On the Petit Pont over the Seine, I stopped to take a picture of Notre Dame. Walking south between the cathedral and the water, fallen leaves littered the walkway. They rustled as I kicked them. I observed the flying buttresses holding up the nave and choir and remembered learning about them in a college art class. And then a picture of my husband Ron and me walking hand-in-hand around the cathedral came into my head.
This trip was my first adventure travel trip completely by myself. My goal had been to walk the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain. I did. Then I walked on to Finisterre on the Atlantic Ocean. I started the Camino alone but was really never alone. I met other pilgrims along the way whom I called my Camino family. As I neared the end of my pilgrimage, I debated about canceling the extra day I planned in Paris. I had my adventure. I’d been away from Edmonds almost six weeks. It was time to go home.
Changing travel plans seemed too much of a hassle, so I didn’t. I knew I could handle the challenge of getting around Paris with the little French that I spoke, so I wasn’t worried about that. No, I was stressed about spending 24 hours by myself. I figured with a plan I could fill the hours. First I would investigate the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Then I would walk to the D’Orsay to see “Splendor and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910.” I had seen the advertisements for the exhibit and knew that there would be paintings by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.
This memory of my first visit to Paris in 1979 with my husband caught me by surprise. From where did that unbidden memory come? Ron had been dead 18 years. “An unexpected gift,” I thought. Not wanting to lose it, I slowed down to conjure more memories of that day. I remembered that we had the cathedral to ourselves. We climbed to the first level to the bell tower and admired the view of the city. We took pictures of one another standing by the gargoyles.
We wandered through the streets on the Île de la Cité, talking about our past two years in Mali, Africa and our four children who were staying in Bamako with friends. Before we left the island, we discovered a plaque telling us that the bistro, La Colombre, had once belonged to Ludwig Bemelmans. We had read his book Madeline so many times to our children that we both began repeating the opening lines in unison:
“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth and went to bed.
They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine –
The smallest one was Madeline.”
Memories dissolved as I rounded the corner on the north side of Notre Dame. A gargoyle caught my attention. I pulled out my iPhone and took pictures. As I passed souvenir shops, I debated whether to buy an Eiffel Tower pencil sharpener or a magnet with a picture of Notre Dame to give to a grandchild. But wait — knickknacks did not belong in this experience. Ahh, freedom to do what I wanted to do. I walked back across the bridge to explore Shakespeare and Company, 37 ru de la Bûcherie.
The patterned marble floors and the book-shelf-lined walls pulled me into another time. Built in the 17th century as a monastery, the building was purchased in 1951 by George Whitman, who turned it into an English language bookstore. In the 1960s, he changed the name in honor of Sylvia Beach’s bookstore in Paris, which had been the hangout for many of the 1920s expat authors: Elliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Hemingway — authors who made up the canon of my college years.
In 2002, when my daughter Maria taught kindergarten at the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon, I visited her there. Then the two of us spent two weeks in France. That trip was my first and only visit to Shakespeare and Company. Maria is not one for browsing, so we walked in, looked around and left. But now I could spend as much time as I wanted.
Not the neat orderly bookstore like I know at home, I walked around the ground floor surveying the layout. I stopped at the wall of Beat Generation books and picked up The Yage Letters: Redux by Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. I have never read a book by Burroughs, but Allen Ginsberg came to Western Washington University in the spring of 1968 when I was a senior. He traveled to Bellingham in Ken Kesey’s psychedelic painted school bus. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; it was Kesey I wanted to meet. He was rumored to be on the bus. I remember standing nearby hoping he would come out. That spring, a poem I wrote was published in the university’s literary magazine, but I did not see myself as a writer yet. I thought about knocking on the bus door. My 21-year-old self did not have the nerve. I did go to Ginsberg’s poetry reading that evening. He wore a black top hat. I never revisited his poetry.
