Essays

Paris Once Again

Recalling a return visit during the before times

By Andrew Hudgins | February 19, 2022
Flickr/mustangjoe
Flickr/mustangjoe

Before we retired, I promised my wife we would do all the traveling we had put on hold while working. But ye gods and little fishes, there’s nothing like a global pandemic to subvert such happily assumed obligations. Erin and I were forced to cancel a jaunt to Toulouse and Marseilles and twice postpone a trip to London. But back in 2017, freshly ensconced on Social Security and Medicare, we did enjoy a trip to Paris to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. Luckily, I kept a diary of that trip, so we can again ramble those streets in memory and imagination if not on foot.

May 2, 2017. A couple of hours after Erin and I got settled into our rental apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, our friend, the poet Danny Anderson, burst through the door shouting, “Macron is up by five, bitches!” Danny flew in from Oregon to vacation with us, and for months we’d emailed back and forth about the French election, which would take place on Sunday. Because the three of us were so horrified by Trump’s election in the States, we had, perhaps credulously, embraced Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against the nationalist and racist Marine Le Pen as a surrogate redemption.

Wholly out of synch with time, we each took an Ambien and went to bed to rest up for the eating, walking, and museuming ahead, and for me the plunge into the past. I had last been in Paris 52 years ago, when I was 14, and my father was stationed at Camp des Loges, an army base outside the city. Now I was warily eager to see a world I had marveled at in adolescence.

May 3, 2017. In the morning, the three of us walked over to the Luxembourg Gardens, pulled up some chairs and, on this overcast and slightly chilly morning, watched the pigeons, some so large they seemed almost spherical as they waddled over the dry grass. Across from us sat a beautifully dressed old man—blue suit, blue beret, white shirt, silver tie, long white hair. He was sitting with a much younger Black woman wearing an orange headscarf.

Suddenly he shoved her, and as she tilted in her seat, he snatched the newspaper she was sitting on, turned his back, and started tearing the pages into quarters. She reached around him and snatched the paper back. A minute passed. He reached for the paper, she slapped his hands away, and after winning a vigorous game of pattycake, he tore the paper into large, jagged pieces, stuffed them into his right suit pocket, the one furthest from her, and with triumphal finality, smacked flat the wodge of paper.

As they left, the woman gave him a reassuring or affectionate pat on the shoulder, and Danny said about the caregiver, “That is a woman who is not being paid enough.”

May 4, 2017. To beat the crowds, we skipped breakfast, and hoofed it over to the Musée d’Orsay to see “Landscape and the Transcendent.” There were many lovely things to ponder, but two Monet haystacks—one in sunlight and one in snow—knocked me sideways with wonderment. The reproductions I’ve seen never captured how alive with light the paintings are, and how gloriously they depict an otherworldliness inherent in the world. At the end of a large and powerful exhibition, those small radiant masterpieces are almost the only works I remember.

Afterward, as Erin, Danny, and I approached the Pont Neuf, a cluster of kids descended, milling around us, shoving paper in our faces, cawing at us to sign their petitions. Danny yelled, “No, no, no,” while I managed a few hesitant “Nons.” Erin gripped her purse, Danny felt a hand on his pants pocket, and I got an exploratory thump on my chest, exactly where I’d zipped my wallet into an inside pocket of my jacket.

As a boy on these streets, I was never pickpocketed, probably because even the densest dip could see I had only coins in my pockets. But once, a short, unshaven man in a blue wool coat rushed up and grabbed my sleeve, jabbering and gesticulating. What was going on? Did he need help? Finally, he threw up his arms and walked off, theatrically disgruntled with me. Only then did my friend Bill Tickle, laughing, explain the man was a pimp trying to lead me to his prostitute. I was horrified. And then abashed. This was Paris. There must be prostitutes everywhere.

After lunch the three of us wandered, following whatever caught our eye. I was flummoxed by a startling Asian-styled edifice and then more startled to realize it was the Bataclan, which looked like Grauman’s Chinese Theater swollen to Parisian proportions. This building was not what I had pictured when I had read of the terrorist massacre at a dance club that left hundreds wounded and around a hundred dead. We stood and stared silently, trying to muster the gravitas mass murder deserved, an impossible obligation.

