Holiday weekend in PARIS
Where else would a tourist he escorted back to his hotel in a Black Maria by six singing policemen, all because he couldn’t remember the name of the place?
GIVEN THE CHOICE of visiting heaven or Paris, a lot of people would probably settle for Paris. The appeal of the old, young, wise, silly, dignified, frivolous, pious, irreverent. thrifty, profligate city is so strong that some armchair tourists in remote corners of the earth study maps, guidebooks and pictures until they are more familiar with the streets of Paris than with those of their own towns. For millions, seeing Paris is a cherished dream—a dream that, each year since the war, has come true for more and more of the dreamers.
They flock in by the tens of thousands from all directions, their cameras swaying from shoulder straps and their heads filled with plans, expectations and a childish faith in the ancient saying that anything can happen in Paris. Maybe anything can,’ at that, for by midnight of the Friday I arrived in Paris for a holiday weekend a while ago, 1 was bumping around the Left Bank with six gendarmes in a voiture cellulaire—the vehicle North Americans call a Paddy Wagon or Black Maria. 1 wasn’t under arrest, merely lost. Even that can be fun in Paris. The gendarmes were so friendly, so obliging, so sympathetic, so eager to help me find my hotel, that I got
out at a small bar and returned to the voiture cellulaire with a large bottle of cognac.
After a swig or tw'o, my companions burst into song, their voices rising as the contents of the bottle sank. When I mentioned Alouette, the French - Canadian favorite, they bellowed it so enthusiastically that young lovers at sidewalk cafés stopped kissing to stare at the police van as it passed, although it’s said that young lovers in Paris seldom stop kissing unless there is a political riot or a three-alarm fire.
As we zigzagged around in search of my missing hotel, 1 beheld through barred but open windows such landmarks as the Luxembourg Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Panthéon, all silhouetted against a starry sky. I breathed in the fragrance of flowers as we went by famous gardens and the aroma of food for gourmets as we went by famous restaurants. One restaurant stood at the edge of a garden. The fragrance and aroma blended.
“Blossoms and garlic buds,” I said appreciatively to a gendarme sitting beside me.
“Je ne parle pas l'anglais,” he replied, so I tried him with my own peculiar version
of French. He thought I was still talking English. “Je ne parle pas l’anglais,” he repeated.
Although some guidebooks suggest that practically everybody in Paris speaks English, most Parisians 1 met were like the gendarme. They spoke no English and found my French utterly incomprehensible. It was partly because of this, and partly because a taxi driver didn’t return a slip of paper, that I got lost, rode in the voiture cellulaire, and discovered that French policemen, with their pillbox caps and smart capes, not only look as though they belong in a musical comedy but, when primed with cognac, also sound like it.
I made this discovery within a few hours of disembarking from a KLM plane at Le Bourget airport a dozen miles from Paris. On the flight, two plain, plump, middleaged women, who obviously believed in miracles, chatted and giggled about the beauty and glamour they’d acquire by buying and wearing the products of dressmakers like Fath, Balmain and Dior.
As we circled for a landing l noticed that the women who were so thrilled by the prospect of sheathing themselves in exotic gowns had to pull in their over-
sized stomachs to close the buckles of their safety belts. An inclination to chuckle died silently on my lips when I realized that 1. too. had to haul in an oversized paunch to fasten a safety belt. Suddenly, 1 felt a little sad. a little ridiculous, a little too old and overweight for a weekend romp in the world s gayest, loveliest, liveliest metropolis.
But the gaiety of Paris is contagious. My gloom evaporated when, having struggled wearily through customs and immigration barriers, 1 was bowed into a trafficscarred taxi by a driver with the manners
of a courtier, a beard like George Bernard Shaw's, a grin like Huckleberry Finn's. He wore his chauffeur's uniform with the dashing air of a colonel in the Bengal Lancers. He couldn't have been a graduate of the Bengal Lancers, since he spoke no English, but he may have been a Russian grand duke, since there is a firmly established legend that most Paris hacks are piloted by titled refugees from what was once St. Petersburg and is now Leningrad. He couldn't understand my oral directions so 1 handed him a piece of paper on which a travel agent had CONTINUED ON PAGE 34
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Holiday weekend in Paris
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If there's any difference between beatniks and existentialists, it certainly isn't in what they wear
written the name and address of an obscure but highly recommended Left Bank hotel at which he had reserved a room for me. The driver who may have been a grand duke glanced at this and beamed and stepped on the gas.
