Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys

April 3 1965

Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys

April 3 1965

Robert Thomas Allen’s sentimental journeys


After solid London, the French capital was a shimmering lacework of grace and beauty, in which our exploring writer discovered explosive vivacity, unabashed femininity and an unconcealed love for love, life—and crusty bread

A PECULIARITY OF AIR TRAVEL is that you seem to reach your destination without moving, except to walk a few feet to a ramp, or an airport bus, or cross an air-terminal lounge. It’s an illusion that makes the change from London to Paris all the more remarkable. You're in a massive teeming city of stone. You sit still for a while filling out a customs form while suspended in cold sunlight above a motionless blanket of curdled clouds. Then you’re looking out of a taxi at a strange, soft, lacy-looking city, resembling a slightly neglected park, with just enough people to make it interesting. It has an entirely different feeling from London, which looks as if it’s chiseled from granite and earthquakes couldn’t budge it. Paris looks as if it’s cut from cardboard and under any pressure would sway gracefully, pulling the tree tops with it.

Not all Paris has this light and insubstantial appearance. The Avenue de l’Opéra, for instance, is a smart, stone-faced street—a kind of Fifth Avenue with low buildings — but much of the city is as informal as a summer resort. Great areas are made up of an enormous network ol crooked narrow streets in old plaster: pink plaster, buff plaster, powderblue plaster, peeling and shaggy plaster.

The general atmosphere in these sections is as if thousands of convivial employees had been let out of the back entrance of some enormous office building and were meeting in a maze of dark alleys to hoist drinks and generally have a ball amid a conglomeration of bookstalls, bars, churches, restaurants, art shops, and food markets overflowing with vegetables. fruits, oysters, fish, partridges, pigeons, rabbits, chestnuts. Conversations are shouted between shopkeepers and neighbors going by on bikes and motorbikes. Drinking spots do a brisk and continuous business. Sometimes you put the whole gay atmosphere down to the fact that everybody must be always a bit tight. One time I caught an early train from Austerlitz Station, and at six thirty in the morning the place looked as if a party had been going on there all night, and was still swinging, with Parisians, both men and women, lined up three deep at the bar.

Other times, you get the impression that all Parisians are either carrying bread or kissing one another. Parisians nuzzle whenever and wherever the spirit moves them. They caress one another at high noon in window seats of busy restaurants, at bus stops, in doorways. A couple will be heading down some forlorn cobbled street, move toward the dark doorway of some restaurant or night spot, stop absent-mindedly three feet from the door — as if they forgot where they were going and stand there wrapped in a sleepy embrace. A girl on a bus will turn in a kind of dream state, lean over and kiss her boyfriend on the neck.

Nobody paid any attention to this except me. who gaped like somebody’s maiden aunt from Moonstone. Alta. Being in love is obviously a perpetual state in Paris, like being on strike, and, from the men’s point of view, at any rate, I can understand it. There are probably more beautiful females per acre in France than anywhere else on earth. The women have exquisite pale faces, big expressive dark eyes, and, although they don’t need it, a flair for simple good taste in dress. The going look while I was there: blue Bermuda socks, a plaid skirt, blue sweater, just the right simple string of beads, topped by what may or may not be a deceptive look of pristine innocence. There aren’t any freckled tomboy types. They look as if they’d be the last girls to help you build a camp fire, but the first ones you’d want to wander away from it with.

As I'm fifty-three and chronically worried, my interest in all this was purely academic, and what I went in for was the French bread served in restaurants, which is the most delicious I've ever tasted. You get butter sometimes—always, I suppose, if you ask for it—or plum jam, but you often just forget about putting anything on it. the bread is so soft, sweet and crusty. (However, the French idea of croissants in bed for breakfast, which I’ve heard some visitors to Paris mention as the height of self-indulgence, strikes me as a hideous thought: sitting there unwashed and unshaven, dropping bread crusts down your pyjama tops.) The bread you see on the streets is the hard crusty kind that comes in long sticks. Parisian kids carry it home the way Canadian kids carry hockey sticks. Beautiful girls carry it. Jaunty middle-aged men on bikes carry it lashed to their handlebars, and young men with saintly beards carry it.

I stayed on the Rue Jacob on the Left Bank in a little hotel with an elevator the size of a round phone booth split in half, a spiral staircase wrapped lovingly around the elevator shaft, hallways of fuzzy - blue embossed wallpaper and knobless varnished doors (you let yourself in by the key).

I traveled around the town on foot or by bus or taxi to see some of the famous landmarks—Notre Dame Cathedral; the bridges over the Seine; the Arc de Triomphe, which stands serenely in a great open expanse circled by distant buzzing traffic; the Champs Elysées, a spectacular swathe of treed boulevard cutting through Paris for an enormous distance; and the Louvre, which was the highlight of my formal sightseeing.

If, like me, you’re seeing the Louvre for the first time, you’ll be

struck by its size. On the outside it’s a complex of buildings, colonnades, parks and statuary, the size of Queen’s Park in Toronto. On the inside it's another city of galleries the width of streets, with sunlight beaming through low windows across old hardwood floors buffed by millions of feet. (One of the most intriguing sights is the dismayed expression of the women visitors when they find they have to take off their spike-heeled shoes and rent a pair of slippers that look as if they’d been worn unwashed by all the student ballerinas in Paris.)

