It was the summer of 1983 and major changes were underway. Having just wrapped up my College experience (condensing my 4 year program into 6), I was leaving my steady job of 4 years, finally moving forward with my 2-year-old plans of moving to Dallas and was taking a real vacation to Paris, France! The impending jet lag did not scare me one bit, after all, I was used to being up all hours of the night and day working, studying and of course partying. Amazingly, the bars closed at 3:00 am and looking back, I really don’t know how I was able to do it. Oh well, looking forward not rearward.
There was an International incident on September 1, where a S. Korean civilian airliner was shot down by a Soviet MIG. The USSR claimed that there had been a US AWACS plane snooping around the area which was the intended target and that the civilian 747 had no lights, flew over Soviet airspace and failed to respond to radio communication attempts, but who knows? The story quickly faded from center stage.
Dad, his wife Sharon and myself were all excited on the day of our departure at 10:00 am from Indianapolis “Weir Cook” International Airport. The flight to New York City was short. The weather was crystal clear and we could see the coast of Lake Erie and the Finger Lakes of upstate New York as we approached JFK. Upon arrival there, we crossed over to the International portion and the first thing I noticed, besides the size of the crowd, was the strong presence of body odor. We took off from JFK in our Air France Boeing 747 like we were in the space shuttle. It seemed to go straight up and soon, we could look directly down and make out Long Island, Manhattan and the “Statue of Liberty”. We then headed off to sea in a northeasterly direction. It was still a clear day. All of a sudden, it was pitch black outside as we flew directly into the night. It seemed like a couple hours later we were passing over London, but we could barely make it out through the clouds. Soon after that we started our descent into Paris. It was still dark, but I could clearly see the incredible number of lights through the fog. The “City of Light”, no doubt.
We arrived at Orly Airport as the sun was beginning to rise. I had packed short-sleeve shirts and shorts, so was taken aback by the chill in the air as we hailed a cab as the sun was just beginning to burn through the haze about 7:00 am. While riding into the heart of the city, we caught the driver taking us in a roundabout direction, bringing to his attention that we did have maps. We stopped at a cafe downtown as the shopkeepers were opening their doors, windows, and setting-up the patios preparing for another day of business.
We couldn’t help but notice that all of the Soviet Aeroflot agencies were guarded by Soviet troops brandishing submachine guns, Kalashnikovs most likely. This was due to the International incident a couple of days prior to our trip. Paris has always been well known for the vivacity of its student demonstrations. Another observation that I made was of the tremendous number of vehicles and pedestrians. The metro area then had a population of around 10 million which was roughly 2 million more than that of New York City. Cars driving on the sidewalks were as numerous as those in the street. I remember standing on a curb and turning my head to look left when a bus zoomed by me, it’s rear view mirror missing my nose by just a few centimeters.
One of the first sites we went to see was the Louvre. The end of our street merged into the Place de la Concorde (where Marie Antoinette lost her head). The ancient Egyptian Obelisk of Luxor in the center of Place de la Concorde, brought back from Napoleon’s African campaign, is deteriorating due to pollution and the damp French weather. Adjoining areas include the Tuileries Garden, which contains the Jeu de Paume (originally the Royal handball court) where all the impressionists paintings are on display (Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, etc…), and the Champs-Elysées. This area is not far from the Louvre where one could spend an entire day, but we passed through rather hurriedly wanting to see as much of the city as we could in our allotted time frame. I was surprised at how small the “Mona Lisa” seemed, but thought perhaps it was a repro because the original had been stolen at least once before. The statue of David by Michelangelo was a real hit with the females. It seemed to me that many of the famous works appear somewhat smaller in real life than when you envision them from photographs in texts.
My celebrating began on the eve of my Birthday with my feet propped up on the balcony of my room looking out over the city with a bottle of fine French champaign that I found in a hidden refrigerator in the cabinet under the TV set. I ended up making my first charge on my College Visa card to pay for that damage. The next night was the night of my birthday and I finally convinced the desk clerk into joining me as she just happened to be getting off early that night. She was the atypical Parisian gal with long, straight, black hair and eyes, pretty face, a lithe, athletic body and beautifully toned legs to boot. She introduced me to “Harry’s New York Bar” and then to a noir bar with a curtain for a door where she replied to me when I asked her for her opinion on ordering a bottle of wine as follows: “burgundy makes a girl think dirty things, Bordeaux makes a girl say dirty things and Beaujolais makes a girl do dirty things.” That settled that, and before long we were in the back of the establishment examining some of the strange dark rooms in the rear of the establishment. We were just looking, you know.
The next morning, I was to meet Dad and Sharon at the Metro station by the Sorbonne. I was running late, imagine that, and as I was walking along the Palais Royale, I noticed that the bus fumes were overwhelming. Then I noticed some Frenchmen running around the corner with handkerchiefs over their faces. As I turned the corner, I walked right into a huge student protest. I took snapshots of the melee, but couldn’t see what I photographed until the negatives were developed. There were about 300 policeman with plexiglass shields and gas masks piling out of buses to quell the disturbance. The headlines in Le Figaro reported the incident the next day, which served as some atonement for my being late the day before.