May 5, 2017. Because it was raining, we decided to visit the catacombs, but the line was massive, so we backtracked to the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain and spent two lovely hours at a show about automobiles. I was haunted by an exhibit of evidence photographs from East German archives. Families captured trying to escape to the West were taken to a police warehouse and made to demonstrate their hiding places and positions in the getaway cars. The people’s crushed hope was palpable. The photos starkly captured their fear, humiliation, and resignation as they realized their dream of a freer life in the West was gone at the same time that they were cruelly forced to reenact their aborted pursuit of freedom as evidence for a trial in which evidence would play no part.  

Danny thought Parisian water disagreed with his stomach. When my family arrived in Paris in 1965, we were warned that Paris’s water system had not recovered from World War II. Following instructions, my mother kept a large, dangerous pot of water simmering at the back of the stove. But the streets were full of men and women who looked perfectly healthy to me. They obviously drank their own water, so I joined them at the tap. For about 48 hours, I had an unsettled stomach and a mild bout of diarrhea, a small price to pay to avoid drinking flat boiled water. But Danny was right. The tap water was still unpleasantly minerally.

Charming French cultural moment: out of the blue, Erin laughed. “What?” Just ahead of us on the sidewalk, a father held the hand of a girl, about five or six, and I start to pull the thread of their conversation back out of unapprehended memory—the little girl saying, bleu, camembert, Comté, before hesitating. In real time, the father said, “Ro …?” Then we were past, and behind me I heard the child sing out “Roquefort!” Erin, still chuckling, said, “She’s reciting the cheeses of France.”

May 7, 2015. This morning we strolled up the Boulevard Saint-Germain to see the famous tapestries at the Musée Cluny. In reproductions, they look flat, mannered, and symbol-ridden, clogged with tedious and antiquated heraldic signification. Though they are overtaxed with archaic purposes, that doesn’t matter. They are gloriously bright, the astonishing wool-and-silk weaving gives them depth, and at the non-esoteric level the mediations on the senses are rich and charming, and the lady, the lion, the unicorn, and the occasional monkey are marvelously expressive. Just as beautiful was the Roman bath. The frigidarium, the cooling area of the thermal bath, was a light-filled, ribbed vault, sunshine suffusing the masonry with a soft glow that was breathtaking.

From the Cluny, we walked over to Notre-Dame, where the lines to the towers stretched across the square, and I balked at the wait. At 14, I twice held my claustrophobia in abeyance long enough to climb the narrow medieval stairs to the top, scooching by people on the way up and down. Today, I was four inches taller, 45 pounds heavier, and no less claustrophobic, and I got the jim-jams imagining myself sidling through those constricted spirals.

Erin kept correcting me because I reflexively said francs instead of euros.

For election night, we stocked up on expensive food and Armagnac, with plans to stay up and watch the election returns. Macron was ahead in the polls, which gave us little comfort after how inaccurate the polls were in predicting Hillary Clinton to beat Trump. But we had been delighted that in every single Marine Le Pen poster that we’d seen, without exception, she sported a black toothbrush moustache. As soon as the polls closed, CNN declared Macron the winner by a crushing margin of 65 to 35 percent. After the crazy Brexit vote and the crazier election of Trump, this election felt like an assertion of sanity, and we celebrated gaudily, devouring a block of foie gras and several bottles of wine.

May 8, 2017. At Au Sauvignon, we ordered bowls of scrambled eggs to dampen our hangovers before taking the train to La Celle-Saint-Cloud. At Petit Beauregard, we ignored the “Private Property” signs and marched through the gate, interlopers on the streets where I lived when Petit Beauregard had been U.S. military housing and before that housing for Renault workers. A white-haired lady, elbows on the sill of her open window, tracked us suspiciously as I wandered around and pondered the squat, unadorned, practical apartment buildings, narrowing down to two or three possibilities the one my family had lived in.

