My first ever overseas trip was a school exchange trip – to live with a German family in the town of Arnsberg in what was, at the time, West Germany. I was fourteen years old and although I was initially homesick and found actual spoken German, rather than school boy German, difficult to understand – in the end I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and became well and truly bitten by the travel bug.
Since then I have travelled all over Europe, the UK, the Mediterranean area including a couple of north African countries, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, a few of the Pacific Islands, The USA, Canada and Mexico. I don’t have heaps of money so usually this means travelling on a tight budget – even backpacking and hitch hiking. Naturally I have my favourite places – places I would willingly return to time and time again. In general I try to avoid some of the busiest cities – countries capitals – BUT I must admit to having a love affair with the French capital Paris.
For me, Paris has everything. My passions are writing, photography, art, travel – not to mention good wine and rich strong coffee. Paris offers up all these and more. It’s been a magnet for writers and artists, connoisseurs of fine wines and foods, travellers, poets and of course, being the city of romance – lovers.
All the best writers of old had lived and written in Paris – F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to name but two. Of course France produced many famous writers of its own including Proust, Dumas, Flaubert, Sartre and we can’t miss out Voltaire. Paris was and is still a breeding ground for literature, philosophy, art, fashion and new ideas of all kinds
One of my highlights was visiting Shakespeare & Company book shop (twice). What an awesome book shop. A warren of rooms, packed bookshelves, books piled in every space, little sayings and quotes printed on the walls and stairs, and of course just breathing in the history of the place. The building used to be part of a 17th century monastery, although this particular shop was only opened in the 1950’s. Many famous writers, actors and artists have graced its rooms – Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, William Styron, Julio Cortázar, Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Lawrence Durrell, James Jones, and James Baldwin were some of the first. As an english language book shop in the heart of Paris, it became a haven for American and British ex-pats. Some have even slept there amongst the books, early in their careers (such as Ethan Hawke and Geoffrey Rush) or when down on their luck. From day one owner George Whitman encouraged writers and artists to seek shelter in his shop – a place to sleep and eat a meagre meal, in exchange for a couple of hours of work (and they also had to write a short bio and promise to read a book a day while living there). It’s been estimated that over 30,000 people, over the years the shop has been in business, have taken up the offer of food and shelter. It’s been owned by the same family throughout. Opened by George Whitman in 1951 (originally under the name of Le Mistral) and run either by him or under his watchful eye until he died in 2011 aged 98. His daughter Sylvia – named after Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare & Company in 1919 on rue de l’Odeon – took over management of the shop in 2006. In 1964 on Shakespeare’s 4ooth birthday, and with the blessing of Sylvia Beach, the name of the shop was changed to what it is today – Shakespeare & Company. On my first visit, to the shop, I bought “My Brain on Fire” by Leonard Pitt – about his experiences living in Paris as a young man. Of his struggles to become a writer, living in a garret – naturally – and his mishaps in romance. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and read it before leaving Paris, it was so enthralling. I was lucky enough to get a signed copy.
On my second visit a few days later I bought the book about the shop – “Shakespeare & Company Paris” and subtitled “A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart”. It’s been compiled partly from George Whitman’s notes and letters and partly by the many many people who have lived and worked in the shop over the years. It has photos, notes, receipts, short biographies and notices throughout its pages – edited by Krista Halverson – it’s a delightful book to own and to read. It gives a real understanding of life in the shop – bedbugs and all – and provides a window into the eccentricity of an interesting, passionate and complex man who’s dream and life this shop became. It is available from the many on-line retailers but my advice would be to go to the shop yourself, pick up a copy and absorb some of that magical atmosphere.
Part two to follow soon…….