I met Mahlon and Bob at the Victoria station and we took the train to Folkstone on the channel where we transferred immediately to the cross-channel ferry. There was no waiting at all. It was only a short run across the channel to Boulogne but by the time we arrived we had picked up another companion, a young American traveling alone that Mahlon invited to share our hotel room. He was with us until Bob and Mahlon left for Finland, then he went on to Italy where I think he had relatives.
As soon as the boat docked in Boulogne we were surrounded by a swarm of porters fighting to carry our baggage. With only one small hand bag I preferred to carry my own but it wasn't easy to hang on to it. A half dozen men with blue caps kept trying to grab it, shouting instructions in French and broken English about where to go and what to do at the same time. We went thru customs in a hurry; the only thing the customs officer asked about was cigarettes and liquors and none of us had any. The boat-train to Paris was waiting on the dock so we got on board and picked a comfortable seat after which we waited a couple of hours, it seemed, for the rest of the passengers, those with mountains of baggage, to go thru customs. I thought we were rid of the porters but one of them climbed up and hung on to the window sill outside of the car and begged for a tip. We tried to ignore him but he hung there until the train started. It is strange how unimportant episodes like that stick in my mind while other details have left nothing at all in my memory.
The most conspicuous object we could see as the train entered Paris was not the Eiffel Tower but the church of Sacré-Coeur on top of the hill of Montmartre. It reminded me more of a mosque than a church. It wasn't until later that I learned what it was. We arrived at the Gare du Nord and the four of us piled into a decrepit taxi and were taken to a small hotel right in the heart of Paris, recommended by the friend we had picked up on the boat. It was about seven in the evening by that time - we had eaten on the train - and we were ready to go out and explore the town but the hotel clerk sold Mahlon and Bob the idea of buying tickets to a show. We didn't know what kind of show it was but it was within walking distance of the hotel. The clerk told us it was some kind of review. It turned out to be the sort of thing Paris is famous for, similar to the Follies Bergeres but on a smaller scale. When the show was over we came out onto brightly lit streets crowded with people out to amuse themselves. We hadn't gone very far until each of us had a girl hanging on to our arms. We were all young and innocent and we were afraid of what we might be getting into if we went with them so I told them we had to get back to our hotel. I was the only one who knew any French. They were nice looking girls, apparently about twenty years old, and I rather regretted we had to tell them goodbye. I was accosted by many such girls while I was in Europe, some of them very persistent and hard to get rid of.
The next day, while the other boys went sightseeing, I tried to find a rooming house; I didn't want to stay in a hotel all summer. I bought a newspaper and looked in the want ads but there were hardly any rooms listed, just three or four on the left bank near the Sorbonne. I went over there and looked at them. They were on the fourth floor of crummy looking buildings with hardly any furniture and only a small wash basin in the room; the toilet was down the hall. I suppose they were the kind of rooms rented by students in the Sorbonne but I was used to something better. I wondered why there were not more rooms advertized for rent then, by pure chance, I happened to be standing on a corner and noticed a lot of hand-written cards on a bulletin board outside a drugstore and began reading them out of curiosity. Many of them were ads, including rooms for rent. It dawned on me that people here used this method of advertizing instead of placing want-ads in the newspaper. I located a pension (board and room) on a short street branching off of the Champs-Élisées just a few blocks from the Arch de Triumph, one of the nice residential quarters of Paris. The pension was in and old mansion in an interior courtyard hidden from the street. It must have been built by some rich person and converted later into a rooming house. An old Frenchman with [a] long white moustache answered the doorbell and showed me a big room with high ceilings and with one double bed and two singles. It had a separate toilet and bath with modern fixtures and marble floors. I hadn't consulted the other boys but I was sure they would be willing to move from the hotel. The exchange rate at that time was very much in our favor so it was not at all expensive. Bob and Mahlon had planned to spend a week in Paris before moving on to Finland. Breakfast and dinner were included in the price but not the noon meal, which suited us fine. We would be doing a lot of sight-seeing and would find a restaurant to eat lunch wherever we happened to be. I rented the room then took the Metro (the Paris subway) back to the hotel where I announced what I had done. We packed out bags, checked out and moved to our new quarters that same evening. There were about a dozen other people at the pension but no other Americans. Two maids dressed in black with white lace collars, sleeves and caps served us at the table and did the housework, supervised by the wife and daughter of the old Frenchman with the walrus mustache. The evening meal was good but breakfast consisted of only a roll or croissant and coffee or chocolate, continental style.
During the day the four of us visited a museum, an art gallery or one of the big parks such as the Bois de Boulogne or the Jardin des Plantes or just wandered around the streets in the shopping area. When we got tired we stopped at a sidewalk café - they were everywhere - for a dish of ice cream or a lemonade - none of us drank wine - and rested for a half hour or so. One of our favorite spots was the Café de la Paix near the Opera. The American Express Co. offices were in that area and Bob and Mahlon, like a lot of Americans in Paris for a short time, had their mail forwarded there and likewise got their traveler's checks cashed.
Of course, we went on evening to the Follies Bergeres, the one Parisian night spot every American has heard of. Josephine Baker, the American Negro girl, who became famous in Paris, was the main attraction. She came down a long ramp onto the stage wearing nothing but a bunch of bananas around her hips, keeping time to a slow tropical drum beat. The ramp represented a fallen log and the rest of the immense stage was set as an African village with naked villagers scattered about. Most of the show consisted of a series of extravagant stage settings with short vaudeville acts performing in a small space before the main curtain as the scenery behind was being rearranged.
