Saint-Germain-des-Pres by John Baxter by John Baxter - Read Online

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From the bestselling author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World comes this first book in an exciting new series of narrative “biographies” of Paris’s great neighborhoods, beginning with Saint-Germain-des-Pres—the city’s “rebel quarter,” for centuries a center of artistic, intellectual, and revolutionary activity and home to some of Paris’s most iconic cafes and shops.

For many years, Saint-Germain-des-Pres has been a stronghold of sans culottes, a refuge to artists, a paradise for bohemians. It’s where Marat printed L’Ami du Peuple and Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man. Napoleon, Hemingway, and Sartre have all called it home. Descartes is buried there. Now bestselling author and Paris expert, John Baxter takes readers and travelers on a narrative tour of Saint-Germain-des-Pres, which is also where Baxter makes his home.

Tucked along the shores of the Left Bank, Saint-Germain-des-Pres embodies so much of what makes Paris special. Its cobblestone streets and ancient facades survive to this day, spared from modernization thanks to a quirk in their construction. Traditionally cheap rents attracted outsiders and political dissidents from the days of Robespierre to the student revolts of the 1960s. And its intellectual pedigree boasts such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein, and Albert Camus. Baxter reveals all, guiding readers to the cafes, gardens, shops, and monuments that bring this hidden history to life.

Part-history, part-guidebook, Saint-Germain-des-Pres is a fresh look at one of the City of Light’s most iconic quarters, and a delight for new tourists and Paris veterans alike.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062431912
List price: $10.99
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MAP

Saint-Germain-Des-Prés

1Debauve et Gallais, Chocolatiers

2Café de Flore

3Church of St. Germain-des-Prés

4Apollinaire Monument

5Cheese sellers

6Duncan Akademia

7Tour de Nesle. Institut de France

8Mariage Frères

9Lapérouse

10Latin Quarter

11Beat Hotel

12Le Tabou

13Marat’s Printery

14Metro Odéon

15San Francisco Book Company

16Sorbonne

17Restaurant Polidor

18Odéon Theatre

19Fountain Leda

20Hemingway residence

21Miss Betty’s Brothel

22Hôtel Lutetia

DEDICATION

Pour Marie-Dominique and Louise

et la vie en rose.

EPIGRAPH

Cities are bibles of stone. This city possesses no single dome, roof or pavement which does not convey some message of alliance or of union, and which does not offer some lesson, example or advice. Let the people of all the world come to this prodigious alphabet of monuments, of tombs and of trophies to learn peace and unlearn the meaning of hatred. Let them be confident. For Paris has proven itself. To have once been Lutece and to have become Paris—what could be a more magnificent symbol? To have been mud and to have become spirit!

VICTOR HUGO

CONTENTS

Map

Dedication

Epigraph

Introduction: A Village in a City

1        STICKS AND STONES

Le Cour du Commerce Saint-André

2        THE BODY IN THE BATH

Marat Assassiné

3        A TALE OF TWO CAFÉS

Café de Flore

4        GOD AND GUNPOWDER

The Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés

5        RIMBAUD’S POLICEMAN

Memorial to Guillaume Apollinaire

6        A GOOD READ

The San Francisco Book Company

7        THE SWEETEST SIN

Debauve et Gallais, Chocolatiers

8        HIGH CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS

The Banks of the Seine

9        EATING OUT

Crèmerie Restaurant Polidor

10      UNDERGROUND

Le Tabou

11      THE CUP THAT CHEERS

Mariage Frères

12      THE KISS

The Fontaine de Léda, Jardin du Luxembourg

13      CLOSED HOUSES, OPEN MINDS

Miss Betty’s Brothel

14      THE SHOW MUST GO ON

The Odéon Forecourt, Café Voltaire, and La Méditerranée

15      THE LAST BOHEMIAN

Raymond Duncan’s Akademia

16      SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

Hôtel Lutetia

17      $1000 A YEAR

Ernest Hemingway Apartment

18      BON APPÉTIT

Market Fromagers

19      RICH MAN, POOR MAN, BEGGAR MAN . . .

20      THE RUMBLE IN THE TUNNEL

The Metro Stations at Odéon and Cluny-La Sorbonne

21      EATING WITH ANAÏS

Salon La Belle Otéro, Lapérouse

22      THE GONE WORLD

The Beat Hotel, Chez Rachou

Afterword: An Ordinary Day, with Kalashnikovs

Acknowledgments

Photo Credits

Index

About the Author

Also by John Baxter

Back Ad

Copyright

About the Publisher

INTRODUCTION

A VILLAGE IN A CITY

Where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, GREEN HILLS OF AFRICA

I GREW UP IN CITIES. I NEVER EXPECTED TO SETTLE DOWN in a village.

