On the Run in Montparnasse

Next Door to Miss Stein's House

by Ric Erickson

Paris:-Wednesday, 11. September 1996:- Twenty years ago nobody was interested when our car crossed the border into France carrying most of our belongings, with two birds in the back seat and two yellow Peugeot bicycles on the roof.

It was Friday night rush-hour in Paris, it was warm and humid and it was my first time in the city. I was already crazed from driving in a side-wind all the way from Hamburg so dense traffic yielded to my focused tunnel-vision and we found our temporary lodgings in a slum in the avenue du Maine and I saw St. Germain des Prés for the first time that night, in a light rain.

Patrick, who we knew from Hamburg, had us come out to Meudon on Sunday and I heard radio FIP for the first time and we called up the number in an ad in Le Figaro on Monday, and on Tuesday we had a decent apartment out there.The details were more complicated than this, but it was fast. After Hamburg, I didn't want to live in a city.

We had two borrowed chairs, a borrowed bed and an old Singer sewing machine for a table. In the middle of the street in front, we could see the Tour Eiffel, off in a long distance, if the day was clear.

rue de fleurus

Patrick and his wife helped with all this and a couple of weeks later I met Patrick in Montparnasse and we went to 31. rue de Fleurus to see the editor, Pierre Marin, of Formule 1, a weekly magazine for kids. Patrick did all the talking and I showed my samples and we left. Years later, Patrick told me that was the only time he ever met the editor.

Sometime around then my wife and I signed up at L'Alliance Française on the boulevard Raspail for French lessons. Seventeen years before I had managed to pass French Two - in four years - so I was not handy with the language; and it is still pretty mysterious today.

After school we would walk back to the station up the rue Montparnasse and if we were tired and could afford it, we would eat in the Yakitori there that was good value for the money. If we could not afford it, we would just have a drink next door in La Petite Rotonde in the place Edgar Quinet and go and catch the train.

About five weeks after the meeting at Formule 1, they asked me to do a cover. That was the hot year in Europe and it was so hot I couldn't make the paint stick to the plastic overlay - especially not to the spots were sweat had fallen on it. I had my German tools, so working on the sewing machine table was not too bad.

From a Hamburg connection, my wife worked in a French agency that ran L'Oréal ads into Germany and we had a scattering of other Hamburg people around Paris. On Friday nights we would choose a bar for an apéritif and to decide where to eat. La Palette was our favorite place in the Latin Quarter and we would all eat around there, or it was Le Select and we would eat in Montparnasse.

Often we would be four, or as many as eight, but none of us had much money so we choose economical restaurants and the food did not impress me. It was not necessary to spend much more, but you really had to know where to go to get something good. If people felt like drinking, we would always go to an economical place. We always took a café afterwards and sometimes this lasted until we had to run to catch the last train from the Gare de Montparnasse. The taxi ride to Meudon cost a lot if we missed the train.

academie

I was called to the rue de Fleurus more and more often, and I would try to arrange delivery of the designs so I could have a drink at Le Calumet, on the corner of the boulevard Raspail and Nôtre-Dame-des-Champs, before going to classes at L'Alliance. There were always a lot of students from the various schools around there.

Formule 1 was sold mostly by subscription but it was available at a few newsstands too, and in early July I had two front pages on sale in Paris in the same week - the other one was 'The Paris Metro,' which was also sold by street dealers.

The editorial of Metro was in the Marais and it was a long trip outside my Montparnasse circle and as the newsmagazine 'Le Point' developed a steady demand for my work - as a result of doing a few things for 'fnac contact' which was next door on the rue de Rennes - I was forced to abandon learning French at the L'Alliance. At the time, there were a lot of students there from Indo-China - some of them illiterate - so it was the only language school they had ever been to. I was in a very basic class, mostly because my accent was so bad. It has not improved much. I can not sing either, but I do not know which I regret most.

Without going to L'Alliance every day, I then had pockets of free time and after a delivery to Formule 1 or Le Point I would go to Le Select and watch its world. In winter, the low sun came in over the roof of La Coupole across the boulevard and that is when I started my dreaming in Montparnasse.

On some days this dreaming would be so great that I would have a drink at Le Calumet, one at Le Select on the boulevard, another at La Petite Rotonde and finally have something really rotten at one of the bars on the quai in the station. There was a toilet on the train then, but I might have had to have another rotten one at the bar in Meudon because there was no public toilet there. This was the downside to dreaming.

calumet

Gabi and Len came from London and Gabi went to the L'Oréal agency with her Hamburg connection and we met them when they came to the Friday apéritif and restaurant nights. They lived just off rue Lecourbe so we started going to local restaurants in the 15th too. I borrowed Len's copy of 'A Moveable Feast' although I had read it years before and some of it assisted my dreaming in Montparnasse - but without the details that I am running into these days.

Unlike Ernest Hemingway, I did not and do not know many Americans and my notions of their presence in Montparnasse in the 1920's is still vague. With selective reading you could get the impression that Americans invented the 'good times' in Montparnasse then.

It is not true. They were a minority - there were many more French, grouped with Europeans - Scandinavians and Russians - south Americans, and odd ones like Tsuguharu Foujita, who was a favorite of the ladies and a friend of Diego Rivera, who lived at 26. Rue du Départ, which has made way for the commercial centre in front of the station.

Today I have been following Hemingway around Montparnasse and except for going all the way over to Le Closerie des Lilas - I recommend the bar there! - I think I have been following myself around too.

There are several differences though. It is 70 years later and I am clearly not remotely the writer he was. Montparnasse is sleeping on its memories, but I can walk in anywhere and remember mine even though I do not use anything the refresh my memory nor do I look for toilets.

But, also more clearly, I am still dreaming in Montparnasse. [From Issue One of Metropole Paris]

Afterword

I hope you will have time to read 'Hemingway in Montparnasse' in this issue of Metropole. All the places mentioned above still exist, although some have been renovated. Editions Fleurus has moved from its long-time location and been replaced by the publisher, Hatier. There are no longer bars on the quais in the Gare Montparnasse - the station has been completely altered for the TGV. I left Meudon 10 years ago and remember it fondly, but I prefer to live where I do now. Although the train ride to town is a lot longer, as soon as I am in Paris proper something in my head clicks and a lighted sign flashes the message, 'Here is Paris, make the most of it.'

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