Echoes Along the Seine

photo: pont alexandre III

The Pont Alexandre III.

An Excerpt from 'Hemingway's Paris and Pamplona, Then and Now'

by Robert F. Burgess

Paris:- Whenever Ernest Hemingway wrote about Paris, the Seine River was always part of it, whether he mentioned it or not. Anyone who has ever lived in Paris is aware of the important role the river plays.

It has been said that Paris makes love to the Seine. This is true. Parisians embrace their river with intense affection. Artists and lovers have always found this broad, meandering river with its wide stone quais, arched stone bridges, shade trees and many marble benches for lovers and admirers one of the reasons Paris is such a romantic, unforgettable feast for all the senses. Paris is the Seine is Paris even though Miss Stein may never have said it. Yet, nothing is truer.

Over time, some things about this river have changed, but not much. Its waters may still be polluted, but its pale greenness makes it look clean. The steady stream of noisy automobiles, motor scooters and high-rise buses that whiz over the bridges or get stalled on them, besmirches some of the pleasant scenery.

But in the past it was the slower, more prolonged noise of galloping hooves, smelly, horse-drawn carriages and freight wagons with thundering wheels. Today's clouds of gagging exhaust fumes are health-threatening, and the people pollution is worse than ever. But that's about all that has changed. Thankfully, not too much else disturbs the Seine'sphoto: fetes de la seine peaceful natural beauty. With luck she may make it into the 21st Century relatively intact.

For the 'Fêtes de la Seine' in September, the smokestacks reappear.

To see the river and its trappings in its natural guise you have to get up early in the morning and go look at it. Even if it's just from your hotel balcony. Best view however is at street level, perhaps from a bridge such as le Pont du Carrousel looking toward the sunrise and L'Ile de la Cité. If you are early enough, most vehicles will still be doing what they do so well in the depths of someone's underground garage, or they will simply be curbed and quiet. Then if you are really lucky, you may see what makes this Grande Dame of a city so special.

Seen in early morning mists on a bright morning in May, this is the scene that artists have painted and poets have rhapsodized over from time immemorial. It is the exact same scene, with slight variations of course, that young Ernest Hemingway saw on many mornings he walked along the Seine wondering if he would ever learn to write well enough to make a good living.

Nothing really has changed today. Writers and artists still walk the Seine pondering these questions. The sun still rises over the River Seine and the event is as spectacular as ever. As dawn turns the eastern sky a glowing pale rosé, the morning mists rise up like slowly lifting gossamer curtains, curling and caressing the black barges and rainbow-hued houseboats moored with armthick rough hemp hawsers to the centuries old manhole-sized mooring rings embedded in the stone walled quai.

Curling ever upward past bridge abutments, up over gracefully arched stone bridges with their black Parisian lamp posts, up over the black bronze mailed knight and rearing steed, up past the flying buttresses, and glaring gargoyles to play with the upthrust towers and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral. Then, the first strong clear sharp light appears, setting fire to spire and tower edges, a halo of gold and rosé grows glowing and brilliant momentarily silhouetting the entire scene, a masterpiece in all its brief glory for any artist, poet or author quick enough to capture it.

Possibly no other people in the world take more sensual pleasure in their river than Parisians. You see it everywhere. You see it in just the number of occupied marble benches that are placed discretely where river lovers can see the prettiest river sights.

And speaking of lovers, they still unabashedly embrace each on these same benches as they did in Hemingway's day and long before that, the same way they will long after this. They are all in tune with and acutely aware of the nearness of their romantic River Seine, but as you might expect they have eyes only for each other.

Even in adverse weather the river has charms. A windy, brisk gray day in May the sky lays like a sodden wool blanket over the Pont du Carrousel where cobblestones gleam from recent rain. A cold wind rips down the river. No bateaux mouches today.

The backpack feels heavy and good, the straps tight against my shoulders. It's good to be in Paris again. Put out all your antennae, I tell myself. Remember everything. It may be your last time. And later after the sun comes out and the day warms, I notice that no matter how hot it gets, the marble slabs atop the Seine's benches always stay cool. And someone always has time to take a moment out of his or her busy day to stop and gaze out upon the river.

