February was an anniversary month for me. Hard to believe, but 40 years ago I went to Paris for the first time.
My friend Jane was spending a term of in London. Her term stretched into seven years. During that time she worked in a gin distillery, put the balls in roll-on deodorant, managed travel for academics and, critical to the travel to Paris, worked the bar in what was then a scuzzy Ozzie hangout in Earl’s Court called The King’s Head.
It was the first year I qualified for three week’s vacation. Just as I was about to book my annual trip to London, it was announced that the Orient Express was being taken out of service. I called Jane and suggested we take the train before it was terminated. There are so many things in life we miss. She agreed and I booked us two first class tickets on the Orient Express.
The King’s Head where Jane worked was popular with Ozzies and Kiwis. Because they had to travel so far to go anywhere, they tended to take two years for their travel. It was like a right of passage. They would head to London, hang out for a bit, pick up some part-time work, which for colonials was easy in those days, then head off on a grand, cheap tour.
At the pub Jane met two nurses from New Zealand. The girls had been working at the Great Ormond Hospital, put together some money and were about to head off for a year in a sixth-hand VW camper van they picked up. The thing was so beat up it took three of us to slide the side door open.
The girls’ plan was to drive across France, Spain and Portugal, catch a ferry to Morocco, drive across North Africa, then back via ferry to Greece and Italy, driving up the boot of Italy and eastern part of Europe before returning to the UK.
We caught a ride with them to Versailles. It took them hours to figure the way out of London. We drove to Ramsgate and caught the hovercraft to Calais. It was in France that we learned the girls had never driven on the right hand side of the road. And while they raced down the highways waving and screaming at the French drivers to “get on their own side of the road”, we realized we had to keep reminding the girls “Other side!”
It was traumatic, so we stopped for a “drinkie” at one of the first roadside bars we encountered. In those days rural bars closed in the afternoon. (So did British pubs.) We banged on a door until an old man opened it and in a type of under the table transaction since we were in violation of liquor laws, pulled out the thickest black rum I’ve even seen. No amount of Coke could dilute it’s breath-taking potency. It was so strong I can only imagine it was left over from Napoleon’s time. Drinks downed we headed to Boulogne for the night. We found a cheap hotel with parking and went to dinner.
On the way back to the hotel from dinner, we witnessed an accident between a car and motorcycle. The cyclist lay in the gutter while the motorist strutted in the street like a triumphant matador waving to residents who came out on their balconies to see what had happened. A blue van of Gendarmes arrived and in the interest of getting traffic flowing, one officer started to kick the downed cyclist pushing him further into the gutter.
This sent the nurses running to the cyclist’s aid. They tried to keep him from being moved lest he have a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from being moved. That caused the Gendarmes to shout and flail their arms at the nurses. The nurses shouted back, pointing and crouching over the downed cyclist. The Gendarmes shouted in French. The nurses in English. Jane, with some high school French tried to translate, but both languages were flowing faster than her abilities.
Eventually an ambulance arrived and the cyclist, with the aid of the nurses, was carefully placed in the ambulance and taken to hospital. We were taken to the police station. After awhile it was determined we weren’t attempting to interfere with the police and that the nurses were acting in a professional capacity. Then we had to give statements about the accident before being released.
The next day we drove to Versailles, tromped around the palace and went for a farewell lunch. Handed menus in French, the girls turned to Jane to order for them. “Jane, order us some cheese toasties.” “What?” “Cheese toasties.” “I don’t know what they are.” Motioning to the waiter, they say, “Tell him, he’ll know.” Jane did her best to translate cheese toasty to the waiter, who was thoroughly confused.
We later learned that a cheese toasty is a grillled cheese sandwich.
We took a train from Versailles to Paris. On the train we were being very careful to keep our luggage close. I put the bags on an empty seat. Ten minutes into the trip an older man started pointing and saying something. We didn’t understand what he was saying. A younger man – 30ish – began translating for us. The older man was upset that we put our luggage on a seat. We promised to remove it if anyone needed a seat. No one was standing, there were empty seats and I don’t recall the train stopping.
Several people joined in the conversation, voices were raised, the man who was translating was doing his best to keep us up to speed. That caused an older woman and the older man to turn on him. Fortunately, Paris presented herself. We made it to the street and with no idea which was to go or how to find anything and anxious to dump our luggage we hailed a cab. “Hotel de Pantheon, s’il vous plait.” “Le Pantheon ce n’est pas un hotel.” “Pantheon, s’il vous plait.” He shrugged and drove.
The driver humoured us and delivered us to the Pantheon. Facing it, the Hotel de Pantheon is/was a sliver of a building to the right. As we walked in the doors I whispered in Jane’s ear, “If they ask, we’re staying one night.”
She had recommended the hotel. It was as we squeezed into our robin’s egg blue room I asked how she found the place. All the pub’s Ozzie travellers had recommended it. I should have asked sooner. Ozzies travel cheap. We had a room for two of us with breakfast (thick stand-your-spoon in coffee and bread) for $7 a night. We ended up staying four nights. It fit Jane’s budget. She had just read Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $10 A Day. It was an interesting theory. That was her budget, I made up the daily differences.
Our room had a separate cubicle for a sink, shower and bidet. The toilet was across the hall in a shoulder-wide, long closet. There was a window above the toilet, which was kept open, which made the room in February “chilly” and not a place to linger. The other quirk was the lock. The door had three locks. All three had to be engaged for the electrical circuit to be completed and the light to come on. This meant that as soon as anyone undid the first lock, the room when dark, leaving users fumbling in the dark for the other two locks. All night long we would hear people scratching at, pounding, pulling on the door trying to free themselves in the dark.
Toilets were a theme to this trip. There was the shock of finding radically different toilets than we were accustomed to, like a hole and two footprints. At one restaurant, Jane stood in the doorway, waving at me and in a stage whisper, “Al, come here!”
As small town kids we also weren’t used to pay toilets or co-ed WCs. In those days men and women shared an entrance. There were uniformed women working all the public WCs. Some had machines that took your money, others had a basket on a counter in front of her. The looser French attitudes to privacy and decorum were a shock to me. I have never experienced a cleaner, let alone a strange woman with a mop, asking me to lift my foot while she cleaned around me. Jane and I made a joke out it by treating each other. “Let me pay for this…” “My treat.”
It was two or five Francs, mere pennies, but we got a lot of entertainment from our washroom breaks.
We crammed as many of the usual touristy things as possible in to our few days in the city. We did no planning. It was wake up and head out. We spent as much time walking places as we did seeing sights.
First we walked the Champs Elysees looking at all the things we couldn’t afford till we got to the Arc de Triomphe. Like the little rubes we were, we spent 30 minutes trying to run across the infinite number of lanes of traffic circling the Arc. There was finally a break in traffic that we could do. Fortunately, Jane was a track star. When we managed to spirit to the other side and make the island containing the Arc we wondered how the others managed the insane traffic? Then we found out there was an underground walkway. That’s how everybody made it across.
As we stood at the base of the Arc we realized you could go up it. So, we paid our money and climbed the hundreds of steps up the narrow circular stairway to the top. Inside the museum we realized that there was an elevator in the next pillar
Our other discoveries were chocolate flan kiosks in the Tuileries Gardens. Less nice was the night we opted for fondue. We were mostly living on French Onion Soup and crepes. It was clichéd, but we were young and semi-broke. We couldn’t afford anything more than appetizers. On our last night we decided to have a more substantial meal. We went for fondue. Only when the menu was presented to us a second time so we could place our dessert order did I read, “fondue au cheval”. I had missed the au cheval. We have eaten horse. It tasted fine, but the idea of horse made me weak. Jane almost had to carry me back to the hotel.
We “did” Notre Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower. That’s where I learned that when you are on the Eiffel Tower, the one thing missing from the view is: the Eiffel Tower. Each time I return to Paris I return to the Tower because it is stunning how much they manage to put on that structure. It’s like a very tall village.
Of course, we went to the Louvre. We spent hours walking miles of galleries. And, we had
to see the Mona Lisa, which was mostly glimpsed over the heads of a large group of Japanese tourists and flashes from their cameras.
The gallery that held the Mona Lisa had an opulent round banquette in the centre of it. While I waited for a break in the row of illegal photographers, Jane sat on the banquette. When the crowd blocking my vision parted and I could finally see the painting, a booming, heavily accented voice behind me said, “So that’s the Mona Lezza. Huh. Sur got big tits.”
I snapped around to see a tall, heavy-set man in checked jacket, plaid pants, and checked shirt. I couldn’t wait to tell Jane. “Wait till I tell you what I just heard!” She laughed, “Have I something to tell you!” The man behind me was married to the older woman on the banquette, father of the younger woman, and father-in-law to the man. The kids had just been married and a European honeymoon was their wedding gift. Annnnnnd, to make sure the kids had a really good time her parents decided to go on the honeymoon with them!!! That explained the shell-shocked look on their faces.
On our last day in Paris we added a market visit to buy food for the train. We learned that the Orient Express didn’t have a dining car. The train had been and later became an elegant experience, but in these final days the decline in passengers resulted in a decline in services, which further fed the decline in passengers.
Our trip to the market became a trek. We walked for hours and hours. Finally, standing outside a fortress-like prison in a distant, unfashionable neighbourhood we realized we had the map upside down. (It happens.)
Eventually we found the market, loaded up on cheese, bread, wine – clichés, but necessary for a three day trip and collected out luggage.
That evening we went to Gare du Nord to catch the Orient Express. It was a trip. Because we were in first class, we had a compartment that had a sofa, which made into beds for the night. There was a fold-away sink and inlaid panel walls.
The train was to leave at 11:55 pm. A few minutes before the conductor asked us to follow him. At the carriage doorway he asked us to lean through the open window and wave goodbye. On the platform was a five-person film crew from Belgian National Television. They were travelling with us and wanted some footage of the train’s departure. Or what would look like its departure.
Jane and I leaned through the window, madly waiving goodbye to imaginary friends as steam drifted up around us. Rather than going to the cost of moving the train, the cameraman moved backwards down the platform away from us to give the impression of travel. It was the start of an insane adventure.
This is the first of four parts: next the train trip, then Istanbul, and our return to Paris.