When I left my country for the first time at the age of 15, a wise person gave me this popular advice – to read a book about a place before traveling there. Ever since, no matter how packed and, at times, overweight my bags were, I always managed to squeeze in a book to read before arriving at my destination. Looking back at all those years getting lost in foreign cities, frustrated from not knowing the language and overwhelmed by dépaysement, I am thankful for this advice. The stories in the book create a personal link between me and a city, a country that would otherwise be so foreign. In today’s post I would introduce to you two books that guided my steps in Paris.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Gertrude Stein is probably one of the most important Americans in French culture. As the most prominent American connoisseur of Modernist art, she was credited for raising recognition of important artists to the audience outside of France. Gertrude Stein spent most of her life in Paris, getting deeply involved in the social scene of contemporary artists, famous to unknown. In her salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein hosted gatherings and fostered connections between artists including Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As a writer herself, Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a lively memoir employing the voice of her partner Alice Toklas to tell about her years in Paris. The book provides account of life in Paris in the early 20th century – a kind of life that is colorful, eventful, artistic and dreamy like in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. With the book in hand, I wandered the narrow cobblestone path of Montmartre hoping to trace the steps of guests attending the banquet that Picasso and Fernande famously threw for their newly-acquired Rousseau’s painting. In the coldness of January in Paris, I walked along the Seine near boulevard Saint Michelle and imagined the freezing rooftop apartment/atelier where Matisse kept expensive fruits fresh to paint in the company of admirers like Manguin and Derain. Even the less magnificent and off-the-tourists-radar Rue Laffitte carried special meaning as it was home to Vollard’s gallery, the only place that sold Cezanne’s works at that time, also where Gertrude and her brother bought their first Cezannes. From hot summer days when the artists flocked to Spain and Italy with their wives or mistresses to the cold and solemn winters during the War, Paris came to life with all of its romantic grandeur in Gertrude’s stories. My memory of what the Notre Dame looks like may be blurred but the feeling of wandering, orflâneur, around Paris daydreaming of the thriving cultural scene in the early 20th century I hold dear to my heart.
Clumsily translated to English as “stroller” or “saunterer,” flâneurie is a distinctive ritual of French people and especially of Parisians. In his book The Flaneur, A Stroll Through The Paradoxes Of Paris, Edmund White took the reader on a meditating stroll through the history of Paris where real events and made-believe tales intertwined. An American writer living in Paris for 17 years, Edmund White brought in observations from his American culture. White explained the fundamental difference between a Parisian flâneur and an American pedestrian – the former walks the city with no purpose, no schedule, and no particular goal whereas the latter has a goal and timeframe in his mind the moment he set foot on the street. The flâneur stroll to contemplate, the American walks to get somewhere.
Edmund White skips all popular touristic destinations to take you the hidden gems of Paris – places that carry stories of persons, families, social groups, and social classes all of whom call home to this city. The little-known Musée Nissim de Camondo was my most memorable find. In this spectacular home turned museum, the last man of the Camondo family personally collected and maintained a spectacular collection of 17-18th century royal French furniture in an intimate home setting. This museum is the only remaining legacy of one of the most wealthy and powerful Jewish banking families in Europe, acquaintances and neighbors of the Rothschild and the Ephrussi in the charming, extravagant residential blocks around Park Monceau.
When we think about Parisians, it is easy to think of the high fashion, good taste, cosmopolitan and demanding stereotype. However, White introduces his readers to a very different Paris, one that is made of outlier groups in their Parisian hood – from the gays who strolled to find a partner around the Canal Saint-Martin to the barhops of African American musicians that brought jazz to Montmartre, from the North African Arabs who sold everything from every corner of the world on the open market to the wealthy Jewish neighborhood. Through the never-ending urban tales, Paris emerged in all of its contrasting colors and varying shades, all of which made Paris even more charming, intimate and relatable to me.
How about you? What are some books that transformed your experience of a place?
Featured photo by Gregoire Abrial