It’s a cold Friday morning in my flat in Sydney and I am dreaming of travel. It’s July; the European summer has begun. Our journey of words, bookstores and the sounds of imagined cities takes us first to Paris, and then across the Atlantic to New York City. Will you come with me?
I spent approximately a week in Paris, where I chased my knowledge around the city. I did the touristy things. I stared from under and climbed up the tower and walked along the Seine. I ate dinner in front of the cathedral with its famous fabled resident. I found my favourite bookstore in the whole world. I floated through galleries, and my eyes wandered skyward where the façades of beautiful residences mix with the cobblestones and splashes of potted colour. It could only be Paris.
If Paris were a colour, it would be beige. Because of my favourite buildings. This city’s screen time is much more humbled and muted, and the language is foreign; I like to steal it to sound well-travelled. I pretend that one day I will live in the 10th or 11th arrondissement and wake up to fresh pastries aromas from small boulangeries, and thank the man who made them fresh that morning.
I have never been to New York City, but yet I almost feel like I have. The city in my mind is built from the sitcoms, rom-coms, and endless Google Maps searches. Oh, the nights I have spent in the museums that I’ve never entered. The Empire State Building, the high skyline. The luscious green of the park covered in a sheet of white in the winter, the yellow taxis. The soundtracks that are the city’s heartbeat. And yet I don’t really know New York.
If New York were a colour, it would be grey. Because of the concrete jungle that it seems to be. It’s language is the cadence of that accent and the noisy city growling. I pretend to know which one of the boroughs is mine and then pick a little bodega and smile at the lady that gives me my breakfast bagel.
And now from food to books. For me, they have always been guides to places I’ve never been; a portal into another world.
As a young reader, my ears were filled with the stories of an ivy-covered orphanage and the little girl with a runaway straw hat named Madeline. Her red hair chased trouble through Paris. Just try to convince me that she’s not real. Try to tell me that my copy-cat hat did not get left behind in the Gare du Nord. I ran to retrieve it and nearly missed the train. One day I will read Madeline to my daughters and tell them, ‘It’s okay to be brave and loud and unique and full of adventure.’ And I will take them to that faraway place pronounced with an Australian twang: PaRISS.
It existed in my childhood imagination as it will theirs.
This is our first stop. Here, turn around and gaze at the green and yellow trimmings of the most famous independent bookstores in the world. Opened by Sylvia Beach, the only one brave enough to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. She befriended Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound. The first Shakespeare and Co. closed with the 1941 German occupation.
The second was opened by an American, George Whitman, in 1951. Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller and Richard Wright among them; new leaders in the literary world continued the expat tradition and walked the same shelves that we do. Whitman championed a movement called the ‘tumbleweeds’; where writers and artists are welcome to stay in-store to absorb knowledge and be inspired. Seventy years later, only three things are asked of a Tumbleweed: read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours, and write a one-page autobiography. To leave behind your story seems a rite-of-passage for a creative.
Oh, to be a Tumbleweed; to be here in Paris, in that bookstore, reading.
Next stop: The Louvre. It will stay warm until late, so why not wander along the river until the magnificent palaces come into view. If you were alone, this museum would be on the top of your list, not the bookstore. I once thought that the glass triangle was all there was. I didn’t realise the magnitude of the largest museum in the world. The three wings, hidden royal palaces, secret nooks and grand staircases. We go early to skip the crowds.
Staying here all day is not wasted time; it will become the day you visit the Louvre. You saw her too, that famous woman who doesn’t smile. Remember the maze of antiquities, the artworks that take up an entire wall, the ones that you’ve only seen from their Wikipedia pages. Stop taking pictures and stand in the middle of the room, and pick something to stare at. Later, we are outside in the afternoon sun eating ice-cream in the Tuileries Gardens, with the unmistakable sounds of the piano accordion floating in and out of the trees.
The Eiffel Tower looms over the city. It was supposed to be a temporary structure created to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution during the Exposition Universelle in 1889 and word on the boulevards and in the history books is that the Parisians hated it. You’re not scared of heights, are you? Because we’re going all the way to the top — where you can see the whole of Paris.