That afternoon I hike far along the Seine, marveling at the variety of things people can think of to add to the deck of their live-aboard houseboats to make them look more homey, more like one's backyard. I see an amazing assortment of cats, dogs, furniture, awnings, hammocks, exercise equipment, kayaks, bicycles, children's Jungle Gyms or playpens, barbecue grills, artificial lawns, building supplies, Tiki torches, rows of flower boxes usually containing bright red geraniums, small vegetable gardens, various potted plants, and shrubs, including a few palm trees. All the accouterments of most people's backyards compressed neatly into the rectangular confines of an elegantly kept, brightly painted highly livable river barge on the river Seine parked in front of the romantic city of Paris. Each family's islandphoto: pont neuf in the Seine. Or as some Frenchmen might say with passion: 'Voila! Mon Ark!' And I would have to add just as passionately, "Ah, oui, c'est la vie!"

The Pont Neuf, with the sun about to slide into the river.

Whenever the sun comes out, the river walkers are not far behind. Everyone seems to wear a backpack, young and old alike. They are as common in Paris as businessmen's briefcases in New York. Unless, of course, you happen to be a musician. They seldom wear a backpack. They carry an instrument. You see them here and there along the Seine. Solitary soloists playing their cornet, their French horn, their flute to no one in particular. Just playing while everyone else stops momentarily in the shade of the plane trees to listen.

An artist and his easel here, a cello player there, maybe some of it is inspired by the nearby Pont des Arts, the no frills people-only bridge where a popular thing to do is to carry bongo drums with friends down to the riverside quai, sit on grass in the late afternoon sun and beat out a rhythm. On the bridge overhead, street artists paint painting after painting of the Isle de la Cité and Notre Dame cathedral to sell to tourists. They can paint this scene in their sleep. No one tires of it.

I stop to rest on the Pont Neuf, the oldest and most famous bridge in Paris. It may be named 'New Bridge' but it is Paris' oldest. King Henry III laid the cornerstone for it in 1578 and his successor Henry IV galloped his horse over the completed structure in 1605. You can still see him astride his charger in all his glory from atop his tall statue. It is in the middle, where the bridge crosses Ile de la Cité. It faces towards the park called the Square du Vert Galant, after Henri IV's nickname.

This bridge was made for river watchers and nature lovers. Large half-moon-shaped stone bench balconies are built into the side of the bridge so that they bulge out over the river like the broad stern of a steamboat. They overlook the river's beauty and the Musée du Louvre.

When not watching the river, people sit in these balconies to rest, as I was doing. A moment later a French woman sat down opposite me to enjoy a banana that she took out of her purse. I watched her carefully peel it, and knew at once what might have happened had I been watching the same scene elsewhere. Upon peeling the fruit there would be a short, swift movement and the peeling would disappear into the river. But not this woman who was completely unaware of my watchful eye from the corner of my sun shades. The banana peeling was quickly folded and put back into her purse. That simple gesture suggests the kind of pride Frenchmen have about their river and their city.

Each evening at sunset, Pont Neuf is crowded with watchers lining its west side balcony boxes and railing, all waiting for the spectacular moment when the sun slides down in an orange ball of fire among the Left Banks' painted barges and then into the Seine. At the precise moment it occurs, everyone on the bridge holds their breath as though expecting to hear the sizzle. But what everyone hears are low murmurs of pleasure.

Like French women, all of Paris' bridges are beautiful in their own right. But certainly one of the most striking is called Pont Alexandre III, six bridges downstream from Pont Neuf. Everything anyone ever loved about the baroque is here attached to this bridge. Wildly rearing winged horses, four on each side balance atop columns on each side. A host of cherubs and bearded gods cavort along the bridge balustrades over the water. Where appropriate, thick layers of gilding emblazon the flying horses, and any other scrolls, angels or ornaments that need this Midas touch. Thirty ornate black lamp-posts with all the curlicues and glass globes an artisan can imagine march across the arched bridge in magnificent splendor. Indeed, this gentle 354-foot-arch was the longest single span ever attempted until then. This architectural spectacle was created as a centerpiece for the Paris World's Fair of 1900 in the hope of surpassing the none too beauteous architectural feat of the 1889 fair, the Eiffel Tower.

