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The Shells of Things

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Another sightly belated one, but here's an entry about last week:

The paper napkins at Le Deux Magots hurt my nose. They’re rough, and my skin is raw. Of course I had to get sick now, of all times— the night before a French Vogue shoot, and a BEAUTY shoot no less! I am in the glitzy 6th arrondissement of Paris on a cool, fresh February night, and I am having dinner with my agents at one of the most illustrious restaurants in the city. Le Deux Magots, built in 1885, was a popular rendezvous for the literary and artistic greats of the twentieth century— before they were great. Here, on the very terrasse where I now sit under a heat lamp and zippered plastic awning once sat Hemingway, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and James Joyce, to name a few. Here, over drinks and cigars, some of Europe’s greatest intellects pondered and argued and imagined.

The place, however, does not live up to the legacy, and when I walked in the door I was startled by how unremarkable it was. Where I had imagined there might be some monument to or at least record of the writers who frequented its rooms, there is nothing inside but a standard Parisian brasserie: it's small round tables and wicker chairs are the same small round tables and wicker chairs found in every other brasserie in the city, and its menu is identical to those of neighboring establishments, displaying the same stolid (and solid) french dishes—just at a higher price! Here you can find Croque Monsieur and Bief Tartar but no elixir of inspiration, no morsel of insight for a hopeful writer like myself.

I order the only vegetarian item on the menu, a vegetable plate (for $23), and get just that: a pile of plain steamed veggies, nothing more and nothing less. This cafe may have a formidable history, but at present it is just like all the joe shmoe cafes out there, I realize. Just like Hemingway and Joyce were joe shmoe’s when they sat here hammering out their private thoughts for a public audience who had yet to meet them. And here I am, trying to pull myself together for Vogue, and I’m most certainly just another joe shmoe trying to fight off a head cold and all the common anxieties about acceptance, about success and the future which those twentieth century luminaries must have felt too— if only I could fight as exquisitely as they… For the second time this week, as I start out into the streets of Paris I am struck by the impression that human existence does not so wildly differ from one being to the next— even from one century to the next!— as I tend to imagine it does. All of us contend with doubt and ambition, dysfunction and competition alike. The common cold as well! 

Hemingway once said that “a writer’s job is to tell the truth,” and that is what I like to think I’m trying to do here, on my travels. Telling the truth about the world I experience, about the stormy days and the sunny days, as you’ll recall…even about the dismaying qualities of Le Deux Magots, whether that maitre d likes it or not (or—typically French— doesn't give a fig, as is probably the case)!

Back in my hotel room I take some cough syrup and pack my bag. Suitcase and subway map are ready by the door to go to my shoot and then fly home tomorrow, and I am musing on Ernest, how he said “all you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” I bury my groggy body under many layers of thick hotel blankets and think of some truth I might have gleaned from this evening in the City of Lights. A truth that begins, like most, with the shells of things— shells that never, really, reflect what’s inside. A truth that progresses, if I’m lucky, to the pith: for the most intriguing part of travel and exploration lies exactly there, in the daily discoveries that things aren’t always all they seem— even French things. Flake, flake, flake away! The buzz of the world comes out in the peeling.

My ticklish ruminations are interrupted by an old-fashioned clock on the wall chiming the hour. Midnight already? Long past my own old-fashioned bedtime ;) I drop to sleep already dreaming of breakfast— something more than steamed carrots, let’s hope!

The Arc de Triomphe, a block or two from my hotel.