Riding Solo, but Still Fancy
“I like Paris because I find something here, something of integrity, which I seem to have strangely lost in my own country. It is simplest of all to say that I like to live among people and surroundings where I am not always conscious of ‘thou shalt not.’ I am colored, and wish to be known as colored, but sometimes I feel that my growth as a writer has been hampered in my own country. And so–but only temporarily–I have fled from it." --- Jessie Redmon Fauset/Author (1923)
Happy Black History Month & Valentine’s Day! I love that these two occasions share the same month because what is the showcasing and veneration of the contributions of Black Americans to the United States and the world, if not an act of love. And love, especially self-love, is what I’m all about here at Feminist Footprints. Which makes this month’s travel story a perfect one, because it takes place in the City of Light and for many, the City of Love. Amusez-vous bien!
It started with a phone call. In 2000, on my second visit to Paris, my French was still nonexistent, so I was relieved that the woman who answered the phone spoke heavily accented English. Tamping down on an excited giggle, feigning sophistication, I asked to make a reservation for the upcoming Saturday.
“How many people in your party?”
There was a pause as if the receptionist performed a Gallic Shrug and then she took my name and the rest of the information needed to complete my reservation. Hanging up, I began giddily planning my outfit.
As a terminally single singleton, I dine out alone a lot. A... lot. Thankfully, I am not one of those people who is mortified by the idea of sitting by myself in a movie theater, concert hall, restaurant or anywhere really. And I don’t do the public version of standing over the sink and eating out of cold can of chili. I enjoy a nice cafe as much as the next, but what I really enjoy is getting pretty and going to the most extravagant restaurant I can find, or at least the most extravagant one I can afford. I am known for it. You might even say infamous.
So three days later, at 7:50, after a lovely walk through Le Jardin du Luxembourg, I arrived at La Closerie des Lilas.
If you are new to this blog or missed my subtle hints, I am a "Frommer’s" Travel Guide gal not a "Rough Guide". Where some run screaming from anything that smacks of the touristy, I embrace it. Don’t get me wrong, I like the cool, off the beaten path of "Moon" or "Lonely Planet", but I prefer to hit the big-ticket must see sites like your "Versailles" and your "Davids" and then make my way off road to that hard to find 18th century wine cave or an ancient village off limits to cars, especially if I don’t have a lot of time or suspect that it’s not a destination that I’ll return to.
La Closerie des Lilas, located in Montparnasse, on the Left Bank of Paris, is a mix of both big-ticket and off road. Its storied history makes it "Frommer’s" but its prices put it firmly in "Rough Guide’s" special night splurge territory. Even better, the former coaching inn, which dates back to 1847, combines three of my very favorite things: a cool literary background, delicious, fancy French food, and a gorgeous setting.
Some of my favorite writers from Fitzgerald to James Baldwin held court at La Closerie des Lilas. Baldwin even has his main character exit the fabled haunt in a scene from his celebrated novel Giovanni’s Room. So naturally, I had to get gussied up and eat and drink where my literary heroes had dinned and imbibed in a bygone era.
Arriving at the flower bedecked restaurant, smiling like a ten-year-old girl on her first visit to the American Doll store or NYC’s Serendipity Tearoom, I presented myself to the receptionist.
“Bonjour! I have a reservation.”
“Washington. KC Washington.”
“How many in your party?”
“No, not two, just one.”
The fashionably thin, plain-pretty young woman actually raised up slightly on her toes and extended her neck to look past me in search of the other person she thought I must be hiding behind my back. Confused, but satisfied that there really wasn’t deux in my party, she checked off my name and signaled for another receptionist to take me to my table.
Six years into solo traveling, I shrugged off her bemusement and entered the dinning room. Where every fiber of my Harlequin Silhouette-suckled soul rejoiced. The large room was dappled in soft creams and buttery golds reflected over and over by a ceiling made of skylights. Several large chandeliers burnished the stemware, cutlery, tables, and burgundy leather banquets in an elegant glow of. La Closerie des Lila was dazzling and everything I had hoped it would be.
Weaving in between tables crowded with diners in groups of threes, fours, and more, I was shown to a small two top slightly off to the side but which, as I took my seat, felt more like center stage. A hush didn’t fall, time didn’t stop, but it truly felt as if for a nanosecond everyone in the Fabergé egg-esque room, looked at me, looked around and seemed to ask,
Even my waiter seemed to ask Deux? as he handed me a dinner menu but no wine list and then hurried away. As if to say, if you are foolish enough to dine alone in a swanky, super expensive restaurant you’re already drunk and have no need of a cocktail. I caught his eye where he huddled and beckoned him back. I ordered a martini and asked for the wine list. I kid you not, he looked shocked!
I took a moment to soak in the beauty of the room where Hemingway wrote most of The Sun Also Rises and read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby manuscript, and where the likes of Modigliani, André Breton, Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre, André Gide, Oscar Wilde, and many others laughed, argued, and created art at one point or another. Others like Baldwin, who, fleeing discrimination in the U.S., found his spiritual home and literary success in France and friendship and camaraderie at La Closerie des Lila. When my cocktail arrived, I pulled out my journal and that week's book.
Before my appetizer (escargot), I jotted down what I was wearing, my impressions of the restaurant, what I ordered and my after-dinner plans then I put away my journal and replaced it with my book. Savoring the rich buttery-garlic deliciousness of my snails, engrossed in my novel, I was startled when my waiter, who had been avoiding me as if solitude was contagious, finally checked to see if I was doing okay did a quick double take and then burst out laughing. He called another waiter over and they both laughed and pointed at my book and then at me.
“You? Is this you?” They demanded, grinning.
I glanced at my book which I had closed in preparation of ordering a glass of wine. I began to laugh with them despite the chic heads that swiveled in our direction. I shook my head.
“Non, it’s not me.”
After taking my order, they walked off chuckling. But my waiter returned quickly with my wine, which surprised me after forty minutes of being avoided. Something had shifted and suddenly he was delighted to have me in his section. He peppered me with smiles and questions about where I was from and about the book: Black Girl in Paris. He just couldn't seem to believe that Shay Youngblood’s romantically quirky novel about a young American black woman, an aspiring writer who’s run off to Paris to follow in the footsteps of some of her artistic and literary heroes wan't about me, wasn't actually me. I continued to try and convince him even as I finished my Steak au Poivre, enjoyed a digestive and an expresso, and even as I was leaving La Closerie des Lila.
But honestly, Youngblood’s 2000 novel may as well be about me, be me. I have never quite reach the level of adventure her protagonist Eden does (While I have posed semi-nude, thankfully I have never had to resort to stealing to keep body and soul together!) but I am continually drawn to Paris and the need to live my life to the fullest extent possible speaks to me on a molecular level. So I guess, years later, my waiter was right, not only am I a "Black Girl in Paris", but also in New York, in Lisbon, in Cuba, in…the world. I am a global girl and a global citizen.
Á votre santé!
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in two weeks when I'm off to Nice to explore the importance and the joy of plowing ahead in the face of fear!
Remember, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!