The ghost of Hemingway in Paris and Cuba

I am home again, back in the Midwest. Greeting me this morning is an article in the New York Times that sparks thoughts and memories. The journalist writes of visiting places where Hemingway has lived.

I have also walked in Hemingway’s footsteps this past year, not intentionally – but now I ask myself was it really so unplanned? Hasn’t there been a thread of Hemingway-ness weaving itself through my life ever since I was a teenager?

Around the time of my first visit to France at the age of 17, I read a lot of the classics, including most of Hemingway’s work. It was A Moveable Feast that appealed to my romantic vision of Paris. I also had a coffee-table type book called Hemingway’s Paris with photos of iconic Left Bank streets and cafes. I don’t remember the text at all, just those pictures that I looked at again and again.

This Hemingway-ness, of course, is complicated: the machismo, alcoholism, suicide – he was a messy, complex, difficult, talented guy, and not particularly my cup of tea anymore. Yet, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still hold power. His spirit reigns wherever he lived. I’ve never been to Key West or Idaho (read the aforementioned NYTimes article for references to those places). However, I’ve been wandering his old stomping grounds all summer in Paris. And this time last year I was in Cuba. One stop on our People-to-People tour was Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigia, outside the fishing village of Cojimar, near Havana. Walking the grounds and peering into his house, I experience a familiar sensation. Just as Paris does, Cuba has a soul and something that the word “beauty” is too impotent to describe. Here you feel the intoxicating cocktail of aliveness in your heart, brain, gut and all of your five senses. Hemingway spent his life in these places, created his art, and wrestled his demons.

Hemingway’s ghost is here. I’m glad. Because it was his words that first articulated an idea that continues to inspire me: that life can be glorious, at least for a brief time. And that moment is always worth chasing.

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” A Moveable Feast

Hemingway's house outside of Havana

Hemingway’s house outside of Havana

His desk

His desk



The village of Cojimar

The village of Cojimar

Imagination running wild outside Paris

Everyone loves Paris, right? So we are seldom alone while enjoying the beautiful sights of this city. We drown in other tourists as we swarm to the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Versailles — especially in the summertime and early autumn. That is why my weekday trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte was the happiest of surprises. I took the train from the Gare de Lyon to the town of Melun, about 50 km southeast of Paris, then a taxi to the château. (Either arrange for a return pickup with your driver or later ask someone in the museum shop to call one.) Upon arrival, I stepped out into the mid-17th century and, without being jostled by a herd of tourists, my imagination was free to ramble.

Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances for Louis XIV, called upon the skills of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape gardener André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun to collaborate on this magnificent structure. The story is told that when Fouquet held a party for the king, the opulence of the château outshone the king’s own magnificence, and moved Louis to arrest Fouquet and confiscate his riches. Scholars say, however, that Fouque had already fallen into disfavor, the king’s attitude egged on by the up-and-coming Jean-Baptiste Colbert who had accused Fouquet of embezzling money from the crown. The king seized almost all of the château’s treasures and sent the trio of Le Vau, Le Nôtre, and Le Brun to oversee the expansion of the gardens and palace of Versailles.

Over the many years, the château changed hands several times, before becoming abandoned for 30 years, falling into disrepair. In 1874, Alfred Sommier bought the estate at public auction and began a labor of love to restore the gardens and buildings — a work carried on by his children.

The original furnishings and tapestries are mostly gone. But what is left is the marvelous architecture and decorative painting, an expansive space without the lines and crowds, I feel as if I’m discovering each corridor and room for myself. The adventure is intimate and personal, as I wander lost in thought.

See for yourself. (And look for Fouquet’s family emblem, the squirrel. Their motto: Quo non ascendet…”What heights will he not sale?”)


Nicolas Fouquet

Nicolas Fouquet

the kitchen

the kitchen


Abundance of art in Paris

From markets to museums, Paris overflows with abundance. In the markets, myriad vegetables, fruits, fishes, cheeses, meats, and spices inspire creativity in the kitchen and on the plate.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.

Marché couvert Batignolles, 17th arr.

Shops brim with fashion to spark even a slob’s sense of style. Museums present a banquet of history, science, culture, and art to gorge upon.

And so, while exploring la Nouvelle Athènes neighborhood in the 9th arr., I come upon the Musée National Gustave Moreau, the painter’s former house and studio that he left to the state along with some 1,200 paintings and 10,00 drawings, many of which are on display. Truly an abundance. But M. Moreau? I’m not very familiar with his art, though I recall he is not widely and wildly favored by modern critics. Do I have that right? It begins to rain. Suddenly this quiet museum seems the perfect refuge, and I step inside.

The lesson learned from this impromptu visit? Abundance creates interest and respect. The full record of an artist’s life, sincere vision, and works is an inspiration. Exploring the shear volume generates awe. During his lifetime, 1826-1898, Moreau had times of fame and acceptance as well as periods of harsh criticism, termed an eccentric by some and falling out of regard in the first half of the 20th century. Retrospectives in the ’60s brought renewed interest. According to Laura Morowitz writing in The Art Bulletin in 1999: “Exactly where Moreau fits in, and his real place in art history, is as difficult to determine in 1999 as it was in 1899. Perhaps our only safe judgment is to agree with the critic Theophile Gautier, writing a century and a half ago, that ‘…his work stands in singular isolation, and whether it pleases or not, one has to reckon with it.”

