France is steeped in refined traditions, with its rich history, exquisite art, robust culture, and varied cuisine. Writer Erin Byrne was changed by traveling around this country with the ghosts of artists and historical figures who shared with her their guides to living.
Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France is a collection of essays drawn from Byrne’s travels across the country. From Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence to a tiny village in the Jura Mountains, from a neighborhood bistro on the Left Bank of Paris to a plain high above the Normandy beaches, she travels through France collecting stories, characters, tastes, and secrets that act as ingredients for change, then takes those experiences and digs deeper to uncover meaning.
Henri Cartier-Bresson issues a challenge, Sainte Geneviève offers resilience, Salvador Dalí seduces, Picasso entertains, and a wrought iron sign portends the future. Wings is about the gifts that we all glean from our travels. This book will inspire readers to unwrap their own images and impressions in a new way.
“To join Erin Byrne on her travels is to see France through the eyes of an ever-curious and affectionate friend.”
—Alan Riding, author of And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris
“A reverie-inducing glimpse of past and present France.”
—Phil Cousineau, author of The Book of Roads and The Art of Pilgrimage
“With lush prose, remarkable honesty and passion that crackles off the page, Erin Byrne peeks behind the obvious and finds connection, meaning and most of all beauty everywhere on her journey—in a taxi in Arles, on a staircase in the Louvre, in the simplest glass of Bordeaux, in a Normandy village steeped with history. Byrne urges us all to find our stories, but these are hers, and they are dazzling.”
—Marcia DeSanctis, author of 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go
“Reflective and poetic, Wings is a magic mirror held up to French art, culture and history. But while Wings is often profound, many stories are frank and funny—I’ll never think of Balzac the same way again.”
—Jeff Greenwald, author of Snake Lake and Shopping for Buddhas
“In these beautifully crafted essays, Erin Byrne not only experiences France with her senses, she experiences it with her heart, rendering her impressions of the country, its art, and its people with both grace and warmth.”
—Janis Cooke Newman, author of A Master Plan for Rescue
“I defy you to read these stories and not want to hop on the next flight to Charles de Gaulle.”
—Jim Benning, co-founder of World Hum
“Challenging the meaning of life is the truest expression of the state of being human.”
It is early morning inside a café on rue des Canettes, a tiny side street on the Left Bank of Paris near the cathedral of Saint Sulpice. From the kitchen comes the sounds of the place being coaxed to wakefulness: the hollow clatter of spoon on saucer, the solid clump of cup on counter, a knife plunging through a crusty baguette then cracking down on a wooden block.
You are alone in the room, ensconced in a golden brown embrace. The scent of coffee nudges your blood to thrum, and you sense that something in this place is here just for you. Drowsy sunlight yawns through lace-curtained windows and gleams a soft honey onto one of the tables.
Upon the table is a box wrapped in glossy fuchsia paper with a raised spiral design that catches the light, and a shiny white ribbon gathered from all sides that meets in a scalloped bow in the middle. The box is full but not bulging, its edges folded tight enough to tempt.
~ ~ ~
The stories in this book—written over the past decade as I have traveled to France several times a year for stays of three to ten weeks—are not meant to amuse or entertain, but to call forth responses. This is how literature has worked its magic with me: I read Julian Green’s essay about the tiny church of Saint Julien le Pauvre, and when I stepped inside the ancient church, Green’s image of Dante kneeling on straw listening to his lessons swirled with my own misty mood. Lines from the poem “Autumn” by Charles Baudelaire, read on a leaf-spangled day in the Luxembourg gardens, reminded me that my own summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone, plunging me into cold shadows. It was summer yesterday; now it’s autumn, I knew, and echoes of departures from my own life—my sons going off to college, my sister dying—resounded in the air.
I share with you the hungers I felt inside a Parisian café, so that perhaps you may feel pangs of your own. I pass along secrets told to me by the late French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vincent van Gogh, and the patron saint of Paris, Geneviève, wondering what they have to say to you. I write about images and scenes that caused me to feel the sensation described by the French word chantepleure—to sing and cry at the same time—in the hope that you will recognize a singing sob rising from your own depths.
I hope to inspire you to ask yourself questions about your own travels to the Andes or the Appalachians, the Alps or the Atlas Mountains.
These are stories of the gifts I’ve received from France, music from the métro stations and the streets, compassion from a woman in Normandy, wisdom from my friends Jean-Bernard and Michèle, and wings from the statue Victory in Musée du Louvre (Winged Victory has always been more to me than a work of art, thus her name is not italicized).
