A sophomore hits the City of Lights
On the sunny morning of August 18, 1966, our group of fifty students from the University of Notre Dame rode a bus from Orly Airport to the Paris train station Gare de l'Est. We had just flown in from New York to begin our sophomore year in Europe. As the bus sped down the boulevards, I remember
seeing an old man walking along the curb wielding a huge rake [quoteright]made of tree branches. With his beret, vest, and blue breeches, he was to form my first lasting impression of that year. I began humming the melody of a Kingston Trio ballad — about a young man going to Paris, as every young man must.
Minutes later, we alighted at the Gare de l'Est with our moderator, Father Engleton. Also with us were our English professor, Dr Lordi, and his wife and two children. We set all our luggage in front of the station, and some students volunteered to stand watch. Our train was to depart in a few hours for Salzburg, Austria, where we were to spend six weeks reviewing German at a summer school. Then we would settle in Innsbruck for classes at the university.
I heard two fellow students talking as if they had been to Paris before. Others spoke of visiting the Louvre, while one group spoke in low voices about going to Pigalle. Still another band walked off to explore the nearest taverne.
Father Engleton walked among them exchanging advice, with his Yashica in one hand and an ever-present pipe in the other. The wry expression on his face was partially covered by sunglasses, while his blue ski jacket, another trademark, seemed to weigh down his small frame. Dr Lordi, who was about the same size, stood by in his tweed suit and injected his own congeniality into the technical discussions.
I paired up with Dave Browne, who had been in my freshman German class. Dave had studied German for two years in High School, while I had studied only Latin. He was friendly but very sensitive, with a streak of peevishness that usually tapped a well of understanding and good humor in those about him. He had black hair that stood up in a brush crew-cut with a widow's peak, and his baggy pants were always secured above the waist by a thin black belt.
We decided to see Notre Dame Cathedral and then the Arch of Triumph. Neither of us knew any French, but Dave immediately assumed the role of interpreter. He stopped a few people and found out what any map would have told us — that the street we were on, probably the rue de Faubourg, led right to the Pont au Change and to the Ile de la Cite. We continued on our way.
At nineteen, I was not yet imbued with that love for the random occurrences of the street which Louis Aragon had defined so well in his novel Le Paysan de Paris. But I felt the urge to satisfy my curiosity and fascination for the French. Until that day, I had seen them only in the movies and in the beloved works of Dumas and Maupassant.
Few people were walking about on that warm afternoon. No doubt many of them had herded out of town to enjoy their traditional summer vacations. But, all at once, a beautiful red-haired woman stepped out of an apartment doorway and walked quickly past us. Though she was gazing downward in a pensive manner, I caught a glimpse of her blue eyes, small painted lips, and the roundness of her face. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, with an almost classic hourglass figure beneath a white dress patterned with flowers. Had I encountered a legendary Parisian demimondaine or a star of the Lido? Or had Nana herself blessed me with an apparition, as Louis Aragon wrote of some forty years earlier on those same streets?
"She walked away toward the rue Chauchat and I was left stunned, for instead of a shadow she had a sash of light which escorted her over the sidewalk."
I expressed curiosity about her to Dave, as I fought back an impulse to run back and talk to her.
"Well, people are different here," he answered, "and it's not for us to criticize them for it." Whoever she was, she would be my very own Nana, as she hurried past me in my memories forever.
We soon reached the lie de la Cite and the front of Notre Dame Cathedral. To one side stood the statue of the mounted Charlemagne, attended by two mustachioed Frankish aides brandishing broadswords and battle-axes. I enjoyed the brazen strength and patriotism which the three giant figures seemed to symbolize.
Dave and I paid the one franc admission and climbed the narrow, curving staircase from the foot of the North Tower. A number of school children were descending in the opposite direction. They were thin and fair-skinned, and the boys wore shorts with suspenders stretched over their drab shirts. A few of them had eyeglasses that looked too thick and heavy for their small faces. As they counted the steps in still another strange language, they seemed like a procession of angels making their way down into the world with a special mission from heaven.
The staircase took Dave and me to the platform of the South Tower, which offered a view of Paris beyond the motionless rage of the gargoyles. But the buildings that extended on both sides of the island and northwest beyond the golden walls of the Palace of Justice seemed little more than a cubistic melange. The entire panorama, highlighted by the white ovate dome of Sacre-Coeur and by the all-too-familiar Eiffel Tower, only added to my feeling of alienation.
We went back down the staircase and walked around the inside of the cathedral. In his delightful book A Wanderer in Paris, which first appeared in 1909, English author E. V. Lucas wrote: "When I first knew Notre Dame it was, to a visitor from the open air, all scented darkness. And then as one grew accustomed to the gloom the cathedral opened slowly like a great flower..."
