Yes, we have arrived safely in Prague, and there will be more wonderful things to tell regarding this lovely old-world city, but first, we must continue our regaling of Paris, aka the Romance Capital of the World.
Before I move on to Day 2, which was a packed day of wonders, I must mention that a gypsy man entered our metro car on the first night with a guitar and regaled us with Guantanemera (or, as my father might call it, “One-Ching-A-Dera”). Much to Rhys’ dismay, I absolutely had to tip him, in honor of my dad routinely embarrassing me and my brother at Casa Bonita, and that old Tulsa guitarist’s knowing wink.
So then! Day 2! We made our way via the spaghetti-like maze of metro lines to the Palais Royale – Musee du Louvre exit, and sought out the inverted pyramid (featured in The DaVinci Code, I’m told) underneath the Carrousel du Louvre. We were to meet my uncles at 9am at the Starbucks just inside the gate – I asked one French man for directions, as we simply couldn’t find it (the gate was completely hidden from view until 9am, and Starbucks was beyond it), and was met with a disdainful, pitying look. “No, no, never there, not that cafe,” he pleaded. I tried to make myself clear, that I was, in fact, meeting my uncles there, so it couldn’t be one of the other admittedly more quaint cafes he proposed, but he turned a deaf ear to me with a last, disappointed look that said “You American, with your terrible tastes. You are dead to me.” Nonetheless, we did eventually find Starbucks, and my uncles, and I went ahead and got a vanilla steamer just to spite him. And a muffin. Both were delicious.
Let me just say, it was so great to see Uncle Jimmy and Jim. Jim’s a great guy, and I’m so happy that they’ve each found a wonderful partner in the other; but Uncle Jimmy is part of many of my fondest memories as a child. I apparently named his 70’s Monte Carlo “Boppo” for no discernable reason. He had long hair and gold eyes while I was young, and I always thought he looked like a lion. His smile has always been soft at me, except when he frowns disapprovingly at my smoke breaks, and it never fails to lift my spirits. That we were able to rendezvous with them in the great city of Paris was a gleeful circumstance for me.
Another couple, Michael and Paul, met with us to tour the Louvre, and we enjoyed conversing with them about travel and various countries we, or they, had visited (and the appalling lack of international travel by Americans as a whole – even in the larger cities, it’s apparently pretty rare).
The Louvre – as a child (and still today) museums are mythical things to me. They are bastions of history, of nobility, of beauty, of expression, of freedom, a space unbranded by modern corporate greed or fleeting social fads. They are places where history presents itself so that we can learn from it, or where science lifts its skirt just enough for you to glimpse its secrets. Places where artists long dead still enjoy relevance, where you can closely examine an exotic butterfly’s decoration, or where imagination runs unhindered. I love museums, of all shapes and themes. In Bakersfield, growing up, there was an amazing children’s museum called the Lori Brock – it was very hands-on, and the exhibits were masterfully designed and changed often. I remember crawling through a replica of an Egyptian tomb, climbing through an anthill. But I’m digressing quite a bit, and this entry is growing unwieldy already.
The Louvre, then, is one of two museums (or museum complexes) that were a must-see for my journey. The other is the Smithsonian Institution (a complex of 19 museums, of which I must see at least four), and I’m fully planning on completing both missions successfully. As we learned through our amazing guide in Versailles (a sneak peek on Day 3 in Paris), the Musee du Louvre was originally a royal residence. However, in an act of incredible foresight during a bloody revolution, both the royal residences in Paris (the Louvre) and in Versailles were set aside and mostly undamaged with the full intention of becoming museums. The artwork inside was preserved. As a result, anyone can now browse the royal collections that previously only the royal family and high-ranking courtiers could see, along with all of the collections the museum has since amassed. And what collections! Hammurabi’s Code is here! The Winged Victory (Nike)! Seated Statue of Ramses II and a Great Sphinx! Aphrodite of Milo (better known as the Venus de Milo)! MONA LISA! I gaped slack-jawed at everything. Rhys will be going back to college upon our return, probably for photography and journalism, and I advised him that his Art History professor is going to be extremely jealous. So much is here. It would take me much longer than a day to appreciate it all, and much more space than anyone would want to read to recapture even a fragment here.