I was drawn to this country and returned again and again, beckoned by unlikely guides who escorted me back in time through revolutions, wars, reigns, and riots; down medieval staircases; deep into wild forests; up onto parapets with panoramic views; and around and around in concentric circles, coming closer and closer to the X on the map. I’m no expert traveler, just a person who set out thinking she had it all together, only to find pieces of her fragmented self scattered all over France. The surprise was that each time I returned home, I felt reconfigured. This is the adventure of travel: We see, we feel, we perceive. Receptors reach out from our depths toward what we need, and we have the potential to integrate into ourselves the transformative treasures of the world.
Just as Julian Green and Charles Baudelaire’s meanings merged into my own, so, I hope, will a morsel of Franche-Compté cheese or a sip of Côtes du Rhone taste different to you than it did to me. My view of Notre Dame at midnight invites your unique response. The story of a young boy in occupied Paris about which I helped create a film may spark new sentiments in you. My experiences differ from yours, as you smell the smoke of faraway fires and hear words of foreign tongues roll off your own, but we connect in our search for meaning.
~ ~ ~
The café hums into action. You hear shoes slap the wooden floor, a waterfall of conversation and laughter, “Bonjour! Ça va bien?” and the clinking of glasses and dishes. Your arm is brushed by a rush of warm air, bumped by another arm, caressed by a shiver of anticipation.
Look closer. On top of the sparkling fuchsia paper is a cream-colored tag with your name written in swirling black calligraphy. Inside the glittering box on the table are the stories of your life, images and scenes and people from your travels and times that these stories can somehow mingle with. I hope they resonate with you, call up echoes of your own tales, tempt you to travel, and tap into your dreams.
Grasp a corner of the smooth white ribbon.
PART ONE: LES DEUX GARÇONS
Two Boys in a Bistro
Coasting Beyond Boyhood
PART TWO: CHARACTERS
The Rarest of Editions
Dear Madame Renaud
Don’t Think: A Message from Henri Cartier-Bresson
PART THREE: TASTES OF PLACE
The Taste of This Place
A Rare Blend
PART FOUR: CONNECTIONS
Vignettes & Postcards from Paris
Vincent’s Vision: The First of Further Letters of Vincent van Gogh
PART FIVE: THE MYSTIQUE OF ART
À Propos de Paris
Eye to Eye with van Gogh
PART SIX: THE STORYKEEPER
The Boy and His Shield
PART SEVEN: TRANSFORMATIONS
Bastille Day on the Palouse
Deep Travel, Notre Dame
PART EIGHT: SECRETS
The Secret of It
The Mirror of Montmartre
PART NINE: SIGNS
In Vincent’s Footsteps
Duende in the Louvre
PART TEN: BELONGING
Cézanne’s Salon des Refusés
Reconnaissance: Seeking Sainte Geneviève
Postscript: Out Into Paris, November 2015
Publications and Awards
About the Author
The Rarest of Editions
“There is something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
If books are humanity in print, he’s the king of the world.
The old man sits holding his worn paperback. His gnarled fingers, veins raised under papery skin, caress the cover as if it were an archaeological treasure he has just unearthed in the deserts of Egypt. His thin plaid-flannel-shirted frame hunches on a low stool, knobby knees sticking up at awkward angles. He sits majestically in his small but stately palace.
His rheumy eyes rise to contemplate his kingdom: a tiny setof rooms lit by dusty chandeliers, crammed floor to ceiling with books. He observes his subjects: an assortment of characters whose eyes glaze over with the wonder of being among thousands of new, old and rare editions. He savors the sounds of his domain: pages shuffling, pure-pleasure sighs, the murmur of voices, the clattery squeak of the door as it opens, and the nearby bells of Notre Dame.
He lifts his head with its long strands of silky white hair and inhales the comforting scent of that magical combination of books and people: leather, paper, ink and interest. The promising perfume of historical, imaginary and fantastical lives. The smell that makes one instantly settle in for a good read.
A girl with short dark hair and berry lips sinks down crosslegged against the Poetry shelf. Her black eyes race across the page as she whispers. A graying professor grabs Ulysses and curls up to it while standing. A bleary-eyed traveler breathes in the limb-loosening smell of home and dives into The World Atlas to plan the next leg of his journey.
