A dump is just a jumping off point for my first day in Paris

eugene's airbnbThe first place I ever stayed in Paris was anything but magical. It was a dump.

It was advertised on AirBnB as a cozy little pied a terre in the luxurious 17th Arrondissement, not far from the metallically cubistic Palais de Congres. It had a picture of a balcony lined with pots bursting with vibrant begonias, mums and carnations in pink, orange and yellow.

I arrived at the apartment around dusk after a very long day of travel from London on one of those blue Megabuses. And I couldn’t get in through the front gate.

The bus trip was delayed by some mechanical problems with the Chunnel train. We arrived at the Gare D’Austerlitz about an hour and a half late. I notified my host about the mechanical delay and left a message that I would be arriving soon.

Then I had to figure out how to get from the south of Paris to the northwest. I went down into the metro with my backpack and got off at the Neuilly- Porte Maillot exit. I exited from underground to the spectacular sight of the Arc de Triomphe.

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Disoriented, I turned around until I could figure out which way I needed to walk. There was a park and an expressway and a huge metallic building complex that turned out to be the Palais de Congres. I walked back and forth in front of the Palais de Congres in a daze, trying to figure out which direction to head off.

Once I got my bearings, I made my way up the Boulevard Des Marechaux and then had to find the Rue Du Dobropol which went off at an angle from the boulevard where it changed names to Gouvion Saint Cyr. I phoned my host, Eugene, to let him know I had arrived.

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He came downstairs, showed me how to enter the code into the gate and the front door. We squeezed into the tiny elevator cab and rode five flights up. He was a short, skinny kid with blonde hair, barely 22 or 24. He said he was a graduate student and a translator.  Yet still the both of us barely fit into the tiny elevator.

He let me into the apartment, which really was no bigger than a storage room, and squeezed by. There was a skinny mattress on a wooden frame. The bed was unmade, the sheets tossed as if someone had just woken up from a nap. There were clothes draped over a chair and hanging from a hook on the wall by a tiny closet.eugene's apartment

There was no balcony. No flowers.

Next to the bed was a desk. At the foot of the bed was a shower stall and some very crusty looking towels. A kitchenette was off to the side with dishes, cups and a plastic bag on the counter. He gave me the keys, showed me the wifi code and left.

He had said one thing correct about the place. The WC was down the hall. I went to use it and then explored the floor. I walked past the elevator and saw a landing that seemed to be part of another apartment. There were my flowers.

I was hot and sweaty but no way was I going to use the towels or shower. I changed shirts and ventured out into the fading day.

I didn’t mind that the WC was down the hall from thIMG_3351e room, or that the room was tiny. I almost didn’t mind that his clothes were thrown all over the place and there was no place for me to put my own belongings. But what really ignited my fury were the sheets. They felt damp and gritty. The whole feel of the place made me wonder if he was living here when he wasn’t renting it out on AirBnB. He probably slept under a bridge or in a university library when the room was booked. No way he could possibly have a girlfriend, or even just a friend friend.

I shrugged the inconvenience off. I was bone tired. But I was hungry and thirsty and in Paris for the first time.

LATE NIGHT MEANDERING

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I headed down the street and grabbed a bite at Oresto, a hipsterish restaurant just down the street from my apartment. I asked for a bordeaux, but the waiter said they were all out. He served me a Cote du Rhone that tasted like vinegar. The guy at the next table was British. I asked him what he was drinking. Bordeaux, he said.

So I told the waiter I would have the same.

The meal was not fabulous, but the wine hit the spot. After I paid the bill, I walked in the general direction of the Arc de Triomphe and found a wine bar where I finally got a decent glass of wine.

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Walked past the James Joyce pub and got propositioned by a buxom African woman, who asked if I wanted to party with her. No thanks, I said.

I found myself staring at the Arc de Triomphe again. It was magnificent. I headed towards it down the Grand Armee. When I got to the Place Charles de Gaulle I walked around the circle until I found the Le Vin Couer, a lovely wine bar where disco was still alive and well. And the wine selection was great. I had a wine from the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

By the time I stepped outside it was dark. The Arc de Triomphe was all lit up, and in the distance a gold-glowing Tour Eiffel in all its Victorian erector set glory, its beacon like a laser beam shooting across the sky.

I was a moth, weaving my way down unfamiliar streets in a kind of zigzag pattern until I found the George V. I stopped in and had a glass of wine before heading over Pont Alma.

At some designated point in time, the entire structure of the Tour Eiffel strobed in brightly flashing white lights.

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I found myself walking down some crooked road behind the Musee du quai Branly, ultimately wandering through a gate and past some shrubs that opened onto a large park. And just like that I was under one of the vast metallic elephantine legs of the Tour Eiffel.

I was gobsmacked. It was so big. I stared up into its bowels and gaped at it in all its Victorian erector-set glory. Slack-jawed. My phone was dead. I couldn’t get a photo.

It was 1 a.m., Paris was still wide awake. People smoking, talking, drinking wine and coffee. I find a place that is still serving alcohol and have one last drink, a Pernod. They close in ten minutes.