We sped by green fields, rows of tall poplars, vegetable patches, age-blackened stone cottages, dilapidated windmills with tattered sails, the ruins of medieval walls, cyclists, horsecarts. dogcarts, midget autos, death-defying pedestrians. Finally we reached the broad avenues in the heart of Paris and skidded to a stop at the modest entrance of the sort of hotel generally described as quiet and clean.
A pretty girl in a white smock came out and grabbed my luggage. When I said it was too heavy for her and that I'd carry it myself, her eyes flashed with anger. In broken but rapid English she informed me that carrying luggage was her job. not that of a guest. Did I want to deprive her of her livelihood? Would I steal the bread from her mouth? She won the argument, of course, and I followed her and the luggage to a pleasant room overlooking a miniature park in which a carnival had set up its merry-goround. ferris wheel, whip, games and sideshows.
Laughter and calliope music floated up to my windows on a soft evening breeze, and 1 could see the crowds at the carnival and in the street. They looked and sounded happy and I wanted to join them. I unpacked as quickly as 1 could and. as the sun began to sink behind towers, spires, turrets and domes. I set out for a walk.
Approximately half of the three million residents of Paris seemed to be walking. while the other half loafed on park benches or at sidewalk cafés. I stopped for a Pernod at a sidewalk café in the Quartier Latin, which derives the name from the fact that it is the university district and Latin, until 1789, was the language of Paris universities. Around me at the tiny tables were bearded beatniks or existentialists—-if there's any difference you can't tell it from their appearance— sipping vin ordinaire with stringy-haired girls who mostly wore black sweaters. I don't know whether they were discussing le jazz hot or the emptiness of life, but whichever it was they were certainly discussing it earnestly. There were also less serious couples, better groomed and smooching ardently and without inhibitions. But the passers-by were the real show — a chunky laborer imbued with the Parisian conviction that man cannot live by bread alone and hurrying home to his wife with a yard of crispy unw rapped bread in one hand and a bunch of daisies in the other; a bent crone in a
dark shawl carrying two lovebirds in a cage; an elderly lecher in pursuit of a pretty girl with a dress that fitted her bobbing and shapely derrière as the skin fits an apple: a kid in a sailor suit lugging a toy sailboat as big as himself; Idles tie joie furtively soliciting customers; wandering peddlers loudly offering flowers, hot chestnuts and ice cream. By the time I'd finished my Pernod I was sure that nowhere could you get as much entertainment for the money as you do for the few cents you spend on a drink at a sidewalk café—a drink that entitles you to a ringside seat at the fascinating everlasting parade of the Paris boulevards.
English not spoken
I was sure, too. that this was the moment to start investigating the renowned restaurants of Paris, the Pernod and the evening air having sharpened my appetite. I decided to walk until I spotted one that looked promising. This haphazard method of selection took me to the Vagcnendc, where, after a plate of excellent oysters on the half shell, I had a delicious and unusual dish that consisted of eggs beaten stiff and mixed with slivers of ham. then poached in a sauce of sour cream and cheese. Next. I had sole bonne femme, asparagus tips and a salad, all washed down with half a bottle of Graves, and a pastry, a thimbleful of Napoleon brandy, and black coffee. I lingered over this feast so long that it was bedtime. I reached in my pocket for the slip of paper bearing the name and address of my hotel, then remembered that the taxi driver who may have been a grand duke hadn't returned it to me. The name of the place, as I recalled it, was the Seegar, but I had no recollection of the street. I asked the proprietor of the Vagcnendc how to get to the Seegar. He'd never heard of it. He searched for it in the phone book, but it wasn't listed. Out in the streel. I hailed a cab. The driver didn't speak English. I kept reiterating "Seegar, Seegar, Seegar." At last he nodded and indicated that I was to get in his cab. He dropped me at a tobacco store, having come to the conclusion that I had a mad urge to buy a cigar.
