I recently learned from an acquaintance that she and her husband were leaving for France where they plan to enjoy the onset of autumn with a month-long walk through the countryside. How much I envy them. This past summer Sally Ann and I were in rural Québec a couple of times and a good friend reminded me how nice it is to be in New England one moment, and with a quick step across an arbitrarily drawn line on a map, one is suddenly transported to France. Well, not exactly, but it is the next best thing. Still, I am reminded of my own trips to la belle France, especially to Paris.
My first visit to the French capital came in June 1968, at a time when the city, perhaps the entire world, was in turmoil. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis that spring followed by widespread rioting in several American cities, including here in Washington, DC, in nearby Baltimore and Salisbury, Maryland, and in Wilmington, Delaware. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination came only two weeks before I left for Europe. This country’s military actions in Southeast Asia had reach a crescendo in the spring with the battle at Khe Sanh. Eastern Europe was in turmoil with Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to moderate his predecessor’s hardline Stalinist policies in Czechoslovakia which would lead to the Soviet invasion of that country in August. Nigerian genocide in secessionist Biafra went largely ignored by the rest of the world. Civilization as we knew it appeared to be teetering on the brink.
The month before I arrived in Paris the city and the rest of France had suffered through a crippling general strike which brought about the near collapse of Charles de Gaulle’s 10-year Fifth Republic (he eventually dissolved parliament and briefly went into exile In Germany). Workers closed factories and students occupied their universities, threw up barricades and fought the police who used heavy-handed tactics to restore order. Much of the Left Bank - the Latin Quarter and the areas around the Sorbonne - were sealed off by the police.
Upon my arrival the country was gearing up for new national elections which would, ironically, give de Gaulle an even stronger mandate than before. Much of the Left Bank, including the areas around the Sorbonne, had returned to some semblance of order as students abandoned their barricades. But the tension was still palpable. I had no real agenda upon my arrival. I simply wanted to be a flâneur, what Charles Baudelaire described as an individual who walks through a city in order to truly experience what it has to offer. And that is what I did. I wandered the streets of Paris just to see what there was to see. And what I saw was the aftermath of the recent unrest. Many of the ancient cobblestone streets had been torn up, the cobbles thrown at the police by the student protesters. There were still a few burned out automobiles about, and the remnants of barricades near the Sorbonne. This was all new to a young fellow from America’s heartland. But changes were coming there, too.
I would return to the United States later that summer to similar protests in the streets of my hometown when Mayor Daley ordered the Chicago police to put down protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention. There I had my first and only exposure to tear gas on my way to visit the Shedd Aquarium, on the lakefront.
During the summer of 1971, I spent a quiet few months at home in Wisconsin preparing for the upcoming academic year in Germany where university students, much like their American counterparts, were questioning their own government.. I would also return to Paris, my first trip back in three years, where I planned to spend several days of “decompression” in preparation for the cultural and linguistic “bends” I expected upon my arrival in Germany. I was excited to be going back and I remembered those heady days of June 1968 during my first visit to the city. Yet I was looking forward to a more tranquil visit.
Upon my arrival in Paris in late August 1971, I had occasion to visit the old
American Center for Artists and Students, a rather shabby and dilapidated building at 261, Boulevard Raispal, in the Montparnasse. Founded in 1931, it had become a destination and hang-out for many notable Americans living in or visiting Paris. By the 1960s, it was one of the few places where one could see American experimental theater, attend readings by American writers and poets, and enjoy the best of American culture. It was also a gathering place for American students, those who were attending university, as well as those like myself, who were just passing through and were happy to find a place to read an American newspaper while enjoying a real American hamburger. I had been there in 1968, when it was still dealing with the after shocks of the unrest that summer.
Not so in 1971. There were many young Americans in Paris on their own individual pilgrimages of discovery. It was here that I fell in with a group who were off on a Métro ride to the Père Lachaise cemetery in search of the grave of Jim Morrison, the charismatic frontman of The Doors who had died in Paris in early July, just a month prior to my arrival. The grave was still unmarked and we had several conflicting reports as to where it might be located. We never found it, but it gave me another chance to be a flâneur as I wandered through the cemetery looking for the final resting places of others - Balzac, Chopin, Moliere, and two of my favorite painters - Eugene Delecroix and Armedeo Modigliani. I also visited the Pantheon, not far from my hotel in the rue Monge (Gaspard Monge, a French mathematician and draftsman designed the building), which is the final resting place of Voltaire, Zola, Hugo and others.
During another visit to the Center, I met a group of American students attending the Sorbonne and we spent a good part of one afternoon and early evening in various bistros and brasseries along the Boulevard-Saint-Germain. As the evening wore on, one of our group told us about a party later that evening at the home of James Jones, the American expatriate writer best known for his novel From Here to Eternity (1952) which I first read the year before, around the same time I read his The Merry Month of May (1970), in which he describes the unrest in Paris in 1968. We eventually made our way across Pont de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis, to the Île-St.-Louis, ending up outside a rather elegant 17th Century building facing the river on the Quai d’Orleans. I was introduced to Mr. Jones, who graciously welcomed us to his home, and the rest of that evening remains a pleasant blur of images fueled by some wonderful French wine. There was a constant coming and going of people with knots of conversation and debate in every room and niche of that grand residence. Several of us eventually ended up walking quai-side below the Pont de la Tournelle before taking it back to the Left Bank as I made my way to my hotel.
I would not return to Paris until the late summer of 1981 . . . a brief stopover on my way to Vienna on business. I was stuck at a hotel near the airport and only had an opportunity to go into the city for one afternoon and evening, I returned to the Pere Lachaise cemetery where I finally found Jim Morrison’s grave. And I ended up at a Vietnamese restaurant in the rue Monge that I first discovered a decade earlier. The place looked much as I remembered it. Eating Vietnamese cuisine in Paris in 1971 seemed just a tad revolutionary what with the posters of Bác Hô (“Uncle Hô” Chi Minh) and Viet Cong banners on the walls. The banners were now gone although a small framed picture of Hô remained. But the food was just as good as I remembered. Unfortunately, the old American Center was gone and I wondered where American students and expatriates congregate now?
It has been almost 30 years since I have been to Paris. Maybe it is time to go back again. I enjoy my occasional trips to Montréal and to rural Québec, but perhaps it is time to be a true flâneur again (in Montréal this term is rather pejorative, referring to one who is loitering). I would love to return to the back streets of the Left Bank where I wandered here and there with no set agenda or schedule. There is still much to see and experience.
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