I’m afraid I “did” the Louvre in a fast hour, which is ridiculous, although I wasn’t as bad as one woman I know who left a taxi outside and ran in and out again so that she wouldn’t have to go home without having visited it. This is a staggering confrontation of art which would take months to see properly. You could spend a few days just doing what 1 did, standing alone (watched by at least one of an army of hardeyed guards) with the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and joining two or three other silent viewers before the Mona Lisa. (I tried to analyze her smile and decided it was exactly as if she knew I’d get lost trying to find my way out of the Louvre—and she was right.)

But most of the time, when I probably should have been seeing these world-famous sights in an orderly manner, I was slumped in corners of bars or bar-restaurants, drinking French coffee and making irrelevant notes such as:

“Stout man in tweed jacket smoking a curved pipe stands opposite me drinking what looks like beer. A black-and-tan pup is wagging his tail at me from among a lot of legs. The place smells of those reeking little cigarettes the French smoke. All very talkative and noisy. Youth puts rock - and - roll record on jukebox. Woman in blue coat with shoulder-length auburn hair at bar starts to jig up and down. Girl in tight boots and pale-pink hair comes in. Doesn’t look at me. Toothless old beat-up newspaper woman comes in, gets café crème and a stick of bread the size and shape of a big trick cigar, butters it, sits down with back to drinkers and dunks it. Grins at me.”

I could have stayed in these places, or strolled around the streets near my hotel, for a month, or a year, observing what for me is by far the most fascinating tourist attraction in France—the French. Then and later, when I traveled around the country, I found that, for me, their outstanding trait is an instinctive grace in their dealings with their fellow humans—the same quality that I’ve always noticed in French Canada, where a waitress somehow makes the fact that you take three lumps of sugar in your coffee seem the most fascinating thing she’s ever heard. It’s not just a matter of formal manners: it’s an awareness of life and a respect for individual personal relationships.

French people sprinkle their day-to-day contacts with “pardons” and “au revoirs." and their polite “monsieurs” somehow keep the offensiveness out of any remark. A French guard, say, turning you out of a building because it’s after hours, leaves you feeling like a departing ambassador with a dignified, “Au revoir, monsieur,” when he’s really giving you the bum’s rush.

I know some people reading this will wonder if 1 really went to Paris, parts of which (the tourist parts) are populated by some of the most hard-boiled, mercenary waiters on earth, and it’s true that there's some kind of universal law that politeness is inversely proportional to the size of the town, but even in Paris there’s a certain dignity and respect in the way a waiter robs you. He may demand his tip, but (even if he gets a sullen minimum) he’ll step to the door of a busy restaurant, hold the door open and wish you good evening and look as if he means it.

A Frenchman’s vivacity, which is something foreign to an AngloCanadian, makes coping with the language an engaging experience in human relations. My own French, I’m not proud to say, is just about nonexistent, but a Fienchman doesn’t give up when he learns you don’t speak French. He’s still right in there with you. In one restaurant in Paris I once had six people, including the waiter, joyously engaged in trying to think of the English word “veal.” They discussed it with one another and held consultations. Students joined in the game. Students’ girl friends took a try at it. Women sitting six tables away smiled thoughtfully into space, trying to think of the word. The waiter finally, on an inspiration, put his fingers to his head for horns and ran around in a circle saying. “Moo.” (Great mutual congratulations.) “Cow! Oui!” But, he indicated, a little cow, so high. After it was all over, he calculated my bill on the paper table cloth (explaining that the tip wasn’t included) as if only happy to help me with my arithmetic.

The thought that you can’t speak French is almost impossible for a Frenchman to believe; and it’s understandable, as it’s been one of the main languages of the civilized world. One time in the south of France 1 stood on the street talking with a little old woman from whom I’d asked directions to a bank, for about five minutes, absolutely convinced we were conversing, when neither of us understood a word the other was saying. It's impossible to look into a face that bright and animated and feel that you’re not communicating. Another time, on a train, I got into a discussion with a thin middle-aged businessman about football, hockey and hotels, without either of us knowing anything of the other’s language except an occasional word which we touched like first base. We did it with gestures (you raise your shoulders and make yourself look like a gorilla for an American football player).

I’ll carry a lot of recollections of France with me the rest of my life, but I think the memory that will remain the clearest is that of a boy waiter at a hotel in Rochefort, a pink-faced smiling kid. a sort of trim French Oliver Twist, who must have been worth his weight in gold to the hotel. He worked hard for a long day, scooting in and out of the restaurant. I was there during the strike and if I started upstairs to my room in the dark he popped up ahead of me with a candle. I ordered Vichy water once and it appeared on my table from then on. He knew no English but he went at the language barrier like a ball player shagging out grounders, batting words back at me until he got a homer, or at least a base hit—“beurre,” "burter,” “hooter,” “butter.” He pointed to the melted wax on the candle at the table to explain why I couldn’t have ice cream. He folded napkins, set tables, dusted sideboards. He was there grinning in the morning and there grinning at night. I’ve never seen such a deft, lively and affable kid, and he couldn’t have happened to a livelier people. If France ever decides to have a new flag, I’d suggest his smiling face rampant on a field of fleur-de-lis. ★