Relay: My Moveable Feast

I knew writers needed to gather experiences by living fully, even recklessly

    The summer of 1966, after my sophomore year in college, I went to Europe for 10 weeks. I had read “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Moveable Feast.” My brother, who was seven years my senior, had hitchhiked across the U.S. when he was 19, spent a year in Greece when he was 21, and was working as a journalist in Tokyo in 1966. He was a more proximate role model than Hemingway, but both inspired me to go abroad for the first time. After all, I had inchoate ambitions to be a writer, and I knew writers needed to gather experiences by living fully, even recklessly, if they wanted to amount to anything.  

    Would I run with the bulls in Pamplona? Discuss aesthetics with artists and writers at Cafe Deux Magots? Live La Dolce Vita in Rome? Would I be smart enough to keep my copy of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” hidden in my suitcase so as not to be “made” as a tourist?

    In the novel “The Ugly American,” which was set in Southeast Asia, aBurmese journalist says, “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.” The last thing I wanted was to be perceived as an entitled American, especially on a continent only 20 years removed from the devastation of World War II.

    I wanted to blend in, and on my first day in Paris I raised inconspicuousness to an art. I arrived by boat train from London at the Gare du Nord and walked the three miles to the hotel whose name and address my brother had written on a scrap of paper. I had no idea how the Metro worked and wasn’t about to ask. It was a hot day in late June, and I was sheathed in perspiration by the time I arrived at the Hotel Marignan in the Latin Quarter.

    The hotel was full. I asked if I could leave my suitcase behind the desk while I looked for other lodging and, after receiving a grudging yes, I realized I hadn’t eaten since a cold and dispiriting breakfast on the ferry from Folkstone. It was late afternoon. I had taken three years of French in high school and two more in college, and I could read it reasonably well. But suddenly, in Paris, I was afraid to speak the language for fear of making mistakes of grammar and vocabulary that would expose me as a foreigner.

    Finally, footsore after another hour of pounding the pavements of the Latin Quarter, I forced myself to enter a small bar-tabac. A cluster of men in work clothes were drinking pastis and arguing. I summoned my courage and uttered the words I had been rehearsing: “Un sandwich jambon, s’il vous plait.”

    “Pardon?” said the proprietor. I had barely breached a whisper.

    Too self-conscious to wedge myself next to the men at the bar, I took the sandwich with me and was speed-eating it as I walked down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, passing lively cafes and restaurants where Parisians were talking, eating, and drinking. It was a master class in joie de vivre, and I was failing it. Instead I was a voyeur taking furtive bites of a sad and somewhat stale ham sandwich. And suddenly it was there, across the boulevard — Cafe Deux Magots.

    I tossed what was left of my sandwich into a trashcan and crossed the street. To my utter disbelief, I saw Samuel Beckett listening to a bespectacled, gesticulating figure I recognized as Jean-Paul Sartre. Simone de Beauvoir was sullenly smoking a cigarette. I took out my own packet of Gauloises, lit up, and sidled over to their table, cigarette dangling Belmondo-like from my lips. Sartre paused in mid-sentence. De Beauvoir looked me over approvingly. Beckett motioned for me to join them.

    Did I have you for an instant? I doubt it. The fact is, I hurried past the cafe as I hurried past everything, my reflection barely registering in the shop windows. By the time I slunk back to the Hotel Marignan, I was fully aware that I was not and never would be Hemingway, that I would never cut a swath across the continent, leaving beautiful women reeling in my wake, that I would never be the person my brother was.

    It turned out a room at the hotel had become vacant. The young man behind the desk at that hour looked to be my age and spoke perfect English. He was an American, fluent in French, and living close by. When he finished his shift we went to dinner at a cheap restaurant called the Balkan. A couple of American girls who were staying at the hotel soon joined us.

    My month in Paris turned out to be memorable, and my French improved. The rest of the summer had its ups and downs, but I visited the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, Chartres, the Roman Forum — all the places tourists visited, except for the Eiffel Tower, which my brother had years before dismissed as an architectural monstrosity and a cliché.

    Did I have the kind of experiences that summer on which I could build a career as a writer? Let’s put it this way. My senior year, enrolled in a writing workshop, I set my first story in Brittany, where I had hitchhiked after my four weeks in Paris. But the story wasn’t about hitchhiking, or drinking and carousing in the fleshpots of St. Malo, or haunting the ramparts of that old city like a latter-day Chateaubriand. It was, rather, about an insecure 19-year-old and the web of rationalizations he wove to avoid introducing himself to the pretty French girl he saw every day, by herself, at the beach.

    Mark Segal is a writer for The Star.