Oddly enough, my memories seized on the tree stumps, though the complex is still thickly treed and now nicely planted with flowering shrubs and grass. I remembered standing at our second-floor window and watching a man, an Algerian, smoke and chop down a small dead tree. He whaled away to no great effect with a small dull axe, taking frequent frustrated pauses to step back, regard the tree with exhausted exasperation, and then start banging at it again, like Buster Keaton in a very slow silent movie. When the tree finally toppled heavily over, it lodged at a 60-degree angle into another tree, the branches locking the trees together. The man tugged, shoved, pulled, and even jumped up and down on the chopped tree, but couldn’t free it. He took up the axe again, and the moment he first struck the upright and healthy tree, I started laughing, and as I laughed, he raised his head and looked right at me, a long-held gaze filled with humiliation, hate, and despair. I jerked back, hot with shame. I peeked around the curtain and witnessed the two trees, dead limbs interlocked with living ones, collapse together into a third tree. Despite myself, I laughed again. Still, I was relieved when the man succeeded in pulling the first two trees to the ground without taking his axe to the third.

A few weeks later, I mentioned that I had not seen the groundskeeper lately, and my friend said he lived in a small trailer nearby and he had hanged himself there. I had forgotten it until this moment, writing this. Sweet god, sweet god, sweet god.

Back in Paris, Danny peeled off to take a nap, while Erin and I found the restaurant Le Castiglione and were quickly seated upstairs in an ornate room of dark wood paneling, high sconces, and red velvet banquettes. The lovely old-school French styling reminded me of the dining room of the pension in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye. Our family stayed there for at least a month while waiting for an apartment to open in Petit Beauregard. Breakfast and dinner were included. My parents had warned us we would have no say in what we ate. The French lady was going to serve us food and we were going to eat it and we were going to like it and we were going to say thank you. Why? Because we were in Paris as representatives of America and the United States military. The French would be looking for us to be rude, vulgar, and unappreciative Americans, and we were not going to satisfy that desire. Do I make myself clear, young man?

Just as my parents had warned, the French dining at other tables did observe us, appraising our manners, and more than once, self-conscious and clumsy, I slipped and turned a beautifully roasted leg of chicken into a snowplow, shoving peas and mashed potatoes across the plate and onto the tablecloth.

At Le Castiglione, in honor of those meals, I ordered the roast chicken. But my boyish self-consciousness returned, and I angled my back so the other diners could not see my hands before I pinned down the chicken and began probing for the joint between thigh and leg.

There are 107 steps up to our fifth-floor apartment. Erin counted them.

May 9, 2017. On our foray to Normandy, I was naïvely shocked at Omaha Beach, the scene of so much death, to see people paragliding. Erin, though, pointed out that the beaches were scrupulously clean, not a cigarette butt or gum wrapper anywhere. At the vast American Cemetery, the visitor’s center multimedia salute to the dead was tasteful, smart, and wrenching. It made walking through the rows of crosses and Stars of David, each a white signifier of the lost life below it, more solemn. Our Australian guide was solemn too, and not always in a good way. Over the last grave he took us to, he recited from memory a letter he’d received from that dead soldier’s sister. His expression and inflection were so hammily like a parody of Michael Caine that Danny wandered off, dismayed by the practiced piety, and Erin kept coughing to disguise her giggles, which left me to nod gravely at his mawkish hokum.

Back in Saint-Germain-des-Prés late, tired and a bit ragged, we shrugged and submitted ourselves to the famous Brasserie Lipp, a bad low-blood-sugar decision. The maître glanced askance at our backpacks and parkas before leading us into a back room, where the supercilious waiter handed us our menus and strode off disdainfully. The sommelier helped us select a good, if hot, bottle of red wine. At Brasserie Lipp, blanquette de veau is apparently meant to be tasteless and gluey. Erin’s roast chicken was slightly dry and poorly roasted, the skin gummy and unbrowned in the joints.

