In the fall of 1980 my friend David won an airline ticket in some contest. Needing money far more than a holiday, he immediately set about trying to convince me to buy it from him.
I wasn't especially interested, having already had a very hectic year of both foreign and domestic misadventures, but he persisted, pointing out that the ticket was valid for any three destinations, and would allow me to stay away for up to a year. The latter point sounded appealing, or would have, except that my parents were making their first-ever visit to California in only three weeks time, and I of course was expected to be there to welcome them.
Somehow David persuaded me anyway, and I took the ticket off his hands and planned a quick trip that would give me one week each in Paris, Rome and Cairo. Why those three cities, especially when I'd already been to the first two? I have no idea, but that's not germane to the story anyway.
I arrived in Paris on the 22nd of October, and was introduced to the obdurate bureaucracy of the Arab world when I tried to obtain a visa for the Egyptian leg of my trip. It took me the better part of a week of traveling back and forth across town before I succeeded in persuading the Egyptian embassy to fill two pages of my passport with an elaborate montage of stamps and licenses, and by that time I'd already missed my flight to Rome. Well, not so much missed it as simply let it go.
I'd taken up lodging in some fifth or sixth-floor garret in St. Germain-des-Prés, and fallen in with some of the local hipsters and street urchins (I believe SGdP was a good deal less posh in those days). After a few nights of guzzling vin rouge and babbling about philosophy until dawn, I figured I might as well buy a beret and a goatee and stick around.
I never actually obtained either item, but a week later, on my birthday as it happened, I took a melancholy wander around the city on what turned out to be a preternaturally warm and beautiful day for so late in the season. I remember spending a long while in the Jardin du Luxembourg and watching a puppet show, and later in the day I found myself sitting across the river from the Eiffel Tower. But as it got dark and a chill set in, I began feeling sorry for myself, what with being alone on my birthday, and decided to treat myself to a full-fledged sit-down meal in a genuine French restaurant (up to this time I'd been mostly living on fast food and takeaways).
I ordered lapin au moutarde - the first, and I believe only time I've ever had rabbit - and a bottle of wine, among other things, realizing that the bill was going to come to something like $25, which at the time seemed like a phenomenal amount. But when I asked for it, I was told that it had already been paid "par les mademoiselles-là."
I looked in the direction indicated by le garçon and saw two giggling girls who were at most about 19 or 20 and did not at all look like they could afford to be splashing out $25 on a stranger's dinner. I tried to persuade them that I was in a better position to pay the bill than they were, but they wouldn't hear of it, and instead dragged me off to someplace called "Club Romeo," a working class disco in some part of Paris I'd never seen before. It was kind of a New Wave version of the place where John Travolta and his oikish mates hung out in Saturday Night Fever, albeit with distinctly French variations like floor-to-ceiling mirrors, in front of which one perfectly coiffed young dandy was intently grooving to, naturellement, Generation X's "Dancing With Myself."
That was the beginning of a 12-day séjour replete with random dashes across town at insensible hours to destinations unspecified, glances pregnant with import that was never specified, and an endless variety of sighs, most but not all inaudible, all played out at a herky-jerky pace and in dimly lit surroundings that made it feel as though our world had gone all black and white. In other words, very much those arty French films I'd spent much of the 70s watching but seldom understanding.
Of the two girls, one was sharp and angular and the other round and slightly squishy - someone less charitable or less under the spell of Paris than I was might have said she was verging on overripe. Sylvie was the name of the edgy one, and despite having barely entered her 20s, already had a careworn and beset look about her face that you felt would not age well. Maryse was the other one, and all these years I've thought of her as "joconde," as in a combination of jovial and rotund (that plus the fact that we saw the Mona Lisa together), only to discover today that except as a proper name, there is no such French word.
Although Maryse smiled frequently, it was most often wan and wistful, and she harbored a deep sadness that only became fully evident on the last night I spent with the girls before flying back to California. Against my vehemently stated wishes, I'd been dragged to see Bette Midler's The Rose, a ludicrous vanity pic in which the normally talented Ms. Midler doubly miscast herself, first as a rock star, then as a heroin addict. I continued to express my dissatisfaction all through the film by sardonic comments and snorts of barely suppressed laughter, and at the end Maryse, literally in tears, called me une bête méchante and informed me that her mother was a heroin addict.
This wasn't the first time emotional fireworks had flared up among the three of us - in fact they were a near-constant - but they were by far the worst, and though we had patched things up by the time I took my leave, the spell had been broken. I may have written to them once after arriving back in the US, but never heard from or of them again. I should mention that the entire time we were together it was never made clear which if either of them I was expected to be with, though it often seemed that they were both vying for my affections, and nearly all the blowups that happened had their origins in my paying too much or too little attention to one or the other.
The plan, as it often is for a young American besotted with Paris and its inhabitants, was for me to make a quick trip to California to see my parents and get my affairs in order, at which point I'd return to Paris, presumably forever. As you might have guessed, it never happened, though it easily could have. In the many years since, I've stopped by briefly on a couple occasions, but never found that sort of connection with the city again. During all the years I lived in London, I never once took the opportunity to hop over on the Eurostar, and even, to my shame, joined in some of the French-bashing that flared up in the US after 9/11 and which has been a constant in the UK since at least the War of the Roses.
Well, at last I've come back, and can't help wondering what would have happened if I had followed through on my plan to move here in 1980. Presumably my French would be a good deal better instead of having noticeably deteriorated, but on the other hand, most Parisians seem to have learned English, a skill they either lacked or refused to display on my earlier visits. It's a bit frustrating, in fact; because it's no longer necessary to speak French, it's that much harder to relearn even what little I did know of the language.
Apart from that, however, the city is as beautiful and wonderful as ever, perhaps even more so, and tomorrow, my birthday, I will retrace some of my steps of that day 28 years ago, beginning with the Jardin du Luxembourg and then on to the Tuileries. I'm not expecting - nor even am I particularly desiring - a strenuous aventure of the sort that befell me way back when, but perhaps I will, just for old time's sake, stop in at the restaurant on the Boulevard St. Michel and order the lapin au moutarde just to see what happens.
By the way, I quite literally fell for Paris last night when I walked into one of those chains that are sometimes stretched along sidewalks at an altitude of 12 inches or so for reasons I've never quite understood - it's not as though they're really going to stop you crossing there, though in my case, I suppose this one did, as I went flying and landed flat on some very hard pavement with a rather frightening thud (at least the couple walking in front of me looked terrified). It's kind of a miracle that nothing was broken; I didn't even do any damage to my clothes, though my dignity was certainly shaken. But it was the kind of fall that in the space of less than a second could change everything - a broken leg or hip or skull could just have easily been the result if there'd only been an inch or two difference in the angle at which I hit the pavement. But it didn't, and apart from some aches and pains in my hands that I used to break the fall, I'm about as close to good as new as I'm ever likely to be and ready to venture out once more into these beautiful autumn streets in search of the perfect batch of pommes frites de la liberté.