PARIS IN THE BAD OLE DAYS…I Wish I Were Back There Now !

| September 9, 2012 | Comments (0)


My introduction to the Paris I came to know and love  happened in the Spring of 1968 aboard a propeller-driven Icelandic Arlines flight. In those days the cheapest way to get to Europe from the US was to board one of Icelandic’s trusty DC-6’s that droned from New York City to Rekyavik, leaving Kennedy Airport in the morning and arriving in the far North around midnight where it was still light. Back in those primitive days of air travel, one was compelled to overnight in Iceland before changing planes to fly on to the Continent. My memory of Iceland  is rather a blur – a small, colorless capital dotted with smoked-filled bars pulsating with acrid Nordic body odor and slurred sounds of a guttural, ancient language. Inebriation was in the air, but it was a rather cozy, friendly kind of drunkness, not threatening; unlike the mean, class-conscious intoxication found in English working-class pubs.

My travel mates on the flight into Rekyavik were not the characters with whom I would have chosen to share cramped,  spartan seating where elbows clashed and knees bumped into the seat before you or the person next to you. To my left was an obese. middle-aged man who spilled over his arm rest onto me  and whose deep, breathless gulps of air made him sound like a marathon-runner who had just reached the finish-line even though he had been sedentary for three hours. Mr. McGill was desperately afraid of flying and hence wanted, indeed, needed to talk non-stop to his fellow passengers on any topic that came to his mind. His Burmese cats and their idiosyncratic toilet habits, how he missed his late wife’s snoring; his love of blue and white china. To minimize my own input into the compulsory conversation I found myself, willy-nilly, falling into with this needy gentleman, I posed open-ended questions to him, hoping his long answers would minimize the amount of talking I would have to engage in, allowing me to surreptitiously fall asleep, keeping him satisfied with an occasional nod as I jerked awake.

That tactic did not work, I  soon found out. When I asked Mr. McGill “How was Rome?” after he told me he had traveled to Europe on a package tour with his late wife three years before, his reply was to the point and all too short: “Oh,  by golly, Rome ! We was thar on a Tuesday and that’s whar  Beulah and I saw that yaller dawg ! I always used to tell Beulah: ‘Honey imagine flyin’ half way ’round the world and seein’ that yaller dog in Rome, Italy!  I coulda stayed in Pocomoke and seed that critter right in our back yard cuz the Fire Station next door’s gotta yaller dawg and  he pees on my tires every cuss-ed day!’ ”

Later Mr. McGill did fall into a hoped-for monologue when he confided the reason for his current trip from Iowa to Europe. He was going to the Netherlands to buy Delft china and to Amsterdam to collect his daughter who lived in a commune and  had become a hippy. “She smokes rope or dope or some such thang, I dunno know what, whatever they call the stuff !”, Mr. McGill whispered to me in a shout. Whereupon the poor man lapsed into a crying jag, between heaving sobs asking himself, “What did I do wrong ? I thought I raised her right ! I gave her everything under the sun she wanted and now look what she does, suckin’ on reefers and Gawd knows what else ! Why Beulah’d turn over in her grave if she knew.”

Leaving Mr. McGill to commune with Beulah over the tragedy of their wayward daughter, I turned to my right, my gaze falling on a swarthy young man who had been silently reading  ever since we were airborne. Even when the flight attendant had passed asking if we wanted this and that, he had waved her off without uttering a word. Not knowing if he was anti-social or merely absorbed in what he was reading, I threw out :”Good book?”, half expecting to be greeted with silence or a don’t-bother-me look.

Quite to my surprise his face lit up. With a sly smile, he hissed, “I didn’t want to bother you since I see you’ve been deeply engaged in conversation with our fellow passenger.” We both rolled our eyes entering into a conspiracy of silence concerning the loquacious Mr. McGill. Pro-offering a huge hand, my seat mate uttered the single word, “Tsoneff” by way of introduction. While to my left,  Mr. McGill continued to weepingly perorate on the sins and shame of his only daughter, I listened as best I could to Tsoneff, who speaking in  rather a nerdy mumble, informed me that he was on his way to Israel to join a kibbutz.

