. I expected to be driven almost as if by some otherworldly force to the perfect café that would let the pen from my ink flow and deliver line after line of pure, brilliant writing. This of course, is asking too much of a city and its rather mundane cafés but I did at least expect to find a café that would provide an adequate space to work and so far no café has provided what I need. Hemingway set the bar high for cafés and Paris has not backed up his claims. Maybe Paris has stopped catering to creativity and begun catering to tourists instead (seems reasonable given the overpriced menu that no Parisian in their right mind would dare to waste money on). Regardless, cafés and creativity are two things that do not seem to exist in harmony in this city.
If cafés were ever the places for the free flow of ideas, that is no longer the case. Cafés are much too social here. Even if you sit inside to stay away from the temptation of people watching that is so natural on a sidewalk table, you cannot work. Cafés have become meeting points where people get together, have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine accompanied by some mediocre food (which is really the same in just about any café you walk into) and exchange a few words to catch each other up on every day topics. Of course, Hemingway never described his cafés, as being devoid of food and conversation but this all seemed to be more an afterthought in his cafés, secondary to work and drinks. I don’t have a problem with food in cafés-even starving artists have to eat- but it is so hard to actually get any work done when everyone around you is having such an effortless time. Which brings me to my next point, doing work in cafés is the perfect way to ostracize yourself.
People don’t work in Parisian cafés, they just don’t. The person sitting off in a corner scribbling away on a little notebook is the focal point of everyone’s stares. They are not friendly stares either; people watch you contemptuously, they whisper about you, they purse their lips at you, probably in an attempt to hold back some bitter comments. And don’t even think about whipping out a laptop, you might as well just walk yourself to a guillotine because computers in café s are the ultimate act of heresy. Not only that but wifi in a Parisian café is a luxury, not a given. If you need to type anything or research anything, you might as well just stay home. Computers and wifi of course were not concerns for Hemingway but given the way our world works, to writers they are almost on the same level of importance as a pen and paper and barred access to these necessities is really stifling.
At first I thought I was just not finding the right cafés. I thought by some sad tourist intuition I kept wandering into cafés aimed to please passerby whose loftiest goal is to have a croque monsieur to get the full “Parisian experience.” But I have searched far and wide. I’ve toured the 5th and the 6th and the 9th and the 13th and even the 17th and every café has been the same, its only distinguishing feature being the color of its awning. I’ve even wandered into Hemingway’s old haunts but of course they’re nothing but commodities now. The Closerie des Lilas is a bourgeois bore and Les Deux Magots is nothing more than an overpriced restaurant where the cheapest dish is 14 €. Now a day you can’t even count on Hemingway’s personal recommendations.
Ironically the only café’s that I’ve found which are conducive to producing actual work have been cafés that seem ripped straight out of a SoHo or Williamsburg street. These cafés are so American that they generally come equipped with a full English speaking staff and even serve such New York delicacies as bagels and gluten free/vegan snacks. Of course, I’ll take whatever I can get as far as a good workspace where I don’t look like a freak with my laptop out. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel cheated. I figured that café culture would exist here just as much as it does in New York but in a more romantic Parisian fashion. I imagined myself sitting on a sidewalk table, the warm sun on my face, beautiful Parisian people passing by with baguettes in their bags, the sound of clinking cups in the background-but the reality does not include sun and baguettes and clinking cups. My reality does include writing, but in a place far less reminiscent of the romantic Parisian café Hemingway created for me.
*Title taken from A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway