The second time I went to Paris, I was older and married and we were returning from a week in the South of France, and we spent two days in Paris before flying home. But that’s not the story barking at me to tell it today. It’s the other one.
Think of this as a recently unearthed blog post written in 1967. No, that one would be more resonating and specific. Think of this instead as a blog post about 1967 written forty-five years later. Because that’s what it is. Not as good, but as a man I knew named Pedro who had fourteen children used to say when I told him I had two:
“Better than nothing.”
It’s March 1967. I am twenty-two years old and living in London. I am currently unemployed, living on a small inheritance, the result of having turned twenty-one, and my late father having left it to me.
I take acting classes three times a week at “The Actor’s Workshop”, and I am strongly encouraged to avoid truancy. Finally, classes break for a week, and I decide to venture on an excursion to what they call in England to “The Continent.”
I feel no trepidation about traveling alone, the same way I am not afraid to fly in a helicopter. You just do it. And if you flame out – how utterly romantic. Also, traveling alone precludes the necessity of negotiation and compromise, the former of which I am poor at, and the latter of which I dislike.
Traveling alone insures congenial companionship.
Here’s how long ago this was. The ‘Travel Bible” of the era was Arthur Frommer’s Europe On Five Dollars A Day. Yes. Five dollars a day. For accommodations. And meals. Transportation. Entry into a museum. Maybe take in a show. A glass of wine. An afternoon croissant. Souvenirs.
Five dollars. For the entire day.
Which was perfect. Because that’s about all could afford.
I tore out the appropriate chapter from the Frommer book, I stuffed it in my pocket, and I went off to Paris. I have written elsewhere about my perilous boat trip across the English Channel. Short version: A man whose acquaintance I had made asked me to take charge of his enormous dog while he went to the Men’s Room. During the crossing, I became excruciatingly seasick, but could not race to the bathroom to throw my guts up, because the man had not returned to retrieve his enormous dog.
I arrive in the late evening, and, with Frommer’s assistance, make my way to the “dirt-cheap hotel” area of Paris. After signing the register, I am handed a key and pointed to a birdcage construction of an elevator, the type I have frequently seen people murdered in in movies. You know those scenes – a person gets on, and when the elevator gets to the lobby, they’re dead?
Reaching my floor, I step into a pitch-black corridor, save for a tiny, illuminated push button by each door. I quickly deduce that the little lights are meant to, first, help you make out the numbers on the door so you can find your room in the dark, and second, allow you to more easily fit your key into the keyhole.
Despite this illuminational assistance, I experience enormous difficulty. I end up fumbling down the corridor, feeling the room numbers with my hand, and when I finally find my room, I have a devil of a time locating the keyhole.
It is only later I am informed that the illuminating lights were meant to direct hotel guests to buttons, which, when pushed, would turn on the overhead lights in the hallway.
Hey, I had never been to Paris before!
Excited to be there, instead of going straight to bed, I decide to go outside and explore the neighborhood. I exit my hotel, and with a stranger’s sense of adventure, I let my legs take me where they wanted to go, which was entirely arbitrary, as my legs had never been to Paris before either.
I pass, I don’t know, a bar, a bistro, some brightly-lit establishment with noise coming out of it. I decide to check it out.
It is not a fancy place – How could it be? It’s in the same neighborhood as my “dirt- cheap” hotel – but it has a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. Groups of people are hanging out at tables, at the bar, a small crowd is gathered around a pinball machine. I hear English spoken, so I amble over there.
An attractive, dark-haired girl is taking her turn, and doing quite well, deftly flipping the flippers, ringing the bells, and racking up considerably pointage. I decide to announce my presence with a question:
“Is this a ‘Gottlieb’?” I inquire, referring to the most popular pinball machine manufacturer of the day.
“No, it’s a ‘Williams’”, she replies, mentioning the competitive Pepsi to the “Gottlieb’s” Coke.
My foray into pinball expertise has hit the target, if not quite the bulls-eye. The attractive dark-haired girl invites me to her table, populated by half a dozen American expatriates, all students of an avant-garde French acting school. How avant-garde is it? They are currently rehearsing a play in which each of the actors plays a different internal organ of the human body. (The dark-haired girl had won the coveted role of "The Spleen.")
I hang out with this crowd, until, figuring there’s nothing more desperate than a clingy stranger, I say, “Nice meeting you all”, and I take off.
I continue exploring the neighborhood, discovering an item in an antique store window that I immediately covet – a very-old-looking, colorfully adorned deck of oversized, round playing cards. I have never seen round playing cards before. I thought how wonderful it would be to have them for my own.
The antique store is closed. And besides, I feared the asking price for this certain one-of-a-kind treasure would take would take a prohibitive bite out of my five-dollar-a-day spending limit.
Having had a long day of travel and vomiting (the man finally came back for his dog), I decide to head back to my hotel. As I pass another lively gathering spot, I hear someone racing out the door, and calling my name. It is a member of the acting troupe playing the internal organs. They had seen me pass by, and in a tone nudging towards insistence, I was invited to rejoin them.
Which I did. Strangers were being nice to me. I couldn’t say no.
Finally, however, I was overcome with an uncontrollable fit of yawning. I got up, saying I had to go to bed. I sensed a wisp of disappointment from the attractive, dark-haired girl.
Okay, this is Paris – the City of Romance. The opportunity…I don’t know, I have no great track record for “reading signals”, but there seemed to be something there.
Paris was demanding that I make a move. But you know what I say: “You are what you are, and you do what you do.” What do I do?
I went back to the hotel,
And I felt for my room.
I went back to the hotel,
And I felt for my room.