No indeed, nothing has changed. Hemingway saw it all. In 'A Moveable Feast' he wrote that he often walked the stone quais along the riverbanks when he was trying to think something out. Just being there on the Seine seemed to help. He found it easier to think while he was walking, or doing something, or watching people doing something that he understood such as fishing.

In his 'Islands in the Stream' Hemingway has one of his characters telling another that he can name all the bridges over the Seine from Suresnes to Charenton, the latter outside the center of Paris about four miles southeast of Notre Dame where he used to sometimes fish.

Then, by way of his character he tells us that he really can't name all of the bridges but he's got them all in his head. He remembers that part of the river is ugly and many of the bridges are too. But he had lived there a long time and he used to walk the whole river, both the ugly parts and the beautiful parts as well, that he has fished a lot of it with different friends of his. Hephoto: ile saint louis says he used to fish it sometimes at Charenton and often walked the river when he finished work until he got too tired and then he would catch a bus part way back. Once he had money he said they used to take taxis or horsecabs.

Quiet life on the quays of the Ile Saint-Louis.

Certainly Hemingway was not one to pass up finding out what kind of fish the Seine anglers were catching and exactly how they did it. In 'A Moveable Feast' Ernest describes it in more detail, telling about walking down the stone steps from the park in Paris and watching the fishermen there under the big, broad bridge, probably near the Ile de la Cité. He said the better spots for fishing seemed to change with the different flood stages of the river. And that the fishermen knew where those spots were.

He said that they all fished with long cane poles, sometimes they were jointed so they could be taken apart. And, everything about their end-tackle was light. The leaders were very fine. For bobbers they used quill floats, which of course would upend with the slightest tug on the hook, and very small hooks with tiny pieces of bait because what they were trying to catch were not large fish, they were not much larger than minnows.

Ernest said they were a tiny dace-like fish called 'goujon' - from the French word 'goujon' suggesting that the tiny fish resemble the small metal pins used to hold two pieces of stone together. He said that when they were fried whole they were so good he could eat a plateful of them. The plump, sweet-flavored fish he found tasted better than even fresh sardines because they were not oily and you ate them bones and all.

In his book 'Secret Life of the Seine,' [Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, New York, 1994] Mort Rosenblum describes living aboard a houseboat on the Seine for several years. He soon knew the river from one end to the other. He said there are some forty species of freshwater fish native to the river and a dozen more that were added. Thanks to the influence of dams and pollution, by the time the river reaches Paris, nine fish out of ten are either tiny chubs or roaches, and he couldn't even imagine anyone being interested in catching something called a 'roach.'

As Rosenblum said, in most places of the world when you see a fisherman you almost always ask, "Are they biting?" But on the Seine today, the question most often asked is: "Are you really going to eat that?"

In the early '90's when he lived on the Seine the pollution was so bad that a Frenchman told him that you really don't have to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river, all you have to do is the backstroke.

Over the years since then, however, there have been considerable efforts by the French to clean up the river and restore its lost oxygen. Still, it's a constant uphill battle. Seine fish that have survived are undoubtedly hardy souls. Industrial pollution may make them glow in the dark, but by golly they're still there, a tribute to evolution!

Saltwater cousins of these fish are popular around the Mediterranean. In Spain they are called 'boquerones' which translates to mean anchovies. In English they would be called whitebait. Considered a delicacy, these fish are tiny herring and sprat fry but the generic term takes in all small minnow-like fish.

To me they all taste much like the freshwater smelt caught in fast moving cold clear northern Michigan streams in the springtime. Hemingway certainly knew about these Michigan fish and how they tasted which might explain his fondness for the 'goujon' of Paris.

Papa never met a stranger. He said he knew several Frenchmen who fished certain productive parts of the river between the Ile Saint-Louis - the island just east of the Ile de la Cité containing Notre Dame cathedral - and the Square du Vert Galant. He said that travel writers often thought that the fishermen along the Seine were completely crazy because they never seemed to be catching anything. The impression was that they were just fishing for the fun of it. Which to some observers suggested that they were engaged in an activity that was about as worthwhile as meditating on your navel.