Following that expedition through the marble halls and priceless works, we said goodbye to Michael and Paul, and the four of us quickly made our way back to my uncles’ part of town. Just down the street from them is an icon that I was lucky enough to hear about from a friend (thanks Joy!), but otherwise would not have known existed. Allow me a moment to share some amazing history. In 1919, an American woman named Sylvia Beach opened a small bookstore/library in the heart of Paris and called it Shakespeare & Company. It became a center of English-speaking literary culture in Paris – attracting such names as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Ms. Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses, which no other editor of the day would touch. It was an icon. The store closed in 1941 due to WWII, and even though Hemingway personally drove a tank to Shakespeare and Company and “liberated” Beach at the end of the war, she did not reopen. It looked like the end.
Yet, it wasn’t. Another American, George Whitman, fell in love with Paris and decided to remain there after the war. He loved the idea of Sylvia Beach’s shop (so much so that he would later name his daughter after her), and opened one called “Le Mistral.” So completely did he capture the essence of the original store that when Ms. Beach attended a reading, she agreed that Le Mistral should adopt the name “Shakespeare & Company,” to continue the tradition. It again became the center of a new generation of heavy intellectual movers and shakers – Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin… Even to this day, a writer or aspiring writer may stay at Shakespeare & Co, for free, but for a few minor demands. They must man the till and reshelve for a few hours a day AND, this is very important and non-negotiable, each “tumbleweed,” as they are known, must read one full book daily. Now 94, George Whitman still lives above the shop, and still cooks up stew in his tiny cookpot for the tumbleweeds who blow in from all corners of the globe, like their namesake plant. Pulling up roots in search of something greater. Now, however, his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman runs the place and has created a biannual festival to help support them and keep the doors open.
And we found it. I walked in and was hit by history – and a falling book. Books are everywhere. Literally everywhere. As we entered, the front half of the bottom floor was plunged into darkness as a fuse blew, and people continued on as if nothing had happened. The tumbleweeds moved surely to fix the problem, but no one was in a great rush – and none of the customers were grumbling. Making my way carefully and slowly (can’t move fast in that place – too many precarious stacks in every nook and cranny!) to the narrow staircase, I ascended to the second floor where the private collections are kept. I say private, but nothing is really private there. The books are not for sale, but anyone may find a place to sit and read them. Anyone. There are little corners here and there with a bench and pillows, or a mattress behind a blind corner, for the writers to stay. The motto of the store is “Be kind to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.” It wasn’t kitsch, it wasn’t “sold out,” it wasn’t strange or formal. It was comfortable, like a good old book should be, and similarly, challenging. It’s very existence asks the question – why shouldn’t it be like this? Why not personable, with full backlists of novelists and authors, with “staff” who really love what they do and know probably more about what you’re looking for than you do? Why go the route of big-box bookshops that are brightly lit and modern, but clinical and sterile at the same time? I love my Barnes & Noble, sure, but seeing Shakespeare & Company made me wonder if it is pure anachronism now. Is this experience a lost one?
Because I am a literature addict (seriously, I have a problem!) and because it’s been a while since I’ve had access to books in English, I spent more than I should have. I don’t really feel bad about it, it’s my Christmas gift to myself. And one book I purchased, with the Shakespeare & Company stamp on the inside, I will lug around until I get home, no matter the extra weight in my bag. It’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, first published by Sylvia Beach who had the courage to support a risky author, and the bravery to open her dream up to the world. And, importantly, the open heart to allow the tradition to continue, to release her personal dream into the hands of another man, who has passed it on to his daughter, who will hopefully, someday, pass it to another who shares the same vision, and will protect it with a sharpened pen.