The Hemingway pilgrimage began in Paris. We walked from our shoebox apartment in the 7th across town to Boulevard du Montparnasse, following the footsteps of a great writer at the start of his writing career. Carl and I were going to La Closerie des Lilas to write. We've been writing in libraries and cafes all over Europe: from Hong Kong to Kallio, Helsinki to London and on many planes and trains in between. As we set out to la Closerie I felt excited to see where Hemingway worked, but also excited to work, because I had learned from reading 'A Moveable Feast' that the best thing for a young writer is to find a comfortable place and work hard until you have written something good.
The waiter seated us at Paul Eluard's table, just next to Man Ray. Carl was editing a collection of poems; I was editing my memoir. After an hour, I noticed a small woman with tortoiseshell glasses sitting at the bar, watching us. I smiled at her, and went back to frowning at my pages of scribbled notes. We worked like this for several hours, eating the free olives and drinking an expensive café creme slowly until it had gone cold.
We left in the afternoon, to go eat lunch in le Jardin du Luxembourg. Before we left, I asked the waiter:
"Où est la table de Hemingway?"
He pointed me to a small gold plaque at the bar where the woman in glasses was sitting, now with an older man with wavy white hair.
I introduced myself and the older man asked me which of Hemingway's books I had read. I confessed that I'd only read his memoir and dabbled in 'For Whom The Bell Tolls.' I don't really like books about war, or bullfighting, or hunting, or fishing. But something about Hemingway's masculine mystique got under my skin. I needed to find out why this apparently sensitive writer who loved Paris, art and women was also obsessed with projecting a tough guy image. I asked the older man what his favourite book was, and he told me that he didn't like playing the game of favourites.
"It's like standing at the mouth of a delta and being asked, which river is the best?"
I like the French when they are charming.
We talked about our writing – the man was an art historian, and the woman was a writer too. I asked what she wrote, but she told me that she was more interested in hearing about me. Later, Carl told me that she must be a famous writer if she didn't want to talk about her writing. I told the two French writers that I had enjoyed working at la Closerie des Lilas that morning.
"It is not a good place to work. I have tried," the man said. "But you should come back here at night. It is very nice at midnight. They will be playing the piano and singing."
"Let's meet here at midnight tonight," I said, and I shook their hands with both of my hands, so they knew I was sincere.
After lunch, Carl and I spent a long, grey afternoon wandering in Père Lachaise Cemetery. We read tarot cards by the graves of our heroes, asking them for advice on how to follow our creative paths. Carl asked Chopin about focus, I asked Proust about courage. We returned to the tiny place near Les Invalides and recharged before heading out at 11.30 to navigate the rat runs of the Metro. The enclosed lilac was calling us back.
Our new friends did not come to meet us. Carl and I sat together at the bar; not talking, just drinking whisky and writing haikus in the warm lamplight. The musicians were playing jazz standards and the singers were dressed for a Broadway stage. All night we sat there, in the bar that hasn't changed much since the 1920s, all polished wood, brown leather and art nouveau tiles, and commented on the scene around us in 5/7/5 form:
Two whiskies on ice
La Closerie des Lilas
Hemingway'd be proud
This is the last place
on Earth that the old world still
exists, well, almost
Oh you bartenders
How you tenderly tend to
the drunk, like babies
The piano player, with a long grey ponytail and a booming voice inspired this one:
A piano bar
'Tonight I'm gonna be killed.
Don't kill me tonight.'
We played truth or dare. Carl dared me to eat an olive from the mountain of olives in front of us on the bar. I picked it up with my fingers when the bartenders' backs were turned. I dared him to play Chopin on the baby grand when the musicians were done.
"Before we go," he promised.
At 1 am the ladies in long velvet dresses and Marilyn Monroe wigs went home. Thirty minutes later, at closing time, we sat at the piano to sing one of our songs while the entire day's bills spilled out of the cash register in one long ribbon of paper.
And then Carl played Chopin. Before we left, the musicians came over and shook our hands, with both of their hands clasped around ours.