Pauper’s Paris

An Irishman’s Diary about a hard place to be hungry

“Beautiful as it is to walk around, the French capital must also be the world’s worst place to feel hungry, so crammed is it with cafes, boulangeries and delicatessens.” Photograph:    Christopher Jue/EPA

“Beautiful as it is to walk around, the French capital must also be the world’s worst place to feel hungry, so crammed is it with cafes, boulangeries and delicatessens.” Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

Thu, Mar 20, 2014, 14:58

Never mind Joyce’s puzzle about how to cross Dublin without passing a pub (since solved, with the help of algorithms, by a man called Rory McCann). A much greater challenge, which the writer of Ulysses may also have wrestled with at times, would be how to cross Paris without passing a restaurant.

Beautiful as it is to walk around, the French capital must also be the world’s worst place to feel hungry, so crammed is it with cafes, boulangeries and delicatessens.

And we know that a young Joyce did experience that torture at least once, because he mentioned it, with obvious feeling, in a letter to his mother. She had just sent him a money order. In his gratitude, he wrote back: “Your order for 3s 4d of last Tuesday was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 (forty-two) hours.”

Anyone else might just have rounded that up to “two days”. But this was Joyce and it was also Paris, where every hour without the price of a meal must have hung heavily. Not only did he feel the need to specify the duration of his fast but, in case his suffering was still not appreciated, he also spelled the “forty-two” hours out in brackets.

As an Irish mother, a sub-species of humanity compelled to feed its sons whether they’re hungry or not, Mrs Joyce must have shared his pain.

A young Hemingway was also familiar with this trauma, or so he claimed. In fact, according to his Paris memoir A Moveable Feast, he went some way towards devising a food-free walking route through the fifth and sixth arrondissements, where he lived in the early days.

Whenever he needed to distract himself from the gnawings of his stomach, he would walk through the Jardins du Luxembourg, “where you saw and smelled nothing to eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard”.

There were even one or two streets off the gardens where food was not for sale, and there were not many restaurants on the way to the nearby bookshop owned by his and Joyce’s friend Sylvia Beach. She, like an Irish mother, would always be worrying whether he was eating enough.

But it was a point of pride with Hemingway to pretend he was. And anyway, he also made a virtue of his hunger. It heightened aesthetic appreciation, he believed. When he visited an art gallery while going without food, he thought he understood the paintings better, or at least Cezanne’s.

It’s a popular notion that a little starvation can be good for an artist. The older Hemingway was probably romanticising the idea, and exaggerating his own experience of it – he was rarely that short of money. But in any case, not many writers have actively sought out the condition, for what insights it might give.

An exception was George Orwell, who chose to be a vagrant in both Paris and London, by way of research, and both witnessed and experienced some genuine misery as a result, with none of the aesthetic benefits Hemingway reported.

There can’t be many starving artists in Paris these days. And the general poverty that Orwell described hardly exists any more either, or at least not in the Latin Quarter, where he lived.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed on recent Paris visits that there seem to be far more homeless people begging on the streets than there were 10 or 20 years ago.

But maybe there are worse places to beg. Last weekend, I stopped at a corner near the Luxembourg Gardens to listen to a jazz quartet who were playing for money. Then I noticed that, sitting under a tree facing them was a mother with two small, very dotey children, huddled under a blanket. They too had a collection box in front of them.

I’m not sure which group had claimed the corner first, the musical quartet or the mendicant trio. Either way, it was a potentially awkward situation. And yet they seemed to cohabit comfortably. On a corner crammed with restaurants, a stream of diners dropped coins in either collection, out of gratitude for the music, or guilt for a full stomach, or both.

Even the children under the blanket seemed to be enjoying the music. Then a kindly man emerged from a boulangerie with a paper bag and, after asking permission from the mother, gave the kids each a pain au chocolat. They were even dotier after that, as they hugged the blanket, nodded to the music, and chewed chocolate bread – a picture of temporary bliss.


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