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Drink Deeply

June 27, 2010

Here’s the text of my presentation on Papa’s Planet yesterday. Enjoy.

My name is David Frey, and I’m a freelance writer working on a book  tentatively called Papa’s Planet: An Ernest Exploration of the Places Hemingway Lived and Loved.

I’ve been in Europe for the past three weeks doing something I imagine many of you have done in some form or another. In fact, I guess we’re all here doing it right now: walking in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway. My abundantly patient girlfriend Cristina and I have tromped through Hemingway bathrooms in Paris and empty fields in Italy. Next we’re off to Spain to do the requisite run with the bulls.

It’s part of a trip to explore how these places have changed since Hemingway’s day. To see what Hemingway can tell us about these places, and what these places can tell us about Hemingway. I’ve found myself drawn to Hemingway through place. Hemingway’s places led me to the writer. The writer led me to the tragic puzzle of a man: a Chablis-swishing great white hunter with a thing for housecats. Here was a man born in the waning days of the 19th century, an age of exploration succumbing to machine modernity, who seemed ill fit when the world turned to Technicolor. Hemingway killed himself before the Sixties became the decade of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and Vietnam. He lived and died before the cultural drift that still rips the country apart. So in Ernest Hemingway, there’s something we can all claim. He was a freedom-loving, communist-loving, red-white-and-blue, gun-toting nature lover who almost assuredly ate quiche.

I wondered if seeing the world through Hemingway’s eyes might help close our own wounds. I also wondered if it might find a way for Americans, who have insulated ourselves so much from the rest of the world, to open ourselves up to it. Here was a man who fled the Midwest and became an American at home in a globe of melting borders. When he encountered foreign lands and foreign cultures, he drank deep – literally and figuratively. Hemingway sought out the wild corners of the world – places becoming less wild every day. This book is less elegy, though, than it is a celebration of the beauty that remains.

“Chasing yesterdays is a bum show,” Hemingway said, and he was right.

So I travel asking, who is the new “lost generation” in Paris? What is the new World War front in Italy? What’s happened to the Snows of Kilimanjaro?

So first, let’s go to Paris…

You don’t have to look far in St. Germain to find a place of interest to the Hemingway aficionado. There’s the clothing store where Shakespeare & Company used to be. Nearby is Hemingway’s old sawmill apartment. It’s gone now, too. So is the sawmill. It’s all been replaced by a modern apartment building with a no parking sign flashing like a disco light: “Jour et nuit.”

To talk about everything that’s gone, though, makes it sound like nothing is there at all, when in fact, St. Germain de Pres is one of the most attractive spots in Paris, for all the reasons Hemingway loved it, except for the rents. The streets are tiny and quiet, lined by stately white buildings. Although the horses have been replaced by squat little Smarts and Fiats, these streets must look much the same as they did then, with flowers arranged neatly on tiny iron balconies beneath open white shutters.

Eighty-nine years on, it’s easy to see why Hemingway loved this place. The Place de la Contrescarpe, around the corner from his first Paris apartment, still has all the ingredients a sheltered corner in Paris should have. A boulangerie. A charcuterie. A market. A couple bistros outlined by wicker chairs.

A moped passes by. A bicycle. A bubble-shaped delivery truck. Even here in the midst of the tourist-trodden Latin Quarter, real life goes on, just as it had on a December day when Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley first dragged their trunks up the coiled stairway that led them to their third-floor apartment, a two-room cold-water flat with no toilet, but, he said, “ a fine view, a good mattress … and pictures we liked on the walls.”

If it doesn’t look exactly the way it looked when Hemingway was here, it mostly looks the way it could have looked when Hemingway was here, if you take away the Haagen-Daz sign and the plaque marking Hemingway’s former home.

A splash of water at my feet shakes me back to the 21st century as the woman at the restaurant beside me tosses a bucket of soapy water on the sidewalk, maybe in part to chase away the neighbor’s cat, maybe to shoo me away, too. Hemingway’s “good view” was of a horse butcher and a wine co-op. Now it’s a couple restaurants.

“A Moroccan restaurant,” the man at Le Chalet de l’Olivier informs me as I a poke my head in.

“That’s the real lost generation,” Simon Njami tells me.

If you’re looking for the new Hemingway, Njami is a decent contender. He’s an expatriate writer living in Paris, in a bohemian neighborhood filled with people who have more money than they admit. “It’s bo-bo,” Njami tells me. “Boujeous Bohemian.” He’s a novelist and an essayist. He even enjoys hanging out at La Closerie. But, he says, he telephones first to make sure the tourists have gone.

Njami’s family hails from Cameroon, although he was born right here in Lausanne, Switzerland. He’s part of a wave of immigrants from west and north Africa who have come to call Paris home in the decades since World War Two, even if the French struggle to call them French. To be French has always meant to be from France. How do you deal with someone who lives in France but isn’t from there? It’s hardest on the children, Njami says. They were born in France. Their homeland is a place they’ve never known. Still, they don’t fit into French society, and they aren’t welcomed in Africa.

