After the Eiffel Tower, I went to one of the only places I’d actually “scheduled” time to go to in Paris: The Shakespeare Book Company. Located directly across the Seine from the Notre Dame, The Shakespeare Book Company is a bookstore originally opened by American Sylvia Beach in 1919. During the 1920s, it was a literary salon, a gathering place of minds like Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. It closed in 1941 with the Nazi occupation of Paris and never reopened. However, the current location was opened by another American, George Whitman, in 1951 and renamed the Shakespeare Book Company in 1964. It still operates as a bookstore for new, old, and antique books, as well as an open reading lounge for any who wish to stay. The store also houses aspiring artists and writers in exchange for help around the store. According to my research, since the store’s opening in 1951, over 30,000 people have slept on the beds and reading benches nestled between the rows of books. Above the entrance to the reading library, there is a motto: “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise.”
Photos are not allowed in the store, so I will describe it as best I can. You walk into the front room (which you can spy from the door), and there is a great selection of current literature, new books. The shelves extend from floor-to-ceiling, separated by topic and navigable by wooden ladders attached to the cases and rolled along horizontal braces. The rooms are small, hugging into each other per Paris’ paradoxical relationship between the massive city and incredibly tiny spaces that occupy it. The store smells like books, a comforting mix of new paper, old must, and a book-lover’s reverent silence. You can walk to a room that houses books purely on art, or a room that is filled with children’s stories and an attendant to answer questions. If you venture upstairs, you enter a room of poetry (I thought of you, Chase!). There are signs everywhere warning to leave the store-cat alone, she’s tired, please don’t touch her, she’s been reading all night, I’m sure you understand, human friend who has done that before too? To your left at the stairs you can walk through a tiny wooden hallway into an alcove filled with old books and reading nooks, these not for sale but for perusing pleasure. All are old, some are crinkly, and the languages are as varied as the readers borrowing them. If you creak your way back to the poetry landing, you can take another left into a similar room, one that reminds you of the reading room of manuscripts in Gondor’s ancient halls. The reading benches are also beds, covered in worn blankets and pillows and carpets, that comfortable type of place a Reader At Heart can curl into for hours while they discover the truest parts of themselves.
It was beautiful, and I would have stayed every day had I had more time. Instead I walked out with a complete set of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories (I love Hills Like White Elephants but am woefully uneducated on the others), and met the Seine with a warm hello.
My next stop was the Musee d’Orsay, which I knew housed an incredible collection of French Impressionism. I knew that to get there I’d have to walk down the Seine a bit – I didn’t know how far, just that it was there. Without data or directions, off I went! I think one of the best things to do in Paris is just to stroll the Seine casually. The stalls on the sides offer some tourist junk but also some beautifully preserved artwork, historical postcards, and French books, all very fun to peruse, especially if you’re into antiques or old books.
If you choose not to walk along the top portion of the Seine, you can also walk along the paths at the bottom of it. I split my time doing both, because the walk ended up being over a mile. The path at the bottom is a foot and bike path, sprinkled with lounging chairs, restaurants, drink stations, and park spaces for children.
Eventually I made it to the Musee d’Orsay, which is stunning. I didn’t have time to do the Louvre, didn’t even try to attempt it, but the Musee d’Orsay is an old station and so the lighting from the curved glass ceiling falls happily into the atrium, which houses the sculpture collection. Its curation is beautiful if not super systematic, so you can easily lose yourself in the museum (and what’s better than losing yourself in art?) If you’re really aware of your progress, you won’t miss anything! But if you’re skipping through, it is easy to forget a room or nook.
I have such a great appreciation for sculpture as an art. I read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, a biographical novel of Michelangelo’s life, when I was in 10th grade, and it was my first real introduction to the art form. Michelangelo is famous for observing that, during a sculpting process, he’s simply freeing the character within. That’s a beautiful concept, and one that I use metaphorically often, but it’s also interesting to look at some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work to understand that that concept is something he must have believed at the very deepest parts of himself (google “Atlas Slave” and you can see for yourself!).
It’s just incredible to me the detail you can get in stone. Look at the depth of expression on his face! Or below- the depth of detail in fabric. It falls so softly that it’s hard to imagine that you can’t run it through your fingers like real silk.
A picture of the entire museum:
Interwoven with the sculptures in the Atrium were an incredible collection of paintings and artwork. I normally would share all of them with you, but I wanted to appreciate them on my own, and often forgot to take photos. Then there were moments where the other patrons of the museum were crowding the famous paintings- Van Gogh’s originals or Monet’s originals- to take selfies, and I in that moment decided I wouldn’t take a single picture of a painting the remainder of the museum. I was there to experience the art, and I felt it to be disrespectful to other patrons and to the artist to “selfie” with the work. But that itself made me annoyed enough in the moment that I didn’t take my camera out at all.
