By Ellen Zunon
During my student days many years ago I spent a summer in Paris studying French; since then it has always been my dream to return there for a few weeks, and perhaps to write some short stories set in my favorite spots around the City of Light.
In “The Writer’s Paris,” Eric Maisel suggests taking a day now and then to practice for a writing retreat in Paris, spending the day writing in cafés or public squares in your hometown.
In this way, if you ever do have a chance to spend some time in Paris just writing, you’ll know what to do. On a recent day off from my day job, I decided to do just that -- practice for Paris.
I left my house for the bus stop at my usual time, my word processor disguised in my plastic lunch bag, planning to get off the bus near a local coffee shop. As luck would have it, a friend was on the bus, with a selection of the 400 photos she had taken during her recent vacation in India.
I oohed and aahed over the few snapshots I studied, and mumbled something about doing an errand before work as I got off the bus way before my usual stop. Step One of my plan involved writing in the café for an hour before taking the bus to the park. I sat at a table with my mocha frappacino and chocolate croissant. But before I could take out my notebook and pen, I noticed a man with pad and pen seated at a nearby table.
He seemed to be furtively glancing around at the other coffee drinkers and taking notes. Was I being targeted by a fellow writer, objectified in red ink on a yellow legal pad? My Muse was not amused. Too embarrassed to pull out my own notebook, I finished my coffee and looked for a bus to the park.
Stepping off the bus, I walked down a quiet street to the park where I used to fish for sunfish as a kid. The red-winged blackbirds were just as I remembered from my childhood. The silence was broken only by the whirring of locusts and the mating calls of two dueling bullfrogs among the cattails -- until a chainsaw joined the chorus from the other side of the pond.
My Muse was not amused. I moved to another bench where I enjoyed a few minutes of sunshine before looking for the next bus. Finally, after an early lunch at another café, I sought out a carrel at the public library. One would think that the local public library would be a nice, quiet place to work.
But no such luck today; behind my carrel was a shelf that the library volunteers had chosen to reorganize. They were not using their quiet voices. And nearby, a mother and her pre-schooler were bickering about whether Pokemon or Spiderman was the better choice for a video to check out. My Muse was not amused. Would the university library be any quieter? I wondered.
As I gathered up my things to leave, the student volunteers were arguing about whether it was better to stay in high school, or drop out and get a GED. “Stay in school,” I wanted to shout out loud. Another short bus ride took me to the university library, where my husband and I had gone on study dates years earlier.
The murals and stained glass windows installed during the 1920’s created a soothing atmosphere conducive to study. I headed for a table under a stained glass panel with the Latin inscription “Post bellum nefandum pax”: “After an unmentionable war, Peace.” Just before I sat down, I caught sight of a sign near the circulation desk that said, “Please excuse the noise. A construction project begun on Monday will continue for several weeks.”
Sure enough, I soon heard a racket of sawing and hammering. My Muse was not amused. I could go on, but you get the picture. Next time I take a day off to write, I’ll do some reconnoitering ahead of time to help me plan my day. I’ll ask myself: What’s my style, noisy or quiet, solitude or anonymous crowd? Indoors or outdoors? A shady bench in the park may be just the thing.
On a different day, I discovered a perfect little park behind City Hall where government workers lunched quietly among the flowerbeds. I sat at a picnic table behind a burbling fountain where sparrows sipped and chirped. Hardly anybody noticed I was there, so I was free to read and write for as long as I liked. If you need to do research, a library may be your best bet; just steer clear of story hour if you would find it too distracting. Or if you’re one of those lucky people who have a laptop with a wireless card, you might want to skip the library and go to a café or bookstore with free wireless access.
You may even find your equivalent of the Café des Deux Magots or Café de Flore, where the existentialist crowd used to hang out. I may not get to Paris this year, or even next year. But when I do arrive in the City of Light, after all my practice I’ll know what to do. There’s an empty bench in the Luxembourg Garden, just waiting for me, near the fountain where the children sail all their sailboats.
Writer Ellen Zunon has taught English as a Second Language in the U.S., France and Cote d'Ivoire. She now hangs her hat in Guilderland, New York.