My One-Night Stand With Shakespeare
By Jennifer Coburn
Craving a little adventure in Paris, I wasn’t surprised to find myself engaged in a dirty little one-night stand with a crusty Englishman who had a way with words.
On the flight to Paris, my then 8-year-old daughter, Katie and I promised each other we’d put down the Frommer’s guide long enough to discover our own little adventure. Of course, we’d do the requisite climb up the Eifel Tower, ponder Mona Lisa’s smile and cruise the River Seine, but we also wanted to experience something off the beaten path.
I thought we’d hit pay dirt when Katie and I stumbled across a gospel choir singing in the San-Germain church. Soon I realized that French audiences don’t engage in the Baptist-style drama that’s half the fun of a gospel concert. There were no crazy hats. No fainting. People did not hold their hands in the air like spiritual satellite dishes, shouting their praise. They clapped politely, sometimes even to the beat, but when the choir leader urged the Parisian audience to “get down on the ground,” a woman scoffed, “Are you crazy, this is Chanel?”
Then I saw him standing on the Left Bank across from Notre Dame. On la Rue Bucherie at the edge of the Latin Quarter stood Shakespeare and Company, a 17th century monastery which now houses Europe’s largest collection of English language books.
New and used books lined every wall, cluttered, and haphazardly organized. A mirrored wall included photos of authors who had visited, including Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Allen Ginsberg. A cat snuggled in the corner under a cork board listing literary events and readings. It was a cozy haven that made me long for a pot of tea and thunderstorm.
Painted over a threshold of this three-story bibliophilic heaven were the words, “Be not inhospitable to strangers; lest they be angels in disguise.” Discreetly placed in the landscape was evidence that Shakespeare and Company lived this philosophy. Small cots, bedrolls, pillows and backpacks were tucked between bookshelves.
“Do people sleep here?” Katie asked the young woman at the front desk. She was about 20 with Betty Page bangs, a vintage dress and Doc Marten Mary Janes. I imagined her name was something like Prudence or Cleo.
In a posh British accent, Cleo explained that travelers were welcome to sleep at the bookstore if they worked a few hours during the day. These guests were endearingly called “Tumbleweeds” and could stay anywhere from a few nights to several months.
Tapping on her computer, Cleo continued, “Or, if you’re a writer, you can stay as our guest in the studio.”
“My mom’s a writer!” Katie exclaimed, standing on the toes of her Stride Rite sandals. “Google her.”
Katie’s face begged for the sleepover. I had to admit, it was just what the travel agent could not order.
“Check in is at midnight,” Cleo told us before returning to her work.
Guests of the Bard
Katie and I sat on a bench with a half-dozen disaffected youth with pierced faces and unnaturally black hair. Their stained canvas backpacks sported logos of bands with names like Blistered Anus. “Ouch,” Katie commented to the owner.
“They’re crap since they lost their drummer,” he commented sweetly.
In her pigtails and bedazzled tank top, Katie shrugged. “That can happen.”
A woman in her 30s and her young daughter knocked on the locked door apologizing for being late. Looking like characters from “Les Miserables,” the mother and barefoot Cosette explained they lost track of time in the Bastille Day festivities.
As we were shown to the Writer’s Studio, I had three thoughts about spending the night in the same bed where Henry James slept.
1) They haven’t changed the sheets since.
2) Katie’s bed is actually a yoga mat on top of a door that is resting on two file cabinets.
3) Andy Griffith looks awfully young on that box of Ritz crackers in the corner.
Before I describe the tornado of gnats that came from a hot water spigot, I should reiterate that we asked to stay at Shakespeare and Company. No one invited us or claimed we were checking into a five-star hotel. I’m glad we did it, but it is truly an experience for the young and broke.
We did not expect air conditioning at this historic landmark, but it would have been marvelous if the window opened more than six inches and weren’t situated directly above the trash receptacles. My beautiful Katie squealed with delight, “We have a view of Notre Dame!” I, on the other hand, just smelled hot garbage.
“Don’t touch a thing!” I warned Katie.
“Isn’t this the best, Mommy?”
After 15 minutes, I decided it was time to return to our hotel room. Adventure be damned, I needed room service.
I tried to wake Katie, but after a full day, Bastille Day, no less, she was down for the count.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The following morning, Quasimoto rang the bells of Notre Dame, jarring us both from our beds, or in Katie’s case, her door. Her face was covered with dirt, from what I dare not guess. Next to me were three fresh rodent turds.
Moments later we were racing through the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter where restaurant staff swept broken white plates from the night’s festivities.
When Katie and I returned to our hotel at 7:30 in the morning, Henri, our hotel concierge, couldn’t help tease. “Bon jour, madame et mademoiselle,” he sang, giving us the raised eyebrow once-over. It was then I caught my first glance of myself in the hotel lobby mirror. No wonder a homeless man muttered, “Poor dears” at the sight of us.
“I realize how this looks,” I said sheepishly. “We slept at a bookstore actually. It was all very innocent.”
“A bookstore?” he said, le chat who ate l’canary. “I see. That’s what they are calling it these days.”
“No, really, we slept at Shakespeare’s. Tell him Katie.” This was no morning after walk of shame. It was a race back to civilization.
Quickly, Henri held up his hand and shook his head, letting Katie know her explanation was not necessary. “Madame, you say want adventures in Paris.” Winking at me with approval, he nodded. “It looks like you got what you came for.”
Jennifer Coburn is the author of “Tales From the Crib” and three other novels. Visit jennifercoburn.com.