Why I Traveled Alone to Paris & Pamplona

Why I Traveled Alone to Paris & Pamplona


Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves dining and traveling by himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.

My copy of The Sun Also Rises is a 1970’s edition Charles Scribner’s Sons paperback, and is now, about a decade after I purchased it at the Strand in Manhattan, a pile of papers bound by a single paperclip. A lady named Carol P. Smith owned it before me—as evidenced by a cursive hand that runs across the inside cover. I return to it every summer and notice something new each time, whether it’s one of Carol’s margin notes (“homo-sexuals” on page 20; Lady Brett Ashley’s entrance with her posse of gays) or one of mine—a heart, an exclamation point, or a frowny face with a single tear, which later evolved into penciled-in words like “alcoholism,” “homosocial or homophobic?” and “racist.”

Mint condition.

Photo by Eric Kim

I remember finishing it for the very first time at a diner near campus. I ordered a coffee because at the time I wasn’t old enough to order a beer, let alone a Pernod or a whiskey soda like Jake, Brett, and the gang. (As an aside: I was convinced that this was the diner that Edward Hopper had based Nighthawks off of; according to Hopper, the painting “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet.” Guess where I was.)

I’m now convinced that this novel is the reason I picked up fishing, and also why I follow the San Fermín bull run every year—not for sport, but to try and catch that old rush of sadness and adrenaline I felt nearly a decade ago when, as a doe-eyed fan, I followed Ernest Hemingway to Paris and Pamplona.

It was summer, a few weeks before my birthday (Hemingway’s, too). I had never traveled alone before and thought that July would be the perfect month to change that by heading to Paris by myself, after which I’d meet my friends in Pamplona, Spain for the fiesta. Backpack and tattered novel in tow (my travel guide for the month), I set out, clutching an envelope with all the cash I had saved waiting tables that year.

No matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde.

E. Hemingway

When I first landed in Paris, I took the Métro straight to the youth hostel where I had booked a single bed (one of four in a tiny, dimly-lit room). It was the cheapest I could find that was still in a fun neighborhood with lots of restaurants and bars—plus a bakery where I picked up cheese and a warm baguette for dinner at 6 o’clock every evening for the rest of that week. (This helped my food budget considerably.)

That wasn’t part of the plan. On my first night I tried to get dinner at a café around 5, only to be told by the waiter he didn’t serve until 7:30. “C’est bien,” I said and ordered an aperitif while I waited. It was orange and cloying, and I hated it. Sitting outside at a circular table for one, I smoked a cigarette, read a chapter or two of my book, and people-watched. At around 6 I noticed a throng of locals, who I assumed were on their way home from work, walking out of the bakery across the street with baguettes hanging out of their bags. One guy had two—one in his bag like the others, and one in his hand. He was biting off huge chunks from it, and I couldn’t help but notice how it didn’t disintegrate into a thousand brittle pieces like American baguettes do.

I looked at my watch: It was 7:30. The waiter walked over and I ordered a couple things, although I had no idea what they were. Even now, as I’m flipping through the Moleskin journal I had filled with notes from that trip, I can’t quite piece together what the dishes were. The first sounded like some kind of liver (“Very flavorful. But has a hint of grape-flavored candy…or soda.”) and the second like a dense, salty lasagna (“Corsican-style,” 20-year-old me wrote). All I know for sure is that the check came back and I was devastated.

Be more careful with money,” the day’s entry read.

The next morning I took the train to Boulevard Montparnasse, where most of Hemingway’s cafés are still running to this day. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about traveling alone to Paris, it’s that you should lean into the city’s café culture, because it’s designed for people like us. Novel in hand like a paper map, I followed this passage to a T:

I went out onto the sidewalk and walked down toward the Boulevard St. Michel, passed the tables of the Rotonde, still crowded, looked across the street at the Dome, its tables running out to the edge of the pavement. Some one waved at me from a table, I did not see who it was and went on. I wanted to get home. The Boulevard Montparnasse was deserted. Lavigne’s was closed tight, and they were stacking the tables outside the Closerie des Lilas. I passed Ney’s statue standing among the new-leaved chestnut-trees in the arc-light. There was a faded purple wreath leaning against the base. I stopped and read the inscription: from the Bonapartist Groups, some date; I forget. He looked very fine, Marshal Ney in his top-boots, gesturing with his sword among the green new horse-chestnut leaves. My flat was just across the street, a little way down the Boulevard St. Michel.

