The First Time I Saw Paris
by John J. St. John
“Paris is a moveable feast” Ernest Hemingway wrote, because “once you have known Paris, you take it with you wherever you go.” Or words to that effect.
Paris-wise I have been luckier than most. My 1980-84 assignment as Economic Minister at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, quite aside from being my entire family’s favorite foreign posting, required me – whether I liked the idea or not, mind you – to spend three days in Paris each and every calendar quarter. So, as a disciplined professional, I sucked it up, “drank the Kool-Aid” and came to know and love the “City of Light”.
Someone else said, “You always remember your first time.” Somehow I doubt that person was thinking of Paris. But what the heck, the sentiment still applies.
In the Spring of 1967, not long after being assigned as a junior economic officer at the American Embassy in London (yes, I did indeed have a couple of cushy postings) Elsa and I booked a four-day holiday weekend package tour to Paris. We were by far the youngest couple aboard the chartered bus that took us from central London to a small outlying airport near the city of Dover. Boarding the bus, we noted how the mostly middle-aged Brits kept to themselves as they slowly filed in and chose seats. Not one hello, smile or friendly nod. How veddy British, we thought; one does not acknowledge another’s presence unless one has been properly introduced.
Or at least that was the theory. No sooner were we out of London and into the countryside however, than formality melted away like a snowman in springtime. A tall, lanky man in a front row got up, ambled back to our seats, stretched out his hand to me and said loudly, “Yanks, are you? Did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like President Kennedy?” “No,” I replied at equal volume, “but I understand people used to tell him he looked a lot like me.” From that moment on, I was “Kennedy” to our fellow travelers, and Elsa was “Jackie”. By the time we reached Dover, we were all fast friends.
The tour package was a bargain-basement affair, so we did not expect an airport of Heathrow’s category. But some of us were taken aback when we pulled up to a dirt airstrip just a few hundred yards from the edge of the famous white cliffs. It was one of the many emergency “aerodromes” hurriedly constructed around London at the beginning of World War II as bases for the Spitfire squadrons that so heroically – and successfully – defended against the Nazi “blitz” in the Battle of Britain. Winston’s words echoed in memory; “never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.”
There, our aircraft awaited; a superannuated propeller-driven C-47 that looked as though it might have played a role in that storied Battle more than two decades earlier – as indeed it may in fact have done. And yet, as we climbed aboard, it felt solid enough. And its engines sounded capable of getting us safely across the Channel. So all seemed well as we taxied slowly and bumpily along the dirt and clumpy grass that passed for a runway, until we came to a sudden and jarring halt. A tow truck that had been standing by for just such an eventuality sprang into action and quickly pulled us out of the pothole into which one of our wheels had fallen. “Routine,” we were told. “Not to worry, Guv’. Happens all the time.” Our pilot resumed taxiing to the end of the runway, turned the plane’s nose into the gale that was blowing at us from France as if to say “stay where you belong!”, and revved the engines to full throttle. In seconds the chalk cliffs fell away below us, to the accompaniment of relieved cheers from our fellow passengers.
France welcomed us with glorious, sunny weather, neither too cool nor too hot. Our group remained together that afternoon as we bused through a guided tour of all the main tourist sights – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur etc., etc. – while Elsa and I took note of places where we might like to spend more time by ourselves during the following two days. After the tour, we relaxed over a glass of wine at the famous Deux Magots sidewalk café (or was it the equally notable Café Flore across the street?) and imagined ourselves eavesdropping as James Joyce remarked to Ernest Hemingway at the next table that “the very wealthy are different from you and me.” (“Yes” Hemingway supposedly replied, “They have more money”.)
Next day we continued our Hemingway pilgrimage on the Left Bank, and spent some time wandering the gardens of the Palais Luxembourg in that same neighborhood. Then lunch at the wonderfully touristy Place du Tertre, on Montmartre, where every direction you look is a scene from a different Renoir painting. Evening at the Moulin Rouge. The only thing we missed completely was the rudeness and arrogance of which the French are routinely accused. This weekend that simply did not exist. Welcoming was the attitude we encountered.
As you might expect after more than forty years, this trip has become something of a blur, albeit an exceptionally pleasant one. Because of this – and in order to avoid turning the story into a tedious re-telling of places visited – I will jump to the final event, which is, in its small but memorable way, illustrative of the very best of Paris, and indeed of France.
Back then, before the City’s central market was moved out of the Les Halles district,the traditional way to close an evening in Paris was to go there for an onion soup, eaten at one of the sidewalk cafes located cheek-by-jowl with trucks delivering the next day’s supply of fresh produce. To close this special weekend, we went to perhaps the most famous of these, Au Chien Qui Fume (The Smoking Dog). As we placed our order, a truck nosed into an unloading space just a few yards from our table, and a burly, unshaven type with salt-and-pepper chest hair poking out from every part of his sleeveless undershirt, began unloading crates of cherries. As Elsa and I finished our soupe de oignon and lingered over the wine, the trucker suddenly materialized at our table, placed a perfectly round, fat red cherry by her glass, said “pour Madame” and without another word walked quickly back to his work.
It was literally the “cherry on top” of our first visit to Paris. Our memory of it has never blurred. And its promise for our visits yet to come has never proven false.