Paris was a wonderous place to visit in the summer of 1970. After a semester abroad in Munich, I began travelling and wound up here – where I’d remain for a full six weeks. There was very little English spoken anywhere and I had no knowledge of French. This did not prove to be an impediment since I did not socialize often. The culture there was iconoclastic and very insular. They even had a language bureau that determined which American words or phrases were permitted into the lexicon. During my stay, they rejected the phrase ‘blue jeans’.
With little more than a street map, I found the Hôtel Americain (the hotel has moved since my sojourn there) across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens, an area I haunted and hunted for most of my visit). At $2.75 per night for a third-floor walkup, the room was more than a steal. