My Moveable Feast

Picture of the Seine at dusk, with lots of blues and ruffled clouds

The Seine, at dusk

My wife and I have temporarily moved to Paris, where we’ve rented an apartment. For her, it’s a sabbatical; for me, it’s work, though work of the most pleasant kind. Paris will be my base for the European phase of the research I need to do for my current project, which of course I will not discuss. One huge benefit, besides being based in this delightful city, is that I will be able to reach the various archives I need to tap with only minimal flying, maybe none, and at significantly lower cost in cash and pain than if I’d had to commute from Seattle. Meanwhile our Seattle home is happily and safely in the hands of two house sitters, and a dog named Ralph.

I’ll try not to bore you with the usual “Paris Journal” kind of tripe (and tripe is fairly popular here, by the way, mainly in sausage form) because frankly there is little more tedious than hearing at length about someone else’s travels, unless of course that person ended up in a gun battle with the Swedish National Police or shared a sleeping car with Carla Bruni.

I will, however, try to pass on useful information, mainly involving good and affordable French red wines, and some white wines as well, and whatever insights into life that Paris and its denizens care to reveal to me. It is lovely to be living in a neighborhood where within five-minutes walk there are literally a thousand restaurants, cafes, bakeries, crepe stands, pastry shops, chocolatieres, and cheese boutiques. And wine shops. On our street there is even a store that sells Austrian clothing (in the window there is a jacket identical to the one Capt. von Trapp wears in The Sound of Music) and another that sells Norwegian goods (but not lutefiske, thank god, lutefiske being a fish cured with lye, which can also be used to clean engine blocks). Just to be able to walk everywhere and not have to drive is an amazing gift, though one has to be careful not to walk too close to the curb adjacent to a bus lane, because the buses here have these bunny-ear mirrors that can take a man’s head off.

The Senate offices in the Jardin du Luxembourg, on a sunny day in October

Le Jardin du Luxembourg, on a sunny day in October

Of course the first book I have chosen to read is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I read back in college, and adored. And now, here I am, and many of the places he knew and loved are still here. We walk daily through the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is a block away and is in my view one of the most beautiful parks in the world. So this for me is also a kind of pilgrimage. I know Hemingway has fallen in stature over the years, mainly due to endless parody, but the man changed literature and knew well that the art of not saying is one of the most important that a writer can master. Though I have to confess that ever since we got here my wife and I at least once a day have lapsed into a parody, not of Hemingway, but of the Hemingway character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and it is a noble kind of parody, fine and honest and true, for it is an honor to be in Hemingway’s city, on his ground, seeing the trees of the garden in the sad time when they lose their leaves and as the palms and oranges and other box trees are placed inside the Orangerie for the winter, and it is like making love to a woman after killing a man. Oh hell, you get the point.

As to language, so far my life has been a daily humiliation. I can read French quite well, and in fact I receive Tweets from the Paris newspaper Le Monde, but once engaged in actual verbal contact with the locals, my mind fuses like a piston without oil. Why that is, I don’t know, but it occurs to me that being good at speaking a language is a lot like being good at acting. Which I am not, and never was. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this can explore my archived postings, where I reveal my deep and enduring terror of performing on stage in any kind of production where I have to memorize lines.

One other thing I have learned: In France it is very important to be precise about what you are ordering. A croque-monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. A croque-morti is an undertaker.

My work space, in Paris

My work space in our Paris apartment

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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