I placed the book back on the shelf and wandered into the fiction area. There, wooden worn red stairs with words painted on each step beckoned me up:
“ I wish
I could show you
When you are
Of your own
How could I not be drawn up those steps? At the top, I found the Sylvia Beach lending library. Two people sat in the two chairs in the room reading. I looked out the window between the library and poetry section onto a roof. Below a peeling white wall leaned a framed picture of Shakespeare. In a small nook next to him, a small figurine horse raised on his hind feet stamped the air between two plants that would probably not make it through the fall. I snapped a picture. In the room next to the poetry collection an old typewriter sat on piled books. A piano and chair occupied a wall loaded with books. I stopped in the poetry room. Under book-filled shelves of poets I knew and didn’t know, a banquette welcomed me to sit and read for a while. A Coney Island of The Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti caught my attention. I owned that book in college. I pulled it off the shelf.
Two young woman wandered into the room with the piano. “Do you think I can play on it,” one asked in English.
The second woman didn’t see why she shouldn’t. Piano notes from Beethoven’s “Fur Eise” slipped around me as I read Ferlinghetti’s poem “The World is A Beautiful Place.”
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time…
In the end I bought two books: Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company for myself and a small, leather-bound copy of Romeo and Juliet for my oldest granddaughter. The woman helping asked if I would like it stamped. “Yes, please.” She placed the circular stamp on the first page, imprinting it with a drawing of Shakespeare’s face encircled by the words, “Shakespeare and Company, Kilometer Zero Paris.” I slipped the package into my backpack and walked out into the morning light.
The route to the D’Orsay took me along the Seine. At several book and art stalls, owners set up their wares. I did not let them slow me down. When I arrived at the museum, a long line had already formed. Who were all these adults and children? Musicians entertained us with jazz from across the street. No one complained to me about being hungry or bored. I watched other museum goers standing in the line as we slowly wound our way to the front.
The museum was built in 1898-1900 as a railroad station. I entered the glass and steel atrium hall dominated by the gold-framed clock. Museum goers walked by me; I had the freedom to see and do what I liked. I decided to view the exhibit “Splendor and Misery” first. After, I would see where my fancy took me.
I saw Edouard Manet’s “The Plum” and Vincent Van Gogh’s “Agontina Segatori Sitting in the Cafè due Tambourin.” The paintings were of women sitting alone with their drinks waiting. Waiting for better lives or resigned to the choices in their lives. Edward Munch’s “Christmas in the Brothel” made me wonder what hidden memories the woman carried deep inside of other Christmases. It was not just the French culture I was viewing but Western attitudes toward women. Women turned toward prostitution to survive. They still do. The 19th century justification for it wore me out. I found my mood perceiving Ferlinghetti’s “Touch of hell.” It was time to find the restaurant on the fifth floor.
A glass of white wine, beef noodles with coriander and a fruit salad gave me the energy to finish my adventure. I drifted out to the viewing area on that floor and contemplated the the city that spread out before me. Inside, I visited my favorite impressionist paintings. I admired Van Gough’s use of colors. The thickness of the paint on canvas. What would he think of all of us admiring his works? I hope his spirit is content.
I walked back along the Seine. Winding my way through people looking at T-shirts of Paris, art work and books in the now-open book and art stalls, I thought, “I love this city.” That evening I sat alone, eating sushi and sashimi at the Japanese restaurant across from the hotel. The perfect ending to a day. Like the epilogue at the end of a book, I realized the day had been a gift from Paris to me.
— By Tori Peters
About the author: For Victoria “Tori” Peters, writing and travel are an important part of who she is. She and her husband, now deceased, raised four children in Africa and Asia as a result of his Foreign Service career. While raising children, traveling, and journaling, she taught fifth grade in Everett, Wash., middle school language arts at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India, and high school English at Taipei American School in Taiwan.
In 2015, she walked the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago, Spain and then on to Finisterre, Spain, close to 900 km. In 2016, along with six other women ranging in age from 40-72 years old, Tori trekked for six days in the Andes Mountains from Cachora, to Choquiquerao, and eventually to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Tori is now working on a memoire of her life experiences living with her family in Mali, Rwanda, and Tunisia, Africa.
Tori is a board member with EPIC Group Writers and a participant of the EPIC monthly Travel Writing Group. For more information on this group and other writing groups of EPIC Group Writers, go to www.epicgroupwriters.org