March 8, 1970 …
It’s finally happening. I can hardly believe it! Paris, here I come!!!
The train pulled out of Victoria station at 10.30 on Sunday morning, heading for Dover and the ferry to Calais. I wondered if I’d see the cliffs and wished I had someone to sing the song with if we sailed past them. I wasn’t brave enough to sing all alone … with my non-melodious voice I’d probably get thrown overboard!
I could barely believe that soon I’d be in Paris! My English friends had warned me that the French are very anti-British and no-one there spoke English, even if they knew how.
I wondered how many English people would respond to a Frenchman asking directions in French in London and suspected there were as many anti-French English people as there might be anti-English French people!
Even so, this was going to be an interesting experience. Other than ‘merci’ and ‘bonjour’, I spoke no French whatsoever, so how would I be able to communicate? Apart from the ship’s ports of call (where almost everyone spoke English because their livelihood depended on it), this would be only my second foreign-speaking country. But Rotterdam didn’t really count. I had Peter to translate for me.
The ferry took just over an hour to reach Calais. Oh the joys of being back at sea again! And yes, I saw the cliffs. There wasn’t a bluebird in sight, but I hummed quietly under my breath anyway.
I boarded the train at Calais and arrived in Gay Paree at 7pm. American Express said I’d have no problem finding accommodation during off season, so I hadn’t made any bookings.
As they advised, I went straight to the tourist office in the station.
” Monsieur, I am looking for hotel tonight ….”
“No. None.” He moved further down the counter.
“Monsieur, please,” I hurried after him, “I need hotel, can you tell me ….”
“No English!” he snapped.
“No hotel for English?” I asked meekly.
“No speak Anglais.” And with that, he strode away and disappeared through a door behind the counter, leaving me standing, alone and worried, with only a bulky suitcase for company.
I walked around Paris for a while, now feeling far less excited about being there as night began to close in. Snowflakes swirled around me, some landing on my nose or cheek. I fought hard to retain my excitement … this was Paris, it was snowing, I was here! … but I had nowhere to sleep tonight, and no idea where to go or who to ask or even HOW to ask.
I eventually found a big fancy hotel, shyly entered and nervously approached the front desk to inquire about their room rates. As expected, they were way beyond my budget. At least I had found someone – perhaps the only person in Paris – who admitted to understanding English! That gave me hope there may be others.
The manager was charming and helpful. He phoned a less-expensive hotel, booked a room with breakfast for around $2 per night, drew directions on a notepad and waved me off with a smile.
Fortunately, the Hotel Metropole was only a block away.
Now I could wander around Paris without worrying about where I’d be sleeping in tonight, and without lugging a heavy suitcase. I confess, I’d been eyeing off railway bridges and shop doorways.
I dumped my suitcase in my room and ventured out to greet the famous city with a little more enthusiasm but limited myself to the same block so I could eventually find my way back. I turned a corner and suddenly found myself slap bang in the middle of the Champs Elysees. It seemed to go on forever. Shops, theatres, cars buzzing past, people shopping, wandering, rushing, strolling, eating in outdoor cafes, and just a little way further down, there was the famous Arc de Triomphe all lit up and looking so beautiful it almost took my breath away.
Yes! I was in Paris!
I found a small cafe in a narrow side street and nervously entered. A waiter brought me a menu. Nothing was in English! I didn’t want to order snails by mistake, but fortunately I recognized the word ‘omelette.’
“Omelette, merci” I said confidently as though I had lived in Paris for years.
“Huh?” he said with a quizzical expression.
I pointed to the word on the menu. “Ah, omma-lettt-eh! Oui.” he nodded.
Then he asked me a question. Oh dear. I looked at him. He looked back at me. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Finally I said “non parlay Francais.”
After another long pause, I meekly enquired, “Parlay Anglais?”
He shrugged and walked away.
Why hadn’t I listened to my friends in London and bought a French-English dictionary? I had no idea what to do now! Should I sit and wait, or beg another waiter to serve me? Perhaps I should just leave quickly before someone called the French Foreign Legion to come and evict an arrogant customer who dared to enter a Parisienne eating establishment and then positively refuse to converse in French?
Thankfully, the waiter returned a short time later (although it seemed like hours) with … yes, an omelette! On a plate. Just a small, pale yellow omelette on a large white dinner plate. No chips. No salad. Not even grated cheese or a sprig of parsley on top!
Perhaps that’s what he’d asked me! Oh well, at least it wasn’t frog’s legs!
Chandris facebook page member, Neville Fenn recalls that on one of the many occasions he’d taken a bus-load of eager travellers to Paris, a pending snow storm convinced them to pack up camp and drive through the night to Barcelona. But first, they agreed to dine in style at a Parisienne restaurant.
The hungry group thoroughly enjoyed their meal and headed off into the night, only to meet the storm head on about two hours later. Pulling over to let it pass, they began discussing their delicious dinner and asked Neville what they’d eaten.
When Neville told them the truth … that they’d hungrily scoffed crumbed frogs legs and grilled escargots for starters, and that the steak they’d devoured was actually horse meat, half the passengers immediately retracted their praise and demanded better meals in future.
Thank goodness I ordered the one menu item I recognized. I was 21 and in no way ready for such exotic delicacies, although perhaps I’d have enjoyed them as much as Neville’s passengers had. At least I’d never have known without Neville there to set me straight!
After dinner it was straight back to my sweet little hotel (yes, I found it again!) and had an early night after an exhausting day, unlike another Chandris member Olwyn Trimble, who visited Paris in 2013 with her sister and two adult daughters.
The foursome decided to make a night of it at the Moulin Rouge, but the highlight was a scanitily-dressed girl who climbed into a tank of snakes that wrapped themselves around her, and all of it happening at the end of their table. “Scary stuff!” recalls Olwyn.
But the best was yet to come.
After the show, Olwyn and her sister decided to walk back to the hotel, but it didn’t take long for them to realize they had to pass through the red light district. Women in various stages of dress (or un-dress) were parading the street, doorways and alleyways, accosting any man who dared to walk by. Imagine the ladies’ shock when they passed couples ‘doing it’ in doorways and had to almost step over other amorous couples writhing together on the pavement!
What a night they had … from writhing snakes to writhing couples! Ahh, the fleshy delights of gay Paree …