At 1:45 a.m., flower vendors were pushing their last bunches of wilted flowers. Penguin waiters stacked chairs and pushed tables inside the vestibules of cafes. A group of men takes down old movie posters and replaces them with fresh ones.

I made my way back to my crappy room and still fully clothed, lay down the bed and fell asleep, exhausted.

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PART TWO

A PERFECT DAY

The next day, I asked Eugene for a few extra hours till checkout so I could leave my backpack behind to explore the city some more before leaving for Champagne, where my great uncle has a B&B converted from an old farmhouse. He said it was no problem.

So I trek around the city, leaving the backpack back in the room.

I grab a coffee and croissant at the corner tabac and meander. I visit the Eglise Saint Ferdinand-des-Ternes, built before the start of WWII. I pass the bust of Tristan Bernard at Place Tristan Bernard.

Men are trimming trees along the Champs Elysees. Movie posters advertise “Elle,” starring Isabelle Huppert avec Paul Verhoeven, “L’Origine de la Violence” avec Caesar Chouraqui, and for a fleeting moment I wonder what it would be like to see a French movie in France, without the subtitles.

More than once I hum the refrain from “Free Man in Paris.” It was one of those rare moments I truly did feel unfettered and alive.

I get hustled by a young woman claiming to be deaf-mute. She wants me to donate money for hearing aids. I give her a half euro and apologize. She goes off in a huff.

I get to the rond-point Marcel Dassault, admiring the Grand Palais and photograph the amazing gold sculptures that adorn the roof.

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I take photos of a wedding shoot on Pont Alexandre III. They are among the best photos I’ve ever taken, I do believe.

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I cross over the Seine to La Rive Gauche and walked past the Hotel Des Invalides, the Assemblee Nationale, and trekked over the Pont de la Concorde, the Egyptian Obelisk and giant Ferris wheel my beacon.

And so it went, my walking tour, past the Musee de L’Orangerie and into the Jardin de Tuilleries, where I painstakingly noted La Grande Musicienne by Henri Laurens, Standing Woman by Gaston LaChaise, L’Exchiquier Grand, by Germaine Richier and so many other sculptures live for the first time. To see these works of art with my own eyes seemed to breathe life into them.

“Je suis occupee la space. Je suis assis sur un chaise.”

The crows flock around L’Exchiquier. They seem called by this quadrant of the jardin, drawn to the electro-magnetic currents thrown off by these strange, neo-primitive objects that are at once extra-terrestrial yet grounded.

The crows cackle, “Reims,” as if to remind me of my ultimate destination this day. I get up and stretch and wander toward La Louvre where I come across the most beautiful Grand Bassin Rond. I realize I have just traveled, over a few dozen feet, several hundred years back in time from the futuristic 1950s to the High Renaissance 1660s.

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From there I walked along the quai, looking through the book and magazine seller stalls, feeling as though I were having an authentically Parisian experience. I strolled through a flower market on the Ile de la Cite, past an Art Nouveau Metropolitan sign for the Metro, and bam! There I was standing in front of Notre Dame. It was breathtaking. It was amazing. It was larger than life and I once again had no juice on my phone.

From there I marched around the Quartier Latin, past an epic seafood restaurant with all sorts of oysters, clams, cockles and fish on display on the sidewalk. Two young people were feasting on a mound of shellfish in front of them.

After walking around and examining the menus of every tourist trap, I sat down at a table at the Stop Cluny Brasserie right across from the ruins on the grounds of the Cluny Musee National de Moyen Age. Supposedly the oldest Roman building in Paris, goes back to the time of the gladiators.

Most of the people here were speaking French, so I took that as a good sign, a sign that locals frequented this place. Always avoid the places populated by large tables of Americans, Brits and Germans.

I ordered poulets avec champignons and a glass of vin rouge and thought about the myriad ways Paris differed from London. For one thing, the trees. For another, lots of people on the street hustling overpriced water, hearing aid donations, selfie sticks and miniatures of La Tour Eiffel.

I was too full for the creme brulee I ordered but ate it anyway.

It was almost 2 p.m. and I wondered how much longer I could extend my stay at Eugene’s dump. “Feel like he owes me a full 24 hours,” I wrote in my journal.

“It is strange but also liberating to be cut off from all communications with the outside world,” I wrote in my journal. “No cell phone. No computer. No Internet. No Wifi. No Email. No Twitter. And it’s my excuse for not responding to whoever may be trying to reach me.”

Of course, I had to reconnect to let my uncle know I was on my way and what train to meet at Reims.

An old woman just returned her meal and asked for a salade instead. The waiter is very affable and accommodating. He reminds me of Roberto Begnini. I guess I should go back to Eugene’s and collect my things but there is so much to see. After Montmartre.

Ray Charles is singing unbreak my heart somewhere. The creme brulee is only ok.

I decide to get my backpack and clear out of the dingy little apartment before seeing Montmartre. Place Pigalle was cool. Funky, untamed and a bit on the low end of the scale. On my way to Moulin Rouge I took a detour down the Rue Victor Masse– a street full of guitar stores with some serious, high-end and vintage axes in the windows.