With a mounting sense of panic and frustration. I approached a gendarme. That's right. He couldn't speak English. He summoned another gendarme, who couldn't speak English either. The two of them summoned a third gendarme, who spoke a little English. Then the voiture eedtdaire hove in view, dropping off policemen who were going on duty and picking up policemen who were coming off duty. After a huddle with the
driver, the policeman who could speak a little English told me to climb aboard —that the driver would cruise around until I recognized the hotel where I was registered. I mentioned that it was near a park where a carnival was playing. He said there were many parks and carnivals in Paris. He and the other two policemen climbed into the van with me and there w'ere already three policemen there, not including the driver up front at the wheel. We cruised and cruised, drank the cognac that I bought, and sang songs, and eventually we turned a corner and there, on Boulevard Garibaldi, stood my hotel. The sign over the entrance said Ségur. not Seegar. and I'll never forget it.
And so to bed very late and up early when the pretty luggage toter with the white smock and the temper pounded on my door. Besides being the luggage toter, she was the breakfast toter, and if you had a room at the Ségur she brought you your breakfast whether you ordered it or not — the delicious golden-crusted Paris bread, unquestionably the best on earth, and a slab of sweet butter, and a dish of jam, and the steaming pot of coffee and the steaming pot of milk that you pour together for café au lait.
I ate, shaved, showered and telephoned Bill Rhoads, a photographer from the U. S. who has been in Paris for three years and who took the pictures for this article. Bill anil his dark attractive wife Mary Ellen, a California girl who has played bit parts in off-Broadway theatres, picked me up at the Ségur and we rattled off in their Volkswagen to eat, drink, be merry and, above all, to see the sights.
In Place de la Concorde, often called the most beautiful square in the world, we saw the 76-fool. 240-ton Obelisk from the Temple of Luxor that the Khedive of Egypt presented to Louis Philippe of France in 1831. The immense stone needle had to be transported six hundred miles down the Nile to Alexandria, towed through the Mediterranean and Atlantic to Cherbourg, and hauled by road through Normandy to Paris—a journey that took five years. It's supposed to have been erected at the exact spot where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and twenty-eight hundred others were beheaded between January 1793 and March 1795.
Standing at the base of the Obelisk, we could see the Chambre des Députés, built of stone from the Bastille; the Louvre, with its forty acres of art; the Tuileries and Carrousel gardens; the Church of the Madeleine, where Chopin's funeral march was played for the first time at Chopin's own funeral, and the broad dramatic sweep of the Champs
Elysées. from the Obelisk to the Arc de Triomphe, where the eternal flame burns over the grave of the Unknown Soldier.
“Wherever you look." said Bill Rhoads, “you're looking at history."
There's so much history in the twothousand-year-old city that straddles the Seine that if you don't watch out you can get an overdose of it. So. for a change of pace, we headed for Montmartre. where, at Place Pigal Ie. we had a drink in a sleazy joint that billed itself. like many similar joints, as a Strip lease Permanent. This simply means that girls with large bosoms and swiveling hips appear at regular intervals around the clock, give a spiritless and mediocre exhibition of belly dancing, then disrobe. Bill raised his camera to snap a picture of the show. Instantly, the manager of the establishment jumped in front of him. The manager explained that a photograph might cause great trouble, since the performers didn't usually tell their parents they w'ere strippers and since most of the male patrons were accompanied by women other than their wives.
For French fries, it’s France
“Let's get out of here,” said Mary Ellen in disgust.
We had lunch at a sidewalk table at Fouquet s. a distinguished restaurant on the Champs Elysées. where the garçons wear white jackets and black ties and bring buckets of ice and soda siphons when they serve hard liquor. The steamed snails at bouquet's were first rate and you didn't really need a knife to cut the pepper steaks. The chef's salad, in its own way, was as much a masterpiece as any of the works of art in the Louvre, and the French-fried potatoes convinced you that nobody but a Frenchman should be allowed to French-fry potatoes. The Burgundy was of a choice year, the Brie cheese was as it should be. which is melting. and. thoroughly fortified by our repast. we spent what was left of the afternoon walking. We walked along the embankments of the Seine and saw' the same old men visitors always see and writers always mention — the old men who fish contentedly day after day and never catch a fish. Near them were girls in abbreviated bathing suits who had no intention of bathing but were lying on the stone quays in the centre of the city enjoying the sun and the male admiration aroused by their shapely bodies.
