Perhaps never in the history of literature was there a time and place more magical for a writer than Paris in the 1920's. Rents were affordable, cafes to write in plentiful, and the concentration of literary talent that gathered in the city of lights will most likely never be equaled. Ernest Hemingway chronicled this period in his terrific autobiography, A Moveable Feast, in which we see him running around with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, and many others. Ever since, writers the world over have longed to recreate that type of intellectual and cultural scene.
Sadly, the actual Paris of the 1920's is obviously long gone. Rents are astronomical now, for one thing, and the last time I visited a few years ago, a 10-ounce coke in sidewalk cafe cost the equivalent of roughly eight dollars. Besides that, cafes are no longer so writer-friendly. I had one waitress shoo me off as soon as my eight dollar coke was gone. Forget about lingering over your laptop.
When the iron curtain first fell in the early 1990's, there was much talk that Prague was the new Paris of the 20's. Prague was cheap, and you could linger in cafes all day. There was an excitement as well about going to this place that had been more or less off limits to Westerners for so long. Thousands of Americans flocked there. I visited myself, sleeping on the floor at the apartment of an English-teaching friend. The only thing missing from this potential writer's paradise were successful writers. As far as I am aware, Prague of the 1990's produced no Hemingway's or Joyce's. In fact, I can't name one famous writer who was there at the time, though I suspect some must exist.
By now any claim to the mantle that Prague may have enjoyed has long since faded. In fact, it seems to have proven the point that Paris of the 20's will never be recreated. That hasn't stopped me and many others from searching, however. There are still great cities in Eastern Europe that are cheap, with atmospheric cafes where you can lounge all afternoon over a coffee and take in the old world charm as you tap away at the keyboard. So far I've spent months at a time in quite a few of them, including Tallinn, Estonia, Lviv, Ukraine and Budapest, Hungary. All three have much to recommend them and my time in each has been highly rewarding. I've made some good friends that I plan to go back to visit this summer. The only thing I've never quite been able to find is that community of ex-pat writers. These days, community for a writer means online forums. There is much to be said for that, too, don't get me wrong but even so, I'll still never stop yearning, or searching, for my own Paris of the 1920's...