For some reason I am aching for Paris. Perhaps because my novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is launched tomorrow, and a good portion of the book takes place in our old neighborhood in Paris. So there are nerves and excitement and not a small dose of nostalgia.
When I was 28, my then agent, Artie Pine (father of my current agent, Richard Pine), negotiated a book contract with Bantam Books that was, for me, a huge amount of money. I was commissioned to write an unauthorized biography of the eccentric but talented French fashion designer and businessman, Pierre Cardin, the subject of a cover story I had written for Forbes. My wife, Susan, and I were living in London at the time, but I convinced her we should move to Paris for a year. And why not? Our daughter had not yet been born.
The editor of Forbes, Jim Michaels, was furious when I informed him of my plans to go off and write a book, and sent me this incredibly nasty note, which he posted publicly for everyone at Forbes to read, pretty much suggesting I would fail. (I have lovingly preserved his note. Terribly upset at the time, but molified by my friend Dick Stern, I eventually realized it was a great compliment Jim was so upset. Sure enough, a year later Jim asked me to come back to Forbes, which I did. We never had another single terse exchange of words over the following decade we worked together.)
But I am drifting off point. Susan and I bundled our belongings into a Volkswagen Polo, with the steering wheel on the right hand side à la Grande Bretagne, and drove to Paris. We found a walk-up on Rue Rollin, a cobblestone alley in the 5th arrondisement. It was the classic "atelier," everything you imagine Paris to be. There was a light-filled bedroom with high ceilings, overlooking the interior courtyard, furnished with just a bed and a massive gilt mirror stolen from some grand maison. The yellow-walled living room had a nasty carpet which we tore up; that room doubled up as my "study." A tiny kitchen, WC, and bathroom off the main hall completed the 50 square meter apartment.
Both Descartes and Zola had lived on that very same alley, a few doors down, and around the corner Hemingway, in his similarly cramped walk-up at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, had written, in "A Moveable Feast", about Rue Mouffetarde and Place de la Contrescarpe at the end of our little lane. (Naturally, these streets also found their way into The Hundred-Foot Journey.) We didn't know about Rue Rollin's illustrious literary history when we took the apartment, and later took this as a good omen. These narrow lanes of the Quartier Latin are by no means "elegant" Paris - but they are, in their medieval way, deeply beautiful and atmospheric.
Every day Susan and I had to go out to the markets to buy produce for our dinner from the artisanal bakers, butchers, and fishmongers along Rue Monge. The tiny refrigerator in our apartment could, Parisian-style, only hold a day's worth of food. I remember fondly the delicious tedium of that daily shopping excursion: loaded down with our bags of leaks, fresh clams, tuna in olive oil, arabica coffee, frisée salad, thick-crusted bread, ripe Comté cheese, Badoit, and beef tomatoes, we'd climb No. 5 Rue Rollin's five flights of steps, stoop-shouldered and panting, to our tiny flat.
The wooden stairs were polished to a high gloss and smelled of beeswax.