We crossed a short bridge to Ile de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine, where the marvelous Cathedral of Notre Dame thrusts its twin lowers two hundred and
twenty-five feet skyward from the place where Julius Caesar, in the first century before Christ, convoked an assembly of the Gallic tribe called the Parisii. The south tower was jammed with people who had paid for the privilege of ascending an incredibly long, hot, stuffy stairway, and the fearsome features of the gargoyles leered at the cameras of the tourists from the shadows of the balustrades of the grande galerie. Only Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, was missing.
The shadows of the towers lengthened. Once more it was evening in Paris, and Bill Rhoads had booked a table for us at the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. A couple of centuries ago the Moulin Rouge was a red windmill that ground grain into flour. Now, just the sails of the mill remain, etched against the night by neon tubes and beckoning well-heeled out-on-thc-towners to an ultra-sophisticated cabaret. There's no admission charge bul you have to buy a minimum of half a bottle of rather inferior champagne per person, at sixty new francs or six thousand old francs or twelve dollars a bottle. This seems cheap, considering the quality of the entertainment, but there’s a catch.
And the catch is that the stage show is so engrossing, and the waiter refills your glass so unobtrusively, that you polish off half a bottle of champagne in no time at all. The waiter automatically brings you another half bottle, and another and another, without being asked. Before you know it, the tab is as high as the ceiling and you’ve had so much champagne you don’t care. Yet I guess it's worth it. The Japanese Revue was playing the night we were there. It was the most superb variety show Mary Ellen and Bill and I had ever seen. And the food we ate, if not out-
standing, was neither toq^jffl^isive nor too poor to complain aboui.-
We stayed half the night at the Moulin Rouge and on Sunday, in the early morning, the girl in the white smock pounded on my door again and brought in the breakfast. I had an aspirin with the café an lait. But when you have only a weekend in Paris you can't waste it.
I met Mary Ellen and Bill in the Champs de Mars garden at the base of Eiffel Tower, which is a thousand feet high and is quaintly described by the English edition of Michelin's Paris as having been completed in 1889 by “three hundred acrobatic builders,” who stitched the steel with two and a half million rivets. The elevator to the top hadn't started running and none of us felt like climbing, so we sauntered around the garden and watched children sailing model yachts in its pond.
A woman with a white pushcart was selling ice-cream cones in front of a clump of lilac bushes. The ice cream was as brilliantly colored as a Dufy painting, so Bill wanted a picture of Mary Ellen and me buying cones. The watery ice cream started dripping before he could focus his camera so he snatched the cones and handed them to a couple of passing children and bought us fresh ones. Again the ice cream melted before Bill was ready. This time there were no passing children so Bill tossed the cones in a trash can.
The woman with the white pushcart screeched with fury. "On ne fait pax ça alors!" “One doesn't do that!” She refused to sell us any more and we weren't inclined to argue and Bill said we should see the Place du Tertre in Montmartre on a Sunday.
It’s a little square on a hillside with a few scraggly trees, scores of tables at
which you can buy food and drink, and hundreds of eccentrics who mill around importantly, trying to bolster their ego. Painters who couldn’t paint a barn monopolize the sidewalks with their easels and awful pictures. Street singers with cracked off-key voices are paid to move on by individuals who don’t like noise. A gigantic bearded man in a grey uniform, with medals on his chest and a gold-braided hat on his head, struts like a turkey gobbler and says he’s the chief constable of Montmartre, although Montmartre, officially, hasn't a chief constable. It’s all phony but if you ignore the underlying tragedy it's all fun, too.
Bill and Mary Ellen and I spent the afternoon gawking, and then we saw an exhibition of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Galeries R. G. Michel, and then we had liors-d'œnvre, coq au vin, champagne and banana en flambe Grand Marnier at Chez Bichette, and then we went to the Lido, which is a twin of the Moulin Rouge but on the Champs Elysées instead of in Montmartre. And after that, to adhere to tradition, we went to Les Halles, the central market of Paris, and saw the buyers of the city buying the city’s food. We topped it all off with onion soup at l’Escargot, where the onion soup is supposed to be very good indeed. It probably was, but I was too tired to appreciate it, and I knew that the girl in the white smock would be hammering on my door at the Ségur in a couple of hours, and thrusting a breakfast tray upon me.
She did and I got up and ate and shaved and caught a plane for Canada. In the old days the newspapers, reporting an event like a Sunday school picnic, used to say that the revelers arrived home tired but happy. Now I know what they meant, if