An hour later my ears full of the joys of Israeli socialism and the wonders of collective living offered by kibbutz life, I was ready for a serious break from fellow-traveler chatter. In a flash of inspiration, I prevailed on Tsoneff to switch seats with me, confiding that I had a serious bladder problem and thus needed to be on the aisle for frequent comfort runs to the loo. My ruse worked. By the time the plane tipped its wings descending to Rekyavik, my two seat mates had become thick as thieves and Tsoneff had convinced Mr. McGill that he should join him for a new life in the kibbutz. The clincher was Tsoneff’s saying in the kibbutz everybody was so busy they didn’t have time to get into trouble. Just the place for Mr. McGill’s pot-puffing  off-spring !

But the end of the flight was not the end of my short friendship with Tsoneff.  Part of the Icelandic package to Europe was free overnight accomodation in a modest hotel allowing passengers to rest up before  early morning flights to their Continental destinations the following day. It turned out I had been assigned to share a room with Tsoneff. We made our way to town, me with my back pack and Tsoneff with several bags including a rather large black steamer trunk. Little did  I know it, but that trunk held the secret to my future in Paris.

I spent a sleepless night, Tosneff being a non-stop, serial talker hopping from one topic to the next.  As I stared at the ceiling, in a monologue  my roommate solved the problems of the world, then launched into several ideas for inventions that would change mankind and turn him, and anybody who cared to back him financially, into a philanthropic millionaire.

By dawn I found myself in a dopey, jet-lagged state of sleeplessness. Which must have been why I agreed to Tsoneff’s outrageous request. Pointing to the evil-looking black steamer trunk, Tsoneff told me that he had to deliver that item to his friend, Laurent, in Paris but that since he, Tsoneff, was going straight on to Telaviv and not stopping in Paris, he wanted ME to take charge of  the bulky cargo and bring it safely to Monsieur Laurent d’Aumalle in the rue Reynouard, Paris  16eme.

We never specifically discussed the contents of the trunk or why it had to be delivered to Monsieur  Laurent or what Tsoneff’s relation was to Laurent, but when Tsoneff opened the lid to show me what the box contained, an unspeakably foul odor filled the room, the funk of ten thousands years, to quote Michael Jackson’s song, “Thriller.”  I implored Tsoneff  to “Close it ! Close it !” and, uttering a demonic chuckle,  he let the lid drop with a thud. Tsoneff said not to worry and that my favor would pay off handsomely since Laurent was a really interesting person and  well-connected in Paris; he had the feeling Laurent and I would become good friends, and we did.

My decision to accomodate Tsoneff was not as hapless and sleep-deprived as it  seemed. Although I knew Paris from previous visits and had made some local contacts there, the trail had gone cold. I actually had a French girl friend, a lovely medical student whose father’s pharmacy stood in the shadow of Notre Dame. We had met four years earlier on Bastille Day and danced the night away on Ile Saint Louis, a magic evening, the moment when France cast its spell on me. We had stayed in touch over the years and miles while I spent two years in Vietnam and roamed the world. My return to Paris that Spring was to be, in Isabelle’s eyes I suppose, the return of a conquering hero, the brave warrior who would sweep her off her feet taking her  to the altar and  a life lived happily ever after.

But it was not to be; for whatever reason – I know the reason now, but I didn’t know it then – my heart was just not in it. Far from being excited, I was frightened. Rather than confront Isabelle with complicated explanations and tears, I chose to just fade away. I simply stopped communicating with her; I sent her no more poems or  records with my favorite love songs. No more phone calls over  static-filled long distance lines when I would have to repeat three times, “I love you and miss you!” Better to just disappear in thin air, I decided. Words were too difficult, inadequate. Perhaps, I hoped, Isabelle would think I had been killed in battle in Vietnam. A rather romantic end to our relationship and certainly for me, an easy way out. (Little was I to know, as I breathed a sigh of guilty relief, having made the decision to simply vaporize, that a year later in 1969, I would meet Isabelle by chance as I spilled out of my Paris office  onto a fashionable 16eme arrondisement street  walking to lunch with a clutch of chattering colleagues. I must say, the French know how to handle even the stickiest of social situations. Without blinking an eye, Isabelle smiled, embraced me and introduced me to her new husband, a fellow doctor. All so quick and lovely, a chapter in one’s life closing like a silently sliding door on the Paris subway !)