The old man smiles, releasing a wreath of leatherish wrinkles and thinks: A stranger walking the streets of Paris can believe he is entering just another of the bookstores along the left bank of the Seine, but if he finds his way through a labyrinth of alcoves and cubbyholes and climbs a stairway leading to my private residence then he can linger there and enjoy reading the books in my library and looking at the pictures on the walls of my bedroom.
Such is the welcoming spirit of George Whitman, proprietor of Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.
George spent time in his youth wandering through South America and the generous hospitality of the locals burrowed its way into his soul. When he found himself in Paris at the end of the war, he enrolled at the Sorbonne and began building his legendary book collection inside his hotel room on Boulevard Saint Michel. He invited booklovers to come browse his library of English translations and walk out, beaming, with a literary treasure or two. George’s reign of bringing people to books began.
Shakespeare and Company is snuggled inside a little green-painted shop on the rue de la Bûcherie with the Seine so close it nearly runs through it, across from Notre Dame. When I opened my bookstore in 1951, this area in the heart of Paris was a slum with street theatre, mountebanks, junkyards, dingy hotels, wine shops, little laundries, tiny thread and needle shops and grocers, George wrote in his bookstore’s brochure-booklet-manifesto. He’s always considered himself a modern version of the frère lampier, the sixteenth century monk whose job it was to light the lamps outside the building, then a monastery.
For sixty years, George has provided a sanctuary for writers and artists, whom he calls “tumbleweeds.” This is the creed of the tumbleweed: Give what you can and take what you need. He invites all to stay in his house provided they read a book a day and put in a few hours at the cash register. These young, bright-eyed literary angels float around fingering, adjusting, straightening. They lean against the display table and fervently recommend their favorites. They discuss authors with the air of heirs to the throne. We wish our guests to enter with the feeling they have inherited a book-lined apartment on the Seine which is all the more delightful because they share it with others.
George, at ninety-seven years old, is now retired and only descends from his upstairs lair to grab a book, greet a guest, or wave to his minions. His daughter, Sylvia, a young woman in her early thirties, swirls through the shop in a pretty skirt and blond ponytail with the poise of a prima ballerina.
Sylvia orchestrates the constant stream of literary events held outside on the sidewalk under the Parisian blue sky, or in George’s own private library upstairs which includes books once held in hands that penned the classics of modern literature—Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others. Their spirits linger to listen and loosen tongues at the poetry readings and writer’s gatherings that bring strangers shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, on the benches that line the walls. A trip up the narrow staircase at the back of the store brings the visitor face-to-face with furrowed brows, heads bent over scratching pens, or giggling children squeezed together on the floor eager for a story. An advertisement for a recent event captures the mood that resides in the room atop the rickety stairs:
Tonight Shakespeare and Company launches Bard-sur-Seine. We’re planning to live up to our name by staging readings of the great Bard’s plays hosted by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, authors of The Essential Shakespeare Handbook. The first play in the series will be Twelfth Night. Please note: all the roles in this session of Bard-sur-Seine have now been filled. As there are only players and no audience in this special production, we ask that only those who have signed up attend.
It is easy to imagine the Bard’s ghost as the lone member of the audience, sitting up straight, hose-clad leg crossed, Elizabethan collar sticking out stiffly. George would peek out of his bedroom door and shuffle across the room in his slippers to join him, and they’d laugh themselves into stitches at some private joke.
In this age of eBooks, audio books, downloadable and virtual books, George holds steadfastly and single-heartedly to the rectangular real thing, which are scattered, staggered, and strewn about when they are not picked up, pored over or propped open.
These weathered books contain poetry the literary monarch knows by heart, heroes he has been, women he has loved, villains he has vanquished, and orphans he has rescued from the streets. They have taken him to countries he has dreamed of and lands he has conquered. As Nietzsche observed, books speak out the most hidden and intimate things to those who love them.
On the top shelf, toga-clad Socrates poses a question to bespectacled Sartre. Seneca flourishes his stylus and writes, The good man possesses a kingdom. Rumi rubs shoulders with the irreverent Rimbaud as the wine sings in their veins. Gandhi’s Autobiography sits straight and still upon A Hundred Years of Solitude. Miller spoons Nin. Gide, squeezed next to Gibbons, glances across the room and winks at Wilde. Pink paper-backed Nancy Mitford nestles next to Thomas Mann. Balzac and Tom Wolfe, thrown together unexpectedly, exchange ironic eye-rolls. Dumas challenges Dostoevsky to a duel. Dante burns, Vronsky seduces, Quixote shouts. Gavroche dances in the street.