That said, this village isn’t like many others.

Villages today are often marketing gimmicks: a few shops done up in antique style, and actors in costume urging you to step in and buy something you don’t want.

Our village of Saint-Germain is real. It began as all true villages do, when men and women closed ranks against the unknown. After agreeing on the limits of their community, they built some kind of wall, appointed a few neighbors to represent them, others to stand guard.

Natural borders define the true village—usually a river on one side, the highway passing by on the other, with, to the east, the fields they cultivate by day and, to the west, the church to which they look for solace, for learning, for help in sickness and war.

Saint-Germain has all of those. Even today, when it’s embedded in a city, we cling to that pride, that sense of belonging—and, admittedly, to the old suspicions. Standing on our frontier, we look across the street at our neighbors and think, "Oh, them."

It can’t be a coincidence that a man from Saint-Germain, Guy Debord, first proposed the theory of psychogeography: a sense of place so fundamental that it infuses emotion as powerfully as a drug.

Scots swear that, as their car crosses the border with England, they experience a bump. Actor Robert De Niro, born in New York’s Greenwich Village, just doesn’t feel comfortable above Fourteenth Street. The residents of some South London districts are so recognizable by style and accent that they have a uniform: velvet suits covered in pearl buttons, Pearly Kings and Queens.

And don’t try telling a Virginian that the Mason-Dixon Line is just a geographical convention or you may have an argument on your hands.

Our village has no walls—not physical ones anyway—nor is the accent particularly distinctive. Nobody wears a uniform. Unless you count political demonstrations, we do not parade. There are no souvenir shops selling scented candles or snow domes; look in vain for I [heart] Saint-Germain T-shirts. We do not advertise. We just tell visitors Look for yourselves, and for those who do, our secrets reveal themselves.

They soon notice, for instance, that, even though it’s barely half the size of New York’s Central Park and no bigger than Hyde Park in London, Saint-Germain has sheltered some of civilization’s greatest personalities.

Ours is the village of those archetypal great lovers Héloïse and Abelard; of Pablo Picasso and Arthur Rimbaud; of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway; of Inspector Maigret and Napoleon Bonaparte; the Rights of Man and The Sun Also Rises and La Vie en Rose and La Bohème; of Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre; Juliette Gréco, café society, the new wave of cinema; of existentialism—and, forgetting for a moment mind and soul, long afternoons in crumpled sheets, lunches that last till sunset, baguettes with cheese, a café crème or a glass of Bordeaux shared with someone close on a bateau mouche as it glides under Pont Neuf, pivots in the eddy at the foot of the Île Saint-Louis, and heads back downstream under the disapproving eye of Notre Dame.

Our streets have seen history made and unmade. In 1789, they ran with blood as our village joined with others to put down a corrupt society. In May 1968, the youth of Paris poured out of the universities and, meeting in our local theatre, remade Europe in a few weeks, really just for the hell of it. It was, remarked a surprised historian, the only known revolution in which nobody died.

But revolution here comes in all sizes. Just down our street, in a little bookshop, a small but determined woman from Princeton, New Jersey, took upon herself the burden of publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel that transfigured literature.

You might think that every original thought would long since have been wrung from these stones, these lanes and courtyards, and that one’s mind would run off over the sea of metal roofs of Paris into wider fields and skies.

But one does not tire here. There is always more to experience because each day more is made.

Nothing in our village ever dies. It is a living museum of what we can create, both at our finest moments and our worst.

We call our village Saint-Germain—not pronounced Jermayne, by the way, but like Jerman and emphasizing the second syllable: Jer-MAN. We’re a little touchy about that. Otherwise, with occasional exceptions, we’re hospitable and welcome visitors.