Danny fell into conversation with the couple next to us—Ricky from Seattle and his French wife, Clara. Ricky, voluble and effusive, told us that he’d been a champion gymnast, but obviously, he gestured at his thick torso, that was some time ago. When Clara said, “Ricky, be quiet, they want to eat,” Ricky disconcertingly remarked he’d be coming into quite a bit of money one day and that was why Clara had married him. We left a small tip, one calculated to indicate we were not pleased with the food or the service, but when Clara leaned over and pronounced, “Too much,” we happily swept back half of it.

May 10, 2017. At the Arc de Triomphe, watching the traffic swirl around the Place de l’Étoile (now the Place Charles de Gaulle), I told Erin and Danny that as a boy I had not known there was a tunnel out to the Arc. I’d raced about 30 feet into the mad traffic before I saw the slack-jawed, incredulous, terrified face of a driver as he slammed on the brakes of his Citroën Deux Chevaux, and I dodged back through the oncoming cars to the safety of the sidewalk.

In stores, Erin kept mentioning to female shop clerks that Macron was 39 years old and his wife 64. The clerks brightened, and then they and Erin nodded together in deep satisfaction.

Courtesy of two bottles of wine, I remember our dinner at Le Restaurant Sans Nom in bite-sized fragments. My scorpion fish with prawns. Erin’s monkfish. Danny’s pork loin fed on chestnuts. A madeleine with lemon cream. An absurdly rich apple tarte. A friendly waitress who spoke at least three languages.

May 11, 2017. After a lunch and a nap, we walked to Notre-Dame for the vespers service. The seats in the front were reserved for worshippers. The docents impressed me with their gentle manner of restricting access to the up-front worship area, though their gentleness was occasionally abused. Three blond preppy girls I thought were Americans tried to talk their way past a docent. When they stalked out, I was relieved to hear them grousing in French. A tall Asian boy, halted by the docent who kept pointing to the “Prayer” sign, faked turning away, then dashed past her.

In the moments not drowned out by the buzzing of tourists, the choir sounded glorious, and I started to sympathize with any serious music lover tempted to feign faith to get close enough to hear it. In the constant swirl of sightseers, gawkers, the irreverent, the irreligious, and the uncomprehending, it must be difficult for a church to cordon off a worship service—to keep separate commercial and sacred spaces that are the same space.

May 12, 2017. As Erin and I walked back from breakfast, I shared my dazzling new insight: a French translation of Joyce’s Ulysses could very well end, “Oui, oui, oui, all the way home.” Did I invent this or remember it from something I read years ago? She was insufficiently amused.

I am sometimes shocked to realize I was happy in Paris. With the tips I made sacking groceries at the post commissary, I had a bit of freedom for the first time. I could order a hamburger in the snack bar, and in the Quonset hut that housed the newsstand, I could buy Time, the international edition of the New York Herald Tribune, Stars and Stripes, or paperback books. There, I bought the entirety of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels, which I devoured and loved for their wild action, only dimly wary of their gleeful racism. On the olive-drab military buses, free with my military dependent’s ID, I could go downtown with my friend Bill Tickle, watch the caricature artists along the Seine, squeeze up the stairs to the top of Notre-Dame, stroll through the Louvre and the Musée de l’Homme. If my father had served his full three-year tour here, I’d have gone to high school in France, and my life would have been utterly different. But in early March 1966, de Gaulle ordered all non-French NATO troops out of the country. Though most of my friends went to Belgium or Germany, my father was ordered to the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. For him, it was a professional opportunity. For me, the short straw. I seldom daydream about what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in Paris, but when I do, I long for those forfeited years, years pledged and then snatched back—unlike my mother, who yearned for “the land of the round doorknob and the big PX.” My longing is mixed with vexed wonder at the operations of chance.

May 13, 2017. At Au Sauvignon this morning, a gray-haired woman in a trench coat sat outside the front door and sucked down five or six rank cigarettes in the time it took us to drink coffee and eat a croissant. When we arrived, the outside tables were half full, but within minutes of our arrival, she’d fumigated them empty, with clouds of thick, cohesive smoke driving off even the other smokers. La vieille must have been smoking Gitanes or the malignantly yellow Gauloises that were once everywhere but have now been superseded by Marlboros.