The action floats out into the city of Paris. Right up the street, Hemingway and Fitzgerald putter in from their rainy, spirit- swilling road trip—the Renault crawls down rue Jacob. Across the river Quasimodo swings from the bells, and one can hear the guillotine clatter and slam as it slices the naked neck of Marie Antoinette. Simone de Beauvoir calmly sips a café crème up the hill at Les Deux Magots.
The bookstore’s namesake boldly assures his company:
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme
George Whitman loves books with a pure love—hardback, paperback, shiny-new, well-worn, leather bound, cloth bound. Many of them still hold his salty tears within their bindings. Some he has immersed himself in and then tossed lightly aside, some he has hurled from him with great force. Some he has read again and again. A few he has memorized. This elderly hero is convinced he is living inside a novel. Who can question this?
The most tantalizing books on these shelves are the ones he has never read. They are virgin territory, uncharted seas. Between their covers he may find the key to his heart or instructions on how to release his sword from its stone. They may hold the secret of the fountain of youth and make him live forever.
Henry Miller called Shakespeare and Company a wonderland of books. Allen Ginsberg enjoyed hanging out having tea with George, as have countless others. He has engaged in mind-bending conversations with both the famous and the starving writers who are guests in his castle. His brain has been rubbed and polished to a brilliant shine, even as age approaches its edges.
As George sits on his low stool cradling his precious book, a woman approaches and he gallantly offers his leafy hand. His face opens in welcome. George at once apologizes for his disheveled appearance, he says that usually these days he stays upstairs in his pajamas. The two discover they have a friend in common. “Ah, of course I remember, he stayed here!” The timbre of his voice belies his age as he politely inquires, “Are you a writer too?” When she nods, he invites her to stay for as long as she wants. She is more than welcome anytime she’s in Paris, anytime at all.
The two discuss the book he’s holding and the bond of two bibliophiles is fondly established. They share the anticipation that builds when the cover crinkles open to the first line on the first page. Both have tumbled over the waterfall-plunge into a story and found themselves engulfed in characters. They’ve traveled to the center of their own souls while buried between pages. Both know the heartbreaking finality of the last line on the very last page and the sinking feeling when the cover is closed. For a long moment, George and the woman stand smiling at each other.
It’s clear that George Whitman has fashioned a life for himself that brings together the two things he loves most in all the world, books and people. This combination makes him tick. Old age without loneliness is unusual; George always has a house full of friends. Fragility without weakness is seldom seen; this man is thin and frail, but his presence is noble. He is the rarest of editions, a truly happy human being.
I may disappear leaving behind me no worldly possessions—just a few old socks and love letters, and my windows overlooking Notre Dame for all of you to enjoy. And my little Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, whose motto is: Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise. I may disappear, leaving no forwarding address, but for all you know I may still be walking among you on my vagabond journey around the world.
Every evening as George dims the lights, caresses one last book, and glides through his labyrinth as effortlessly as the cats that purr around his ankles, he has lived life to the fullest. He climbs the twisting stairs, bids a polite Bonsoir to the tumbleweeds, and then the old monarch lays his wispy-haired head upon the pillow and falls asleep in the lap of legends old.
~ ~ ~
George Whitman died December 14, 2011 at home in his rooms upstairs at Shakespeare and Company. I spent that fall as guest instructor of the Evening Writing Workshops, working with writers in the next room, George’s private library, which he shared with everyone. The atmosphere he cultivated in his little bookshop wove its way into the hearts of writers for nearly 60 years.
In this and many ways, he lives on.
Erin Byrne writes travel essays, poetry, fiction, and screenplays. Her work has won numerous awards including Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Reader’s Favorite Award, Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Finalist, and an Accolade Award for film.
Erin’s writing appears in publications including Vestoj, Burning the Midnight Oil, Adventures of a Lifetime, and The Best Travel Writing anthologies. She is editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Paris and Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco (Reputation Books, 2016), and writer of The Storykeeper, an award-winning film about occupied Paris, made with Dutch filmmaker Rogier Van Beeck Calkoen. Erin teaches at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and on Deep Travel trips, and hosts literary salons in Paris and Sausalito.
Erin’s screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is currently working on a novel series, The Storykeeper of Paris. She reads and performs her work in many places around the world including exotic cafés in Marrakech, underground caverns in Paris, and bookstores on the dock of the bay in San Francisco. She lives in both the Bay Area and Seattle, and travels around the globe, but is drawn most magnetically to Paris. For details, please visit her website: www.e-byrne.com.