I’m sitting in Place St. Sulpice. Ernest Hemingway was hungry here. A homeless man sleeping on the next bench is still hungry here. A woman with a velvet cape and a satchel of breadcrumbs is making friends of the pigeons. The wide, tranquil square is bounded on one end by the church — now draped in wire net and scaffolding. The center is dominated by a fountain of bishops seated in a lion-guarded tower. The sounds of traffic grumbling around the square are muted by the mumble of the fountain. A sleepy timelessness blankets the place. It’s late fall and the sky is pale and unmarked. Ernest Hemingway was hungry here. One short section of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, entitled “Hunger was a Good Discipline,” describes the author’s struggles with hunger in Paris when the flow of his paychecks slowed. Paris’s warm, buttery boulangeries are tempting even to the well-fed; windows stuffed with colorful pastries preen themselves out onto the sidewalk displaying marbled tarts, éclairs polished in chocolate, syrup-glazed fruits dripping down tiered cakes, powdered beignets clustered on doilies and drizzled with raspberries; on the terrasses of cafés, aproned waiters shuck oysters chilled on beds of lemon-infused crushed ice; whole roasting chickens sweat fat down auburn crusts in the boucherie. Aware of this, Hemingway outlines a plan for days when Paris’s eateries seem more taunting than tempting, a walk that begins at Place de l’Observatoire, carries through the Jardin de Luxembourg, continues along a small side street to Place St. Sulpice, and ultimately comes to an end on rue de l’Odéon, at the former site of Shakespeare and Company.
Although I was not quite as hungry as Ernest Hemingway, I decided out of curiosity to take his walk where, he claimed, “you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way” to the Jardin. I began at the restless intersection of the Avenue de l’Observatoire and Boulevard du Montparnasse. As I continued along the avenue, I began to see Hemingway’s point. It was as though someone had wrapped horse-blinders around my head. The avenue narrowed, quieted to the point of sedation, and split itself around a long park. Stimulation of any form seemed to dissolve on this street… Just quiet Haussman-style apartments dominating one’s peripheral vision, blankets of autumn leaves, the occasional bird. Perhaps it was the calmness of the environment that lent me space to think. I thought a lot of nourishment as I walked, and the capacity of the city to act as a nourishing force. I suppose hunger, whether physical or emotional, is a state that truly forces an almost primitive engagement with the city. The austerity of the avenue, the stillness of a late-fall Jardin de Luxembourg, the cramped, shaded rue Férou that leads you into the Place St. Sulpice… Although one is in the heart of Paris, even to this day the walk Hemingway outlines is utterly placid, empty. One finds oneself in the company of loneliness, but in the good way — there is a sense of really occupying a space. After the stillness of the Avenue de l’Observatoire, one passes through the Jardin de Luxembourg all wrapped up in a strange bubble of interiority. It’s a bizarre sensation — as though being at once totally removed from the surrounding, and yet so fundamentally immersed in the environment, composed of the same cells.
To this day, there are scarcely any cafés along this walk — one or two along rue de Vaugirard, but they are very subdued, almost imperceptible. One feels swallowed by the dim, narrow rue Férou, and then suddenly spit out into Place St. Sulpice. Now traffic grumbles around it, innumerable cafés and shops line the surrounding streets, but there still remains a tranquility. As I sat down on a bench and watched the old woman scattering breadcrumbs, I imagined that Hemingway felt as I did in that moment: for once, it was not Paris rushing into me with all of its sounds and scents and voices… Instead, these quiet streets had given inhabitance to my own thoughts; the quiet square accommodated that hungry, inside self that Hemingway had such a good way of feeding. If the notion of flaneur is more about engaging with a city, whether that be through it’s crowds or through its history or through its buildings or even through its general atmosphere, I admit that I felt quite the flaneur, marching in the footsteps of hungry Ernest Hemingway, and feeling just as enveloped in Paris as he was.