One store clerk told me that there were about 30 shops like it in the area. Not because a lot of musicians live in this neighborhood. But one guy opened a store in 1970 and others followed.  Next thing you know, there was a whole little village of guitar stores here.

I walked up the streets of Butte Montmartre and sat on the steps of the Basilica, taking in the view below. Paris is just magnificent from any angle. A young man sat strumming his guitar and singing. The funicular bell was ringing. People sitting, talking and enjoying the late afternoon light. I want to live in Paris forever.

Paris, je t’aime

IMG_3366.JPGI’ve been to Paris four times in the last three years, and six times to France. And I will probably return to France this summer, if all goes well. Not saying this to boast or brag. It isn’t that expensive to hop on a flight from Orlando to Paris, and thanks to AirBnB, accommodations are cheap, too.

Except for sailing trips to the Bahamas, summer vacations in Canada and a honeymoon in Cancun, I hadn’t done much foreign travel until about 10 years ago, after I turned 50. And it would be another six years before I finally made it to Paris. And even that first time was an overnight stop on my way to my uncle’s place in the Champagne region.

But that first time. Ooh La La. That first time I saw the Arc de Triomphe lit up at night, and then saw the Tour Eiffel all aglow in the distance, its spotlight sending a search beam across the night sky, it took my breath away. It stunned me. It just didn’t seem real. I had to follow that beam of light down from the Place Charles De Gaulle, not paying attention to the narrow streets I trod as I weaved my way to the hallowed beacon sweeping the city.

I’d been conditioned at an early age to love all things French. My mother, whose grandfather was born in Nancy, France, of Austrian parents, who immigrated to the US when he was four, was fascinated with French culture. She taught us how to count to ten in French before I started grade school, taught us to sing “Frere Jacques” and would constantly play the Singing Nun, technically Belgian but who sang in French.

It was because of her that I took French lessons  throughout junior high, high school and college. I struggled with the verb tenses, tried to build my vocabulary, and translated a portion of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. I remembered the painted silk socks worn by Monsieur Iber, and the funny French rock’n’roll we listened to in class, and the blonde, blue-eyed student teacher from Alsace.

Like other would-be writers before us, my college girlfriend and I had talked of going to France together so we could live on cheap bread and wine and write incredible stories and poems.

A college professor who was from Paris nearly dissuaded me from ever wanting to go to France. When I told her a friend of mine gone to Paris to study, the professor inhaled her cigarette and in a withering, condescending voice said, “Oh, they still do that?” And then she blew a sarcastic cloud of cigarette smoke out of her mouth.

But there is something deeper to our fascination with Paris, something in our cultural bouillabaisse as Americans that pulls us to that gilded 19th century crowning achievement of the Belle Epoque standing over the Champs de Mars.

Maybe it’s the romanticism of the Belle Epoque itself, the heavy Haussmann architecture, the sails of the Moulin Rouge and its nightlife as depicted by Toulouse Lautrec, and storied artist pensioners in la Rive Gauche.

Or maybe it’s the idealization of the surrealist artists and American ex-patriots who populated Gertrude Stein’s salons in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

We owe the French more than a debt of gratitude for helping us throw off the chains of British imperialism, hosting Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they tried to raise money for their revolution.

We paid back by pushing the Germans out of France and liberating the Western Front. After that, many of our doughboys didn’t want to go back to the farm. The black soldiers didn’t want to return either after finding a friendly vibe in Paris. 

A similar thing happened after World War II, when Americans decided to stay behind rather than face the stultifying corporate world and suburbs that beckoned.

Our American love affair with Paris has endured two World Wars, the end of Colonialism and the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam but not before handing over that quagmire to us. We sent them Jerry Lewis, Levis and rock’n’roll. They sent us Brigitte Bardot, French New Wave Cinema, and Deconstructionism. We gave them jazz, they gave us Johnny Hallyday.

Movies like an American in Paris, Gigi, The Red Balloon al contrived to fuel our romantic fantasies of France. “Breathless,” the French sex bombs of the sixties, Claudine Longet, Jacques Brel, the Tour de France, Madeleines and Proust, Julia Child and Coq au Vin, Andre Previn and Champagne — these were the cobblestones in the street that connected France to our imaginations.

Those post-WWII movies and musicals probably had a lot to do with my mother’s view of Paris. She was an impressionable high school kid at the time, after all.

But my mother never had the chance to go to France. The closest she got was Montreal, which she loved. When she died of breast cancer at the age of 58, I swore I would go to Paris before I died.

But a career in journalism, several marriages and layoffs got in the way. Before I knew it, I was 58 and I had never been to Paris.

As fate would have it, I got laid off a few months shy of my 58th birthday. The newspaper I worked for had just been sold to its competitor and shuttered. I had a two-month severance check and time on my hands.

So I went to Paris.

And when I finally stood under the Tour Eiffel, my heart soared. I wept for my mother’s missed opportunity, I laughed at the absurdity of it all, the unreality of actually seeing that monument to Victorian engineering that had loomed large over my life.

Paris, je t’aime.