I Love Paris But I’d Love It a Whole Lot More If You Were Here With Me

In 1968 I spent a week alone in Paris, waiting until the flight on my El Cheapo ticket back to the US was due to leave. I’d grossly overstayed my visa in England, and had to go, so Alice and I went to Paris and spent a week together before she had to get back to school in London. The week together was swell, because she spoke French and had been to Paris before, and so she took care of accommodations and we sat in cafés and had café cognac and Gauloise cigarettes at nine in the morning and visited people she knew. We went up the Eiffel tower and took the metro all over the place and had a wonderful, romantic time of it, staying in an inexpensive room in the student quarter of the Left Bank.

But when she left I was on my own, and all at sea. I spoke no French, and had almost no money and didn’t know anybody. So I wandered on foot all over Paris, doing all the things that were either free or really inexpensive, and avoided human intercourse like the plague. The day before I left, I debated whether I should spend two francs to visit Chapel Saint Louis or eat dinner. I sprang for the Chapel, and though I’ve forgotten the hunger I will never forget the jewel-box of stone and stained glass. Since I couldn’t speak, I shopped for my daily dinner at the self-sairveece, at that time a relative innovation in France. You just went in and picked out what you wanted and paid for it. People didn’t really approve, but it made things much cheaper. So, my daily dinner was a big loaf of fresh bread and a liter of red wine. I bought a liter because I didn’t know how to get a smaller bottle. The bread was delicious, still warm from the oven, and cost as I recollect less than a franc (the exchange rate was five or six francs to the dollar). The wine was from Algeria, and if my memory serves me it cost the incredibly small sum of one franc, 20 centimes, and they threw the bottle in for nothing. The wine was thin and acidic, but sitting under a bridge on the Seine, eating bread and getting drunk (as I invariably did, as a liter of wine on an empty stomach was far too much, but I couldn’t waste it) and looking at Paris was wonderful in the way that things are only wonderful when you’re young. I had dinner one night with some friends of Alice, and brought a bottle of wine that cost five francs. They thought it extravagant of me.

A year before, my sister Lisa had picked up a brother and sister hitchhiking in Berkeley. They stayed with Lisa for two weeks, and we showed them all the local sights and introduced them around. They had urged us to look them up if ever either of us came to France, and I had their address. When I discovered that they lived in the expensive 16th Arrondissement, I became fearful that a maid might answer the telephone and that I would be unable to make myself understood. So, out of shyness, I didn’t call them, although my imaginary fear was doubtless completely unfounded. When I got back to the States it was with tremendous relief. I could talk again.

Another reason I was timid was because our first night in Paris, May first, President DeGaulle had just lost his job, and the students were rioting all over the place. We understood that the police were pleased to arrest any foreign students and blame their domestic disturbances on “outside agitators.” I’d heard this particular song and dance back home, and felt that I’d better watch my step. I understood that if a foreign student—especially an American foreign student, and here I hailed from Berkeley, no less—fell into their hands that it would not go well with him.

The first thing in the morning we were eating a pan au chocolate and drinking coffee in the bright sunshine at a small café in the Latin Quarter and a band of students, drunk and riotous from the night before, roared into the square, pissing in the fountain and hurling incomprehensible abuse in every direction, particularly, it seemed to me, at us because we were foreigners. I couldn’t really tell though, and even though Alice spoke French reasonably well all she got from the raging and fulminating was a general sense of menace and ill-portent. My misgivings at being in Paris were enhanced by this, coming hard on the heels of the previous night’s dinner which was, I found after I had eaten it, horsemeat. It was okay and all, but it did explain why a steak and frits at a place curiously enough called a chauserrie (I didn’t make the connection—everything was weird) cost only five francs.

It’s no fun being in a new place and seeing new things and doing new things by yourself. Life is meant to be lived with somebody to point things out to and talk about them and remember later on with. It takes two to remember something. A man alone is not complete, and neither is the world to a man alone.

June 30, 1994

I love Paris”, Les Baxter with His Chorus and Orchestra, (1953).


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I Love Paris But I’d Love It a Whole Lot More If You Were Here With Me

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