Papa quickly pointed out to them that not only are these Seine fishermen quite serious, but they are also quite productive. He said that many of them were men that lived on small pensions, which had grown virtually worthless from the inflation. They weren't fishing for the fun of it, they fished for food. Others, who had jobs, still needed that extra help feeding their large families. So they fished when they had half days off from work.

Summing it up, Hemingway thought there was better fishing at Charenton, several miles upriver where the river Marne came into the Seine, and on either side of Paris. But it was also fine fishing right in the city itself.

Today, I would be interested in his opinion of what has happened to the Seine fishing. He probably would chalk it up to pollution. He surely wouldn't chalk it up to overfishing.

During the month I was there in May and early June I saw only one lonely Seine fisherman sitting with his long cane pole on the stone quai fishing practically in downtown Paris. He looked like any one of many I once saw there years ago except that he was a young man. Perhaps too young to know there were no fish to be caught. I would have talked to him about it but he was accompanied by a large black mastiff. The dog was not interested in what his master was doing. He sat with his back to his master glaring eyeball to eyeball at me. And he wasn't smiling. I never blinked, just kept walking. I'll always wonder if that Seine fisherman ever caught anything, and if he did, whether he ever dared eat it.

As soon as Bumby was old enough to enjoy the pleasures Ernest found along the Seine, like any doting father, Papa taught his son to enjoy the more meaningful things in life. In fact even at Bumby's tender age they shared their own kind of thing together. It was quality time, long remembered by his son. No wonder Bumby came home with an ice cream ring around his mouth and telling everyone how 'beau' life was with Papa. After all, Papa was teaching him 'neat' things. Fun things about which mothers might disapprove.

Bumby never told anyone about them until long after he was a grown man. Then, Jack Hemingway wrote of his early memories of Papa in his own book: 'Misadventures of a Fly Fisherman, My Life With and Without Papa.' [Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas, 1986]

The book is good reading, especially the fishing parts. He recalled that his first fishing experience was as a spectator with Papa. What he saw and what they later did made enough of an impression on Jack that he become an avid sport fishing fan for life. He said that when they lived in Paris and he and Papa went out for walks together, there was always some kind of fishing going on along the quay-sides and river embankments.

Papa may have started out intending to look for some good reading material, but it often ended up with them looking over the fishermen of the Seine. On his first trip, Bumby said that Papa was intent on visiting the bookstalls that lined the sidewalks along certain parts of the river. One after another these black metal boxes sat permanently attached to waist-high walls overphoto: bouquinistes, quai conti the quais beside the Seine. Most are about the size of a small steamer trunk. Called 'boites,' their lids can be unlocked and propped open to display a treasure-trove of exciting old books and memorabilia.

Even in winter the bookselers are on the Quai de Conti.

These bookstalls along the Seine are fascinating. From them you can buy anything from old etched prints to long forgotten maps and leather-bound books, or cheap paperbacks, old Parisian playbills, artists' prints and reproductions of famous oil paintings of all sizes; naughty postcards and touristy ones, plus an enormous amount of unusual bric-a-brac of interest to almost everyone enjoying a casual promenade along the river walk in the dappled shade of the plane trees.

Papa's moves on the bookstalls were more thought out than most casual perusers. He sought quality merchandise. Some 'boites' turned out better quality books than others did. Consequently Papa had certain ones that he preferred over others.

For example he enjoyed searching those opposite the hotel that was right next door to our apartment, the Hôtel Voltaire on the Quai Voltaire, for a definite reason. He said it was because there were several bookstalls along there that sold books purchased from hotel employees - 'especially Hotel Voltaire, which had a wealthier clientele than most.' When you are out looking, you might as well shop for the best.

No matter where they went to these bookstalls, Jack said that they always stopped to watch the fishermen along the Seine. From Papa he learned to recognize these dedicated anglers as a totally unique breed of fishermen. They were men with weather-beaten faces, shabby clothes and boundless patience. They fished with long bamboo cane poles and goose-quill bobbers. They looked as permanent a part of the scenery as the old trees. Jack thought that the fishermen of the past along the Seine caught more fish than they do today, recalling that some caught so many they sold them to riverside restaurants who deep-fried them for customers. He always considered them a fine treat and a favorite with him and his father.