There is a champagne bar, and a little room with a sign on the railing says Gustaf Eiffel hosted Thomas Edison for tea. We spend plenty of time here, doing laps and taking photos because who knows when we will come again. There is just something magical about pulling yourself out of the streets and into the sky.
There are crepe vans in tourist areas but we must find the cafés. You can smell them before you can see them. Outward-facing thatched chairs and tables spilling on the boulevard. Fresh baguettes, qua-ssoints, and the sparkling alcohol. Let us eat and toast (splurge just this once for some expensive champagne!) to our next adventure.
Moving across the continents, we enter uncharted territory. I haven’t travelled to New York ever. You either? Where are we going first? A bookstore of course.
We exit 77 Street Station and erupt into the glowing sun of the Upper East Side. Walking towards the green of the park is our indicator we’re going the right way. We pass the New York Society Library, the oldest cultural institution in the city. Turn left on the mythical Fifth Avenue. I’ve researched this. The photographs I pored over don’t do this architecture justice. It’s so beautiful and it screams straight out of the pages of Fitzgerald, its story is filled with as much glitz as the Gatsby era.
Enough standing outside, let’s go in. The Albertine is the only dedicated French bookstore in the city. Before that, it was part of the French Embassy, and before that it was a private house of high New York society. So many chapters in this bookstore’s past.
As we walk through the marble rotunda, I point to the statue in the middle of the room. Did you know in 1996 they discovered that statue was a Michelangelo? They swapped it out for a replica, and the real one is now down the road. We must walk up the stairs to see what we came here for. On the second floor, I am transfixed by the celestial ceiling. The cobalt starry sky and stylised golden sun wraps around to meet brown polished bookshelves, topped with white busts created by Musée du Louvre ateliers of French and French-American cultural figures guarding their books.
Here I am reminded of a book I love. With all my wanderings, imaginative and otherwise, I realised that for a long time the old New York still existed, because I had never seen the new one.
And on this corner, they merge. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth begins much like the opening of Gossip Girl; hundreds of years apart. A returning traveller passes through the Grand Central Terminal. You know the scene. Towards the end of the novel, she encounters the green of Central Park, on a similarly gorgeous day.
“Lily, lingering for a moment on the corner, looked out on the afternoon spectacle of Fifth Avenue.
It was a day in late April, and the sweetness of spring was in the air. It mitigated the ugliness of the long-crowded thoroughfare, blurred the gaunt roof-lines, throw a mauve veil over the discouraging perspective of the side streets, and gave a touch of poetry to the delicate haze of green that marked the entrance to the Park.”
Further up, you can just see the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Where they host the Met Gala; the Oscars of the fashion world. Always on the first Monday in May. All of those beautiful people. Today I’m wearing sneakers. I don’t know this museum at all, but the first time you go somewhere is always the best. How many more times will we come here? It’d be a shame if it were just once.
Let’s walk down Fifth Avenue, past the Zoo and the Plaza Hotel, places from movies. We don’t stop at Rockefeller Plaza, but my dream is to come back at Christmas to skate underneath the giant tree when it snows.
The soundtrack of New York City is different voices singing the same chorus in their genres. Welcome to New York. It’s been waiting for you. Up here floats the soulful piano ballads of Billy Joel and Alicia Keys, musicals from the Broadway stages, Jay-Z and Frank Swoonatra. Loud and attention seeking. Just like this view. We’re at our last destination. The gold metallic glow of the lobby feels like a spaceship. When it was built it overtook the Eiffel Tower as the tallest building in the world. We’re finally at the top of the Empire State Building, just like in that movie… you know the one.
When I was younger, I travelled the world through books and films. I learnt about Paris from Madeline. I learnt about New York City from three movies all written by Nora Ephron. Her characters run through the night or walk in parks, or sit in diners. The words dripping off the screenplay and out of Meg Ryan’s mouth or Tom Hanks’ turned me into a full-blown romantic. The city seen through the film lens calls forth opportunity. Whether or not that is true I don’t actually know.
And now I’m back in my flat in Sydney. It’s still cold but the sun has come out. If I can only travel with my words, let it be so. Until such a time where I can touch and see Paris again and one day New York, they shall live in the magical part of my brain that is my imagination. Perhaps these cities have a more vibrant palette than simply grey and beige.