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Paris: AN ISLAND OF THE MIND : Everyone wanted an island so an island is what they got

October 19, 1986|HERB GOLD | Gold is a novelist who makes his home in San Francisco. and

Within France, there is an unofficial district called the Ile-de-France where Paris grew. Despite its name, the Ile-de-France is not really an island but rather a state-of-mind island about 50 miles around Paris. The French here decided that they really wanted to be an island, and there were so many rivers--the Seine, the Oise, the Our the Aisne, the Marne--and the psychic state was so determined that everyone believed that Ile-de- France was a geographic island and still does. At the same time, the Ile-de-France thought it was coach and captain of logic, cuisine and correct pronunciation of language.

At first the French neglected to notice that there were some authentic islands. In the body of Paris, lapped on all sides by the Seine, is the Ile de la Cite, with municipal buildings and the lovely Place Dauphine--perhaps it should be called the nerve center of Paris--and then alongside, there is another place that might be defined as the secret heart of Paris. The Ile Saint-Louis is an island of the mind and spirit, although the actual lymph and alert nerves of Parisians thread through it, along with the minimum traffic that crosses its bridges. The Ile-de-France, with its long, passionate history, exists in the real world. Maybe.

An island prime, an island within the island of the Ile-de-France, floating in time and space across a footbridge on the shady side of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, the Ile Saint-Louis may also be the most ambiguous orphan island there is--city and not city, village and metropolis, provincial and centrally urban, serene and hyped by hundreds of years of noisy lovers of solitude. Unique it is, possessed of itself, even self-congratulatory, yet available to all who choose to stroll from the population sink of contemporary Paris to a place that has no Metro stop or depressed highway. One could live there forever and do it in a short span of time, and I did.

Just after World War II, I came to study philosophy amid the existentialists of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The first winter was bitter cold, with food rationing and no heat, and we philosophers--that is, admirers of Juliette Greco with her long nose, hoarse voice, black jeans and sweaters--had to find cafes to do our deep thinking in.

In existential pursuit of the largest cafe au lait and most tooth-rotting but warming chocolate, I bought a bicycle to widen my field of operations, showing a certain Cleveland shrewdness by paying $8 for the rustiest, most battered bicycle I could find so that I could leave it unlocked. Upwardly mobile bicycle thieves could not even see such heroic war-torn wheelcraft; their dreams were aimed at higher prizes.

Behind Notre Dame, across the narrow footbridge of the Pont Saint-Louis, on the tranquil Ile Saint-Louis, which did little business and did it negligently, I leaned my bike against a cafe that served large coffees, rich chocolate and few customers. I remember it as Aux Alsaciennes, because it served Alsatian sausage, corned beef and cabbage, choucroute garnie at lunchtime; but for many years, now that the place has been discovered, it has been called the Brasserie de Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile.

Somehow, here I couldn't think about Bergson and Diderot and the hyphen between them, a little-known idea-smith named Maine de Biran, my thesis. Maybe it was the action of pumping a rusty bicycle; maybe it was the red-faced waiters, the black-dressed postwar girls with bruised eyes and green skin; but on the Ile Saint-Louis I graciously allowed the history of philosophy to continue on its way without me. My bike had no carrier for books; instead, I could stick a notebook under the seat. While warming myself at Aux Alsaciennes, I began to write a novel.

Nearly two years later, when the stationery-store lady wrapped the package for mailing to the Viking Press, she figured out what it was and gave it a sharp slap, crying out, " Merde !" I was startled because I thought I knew what that word meant and took it as a judgment of my coffee-and- choucroute -fueled 18-month creative frenzy, but she explained that it meant good luck ! (The book, "Birth of a Hero," about a Resistance hero who happened to be stuck all his life in Cleveland, was published. I went home to Cleveland to buy the 3-cent stamp with my picture on it, but they were still / Continued Continued / using George Washington. I like that first novel now mostly because it instructed me that I had the right to do it.)

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