Jack recalls that sometimes the two of them would take these paper-wrapped servings of small fried fish to one of the benches on the Henry IV bridge overlooking the Seine. After they feasted on the fries, father and son had a contest to test their skill. Papa demonstrated. The object of the sport was to lean over the stone bridge rail and try to spit down the moving funnels of the fleet of passenger steamboats called bateaux mouches passing under the bridges.

These long, broad sightseeing boats lined with passenger benches work the river from dawn to dusk and some continue into the night, serving dinner guests. All of them ply the river almost year around except in times of floods.

Hopefully most were oblivious of the Hemingway game which really was tame considering a similar form of it mentioned in Rosenblum's book about bateau life on the Seine. His greatest dislike were the drunks who when they saw him coming in his houseboat, liked to line up on the bridge he was forced to go under and see which one of them could as thephoto: peniches, pont neuf French euphemistically like to call it 'Faire pipi' on his boat as he passed under. Maritime life on the River Seine isn't all bonbons and potted red geraniums.

These days, the barges and bateaux mouches do not have funnels.

The game Hemingway and Son were embarked on was far tamer than that. The goal of the game was quite elusive. To be able to spit spittle down a moving target such as this was extremely difficult. According to his son, it was rare that either of them were successful but when lightning did strike and they succeeded, they rewarded themselves at the closest café, usually a beer for Papa and a flavored sherbet or bright red Grenadine for him.

Just watching the fishermen made Jack want to try it some day but he never dreamed it would be possible so soon. In those early years living in the flat above the sawmill over the courtyard on Notre-Dame-des-Champs, he remembered it as just a short walk from his godmother Gertrude Steins' large commodious apartment where she lived with her friend Alice B. Toklas. Jack felt that they lived in quite a luxurious place on Rue de Fleurus.

From the Hemingway's small apartment he remembered the Closerie de Lilas was hardly a block away and in those days it was still just a simple, inexpensive café with no frills. When the Hemingway's took off on a winter vacation he remembered being carried along on ski trips to Schruns where both Ernest and Hadley were trying to perfect their skiing. Eventually Ernest got confident enough in his ability to pack Jack along with him in his rucksack.

Hemingway was fortunate to be able to see the Seine and Paris at different times of the year and to remember details of how it made him feel. The way he described it sometimes had to do with the way it looked and sometimes with the way he felt. Three days before Christmas l923, The Toronto Star Weekly published his article titled, 'Christmas On the Roof of the World,' in which he described a Christmas in Paris:

"It is wonderful in Paris to stand on a bridge across the Seine looking up through the softly curtaining snow past the grey bulk of the Louvre, up the river spanned by many bridges and bordered by the grey houses of old Paris to where Notre Dame squats in the dusk. It is very beautiful in Paris and very lonely at Christmas time."

In 'A Moveable Feast,' he found a way to solve his loneliness by watching the fishermen and life on the river with its colorful barges and the active families aboard them. He watched the large black working barges that plied this waterway, fascinated by their smoke-stacks that folded backwards so they could pass under the bridges. Often these tugs towed long trains of loaded black barges, moving slowly past the stone quais of the river, past the plane trees, the poplars and large elms that grew along the quais. After seeing that he knew he would never be lonely as long as he was along the river.

Years later, A. E. Hotchner, accompanying Hemingway on a nostalgic return to Paris in 1950 said that to Papa, Paris was synonymous with happiness. As always it was Paris and the river. Paris, the Seine, and the value of what he had found there:

"To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Parisphoto: book cover where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you."

And in summing up, the author of 'The Secret Life of the Seine' expressed it this way:

"For all the beauty and drama of details that might be put to words, the power of the river is the spell it casts. Those who love it feel a part of something indescribable, a secret source for the soul. Monet and the expressionists did not define the Seine, or get beneath its surface. They simply helped us feel it for ourselves."

Amen to that.

All Rights Reserved ©2000 by Robert Forrest Burgess. Used with permission. Published by Available at all major bookstores or online. Visit the Web site of Robert Forrest Burgess for more information.
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