And so, needing new friends and a Paris point of reference, I was all too ready to deliver  what came to be known as “la malle puante de Tsoneff.”  (Tsoneff’s smelly trunk.) Laurent’s voice on the phone was decidedly upper-class French as was his appearance when we met later in the day. Although only twenty years-old at the time, Laurent, with his battered tweed suit and thinning hair, resembled nothing so much as an absent-minded professor. His most striking feature was his lips, full and very red as though painted with lip gloss which they were not. Juxtaposed to his pale, gaunt face those ruby lips gave him an appearance that  was vampirish and sensual. He was a mesmerizing, brilliant person and although still a student at university, it was obvious that he knew more than the professors who taught him. Laurent regaled me with  details about his “little business” which consisted of textbooks he had written that were more cogent and clear than the wordy tomes that were the school’s required reading which nobody bothered with. Those students who bought Laurent’s “crib” texts passed their tests with flying colors. Those who didn’t, failed their exams and were put back !

As payment for my trunk delivery, I was invited to dine at Laurent’s family’s palatial apartment in  the rue Reynouard. When I asked to use the bathroom before we began the meal, I was led down an endless, high-ceiling-ed corridor of polished oak, passing dozens of  elegant brass-knobbed doors that must have  opened onto libraries, salons, boudoirs and balconies. I was thanked profusely for delivering the trunk, but nothing was ever said about its contents, why it was to be deposited Chez les d’Aumalles or what the relation between Tsoneff and the d’Aumalles was. Their only point in common seemed to be Israel which they both admired and frequently talked about, Tsoneff being Jewish and Laurent being a half-Jew from his mother’s side. I identified with them in this regard, being a “halfie”, although an atheistic one, myself.

My rapport with the d’Aumalle family was immediate and complete and I became a regular fixture at their table. I  especially liked Laurent’s parents whom I came to love as my own mother and father. His mother, Francoise, would prepare elaborate meals, but she was no cook and  there was usually a disaster when the food  arrived at table, her specialty being meat burned beyond  recognition. With the meat singed to inedibility and vegetables mangled to mush, there was plenty to laugh about as we pretended to eat. I knew I had become a member of the family when I felt comfortable enough to joke about  Francoise’s cooking, saying what she made was a blessing because none of us would ever get fat eating her food! We all had a good laugh over my “insult-compliment.” It felt good to be part of a French family.

I spent lots of time with Laurent. We walked the streets of the old quarters of Paris, visited his school and he gave me driving lessons in his tin can Renault. (I never did manage to pass the rigorous French driver’s license test.  I either drove too fast or too slow for the inspecteurs.) Laurent was an abstemious person interested in neither drink nor food; our routine was rather spartan, sitting talking for hours nursing a cup of tea at a sidewalk cafe while I longed to consume carafes of wine and mountains of cheese.

Laurent’s field was international finance. He ended up writing books on arcane topics like the movement of currencies against each other and the behavior of exchange rates. I always told him that he would end up a multi-millionaire, but wealth, probably because his family already had a lot of it, did not seem to interest him and he ended up in academia,  becoming the dean of a famous school on the east coast of the United States. When I googled his name and looked at the photo of a dignified, portly professor staring at me with great wisdom and seriousness, I wondered what it would be like to meet him again. I wondered what his English was like – we had always spoken French – and what we would have to talk about – he was world-famous and had married and had children. He advised heads of state and addressed august gatherings on topics of great import. I wondered if he would remember that we almost kissed once, sitting together on my narrow bed in my incredibly tiny studio apartment. I had no sofa or chairs and guests were compelled to sit on my mattress. How I longed to brush his ruby-red lips with my mouth. But I never did.

I lived in the tiniest of cramped spaces, and although the accomodation was spartan it did have that accessory essential to French life, a bidet. My experiments in using the bidet were disastrous. Aside from  flooding the bathroom when I turned it on, I almost put my eye out when its powerful jet of water shot up,  connecting with my eyeball. I decided the best use for the bidet was as a wash basin for my dirty socks and underwear. Everything has its purpose; the challenge is finding it!