So, reckon I did, circulating through his house and studio, examining the paintings and poring through the hundreds of drawings on display. In the days since, I’ve read up on Moreau and his influences (Renaissance art, Persian, Indian, and Japanese prints, mythology and mysticism), his friends (Edgar Degas and Eugene Delacroix among others), and his students (including Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse at the Academie des Beaux-Art).

In the museums of Paris, abundance breeds interest and opens new doors.


Hesiod and the Muses, 1860

Hesiod and the Muses, 1860

The Unicorns, 1885

The Unicorns, 1885

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853

The Daughters of Thespius, 1853

The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97

The Return of the Argonauts, 1890-97

The Unicorn, 1885

The Unicorn, 1885


Hamburgers in Paris

My hometown is in beef country USA. So I know a good burger when I taste one! The best burger I have ever eaten in my life? Recently at Cosy Corner, 94 Rue des Dames in the 17th arr. (A wonderful street lined with casual restaurants, by the way.) Their hamburger was perfectly cooked with a delicious bun and served already garnished with a to-die-for sauce.

Another favorite burger in Paris? From Le Camion qui fume food truck, which parks in various locations around the city. The day I indulged, the truck was parked in the place de la Madeleine–which offers a perfect picnic spot, especially on a rainy day. Run by a Californian named Kristin Frederick, Le Camion qui fume does it right with superb burgers and hand-cut fries. A long line forms and when they run out of meat, they close up and roll away.

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Hungry yet?

“The Game of Thrones” game in Paris

I had never been to Le Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides because I’m not particularly interested in military history. However, I’ve now read all of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle and am half-way through Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series, of which Mr. Martin says “This is the original Game of Thrones.” Rather than dry history-book recitations, these books flesh out the warfare and conflict with true-to-life characters and page-turning drama. I have really tried to like the Game of Thrones HBO series, but after the wildly intricate details and plot lines in the novels, the TV depiction is far too abbreviated for me. The casting is fine, and Michele Clapton’s costumes are gorgeous, but I prefer the world of Winterfell, King’s Landing, and the Wall that Martin’s words conjured in my own imagination.

Steeped as I am in medieval warfare and intrigue, fantasy and historical, I am now primed for a visit to the halls of armor and weaponry. Le Musée de l’Armée is a good archive to enhance the already vivid scenes of my imagining. As with any artifacts, the “realness” gets under my skin. Someone wore this suit of armor. This very one! Fought and killed in it. Felt the weight of helm and cuirass, the viselike pinch of metal joints gouging the skin, and heard the crash of war hammer slammed against metal and the screams of battle. The men themselves were weapons, suited for death.

I would guess that a few fashion designers as well as history buffs were intrigued by the outfit in the final picture below. Coco Chanel, perhaps?

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Shoes in the Paris metro

In the Paris metro, I don’t read or listen to music because I want to observe and listen to the people around me. But during morning rush hour, standing so close to others, I cannot surreptitiously watch faces. So I look downward and observe feet. Always entertaining. The French wear beautiful shoes, men and women alike. One day my eye was drawn to a woman’s feet in a crowded metro car. She wore beautiful, pale silver-matte sandals with a one-inch-wide strap across the base of the toes and a loop of strap at the heel. She had the perfect shade of nail polish, though an unexpected choice: a rosy peachy sort of shimmery color. Gorgeous. As the crowd began to thin out, I glanced upward to see what outfit this lovely young creature would be wearing. A lovely tailored, but loose, gray dress. And she was at least 60 years old. Just a hint of makeup. Wrinkled but beautiful clear skin. Whitish gray hair. How fun it is to be an older woman in Paris. You get to have such flair and style.

Not thinking about money in Paris

I came to Paris to experience the sublime. Too bad I can’t pay the bills with it. But I’m trying not to think about money! In a cafe in Le Marais, I watch buskers counting out the coins they’ve collected. If you look closely, you’ll see there aren’t many euros in the pile, mostly 5-, 10- and 20-centime coins. I’d say that when they’re playing their music out on the street, their thoughts are more on the sublime than on the money.

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Why women love Paris

I was on my cell phone, talking to a young man at AT&T to sign up for an international data plan. When I told him that I would be traveling to Paris he said “Oh, that’s every girl’s dream!”

Yes, I admit it. I am a cliche. Women — middle-aged women in particular — love to escape to Paris. Remember Carmella from the Sopranos? Here’s her reaction to Paris.

Of course, it’s not just women who love Paris. Case in point: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But for many of American women, Paris and France hold a special allure.

I think one reason is that Paris is a 24/7 experience of sensual pleasure. American women have spent a lifetime being judged for our attractiveness. We dress, diet, exercise, groom with an eye on the mirror and a self-conscious sense of how others perceive us. But how often do we allow ourselves to turn our sights away from the impact we make on the outside world and let the outside world afford us delight?

For years middle-aged women have focused on the needs of others. We are pragmatic and disciplined. And then we arrive in Paris. Everywhere it is a feast of sights, smells, tastes, and sounds. The city surrounds us with beauty, harmony, history, artistry, and elegance. The food, the wines, the museums, the bridges, the river, the light, the street fashion, the architecture, the fragrances, the style, and the heightened aesthetic of living.

Paris delights us. It offers us beauty and asks nothing from us in return. The people might judge us, but Paris does not. It asks us to be free, to take delight in all its pleasures — directly, individually, and solely for ourselves.