I feel like I owe it to Ernest Hemingway to spend one last day with him here in Paris. You see, my original sabbatical project was to follow his footsteps around the globe, and while I will admit that the things that have led me to this place unexpected have guided me to a more interesting focus (or perhaps a more interesting lack of focus), I want to express my gratitude to Hemingway for being my beginning. It is because of him that I became a writer. It is because of him that I know I can always be more concise.
In the end, it is because of him that I am here.
And so on this misty morning I take a final walk with Papa Hemingway. I start with a stroll in his place of refuge, Luxembourg Gardens, my feet falling on familiar dirt paths. I meander over to Rue de Fleurus, past the house where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas lived and hosted their salon. Without having to think about my way, I walk to Boulevard Montparnasse to have breakfast at one of the big cafés where Papa reigned alongside the likes of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Though I haven’t been here for almost two months, nothing has changed. Clusters of friends linger at tiny tables. The same locals are lined up at the bar with ceramic cups of café. There he is, the same friendly waiter who greets me with a Bonjour, madame! and a smile when I sit down at my usual table. And there she is, Elle, at her same table with her book, her newspaper, and her broken spectacles held up to her face.
I pick buttery crumbs from my plate and finish my coffee while scribbling in my journal. I read poetry and watch the cars outside drive by. This is Paris, and so I’m in no hurry, but I have a busy day planned, my last full day to explore Paris.
Then it happens.
I’m sitting in the café for the last time, watching Elle from the corner of my eye for the last time. Today, instead of reading her newspaper as she normally does, she is engrossed in the book she always carries. Like always, I am curious what book she is reading. No. It’s more than curiousity. I feel a sense of urgency that I need this missing piece of Elle; without it, this story is incomplete. And so, when she slips outside for a cigarette, I seize the moment.
I pass her table on my way to the toilets and eyeball the book’s title. It is a collection of writings from Isabelle Eberhart, who I learn was a Swiss writer and adventurer. An advocate of decolonization. A feminist. A nomad. A fellow wanderer. She was a woman who cross-dressed as a man because it gave her the freedom to roam.
The opening lines to her diary, dated 1 January 1900 read, “I am alone, sitting facing the grey expanse of the shifting sea…I am alone…alone as I’ve always been everywhere, as I’ll always be throughout this seductive and deceptive universe…”
Isabelle Eberhart was born on February 17, 1877 and died in a flash flood at the age of 27 in 1904. On October 21.
I promise I’m not looking for signs.