I made it to St. Michel and tried to imagine which of the little flats was his. I couldn’t find Ney, so I walked back past the Closerie des Lilas into a bookstore and asked the clerk for help. She drew a map for me, and I was able to find it. I must’ve stood in front of that lonely statue for an hour, at the time not even knowing what it was or what it meant. All I know is that it made me burst into tears. Nothing makes you feel the weight of history more than reading a novel you love in the city where it’s set.

Hemingway’s cafés: Le Select, La Closerie des Lilas, and La Rotonde.

Photo by , Eric Kim

I decided to have lunch at Le Select, where Jake and Brett meet their friends after kissing in a cab in Chapter 4, and where we’re first introduced to Harvey Stone, one of the novel’s most solitary characters, in Chapter 6. As I sat at one of the tables outside (unshaven like Harvey), I thought how fancy it must be to take cabs so easily in a city like this. Later I’d realize how lucky I was to not have that kind of cash: I ended up seeing so much more because I had to walk and train everywhere, and when I wasn’t walking or training, I was sitting in cafés, watching passersby and eavesdropping on peoples’ conversations.

I ordered an omelet and a café crème and sat reading my book. A man roughly my age asked if the seat next to me was taken; I said no. He was handsome and decidedly not French (I’d later learn that Rodrigo was from Mexico). I noticed how many open seats there were all around us—he had chosen the one right next to me. I watched him jot poetry in his journal out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t dare ask to read it, but in my head, it was either a limerick or an 18-syllable haiku. In the most cinematic version of this story, it was a rock opera about two gay men who meet in a foreign city, say goodbye for ten years, and find each other again by accident (the clincher is that their mutual friends, whom they didn’t know they shared, were trying to set them up all along).

In the end, after Rodrigo paid his tab, he gave me his number on a napkin, smiled, and walked down Montparnasse toward the Ney statue. Later that week, I’d call him and we’d get drinks with three American girls who were in Paris for the summer.

The rest of my time here was much like this, over and over. I’d go somewhere alone (Sacré-Cœur, Tuileries, Notre-Dame) and end up meeting someone new, another solo traveler who wasn’t particularly looking for company, but didn’t mind it. It made me feel less alone knowing that so many others had the same idea to brave a brand new city, and to leave themselves vulnerable enough to trust a stranger on the street, and even spend the day with them. Maybe it was just luck, but I found it very difficult to ever truly be alone in Paris. At the time, it was exactly what I needed.

On my last day, I decided to treat myself to a day at the Louvre, after which I had lunch at a restaurant nearby called Le Fumoir. It was probably one of my favorite meals in Paris. The dish reminded me of a small moment in Hemingway’s novel when Robert Cohn “shoved the sliced cucumbers away and took a pickled herring.” I’d always wondered what pickled herring tasted like.

Sherry-pickled herrings over cucumber cream and spiced bread.

Photo by Eric Kim

After, I ordered crème brûlée at a small café by a bike stand and drank my weight in whiskey sodas at the Closerie. Somehow I made it back to the hostel to pack and catch my flight to Pamplona, where my friends were waiting for me.

At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded. There is no other way to describe it.

E. Hemingway

If Paris was a break from reality, Pamplona was a full-on confrontation of it. The Festival of San Fermín is an annual celebration that starts at noon on July 6 and lasts for a week. One million people come from all over the world for this party—the biggest one of the year. Its roots are religious, but it’s possible no one actually attends it for that reason. Even so, I regretted that my friends—Mike, Dan, Kevin, Other Kevin, and Jeremy—and I arrived two days too late to see the procession of the centuries-old Saint Fermín statue wind its way through old Pamplona.

Speaking of the streets, walking through the narrow lanes of Pamplona means pushing your way through large sweaty crowds and getting wine poured on yourself every couple of minutes. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when your shoes stick to the cobblestone with each step, spilled wine and debauchery all around. Eventually, we each found a bottle of supermarket sangria, changed into the week’s wardrobe of all-white with red bandanas, and joined in the festivities.

Our hostel in Pamplona was run by a British man, so we had the safety net of an English-speaking travel group we’d meet once in a while in the square. We even met Hemingway’s grandson one time; I don’t remember much of that meeting because we’d been up all night, only half-awake—and there was a swarm of girls around him. That’s the other part of the fiesta: No one sleeps. All week long I felt like a surgical intern, sleeping when and where I could (though not between the hours of 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., because that’s when the marching bands are parading down the streets and everyone is partying).

