Visiting Les Deux Magots, one of Hemingway’s favorite Parisian historical cafes led to this reflection.
It feels only natural, sitting at a people-watching petite table on a wicker chair at Les Deux Magots, that I would enshrine this Hemingway experience by ordering the cheapest thing on the menu. Truly, that’s all I wanted. An espresso and croissant. Yet perusing the menu of the destination restaurant, it’s clear they know their market.
The most expensive thing on the standard breakfast menu is the Petite Dejeuners Hemingway (before embarking on Sunday-only brunch lists) includes a coffee, two organic eggs sunny side up, two strips of bacon, a croissant, and an orange juice for €29. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Hemingway were alive to see it, he’d find a way to destroy them for sure.
It’s a nice enough café, but I walked right by a dozen more down Boulevard St. Germain that would have been just as good for a quarter of the price. I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder for an angry waiter, wishing he had a bigger ticket from which to earn a tip from a foreigner that doesn’t know any better.
Laptop out, settling in for what I can only hope will fill the remainder of a 13-hour layover in the city, I avoid locking eyes with the maitre’d and he busies himself moving swiftly around without actually doing anything.
The most Hemingway thing I could do, would not be to stay and finish but to leave in disgust. As I type, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s autobiographical book of his time in Paris plays in my ears. He’s just finished describing patiently sipping a beer because he had only enough for a demi to follow and a piece of bread with which he sopped up olive oil. It feels more than pretentious but I can’t find a waiter to bring the check.
Those years, he chased around James Joyce’s haunts like a boy-crazy teenager, was not the Ernest Hemingway I think of. In my mind, it’s the Papa years in the Keys and Cuba where he’s old and famous and confident about who he is. This Hemingway is broke, uncertain, and hasn’t yet published a novel.
I recall that this visit is actually my second to Les Deux, the first coming 15 years ago when my wife and I were on our very first international trip together, dating at the time. A friend of mine was visiting Paris on the exact same day we were and he generously lent his museum passes so that we didn’t have to buy them. We met at the café to return them and that act, so many years ago feels more aligned with what the “lost generation” writers like Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway, and painter Picasso would have done at the time.
Like everything, with time, our storied haunts become façades, and to truly identify with the artists we admire, we must strip away the relic worship of these establishments and seek out the spirit of the act. Hemingway often described he would try to write just one true sentence and the rest would follow. In my case, I have saved that for last: Les Deux Magots is a fine café, even a good café, but if you’re seeking the experience of the writers that made it famous, find something down the boulevard that doesn’t have a green velvet rope, and €6 croissants.