Wednesday, February 11, 2004

A different sort of monument

Paris, is always crawling with tourists. In spring, in summer, in autumn and winter. In the double- decker ‘Open Bus’ tours, ear phones plugged in, listening to the taped commentary, in the numerous Bateaux Parisienne sailing on the Seine, guided walking or bicycle, thematic tours, or on their own, guide book firmly in hand, discovering Paris.

My discovery of Paris was a bit different. My first quest in Paris had been English book stores and in the process, I discovered Paris and hers charms.

Brentano’s in Opera, was my first book shop, in Paris. I discovered it almost as soon as I arrived since my husband’s office was close to it. I have spent many a happy hour there. And I have yet to take a look at the beautiful Opera Garnier after which that area is named. Among the many books I bought at Brentano’s, I also picked up a Paris City Guide.

The guide book was pretty detailed, with maps and helpful hints, history etc. I found out that we were living in a very historic area – ‘Quartier Latin’ or the Latin Quarters (so named because Latin used to be the language of Sorbonne ). Notre Dame, Pantheon, Jardin du Plante, the Paris Mosque and the Hamam, Sorbonne and all within walking distance! A was very keen to begin with the Hamam in the Paris Mosque (the oldest Mosque in France and incidentally where the Aga Khan and Hollywood star Rita Hayworth tied the knot)!

But I had to go to the ‘Shakespeare and Co’ – the historic book shop about 15 minutes of walking from where we lived. The owner /Publisher had famously published James Joyce’s Ulyssess when no one would touch it with a barge pole. Ernest Hemmingway whiled away his time here, when in Paris!!

Brightly painted in green, yellow and pink it was a book lovers paradise. Books everywhere, outside in shelves or in cartons and inside ceiling to floor shelves just about anywhere. Not in any boring symmetric arrangement that one finds in modern book shops. Every possible place had some books crammed in it! There was a small well in the floor inside the shop where people had thrown coins in. For good luck, to find a room with a view of the Seine! Didn’t ask if it worked. Judging by the number of coins, it would be good luck only for the owners I guess!! Would come to a neat amount. Occasionally, we’d find an old man, bent with age, in a Hawaiian shirt, sitting in the tiny cashiers desk in the centre of the front room, surrounded by books. He’d always ask us the same thing – “Are you a Mumbai walla? I am!” To this A would reply, no I am a Delhi walla!!

Just around the corner from where we lived, a carton full of English books and very cheaply priced caught my eyes, outside a book shop curiously named ‘Mona Lisait’. I pondered over this curious name but not for long. I was more interested in the books. It simply over flowed with books. In boxes outside the shop, inside in shelves, on tables, under the table, piled on the floors. I rsoon became a regular there, if only to rifle through the contents of the books. I spent many a happy hour crawling under tables through dusty piles, whiling away my time. I had loads of time on my hands, what with A away at office and no friends. One day I backed out from under the table to find the owner – a portly gentlemen with a pony tail smiling at me. “Ah! Des Livres – Grand Passion, eh??” All I could manage was Oui Oui. Although I wanted to tell him more. How I had filled up my tiny flat (in the few months that I had been there) with books, in neat piles on the floor not having shelves.

There were other shops too – Tea and Tattered Pages, which alas was closed on the day we went looking for it. However all was not lost. We found ourselves at Hotel d’invalides which is now a magnificent museums of arms and artillery with separate floors dedicated to ancient armaments, WWI and WWII. And ofcourse the golden domed chapel with Napoleon’s tomb.

WH Smith, the wheelbarrow, Bretano’s, Shakespears & Co., became my monuments. I bought and read books at a furious pace, frightening A in the process. At this rate we’d be soon crowded out of our tiny apartment, not to mention the whole I was burning in his wallet!

And then he found the solution! He found out that there was large English Library in Paris – the American Library in Paris and wasted no time in becoming a member. By some curious mix up, our library card has his name printed on it and my photograph!! It took me about 45 minutes to reach it (2 metro ride and a 10 minute walk). But worth the trouble. What a wonderful library and what a stock of books.

End of 2001, I returned to India for a few months. So, A and I decided to sell all the books I had bought, 2 cartons full. We went to S and Co to sell my books – they bought 2nd hand books. That old man wasn’t there. Instead a young chap who offered 200F for the whole lot and somehow we accepted. A shame since each book was more than 200F easily. And then he asked us for our postal address in India. On hearing it he said in a very smirky manner ‘fancy that…I just put it (our Delhi address) on an envelope and it reaches you?’ I felt like telling him ‘its called a postal address. I am sure even your shop has one’. But I didn’t. Courage always fails me when I require it.

3 years have gone by, I know Paris like the back of my hand (thanks to guiding numerous friends, relatives). I come to Paris twice a month or sometimes more. I rarely visit the bookshops unless some one (a guest) specifically wants to go to one. But I regularly make the one and a half hour trip to the American Library. It is the most important place for me in Paris, apart from the Indian and Bangladeshi grocery stores! The Left Bank of Paris comes a close 3rd!

Postscript – Last year, during my intensive French course, I finally learnt the import of the name Mona Lisait: Mona read (lisait being the past for reading)!!

Glossary French Words
Bateaux Parisienne - Paris Boats
Ah! Des Livres – Grand Passion, eh? - Ah books - A grand passion, eh?

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