I will say that I got teary-eyed at seeing Van Gogh’s Le Nuit Etoilee (1888, the one over the Rhone) in person, and his Portrait of an Artist. Seeing Monet’s use of purple and blue in his deepest impressionist pieces was stunning. Seeing real Cezannes and Manets and Millets and Galettes and Renoirs and Caillebottes… it was a beautiful, personal, immersive experience. I loved L’origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet and anything by Daumier. And the collection of Degas… I love Degas, I love his ballet pieces, and it was a treat to see the Degas collection at the MOMA in New York a few years ago. But to see more Degas, to see non-ballet Degas… that was a treat, one I will always cherish. And in the sculpture section (bad lighting, I don’t have a photo), the Musee d’Orsay had the Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer – a famous sculpture by Degas of 14-year-old Marie van Goethem, a student at the Paris Opera Ballet. I’ll spare you the history of a) the sculpture and its 72 bronze casts and b) the history of students of the Paris Opera Ballet, but with an in-depth knowledge of each, seeing it was so absolutely special for me.
There was also a beautiful reception room that made me want to bake a cake that looked like it:
Seeing these kinds of rooms reminds me of not only the limits of human imagination and art, but also the uncomfortable truth that these beauties were built on the wages and taxes of an oppressed population that most likely never saw these things. It’s something I always keep in mind when touring places like this, around the world.
When looking at sculpture and painting, I’m also always struck by the role of woman. I didn’t see one female artist represented in the museum, but almost all of the work represented the female body or women. As a person who struggles (as most women I know do) with self-image, body positivity, and feeling comfortable with myself, there’s beauty in seeing women represented through art throughout the ages with reverence, regardless of the beauty standard of the day. A little bit of fluff? No abs? Thighs for days? I even saw paintings that completely depicted cellulite. I think it’s beautiful! And it helps me to remind myself that I, in any form, am beautiful too. (Now let’s get on representation of female artists! And, when touring these places, don’t forget those that weren’t given space or weren’t given the opportunity to truly become the artist that was certainly inside. I’d also recommend Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own).
There was also an exhibit on polychromatic sculpture. Most science is now indicating that a lot of sculpture work we know was actually painted! And in most cases, the paint wore off. It makes sense, when you think of how realistic stonework can be – why not paint it to make it even more realistic? This exhibit focused on polychromatic sculpture, both natural (the use of different stones) and manufactured (painted). It was also incredibly serendipitous that this exhibit was there, because my friend Kekoa and I had just had a very long discussion about polychromatic sculptures during our traipse to the National Portrait Gallery a week or two ago. So this one’s for you, Kekoa! I thought the most beautiful were the natural polychromatics, the ones that mixed jade and amber and ebony to a beautiful effect.
After the Musee d’Orsay I had every intent of walking down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower, where I planned to read, write, and have a picnic until it sparkled. I walked along, a distance of about two miles, buying some cheese, figs, blueberries, a chocolate croissant, and a baguette, and then sat at a coffee shop for a cappuccino before making my way to the Tour Eiffel. While sitting at the cafe, however, my cafe-neighbor asked about my e-reader and if I recommended it. An hour later I was sharing their creme brulee and we spent the rest of the night together! Israel and Sarah were absolutely fantastic- Israel a former marine and both in emergency management- and we got along fantastically. They shared beer, I shared my picnic, and we laughed at the Eiffel Tower until it stopped sparkling at midnight.
Please raise your hand if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this look…
There’s just something about a European woman’s beauty, and I think it has absolutely nothing to do with how they dress or how they put on makeup or what products they do or do not use or if they walk twelve miles a day. The utter confidence in their femininity and person and space is so incredibly intoxicating.
It was the European gay games or something this weekend as well, and these three men would not stop interrupting our picture, so I took the liberty of photographing them myself.
I also know that this is a lot of the same picture…but as the sun sets, the sky changes, the tower lights up, and each picture and moment is so different! So please bear with me. And when it sparkles… there is nothing more magical than the sparkling Tour Eiffel (except perhaps a twilit field sparkling with fireflies).
Or you can step away from the color for a moment and recognize the people that it brings together. Most of the people on the ground were not, in fact, tourists. There were so many French and Parisians there that it felt completely natural.
We drank and ate our picnic away as we talked about everything under the sun.
Such a wonderful, laughing, fun-filled night full of new friends and the truest world.
Live your life! Travel. Don’t be afraid to say hello. And take all the opportunities you have to meet as many people as you can. I had two nights and 36 hours in Paris, and I met the most incredible people and managed to have incredibly intimate experiences. You don’t need five-star-hotels or instagrammable moments or a picture of you in a beret eating a macaron to make a moment. Do those things if you want! But all you really need is your heart, a smile, courage, and the will to engage in serendipitous moments with people that cross your path at the very same moment that you cross theirs. Engage in that moment, that passing, intentionally, and it will make all the difference.