Books & Fellow Travelers
“You are today who you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read." ~~~Charlie “Tremendous” Jones
I’m the kind of nerd who curates books to match her trips. For my epic, two-month, 40th birthday jaunt through Europe, I chose books that matched the cities or countries I would be in: Victor Hugo’s The Hunch Back of Notre Dame, Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (Paris); Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (London); James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna (Italy), and so on.
As a writer and a nerd, I see things through a literary lens. I like everything to have a touch of poetry and so when I travel, I check out a city’s literary haunts and hot spots. I knew all about Shakespeare and Company, the legendary English language bookshop opened by American expat Sylvia Beach in 1919. And for my first solo trip in 2000, I made a hasty beeline for the same shelves the likes of Djuana Barnes, Richard Wright, and Ezra Pound had perused. But in 2010, I had never heard of The American Library in Paris (ALP) before I landed in Paris my third time.
Another habit of mine is grabbing local broadsheets no matter how esoteric. I find it is the best way to find out what the natives are up to. A week into my stay, I picked up a damp copy of a Parisienne weekly and as luck would have it discovered the existence of ALP at the same time I learned that one of my favorite, new, most challenging writers was reading there the next night.
Footloose and fancy free, with absolutely nothing to clear off my plate, I for once found the library easily tucked between the 7th and 8th arrondissement and within charming view of the Eiffel Tower.
John Edgar Wideman is a deep, critical thinker. His books can be a hard slough, inscrutable and dense yet worth it. I tend to like a challenge in my reading material, and I had stumbled on Wideman a couple of years back. I was slowly making my way through his works and had even heard him read and met him briefly in New York. I was eager to share my delight that we were in France at the same time.
Because he was relatively new to me, African American, and we were in Paris, I was surprised to find a decent crowd on the ground floor of the library. I should have known better. There is a reason the literary lights of Black letters have gravitated to Paris since the Twenties. In France, we weren’t only appreciated for the syncopated rhythm of our Jazz but also for the keen intellect which goes into its creation.
I was milling around, checking out the scene and the shelves when I was approached by a gorgeous blond. I wasn’t sure if she was a fellow countrywoman because she looked smart. For many reasons, I’ve never really been drawn to blondes, emotionally or sexually, at least not the ones found in my own country.
Unlike many American blondes, European blondes, male and female tend, somehow, to combine beauty and intelligence in their faces. But there are always exceptions in life and as it turned out Anna was an American, from the south no less. She was beautiful, with a MA in African Archaeology, a world traveler currently residing in Paris, fluent in German, Arabic, and French. We hit it off immediately and would go on to take in a quirky play and cocktails a few days later.
Mr. Wideman read. He was as erudite and restrained as expected. I had the opportunity to briefly reintroduce myself and tell him how glad I was to have the chance to hear him read in Paris of all places. It turned out that he and his wife lived part time in France and he often read in the City of Light. It goes without saying I was both chastened and jealous.
After getting my book signed and exchanging info and plans to meet up with Anna---she helped me with my precious flip phone before we parted company---I began to make my way home. Getting myself turned around, lost beneath the hulking-beauty of the Eiffel Tower, taking my life in my own hands as I dashed across wide boulevards, I thought about how:
“The American Library in Paris was established in 1920 under the auspices of the American Library Association with a core collection of books and periodicals donated by American libraries to United States armed forces personnel serving their allies in World War I.”
“The Library has grown since then into the largest English-language lending library on the European continent. It operates as a non-profit cultural association in France incorporated under the laws of Delaware.”
It made me think of how we create and meet our needs and how our needs, our vision can help or harm seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades later. It also made me think how, no matter how much we rail against it, we are all truly connected.
Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back in July for one last trip to France before summer hiatus!
In the meantime, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!