The next evening, we met with some colleagues of Dad and their families at a nice restaurant. There were about 20 in our party. While demonstrating my fluency in French, I proceeded to order the entire menu, “au poivre”. The waiter simply requested that I just speak English being he was busy and all. One of Dad’s acquaintances was a prominent official with the World’s Fair Society which was planning some upcoming event in either Belgium or Holland. It was a very pleasant occasion.
One day, I was called from the lobby by a girl named Dominique who was apparently sent to accompany me on a tour of the streets of Paris. When I entered the lobby, I realized that Dominique brought along her beau. So the three of us had a great afternoon, going to cafes, riding the Metro and visiting the Pompidou Centre – Musée National d’Art Moderne.
Then one night, I snuck off by myself and just tried to lose myself on the Metro system. It was simple enough to read the color coded route maps and never actually got lost, though I ventured all over the metro area. It was actually one of the most memorable times for me during the entire trip.
We took a trip on another day to the area around the Arc d’Triumph and spotted one decorative column in a circle (they have a lot of circles and memorials) called Place Vendôme which was constructed from melted down bronze cannons from the French Revolution or some military campaign. We then visited some other acquaintances of Dad at a very old yet beautiful third-level flat which had a perfect view out of it’s louvred balcony doors. The pushbutton light switches were all timed due to the rationing of energy in Europe and would automatically shut themselves off after a period of time. Ice was not as available as we are accustomed to here in the states.
We spent a day covering the Les Invalides (old soldier’s home), which is in close proximity to the Musée de l’Armée, la Tour Eiffel (only made it to the second level due to renovation), Musée national de la Marine(Maritime Museum) as well as Napoleon’s Tomb at the Armory. Dad and I viewed the tomb from the second tier listening to the audio narration, standing on the exact same spot that Hitler stood some 40 years prior. Apparently, Hitler only stayed in the city long enough to pay his respects to the former Emperor then returned to “The Fatherland”. You can imagine the history as it was so thick you could breath it and taste it. Next we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the Ile d’ la Cite where we were led through several layers of ruins and catacombs underneath the structure. Many of the bridges still have an “N” for Napoleon. The roads of Paris were layed-out in a fashion similar to the spokes of a bicycle in order for Napoleon to rapidly deploy his troops in any direction from the city.
Another day, Dad and I ventured out to the North of the city on foot towards the Sacre Coeur Basilica in the Montmarte district of the 18th arrondissement (parish), which is where all the impressionists hung out around the turn of the last century. We passed over Montmarte Cemetery thinking that that was the resting place of many famous personalities. However; just recently I discovered that it was not the cemetery we thought it was. The one with Jim Morrison, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Balzac and the others is in the East cemetery (Pere LaChaise). My belief had been in error for 27 years on this matter. Later that afternoon, we found ourselves directly in front of the “Moulin Rouge”. We eventually took a taxi back to the hotel.
Finally, just the three of us had a quiet dinner one night at a restaurant one block over called “Le Persil Fleur” . I’m sure that it was the spinach salad that gave me Napoleon’s revenge. I spent most of that night discovering alternate uses for the bidet that was in my bathroom.
Supertramp was appearing for a live concert while we were there. When the album was finally released the following year, it was titled “Paris” and turned out to be the best-mastered live album ever produced up to that date. I wanted to be at that show but went out clubbing instead. One disco I checked out had a New York City “Studio 54” feel to it. The people were very open and friendly, which sort of surprised me, and when asked where I was from I tried to explain that I was from Indianapolis, Indiana. The inquisitor would make race car driving gestures to show that they understood, or if that didn’t work, then I would try explaining that I was from the Chicago area, getting machine gun firing gestures as the sign of comprehension. Also, MTV was filming a video just a block down our street “Rue de Caumartin”, but I wasn’t able to get close enough to get the details of the band involved.
I was not quite ready to go back home yet, however; this “vacation” was definitely not a relaxing one. We covered a great deal of the sights during the short time we spent there (10 days), but a person could spend an entire year there and barely scratch the surface. The history is profound, every square inch of the region has some significance and a story behind it. We had been walking on stone steps and walkways that have been in use for thousands of years.
I bought myself a nice large canvas duffle bag to tote my newly acquired possessions back home with. I ended up getting at least 20 years of steady use out of that piece of luggage.
We departed out of Charles DeGaulle Airport which is quite a drive from the inner city. The return flight was not nearly as traumatic as was the eastbound since we were literally following the sun all afternoon, though it was indeed the longest day of my life.
The Nina Ricci perfume I bought in Paris for my Sister went over really well. Not long after my return home to Indiana, I was strolling the aisles of the local Haag drugstore. I looked up and saw a bottle of, you guessed it, Nina Ricci at a fraction of the price I paid overseas.
The night before I was to leave on the trip, my friend Vaughn handed me some cash to get him a cool Parisian shirt as a memento. I ended up having to make a quick purchase at a chemise shop next to our hotel just before we had to leave to come home, so I didn’t spend much time shopping for it. When I presented Vaughn’s shirt to him, I could tell that he was a little disappointed with the “cool shirt”, especially for the money he paid. Sorry Vaughn!
Of course I had to go into detail recounting the events of the trip to everyone I confronted when I got home, but as soon as I got a chance, I slipped into my own bedroom and put on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Swamp Music”.
It sure was good to be back in the good ol’ U S of A!