Friday, April 24, 2009
Tea Time with George
Where do my blog ideas come from? Well, in case you were wondering, most days I have no idea at all what I'm going to write until I sit down in front of the blank screen and let my mind wander. Some days it's harder than others. Like today. Nothing earth-shattering in the world news (in my opinion), just another day in Toronto, even though I follow David Miller on Twitter to see what he's up to (that's our mayor, for my international readers!). So I sort of just let words free flow through my head (not as dippy as it sounds) and if the word leads to a story, I follow it. Something like than anyway. This morning's word was "April". That lead me to "April in Paris". Which lead me to the voice of George Whitman standing behind me at 37 Rue Bucherie in Paris in September of 1977 saying, "The only thing more enchanting than April in Paris is the laughter of a young girl." I was standing with my travel companion browsing through used paperbacks in front of Shakespeare and Company, the famous Left Bank bookstore. I don't recall what we were giggling about, but George heard us and came out to talk to us. After a few minutes of chit-chat, he invited us up to his apartment above the shop for tea. (who was this crazy old guy and why were we following him?) For the next couple of hours, we were bedazzled by George Whitman, the shop's owner and supposed illegitimate great grandson of poet, Walt Whitman. We sat facing him on a dusty old settee. There was something edible served with tea (perhaps his famous pancakes), but I don't remember that as much as I do him. He was bigger than life for such a small compact man. He was not quite curmudgeonly, his hair wispy and a bit wild looking. He was however, an exceptional story teller. He invited us to stay as long as we liked in his shop for free. The only thing he required in return was that we read a book every day and help out in the shop for a couple of hours.(thousands have been made the same offer) Now, as a couple of backpackers on a tight budget (remember "Europe on $5 a Day"? - essentially impossible in Paris, even back then), his offer sounded too good to be true. On closer inspection, we noticed several young struggling writers milling about the shop, sleeping bags and packs tucked into corners and space amongst the towering stacks of books at an extreme premium. Although the romantic notion of actually being a "struggling writer" held some appeal, the reality of showering at a public bath house across the street - not so much. That, in addition to feeling somewhat intimidated by "real" struggling writers pretty much ruled out accepting his invitation. At the time, we had no idea that Shakespeare and Company was somewhat of a legend in Paris. Remember, we were 19 and flying through Europe by the seat of our pants - no university education, small town girls with little more than open minds and a taste for adventure. We may have heard of Walt Whitman, but I can tell you with certainty, we had never read any of his poems. Our magical afternoon with George Whitman was one of many "peak" experiences of our European odyssey. There are countless books and websites devoted to the history and present day news of George and his shop. He is still alive, in his early nineties now. His daughter Sylvia (conceived after we met him - that old scamp!) now runs Shakespeare and Company. I only learned later it was a hang-out for the beat generation writers, the likes of Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The original shop opened in 1919 and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Hemingway mentions the shop several times in A Movable Feast. Now, there are even countless Facebook groups devoted to George and his famous book store. I was glad to join a couple of these groups recently. Who knew at the time, I would be a teeny tiny part of something so special? I have George Whitman tucked away in my little box of precious memories. And for that, I'm grateful.