After the show we wandered around the brightly lit streets of Montmartre for a half hour or so to mingle with the crowds and look at the dazzling display of electric lights on the facades of the shows, dance halls and cafés. About midnight we took the metro back to our quarters and Passy. None of us were night hawks.
July 14th was the French national holiday, Bastille Day, and we celebrated by spending the day at Versailles along with half the population of Paris. It is one day of the year when all of the numerous fountains are put into operation from morning 'til evening and after dark there was a display of fireworks. We left before it was over to try to beat the crowd back to the city. As we stood watching, Mahlon spotted a young Negro man in a French army uniform that he insisted must be an American because he looked just like the colored people in America. When he went over to try to talk to the fellow, however, he found he couldn't speak English.
We all wanted to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower but something always interfered until the last day the boys were in Paris, then the morning was foggy. About an hour before their train was to leave, however, the sun came out. We hired a taxi and hurried to the tower where we found a line of people waiting for the elevator to the top. To wait in line would have made them late for their train so we settled for just going up to the first platform on another elevator that was not so crowded. It was plenty high enough to see all over the city. I fully intended to go back and go clear to the top someday but I never did.
After the boys left, I didn't need such a big room so I moved into a small room on the second floor. It had a toilet and washbowl but the bathtub was down on the first floor, not at all convenient. I never was able to find it unoccupied when I wanted to take a bath and I finally gave up and settled for sponge baths in my room.
I had hoped when I moved into the pension that I would be able to get acquainted with someone there that I could talk to and maybe pal around with but there was none my age around except the old Frenchman's daughter. She kept to the family's quarters. The only one I got to exchange a word with now and then was the maid when she waited on tables. The other pensioners were businessmen or old couples who kept to themselves. As a result my French didn't improve much all the time I was in Paris even tho it was all around me.
I became thoroughly acquainted with the city by taking the Metro out as far as it went in a different direction each day and then exploring on foot. My yellow shoes began to wear out. In the evenings I went to the opera or the Opera Comique. A seat in the highest balcony, about seven or eight flights up from the main lobby, only cost fifteen to eighteen cents because of the low value of the franc that summer. The town was full of Americans and I would often be asked to buy tickets for people who couldn't speak French. They would be behind me in line at the ticket booth, hand me their money and tell me where they wanted to sit. The highest balcony is called the "chicken roost" - "poulaille" in French. Paris has one of the most famous opera houses of Europe and most visitors to the city attended an opera at least once, even tho they knew nothing about it.
Americans were not popular in Paris the summer I was there. After long debate, Congress had refused to cancel the war debts and the franc slid from its normal value of 20 cents, five to the dollar, to between fifteen and twenty five to the dollar. The value changed every day. Instead of going to the American Express to change my money, as I had done when I first arrived, I found a small exchange office where I got a better rate but I never could decide how much to exchange. The next day the rate might be more in my favor. When a group of tourists was spotted they would often be jeered and hooted at, whether they were Americans or not, by the rowdy element.
If you only had a short time in Paris, such as a week or two, the best way to visit the city was to take one of the big, open buses, called "char-a-bancs." I had used them in London where they were called "sharabangs," obviously the same word with an English twist. The literal translation of the word is "car with benches" and that is what they were, about ten rows of seats with room for six or seven people in each row. Each seat had a separate door and there was no aisle down the middle. They were operated by two men, the driver and another man with a megaphone to explain the sights. There were two places I wanted to visit that I couldn't get to by the Metro, Barbizon, the village south of Paris where Corot, Millet and other famous painters had worked, and the old royal residence of Fontainebleau in the same vicinity. It had been Napoleon's residence just before Waterloo.
I went to one of the big hotels to inquire and found that I could get out to both the places I wanted to visit by char-a-banc, an all day trip, leaving at nine a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. I rather looked forward to being with a group of tourists as I had not seen anyone I could talk to since Mahlon and Bob had left for Finland, with the exception of one girl who had been on the Belganland that I had run across in the Sainte Chapelle. At the appointed time, however, when I went to the hotel expecting to find a crowd of tourists, there was no one there. I inquired at the desk and the clerk told me the bus was to pick up more people at another hotel. At any rate, I was the only passenger aboard the bus when time came to leave. We drove over to the other hotel and there were no passengers there either. The driver and hotel clerk left me sitting the bus alone and went off to have a conference. In fifteen or twenty minutes they came back and, without saying a word to me, the driver climbed into the driver's seat and we started for Barbizon and Fontainebleau. I felt rather foolish sitting alone in a bus built to carry 80 people. I had taken a seat about half way back so I was too far away to try to talk to the driver but at the first stop he made where I could get out I asked him if I could sit up front next to him. He had no objections but I found him to be a moody, taciturn man who answered most of my questions with "oui" or "non." I had an hour or so in Barbizon to eat my lunch and visit the village and about two hours to go thru the chateau at Fontainebleau. When we got back to Paris I felt I had to tip my driver but I didn't give him much. He didn't grumble as the taxi drivers did.
Last modified on 20 March 2017 @ 22:30