September 20, 2020

Paris, chess of the ‘Rive Gauche’ – The Province


George Steiner said that Europe had been built around coffee shops. The importance of coffee as a vehicle for the transmission of ideas has produced throughout history revolutions, coups, essential works to understand past times and characters as unique as they are necessary in our library. Because if there is a city in the world that has elevated the cult of coffee to the fetishism of art, it is Paris.

We used to meet at Cafe le Reflet. There was nothing special about it, except for a decor based on science fiction movies from the eighties. Rue Champollion is the street of independent cinemas: small and with hardly any traffic, except for moviegoers who were waiting in line to see Almodovar’s last film or a cycle of movie theater Croatian. At that time, I was studying at the ENS on rue d’Ulm and preparing my admission to the Sorbonne. Le Reflet provided us with an optimal refuge. We shared readings, we criticized teachers strongly, we discovered a music that decades before had captivated our parents. Culture was a solid cup sipped with passion. We were young and we had come to Paris just as Cortázar had written his Hopscotch.

But life is much more like him Martin Romagna by Bryce Echenique. My colleagues were Brazilians, Mexicans, Argentines, Lebanese, Tunisians, Italians, and Germans. Steiner’s dream of meeting at a table and taking turns playing chess. At that time we dreamed of joining the Communist Party and making the world revolution that would liberate the oppressed peoples. And I’m talking about ten years ago. A May of 68 with monthly bank transfers.

The stupidity was taken from me by ‘Martín Romaña’. Yes, the character of the Peruvian writer who came to Paris in the sixties to be a good communist and who discovered that he was the only militant who did not wear moccasins. He longed to be poor in francs and not in Peruvian soles. But all my friends and I were not poor. Quite the opposite. We belonged to a generation that could afford a study abroad, live in the best neighborhoods of Paris and eat oysters on Sundays. Oysters paid with euros. Neither suns nor francs. And that we bought weekly at the Saint-Germain Market when we left the Faculty oenology club. Long live the revolution.

That world was wonderful. After chess games, we would walk down rue des Écoles and leave the front of the Sorbonne to one side. In one of those zebra crossings they took away Barthes, whose essays, thirty years later, we were trying to decipher, so modern that we felt. We went up the Montagne de Sainte-Geneviève to the Place Laure. There we had the first beer of the day. We wanted to emulate Francois Villon and his tremendous drunkenness back in the 15th century, writing his wills where he left all of Paris to his beloved whores. I already began to suspect that Villon was the best French-language writer I would ever read, with forgiveness and distance from Camus.

Before nightfall, we continued our pilgrimage to rue Mouffetard, one of the liveliest streets in Paris, so full of people at all hours that it has never known silence. It was the student’s natural habitat. We all knew each other and in a bar on the Place de la Contrescarpe the waiter was already bowing to us, like regular customers. There we returned to undertake serious conversations that ended in the apartment of a stranger with high ceilings and a lot of wine.

The city seemed made for us. We walked through it eagerly. Across the boulevard Saint-Michel, the coffee shops had a point of greater maturity. The clientele was less scandalous and one should be better dressed. On rue Bonaparte we took refuge in an underground joint where they played live music. On the rue du Seine we dined on cheeses of all varieties and kinds, with open bottles of wine when the waiter saw us from a distance. A few meters away, Picasso painted Guernica during the Nazi invasion, a heroic act that we honored on the boulevard des Agustins, before going down to the quai of the Seine and ending the night by looking closely at Our Lady.

Those days we combined them with libraries and tedious classes in a language that resisted. We lived in one of those novels that one reads in his youth with passion and that one is afraid, as the years go by, to consult again in the face of fear of disappointment. So I write about Paris. They are forgetting the name of the cafes. The blonde girl who always offered me a glass of water next to the coffee at Le Reflet is also fading from my memory. In the end there is a confusing rumor. My friends back then exploring maps of the city, now deserted. The revolution of its streets. And Vila-Matas was right: Paris never ends. But youth does. And I spent mine touring the city in preciously expensive loafers, but with two euro bottles of wine. And without writing like Hemingway, hey.

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