Because my apartment was so small, I spent much of my time living on the streets, indulging in my favorite of all passtimes, whiling away time at outdoor cafes. Museums were fine and La Comedie Francaise enthralling, but it was street life as seen from the comfortable perch of a nice cafe that really spoke to me. My favorite haunts were in the Latin Quarter on Boulevard Saint Germain at either Cafe de Flore or Les Deux Magots. Ensconced at a cozy table with a drink or a coffee, I could watch the world go by for hours and hours.

One winter afternoon, bundled up in double sweaters, I sat outside at Deux Magots drinking hot mulled wine  as the first fingers of dusk crept up the Boulevard. In front of me was the ancient Eglise Saint Germain, built 800 years ago; in the immediate distance to my right was Le Drugstore, the chic collection point for those who had come to see and be seen – would-be actors and models, prostitutes; thin, intense Sorbonne students with their long hair and Gaulois hanging from their lips, putative Communists in velvet capes.

At the curb I noticed a waifish figure tying a thin rope to the lamp post. He painstakingly knotted the chord into several tight lumps, then proceeded to cross Boulevard Saint Germain where he performed the same ritual at another lamp post. Soon there was a tight rope stretching from one side of the Boulevard to the other at an elevation of ten feet or so. I watched, fascinated, as the young man climbed the pole with spider-like ease. Then with the daintest of footsteps he mounted the thin rope and proceeded to walk across it with effortless grace, reaching my side of the street in less than a minute. He repeated his act several times before jumping down to the street landing just inches from my table. Bowing to a thunderous round of applause and a shower of coins thrown his way he smiled at me and I gestured to him offering him a seat at my table. Thus began my friendship with Philippe Petit, then a nineteen year-old circus performer later to become the world famous aerialist who daringly walked on a wire between the two World Trade Towers. Paris was full of surprises and delights.

I also fondly recall the Parisian “dejeuner”, those simple but delicious weekday lunches that became a mid-day ritual, so different from the American habit of “grabbbing” a sandwich and eating alone, hastily feeding one’s face at a lonely desk without the warmth of companionship and conversation in a cheerful restaurant. In  those simpler days in Paris, small Mom and Pop restaurants – bistros and cafes – abounded and served home-cooked  three-course lunches presided over by “le patron” who, Gaulois dangling from his lips, would proudly offer up  soupe a l’oignon, boeuf bourguignon,  tartes de pommes and other hardy fare for a modest tariff, the price being further reduced if one presented a “ticket restaurant” when paying the bill. “Tickets restaurant” were one of many subsidies that form part of French life making one’s existence more affordable and somehow  causing one to be grateful to France for a happy, full stomach. “On est bien en France, la douce France (Life is good in France, sweet France) ” one could sometime hear murmured.

We all have to pay our rent, even in Paris. And so I was compelled to find work in the City of Light. My search for a job led me to the Atlantic Institute, an eccentric little place located on rue de Longchamps in the toniest of tony Paris neighborhoods. The Atlantic Institute was not concerned with oceanographic matters as my mother mistakenly decided it was. L’Institut Atlantique was a boutique think tank, a research organization, that organized conferences and commissioned famous people to write papers on weighty matters of great import to the future of mankind.  I recall that “Whither Europe?” was a hot topic on which the Institute held forth, producing several monographs on the subject, broken down into various categories  deploring the current state of European agricultural policy (or lack thereof) and the perilous condition of defense preparedness of the Atlantic Alliance in face of the Soviet threat.  The concerns and pursuits of the Institute were of a definite “Cold Warrior” nature with more than a tinge of American imperialism thrown in for good measure since funding for the Institute was mostly from American sources, the Ford Foundation being the main cash cow providing us with a generous budget. And therein lay the  downfall of my reputation at the Institute !