When Dave and I entered, however, it was well-lit and crowded with other visitors and organized tours. What uniqueness or solemnity the interior held was lost on both of us. Besides, we were hungry. We walked back outside and found a restaurant across the street.
"Does anybody speak English here?" Dave asked loudly as soon as we got through the door. The restaurant was radiant with sunlight and crowded with casually-dressed people who looked like workers and shop clerks enjoying their afternoon respite. Dave stepped up to a table of clientele and repeated: "Speak English?" The people merely smiled and watched us curiously, while I whispered admonishment.
"Listen, we're foreigners here," Dave countered, "and the only way we're going to get anything across to these people is by coming out and asking them."
We made our way to a table in the back, where a plump woman in a smock was playfully combing the hair of a blond young man. A gold tooth sparkled at the side of her mouth as she took our order for beer and sandwiches. The young man introduced himself as a German named "Ed," and we shook hands. He offered us cigarettes, and Dave took one.
"Nein, danke," I replied emphatically. "Ich rauche nicht."
"'Ich rauche nicht'," Ed mimicked, as he lit a cigarette for himself. "Oh well, I guess you have to start somewhere. So he starts by speaking German in Paris." Ed's English was very good, and so was lunch.
We bid farewell to him and the proprietress, who was still joking with us in French. Then we took the obligatory stroll along the left bank of the Seine. The bookstalls were glutted with prints and postcards of local landmarks, and tended by elderly heavy-set men with muffled accents and a predictable off-handedness.
We enjoyed perusing the covers of the dime novels, with their cryptic titles and illustrations of villains and pretty heroines: "...installments at twenty-five centimes full of detective adventures, images of great men and a thousand different titles," as Apollinaire had written. Just as pleasing was the scene of the stalls themselves arranged against the famous Seine, with a few moored gray barges bobbing slowly in the water. I caught sight of a shabbily-dressed couple with bundles on their backs scampering under one of the bridges. Were these the same clochards that Simenon and his Inspector Maigret admired so much? It was then that I began to realize my own preference for quaint, everyday sights over the grander, more famous monuments.
Nevertheless, Dave and I set off for the Arch of Triumph, and we crossed back over the Seine to the Champs-Elysees. But that promenade, with its rows of banks and fashion shops, its droves of well-dressed people and its relative asepsis, held no particular interest for me. Once again, I felt lost and very uncomfortable. Dave did not seem to mind, however. He gazed about and talked with the eagerness of an explorer about to come upon the object of his quest.
When we reached the Arch of Triumph, I recalled a well-known and very sad photograph — the one of German soldiers parading beneath the Arch on foot, horseback, and motorcycles when Paris fell on June 14, 1940. Twenty-five years later, we were witnesses only to the frivolour prelude of a European traffic jam: tiny brightly-colored autos jerking forward under the Arch, while others raced around the Place de l'Etoile.
I skimmed the names of Napoleon's victories engraved on the shields along the summit of the Arch. At least, dwelling on the military achievements of the Little Corporal took my mind off the horrors of the Second World War. Elsewhere in his book about Paris, E. V. Lucas advised that the sculptures on the Arch "are not to be studied without serious inconvenience." While Dave regarded them with no apparent inconvenience whatsoever, I decided to postpone my in-depth observations for another time.
We walked only part of the way back to the Gare de l'Est. I remember listening dumbfounded to a thin, gray-haired police officer, as he gave us elaborate directions while directing traffic in his white gloves and kepi. Dave nodded assuredly and led the way. Then we fell in with two of our classmates who had just left the Louvre, and we traveled the rest of the way back on the Metro.
After we reached the Gare de l'Est, Dave and I went to a nearby shop to buy some bread and wine, which most of our group had already done. By then it was late afternoon, and our train was scheduled to leave in a little over an hour.
We rejoined our classmates already bivouacked among the suitcases and other luggage, which were now covered by the station's shadow. As I lay back against the bricks of the station, a little girl and an old woman with a scarf hanging loosely around her head walked slowly on the sidewalk in front of us. They stopped and looked at us. As the woman spoke to the little girl, her wrinkled face took on an expression of extreme rancor — as if it were being squeezed in the talons of one of the gargoyles atop Notre Dame. I could not help feeling sorry for her, and I tried to imagine what had caused her bitterness. Then the two of them walked on.
I sipped a little more wine and conversed awkwardly with classmates around me, who were still strangers. Meanwhile, Father Engleton and Dr Lordi were asking everyone how they had enjoyed their first day in Europe. Like others, I tried to reply as enthusiastically as possible. It was difficult to realize that those few hours in Paris marked the beginning of an experience which we could build upon for the rest of our lives.
Soon afterward, we boarded the train for Salzburg.
Writer and poet JAMES LOVERDE has matured a bit since the events recounted here in "First Day in Europe." He has had articles published in Sports Illustrated and Chicago magazine, among other places. He lives in Chicago.
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