“They call them Afro-politan,” Njami says. Too Paris cosmopolitan to fit in back in Africa.

“This is the true lost generation,” he says, “because they are in between.”

This new group of expatriates can still be found in Hemingway’s old haunts, Njami says. Only now, they’re found working in the kitchen.

That’s it for Paris. Now, on to Italy…

The Piave River runs deep and green across northern Italy, from its source amid the snows of the Dolomites to the Adriatic Sea. Across most of that terrain it passes through farmland, vineyards and vegetables, as it has throughout the memory of the people who live here, and they have a long memory.

“You think it’s deep now,” Mario tells me. “It was much deeper before World War One.”

“What happened after World War One,” I ask.

“It was diverted,” he says. “For farms and factories.”

This is the landscape where Ernest Hemingway first experienced Europe. A metal plaque marks the spot where he was injured on the banks of the Piave. I can’t help but wonder if some European dust got into his veins and kept drawing him forever back to its source. If the legend is true, Hemingway was struck by mortar fragments and dragged two Italian soldiers to safety before he was treated for his wounds. He was the lucky one. Some 3,000 soldiers died protecting the town of Fossalta di Piave. A belltower in their honor towers over the town now, easily seen from the riverbank.

In a little café, a photo hangs of five Italian men, young and mustachioed, posing in their starched uniforms before heading out to the front lines. The woman behind the counter tells me the men were from her husband’s family.

“How many were killed in the war?” I ask, in my own mishmash of Italian and English.

“Tutti,” she tells me. All of them.

I tell Mario about that photo as he drives Cristina and me through the Venetto. “They were all poor people,” he says.

Everybody here was. Mario mother was born in this area, so starved from a diet of polenta, polenta and polenta that the doctor wrote a simple prescription for her mother. “This girl needs to eat.”

The son of that starving little girl is a product of the new Italy. He is a master sommelier and cheese taster in training as a salami taster, with a preference for the foods of this region. With his wife Rachel, a Cleveland, Ohio refugee, Mario runs Italia by Design, a travel company that specializes in gastronomic excursions throughout the region. During World War I, this farmland was a battleground against the advancing forces of the world. It still is.

Facing competition from global competitors offering supermarket prices, producers here are fighting to bring consumers to their farms in hopes local can still beat out global. Mario is an adherent of a new movement in Italy called “Zero Kilometer,” seeking to do for farmers what the Slow Food movement, also born in Italy, has done for food. It’s a movement to encourage consumers to buy directly from the farmers, cutting out the middlemen.

He brings us to Da Ottavio, a little restaurant in a farmhouse in the hills where Austro-Hungarian troops made their headquarters back in Hemingway’s day. Graziano and Martina make their living here and raise their two boys here. The vineyards produce the restaurant’s Prosseco. The farm produces the vegetables. The pigs in the back will be next year’s sausage. Martina brings us heaping portions of thinly-sliced ham, handmade pasta with meat sauce, homemade bread, polenta with grilled cheese, and fresh pastries, all washed down with generous quantities of sparkling wine.

“I was born here,” Martina says. “Graziano was born here. So we like the food from here and we continue to have the mentality that was given to us from our parents. This is the continuity of the tradition. For us it’s natural.”

Globalization also threatens nearby Venice, where traditional Murano glassmakers face cheap Chinese knockoffs, often being sold next door to their factories. “The Chinese, they make it very, very cheap and they’re invading the market,” says Massimo Bottacin, who works at Gino Mazzuccato’s glass shop. “Not just in Murano glass but everything. Globalization is the problem.”

Ironic words in a city that has been at the edge of global trade and geopolitics for centuries. It was from here, after all, that Marco Polo ventured to China in the first place. Maybe he should have stayed home.

Travel writer Rick Steves paints a grim picture of Venice’s future. “The culture is dying,” Steves writes. “Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades, Venice will not be a city at all but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland.” It’s hard on the tourists, too. Follow Hemingway’s footsteps into Harry’s American bar and you’ll drop 15 Euros for the privilege of downing a Bellini in the drink’s birthplace.

It is, however, a magical Disneyland. Gondoliers still ply the canals past the former homes of Casanova and Vivaldi. Cristina and I buy tickets for a chamber orchestra playing The Four Seasons, and while it may be the 840th season that The Four Seasons has been performed in Venice, it is the first time we have heard The Four Seasons in Venice, and Venice is a city for first experiences presented over and over again. When we walk out of the old church where the concert was held, the Piazza de San Marco is illuminated with white lights, the café orchestras taking turns playing dance music for the few tourists who remain in town after dark.

Cristina and I grip each other’s hands and sway back and forth to the music.

“Sing to me,” she says.

“I don’t know all the words,” I say.

“Sing to me.”

I whisper the tune in her ear. “I think to myself, what a wonderful world,” I sing. “I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Hemingway has left us plenty of lessons, but this is one of the most enduring: embrace the world, its people and its cultures. Right now. Live them. Love them. When necessary, fight for them. But above all else, take the world and drink it deeply.