No  expense was spared in launching the organization’s activities. Conferences were held in jet-set locations like Cascais, Portugal with five-star accomodations catering to the participants every need. In Paris the Institute’s fund-raising luncheons were famous for their elegance and luxury. I remember, in particular, one affair held at the exclusive Cercle Interallie near the Arc de Triomphe where each diner had their own personal sommelier  who would  discreetely whisper the orgin and vintage of the wines as he poured them : “Saint-Lager 1948.” “Mouton Rothschild 1952.”

The Institute was always headed by a retired American ambassador, the Directorship being a gentle sinecure for easing these gentlemen (for sure there were no ladies !) from the world of international diplomacy to the pastures of  more leisure pursuits. Michelin-starred meals and conferences by the sea were not a bad  “boot camp” for these hardy savants preparing them for that next and final phase of their august lives which might include penning a misty-eyed memoir detailing how they were “present at the Creation.”

Having grown up in a diplomatic milieu, I was sure I would thrive at the Institute and get on famously with its current Director, His Excellency Ambassador John Tuthill. Alas, it was not to be. We crossed paths disastrously on my first assignment. I was tasked with the job of organizing a conference that dealt with some weighty issue of international relations; what it was I cannot for the life of me remember now. My first concern was to insure that the gathering featured interesting, well-known speakers whose positions on world issues was well known through their publications and work. I proceeded, massaging the international phone lines and came up with a stellar collection of participants.

The icing on the cake came in the form of David Halberstam who accepted my invitation to be keynote speaker at the conference. Halberstam was a famous journalist who had exposed the Vietnam War for the disaster it was in his best-selling “Making of a Quagmire” written in 1964. The publication of his book represented a watershed in the history of the American War in Vietnam and how it was viewed by the public. At the time of the conference Halberstam’s fame had peaked with the publication of another book which was to win him the Pulitzer Prize. “The Best and Brightest” examined the American government’s decision-making establishment, analyzing the flaws of the “brilliant” men (yes, again, women were  not yet in the picture!) whose policies brought the US to disaster in Southeast Asia.

With more than a bit of excitement, I rushed into Ambassador Tuthill’s office to tell him the good news, that we had managed somehow to nab Halberstam as the star of our conference. What luck ! This gathering would garner headlines for us ! I burbled. The good ambassador’s reaction was not what I had bargained for.  Instead of praise, I was subjected to a furious tongue-lashing. Didn’t I realize that our meal ticket was paid by the Ford Foundation and was I so thick-headed not to realize that, in his latest book, Halberstam had dared criticize key officers in the Ford Foundation, the likes of the Bundy brothers and other sacrosanct lions of the American establishment who were linked to the Ford Foundation?

My rejoinder that I thought our conference was to host experts giving a variety of informed views on issues of importance  and that the success of conferences depended on attracting articulate, famous people, did not resonate with the good Director. So much for American-backed institutions promoting freedom of speech and opinion ! He ordered me forthwith to DIS-INVITE  Halberstam ! I slunk from his office and made the most difficult phone call of my young life.

The lesson I learned from that unfortunate experience and from other events that unfolded during my year in Paris was:  trust and believe in nothing with full fervor and commitment. Everybody has feet of clay. In my evolving world-view, I had become a died-in-the wool cynic. Perhaps the worldly French and the atmosphere of Paris helped me along in this regard. 1969 was the year of my coming of age, the time when I came to realize that nothing was really as it appeared to be. Laurent and his family commiserated with me, saying I was not the only person in the world who had experienced disappointment with their fellow beings. They confided their experiences in Paris during the war as Jews; what it had been like to have neighbors turn against you for no reason other than race.

My time in Paris had been precious for many reasons. The sheer joy of living in what was truly the City of Light with its worldly delights and physical beauty. The privilege of living among the French who were an “old” people, a civilization that had seen and done it all, carrying with them in their attitudes and gestures a charming world-weariness that is an essential part of wisdom.

Neither the d’Aumalles nor I ever heard again from Tsoneff. And I have no idea what became of his malodorous trunk, resting for so many years in their elegant rooms  on rue Reynouard. Laurent’s parents passed away and their children scattered to the far corners of the globe. Would I find “la malle puante” in some flea market on the outskirts of Paris ? Would it contain secrets that would unlock the riddles and mystery of life ?

I’m booking a flight to Paris next week. Maybe I’ll find out !


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