My mother smoked two or three packs of unfiltered Pall Malls every day, and when she died at 49 of leukemia, I began, without really thinking about it, holding my breath when I passed smokers in the street. Paris was a challenge. Holding my breath as I walked past the long ranks of smokers sitting outside cafés—it would test the lung capacity of a pearl diver.

After breakfast, the three of us strolled over to the Church of Saint-Sulpice and were confronted by a long, doubled-back line of children dressed in white robes, arrayed from shortest to tallest. We entered a small door to the side and were engulfed by a low rumble. The nave was packed with well-dressed people, and the church vibrated with the joyful excitement of extended families, three and even four generations, gathered for the children’s confirmation. The large statue of the Assumption of Mary was lit so that the polished marble glowed, and her luminous presence filled the church. At this festive sacred event, we felt like intruders as we slipped through the crowd dressed in jeans, long-sleeved tees, and rain jackets, but the people carrying out more and more banks of chairs apologized for blocking our way, for discommoding us.

Outside again, we saw a few well-dressed people hurrying across the square to enter the sanctuary and locate their families before the service. French moment: a woman in a beige suede coat quickstepped in high heels over the cobblestones, and without pausing took a long last drag off her cigarette, flicked it in front of her the perfect distance to crush it under her shoe tip and bounce onto the first step of the cathedral without altering her pace. Tidy, swift, and elegant.

Erin, a determined dog lover, always asks strangers if she can love up their dogs, so she prepared for our trip by going to Google Translate and memorizing “May I pet your dog?” in French. Yesterday, outside a bakery, when her query was met with a startled look for the third time on this trip, she decided to investigate further. Today, after swapping out épater (strike) for caresser (caress), she was more warmly received.

Charming French Cultural Moment: On rue d’Arcole near Notre-Dame, a row of young girls, their arms around each other’s waists, kicked the air in front of them while shouting out Offenbach’s famous can-can tune. They fell out of synch, laughing and giggling and hanging on each other before they reformed their ragtag chorus line and tried again.

May 14, 2017. On the sidewalks we read over and over again, “!CONSPIRACY! Media and Finance Elect Macron Resist!!!” As I tried to calibrate exactly how anti-Semitic this attack on bankers and the media was, I flashed on the mid-’60s, when I saw the initials of the reactionary OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) and the anti-colonialist FLN (Front de libération nationale) spray-painted on walls and sidewalks everywhere, along with the black-circled A of the anarchists. I was right to find all the sloganeering more than a little sinister. Only three years before my family arrived in Paris, the OAS came close to assassinating de Gaulle with machine gun fire on the Avenue de la Libération, and they were a constant and heavily armed threat to try again. I was uneasily aware of raging emotions driven by history and ideologies of which I had only a sub-rudimentary grasp. On the school bus, a boy told me that a word he pronounced “Al-JEEK” was as bad in France as the n-word in the States. This racism was so new and strange that I thought he was making up something ridiculous to see if the new boy would fall for it.

Well, if I was so sure he was lying, he said, why don’t you shout it out the bus window at the next dark-skinned man and see for myself? When I did, the streetsweeper’s look of hurt and hatred made me whip my head away as if I’d been struck, instead of being the one doing the striking. To this day, I am shamed by that look.

Erin, Danny, and I were especially alert to any display of bigotry because earlier in the afternoon we’d spent a couple of hours in the Musée Maillol, with its rich array of Picassos, Legers, Barques, Matisses, Dufys, and Redons. In the basement, the museum displayed some of the collector Paul Rosenberg’s art that the Nazis seized as “degenerate.” Accompanying it was a fascinating and disturbing selection of Nazi-approved art—hardworking Aryans on a beautifully tended farm, idealized blond women looking forthrightly at the viewer, and a strange de Chiricoesque Italian palazzo with symbols of war and national identity stuck on it. The paintings were all reasonably skilled and artfully composed. They were just nasty.

For the first time this visit, I was struck by how traumatic the Nazi occupation must still be in the French psyche, and I was slow to understand that as a child in a military family I too was regarded by some French people as part of an occupying force that was still there 20 years after World War II had ended.

