The Boulevard St Germaine in Montparnasse was at one time the intellectual hub of Europe. Sartre and Beauvoir gave birth to existentialism amidst a haze of Gitane smoke in the venerated cafés of Les Deaux Magot and Le Cafe Flore, whilst Hemingway amongst others penned some of his masterpieces here. Obviously it would be a great place to spy out would be philosophers, so I trudged off to do my Lonely Planet sightseeing duty.
It may once have been the centre of bohemian culture, but it would be hard to find a place further removed from the left wing or radical now. The boulevard is lined with such rebellious institutions as Versace, Tiffanys, and Dolce & Gabbana. The women sitting outside the hallowed walls of the cafés drank copious amounts of Bolly and looked about as radical as Ivana Trump. On my third walk past I finally braved the raised eyebrows of the tuxedoed waiter and went inside, where I stood for a few minutes waiting for someone to realise I was a customer rather than the dishwasher, and seat me. Finally I was summarily dismissed with a wave in the general direction of a wall seat. I crept over, trying to make myself as small and insignificant as possible (difficult when you are lugging a pack the size of Mt Vesuvious and wearing hiking boots) and went to pull out a seat. Which is when I came face to face with left over bohemian man - hereafter known as LOB.
LOB sat facing out into the café, in a seat which has obviously been his for the last ten years - or at least he would like to give that impression. He wore an extremely well cut white shirt which might even have been silk, with a paisley cravat (a cravat! For Chrissake) and wire rimmed glasses. Courdoray trousers, of course, and fine leather shoes. He had various papers in front of him - Le Monde, Figaro, and a couple of serious looking tomes peeking out of his carefully worn leather satchel. As I went to lower myself in my customary dainty fashion onto the seat next to him, he looked me carefully up and down before fixing me with a glare which told me in no uncertain terms that I was in the Wrong Part Of the Café, and should find a place more suited to my station. Like the dishwasher. I sat down anyway. Fuck 'em.
It was then I realised that the place was full of them. It was as if these men had gotten dressed in 1965 and never taken the clothes off. Not only that, but by the looks of the papers and books spread around on the tables, these guys still actually think they are at the cutting edge of bohemian intellectualism, as if there could be nothing more radical, man, than hanging out in a café in the most expensive road in Paris reading a newspaper and talking to other LOBs about the time Sartre farted in their general direction. Even more sad, there were up and coming LOBs, young guys dressed in black and practising their sneering stares, drinking espresso and trying to read philosophy whilst they waited in panting expectation for the day when they, too, would qualify for a wall seat.
It made the posers in the Pere Lachaise Cemetiere look positively laid back.
I finished my drink (8 bloody euros) and got the hell out of there. What I know about existentialism, Sartre, Beauvoir, or indeed anything of the sort could fit into a teacup, but after that little excursion, I don't figure I'm missing much.
Interestingly, the artists' community in Montmartre seems to have retained much of what has been lost in the philosopher's corner of Montparnasse. They are still broke, still painting, and still smiling. The cafés might be surrounded by seedy sex shops, but they are cheap, smoky, and friendly. I wander up there quite a bit (nothing to do with the sex shops, truly) and wonder if the funky atmosphere exists because the artists spend their time actually producing something tangible, rather than contemplating the sagging folds of their navels? Just a thought.
We are looking forward to moving on after the weekend. I should almost have got to the Louvre by then.