You should come. You might even stay a while. I did.

The first half-hour in Paris is sometimes more painful than pleasant. Even veteran travelers suffer from the feeling that everyone is shouting at them because they are slow and stupid. They are torn between the fear of seeming ignorant, or being humiliated should they dispense the wrong-sized tip. But once the headlong plunge is taken, there comes the first mounting excitement.

KAYE WEBB, RONALD SEARLE’S PARIS SKETCHBOOK

I first came to Paris in 1969. Signs of the previous May’s troubles were everywhere—the stumps of felled trees along the boulevards; streets where cobbles had been torn up to fling at the police and militia—but the disturbances were already being minimized, downgraded from a revolution to mere événements (events).

Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, James Joyce, and the rest of the Lost Generation had long since moved on, but the Beat Generation had taken their place, with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg living and socializing in, if not the same hotels and cafés they had patronized, then places very like them.

For anyone ambitious to be an artist or writer, Paris remained the place one came to discover oneself. Most came the cheapest way. In 1969, that generally meant a ship—tramp steamers, refurbished prewar liners on their last crossings before the scrap yard, even repatriated wartime Liberty ships perilously ferrying munitions back from Europe.

The more fortunate, traveling from New York, made the trip in a week. For me, the voyage from Australia meant not five days at sea but thirty.

Before World War II, our ship, the Australis, had been the SS America. Its new owners, a Greek company, not only changed the name but subdivided its cabins to take three times the original complement of one thousand passengers, even if some had to bunk with the crankshaft.

Four or five times a year, this floating tenement sailed from Southampton to Sydney, packed with Europeans fleeing fogs and rain and seeking a new life in the sun. On the return trip, it carried Australians bored with unremitting sunshine and eager for old-world sophistication. In December 1969, that group included my girlfriend and myself.

A few weeks after landing in Britain, we made our first excursion across the English Channel. It wasn’t easy. With Britain still dithering about joining a federated Europe—it’s dithering still—we had to acquire a French visa, exchange pounds for francs, travel by train to Dover, let customs officials paw through our luggage, make the rough ferry crossing to Calais, then take another train for Paris.

By the time we hauled our bags up the steps from the Saint-Michel underground station, it was late afternoon. Office workers jammed the pavements, fixated on getting home. Buses, cars, and motorbikes poured down boulevard Saint-Michel to tussle with more vehicles streaming along the quays of the Seine. If the traffic halted even momentarily, hundreds of pedestrians plunged into it, indifferent to the ding-ding-ding of the buses’ warning bells.

Our first glimpse of a Parisian monument was the cathedral of Notre Dame, just across the Seine. After the serenity of London’s Saint Paul’s, its Gothic arches radiated an alien arrogance.

Rearing above the chaos on the far side of Place Saint-Michel, a giant sword-wielding archangel Michael crushed Lucifer beneath his feet while two dragons spouted water from gaping jaws. How unlike Australian fountains, whose lithe nymphs and muscular huntsmen looked like surfers who’d briefly left the sand in search of an ice cream.

Why this belligerence? I wondered. What made the French so angry?

Taking refuge in the first side street, we found ourselves in another century. The cobbles on which we stumbled were laid when Victor Hugo, if not François Villon, walked here. Though cafés and restaurants clamored for attention on every side, the buildings above their gaudy facades leaned and sagged, supported, it seemed, by nothing but centuries of grime.

The few street signs were either too small and high up to be readable, or blocked by café awnings. Appeals in our broken French for directions met with indifferent stares. Apparently the cheerful English-speaking Parisians of the movies didn’t exist outside Hollywood’s central casting.

Instead, housewives with bulging string bags jostled us, and disheveled young men shouldered past. The only person to acknowledge our existence was a shuffling tramp who spoke the international language of the doleful expression and the extended palm.

It took us a while to realize that some of the buildings around us housed hotels. None displayed porticos or doormen, just dark entrances squeezed between shops and cafés and with inconspicuous brass plates with lettering blurred by generations of polishing.

Choosing the Hôtel Splendide Saint-Germain at random, we edged our luggage down a narrow unlit corridor into a tiny reception area, its only furniture a lone dusty armchair, clearly unused since the reign of Louis XVI.

The desk clerk didn’t