May 15, 2017. Last day in Paris. For breakfast this morning we decided to try Café Varenne, and Danny and Erin reported that behind me, TV cook Ina Garten was eating breakfast. As she was leaving, Danny beckoned her to our table, took her hand, and told her how much her show meant to us. Meant to us? I never thought of Barefoot Contessa as having an abiding epistemological significance in my life. But when Ina, whose throaty chuckle is as warm off camera as on, graciously thanked Danny, and then shook all our hands, I murmured something about how much pleasure she has given us all. Danny’s gift of gab sometimes leaves me as flatfooted as much as it leaves me in awe.

After Ina, we went to another garten—the Jardin des Plantes, entering through the black iron gates with gold-painted lettering and trim, into a dark Romantic grotto with a mossy fountain moss-shaded by an enormous oak, then through a small formal garden into the enormous main garden, which contained a huge sculpture that, with its long vertical stanchion and horizontal wings at ground level, I thought was a stylized ship’s anchor. Then I thought it must be an out-sized rusty industrial farming implement of some sort, a harrow or a plowshare. As we walked closer, the horizontal part looked like a vertebra. But was that vertical thing a penis? The information plaque informed us that the piece was Vertebrata, by Quentin Garel, which left unresolved the issue of the long bulbous-tipped extension rising from it at a suggestive 60-degree angle. I interpret the sculpture as a comment on male sexuality, suggesting that the penis is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, responding to stimuli directly from the spine without involving the brain. Or better yet, it proclaimed all sexuality autonomous, the phallus rising from a garden of lovely, enticing, and traditionally female flowers.

Wandering around, we stopped on rue des Halle to admire an exterminator’s storefront display of stuffed rats—taxidermied Rattus norvegicus in various poses: two rats wearing tiny boxing gloves and engaging in the sweet science, a rat musketeer in pantaloons and a broadbrimmed hat, and the obligatory four rats playing poker. Where does one buy minuscule playing cards? Danny and Erin were charmed. Though I have a weak stomach for vermin, even I was amused by the rat standing on his hind legs and pulling apart his chest fur to reveal a red-and-yellow Superman S on a blue leotard.

Back at the apartment, Erin eagerly looked up Jardin des Plantes in The Blue Guide and exclaimed, “Shit, we missed the maze and the peony garden!”

Me, I looked up the rats. The more I think about it the more I remember seeing them 50 years ago and at 14 being impressed by their sheer ebullient weirdness. Am I back-forming a memory of a memory? Maybe not: the Internet tells me that Julien Aurouze and Company has been in business since 1872.

For our goodbye dinner, we returned to Le Restaurant Sans Nom for another superb meal. The chef came out to shake our hands once more. His wife, the hostess and server, was beyond charming. When I promised to exult Le Restaurant Sans Nom on Tripadvisor, she said, “Oh, many people, they say that but they do not.” But we, I promise, we will.

May 16, 2017. Danny was up and out early to catch his flight. Erin and I spent 15 minutes at the cabstand before a 70-plus gentleman came over and explained “une manifestation” was taking place. Taxi drivers were engaging in a work slowdown. Did we know how to use the Métro? he asked. He looked genuinely worried for us, but just as we were getting ready to hightail it to the Métro, a black Mercedes van stopped. How much? I asked warily because I was about to do what all the guidebooks emphatically say not to do—take an unregistered cab. “Sixty euros,” said the nice man.

Once we were rolling, Erin mentioned the manifestation, and he shrugged. “There’s always one.” He told us we could relax. He was a professional chauffeur. He took pride in his work and the condition of his vehicle. That both soothed me and made me more watchful, checking the road signs to make sure we were going to the airport and that he was not about to swerve into an empty warehouse and hold us for ransom.

When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle, I was so embarrassed by my unjustified suspicions I gave the driver an exorbitant tip, as much to reprimand myself as to reward him.

May 18, 2017. Because all three of us got sick on the way home, I will not give our glorious farewell dinner the glowing review we promised. But since we like Le Restaurant Sans Nom so well and we only fell ill once in two visits, we will happily go back and flip that coin again.

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