Not everything was fun and games. Perhaps the most difficult part of this leg of the trip was the racism we saw and felt from the fiesta-goers (most of us were Asian, one of us black). We couldn’t go anywhere without someone catcalling “CHINO!” at us, stretching their eyes sideways with their fingers. One man followed us around the square like that, walking stilted like a penguin, while his friends cackled from afar.

I’ve never felt more Asian than when I was in Pamplona.

At first I was so disturbed by instances like this that I couldn’t shake it. Even now, as I’m poring over old emails and journal entries from this period of my life to write this column, I realize how many of these details I’ve worked hard to omit from my memory. It says a lot about how memory navigates painful events (or disappointments) to preserve the self. I suppose that’s why we write things down, so we can revisit the past and make sense of it when we’re ready.

As each day bled into the next, my friends and I started embedding ourselves into the fiesta and chatting more and more with strangers. We learned that many of the tourists in Pamplona had just never seen Asian people before. (Why else would so many of them want to take a picture with us?)

In the end, there were even a few conciliatory moments.

The same guy who shouted ching-chong and ting-tong noises at us earlier in the week would later come up to me in the square and put his arm around me.

“Hey, don’t drink that stuff. It’s s—t,” he said in Spanish, knocking the $3 supermarket sangria out of my hand and holding out his flask. “Have this.”

I took a sip. Bourbon.

“Good, huh?”

The best part of San Fermín is, of course, the running of the bulls. Every morning at 7, anyone over 18 can meet in the town square to section off. At 8, they release about six male bulls, and everyone bolts. The runners get a head start, but even so there are casualties every year. One day, my friends mustered up the courage to run (Kevin and I were too chicken, so we watched from the sidelines). Unfortunately—or fortunately—Mike, Dan, Other Kevin, and Jeremy couldn’t find the square in time and were kicked off the course (or at least that’s what they told us later). A part of me wonders if they all just mutually agreed to “lose their way.”

Kevin and I were separated from the herd, so we decided to wait for them at the finish line. The run meanders through the city and ends in the main rink, where all of the runners (or at least the ones who make it) can catch their breath. It’s an incredible space, where thousands of people wait in the stands, applauding the runners for making it there alive. To this day I remember it as one of the most emotional spectacles of my life; I cried after the bulls ran through the rink and into the stables because I was afraid for all the people down there. I saw so many near-death gores. Hemingway did say, though, that the whole thing (especially the bullfights later) is easier to see if you don’t look at it as a spectacle, but rather as a controlled event, something with a beginning and an end.

Overall, though my time in Pamplona certainly felt like an emotional nod to Hemingway’s novel, the town was, by then, a diluted version of its old self. As a fan looking for authenticity, I was disappointed to learn that even the famous Café Iruña, that the Lost Generation once frequented, was blotted by a huge, ghastly awning with the words “Hemingway’s Corner” printed across it. How naive could I be to expect Pamplona in the 21st century to look anything like Hemingway’s Pamplona in 1926?

It was then that I realized something: In the act of memorializing the past and trying to shore it into the present, what happens is that we will be, inevitably, let down.

It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.

E. Hemingway

It was only once I put my book down that I was able to craft a more authentic narrative of this historic city. A more personal one that I could claim as my own. For the rest of the trip, the novel stayed back at the apartment (where it was able to keep its spine for a few more days despite all the thrashing and wine spills it endured in the streets). Hands freed up, I slowly began to develop a taste for Pamplona that was mine and mine alone, one that has admittedly aged and sweetened over the years, even today as I flip through old journal entries about how disappointed I was in Hemingway’s Europe.

In Requiem for a Nun, Gavin Stevens says to Temple, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We dwell on these words and like to tell ourselves that time is flat because that comforts us. But as far as I’m concerned, the Pamplona Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises just isn’t there anymore. Even his cafés in Paris are now tourist traps with hiked-up prices and rubbery omelets, akin to the chain restaurants in Times Square.

And yet, what if Pamplona were a beautiful experience where I made new friends and learned a thousand things about humanity—and, even better, about myself? What if traveling to Paris years ago and sitting at all those cafes alone for hours, reading and writing and thinking, made me who I am today? What if the whole thing was a little terrible, too, but it changed my life anyway?

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

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