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La Nostalgie: Remembering Paris

Don Rose 29 April 2014 No Comment

PARIS—Once again the chill and the rain make you wonder why they wrote a song called “April in Paris.” Then you get the occasional few hours when the sun breaks through, glinting little gem-like sparkles off the waters of the Seine and it all makes sense again.

     As it happens this spring marks the 60th anniversary of my first visit here, where I even owned an apartment for more than a decade, so there’s a lot of sentiment and memory infused into every sip of Pernod, despite what climate change has wrought.

donrosewithshellfish   

 

Back in 1954 my first wife, the poet, and I arrived by ship and stayed well more than a year, living mostly in the city, me trying to write the great American novel (spoiler alert: I couldn’t sell it). We also toured most of Western Europe.

    Our hotel in Montparnasse cost about a buck a day (in black-market francs) and most meals about the same, except for the occasional splurge or treat from a visiting fireman from home. The Hotel de Blois, a few doors from the Café Select, reserved its first three floors for the hookers who worked the corner, so we always had a lot of stairs to climb. Toilettes were down the hall but the rooms were equipped with sinks and bidets with running water, often useful for footbaths or keeping wine cool.

    The Select became “our” café for breakfast every morning and drinks or snacks in the afternoon and long games of chess in the evening, though the band of expat artists and writers who hung out there also made the rounds of nearby brasseries such as the Dome, Cupole and Rotonde. This was Hemingway-Fitzgerald country, where we sought to commune with their spirits.

    Most of us were mere strivers, but there were a few big or soon-to-be big names in the crowd, such as James Baldwin, who had just published his first novel “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. Also the fine but often overlooked African American painter Beauford Delany. Baldwin once took us both to meet Richard Wright.

    Saw William Faulkner at our cafe one evening, only two tables away. Later got to sit in a group with a somewhat odd character named Sam Beckett though I never got to know him, much to my later regret.

    Sixty years later the whole area is gentrified and commercialized, my hotel having been turned into an upscale apartment building. Returned to the Select for dinner one night out of nostalgia (it’s not known for its food), and was seated very close to my regular old one on the enclosed terrace. The café is bigger now because years ago they knocked out a wall and took over the next space, but otherwise I felt oddly at home.

     Like many cities, the older bohemian neighborhoods such as Montparnasse and St. Germain got hideously expensive and the younger artists, writers and bobos moved farther and farther to the northeast—where all the very hip new bistros have opened, many with chefs from fancy 3-star emporia.

    Time keeps shuffling on. Pour me another Pernod.

**
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image a shellfish Don Rose enjoys lunch

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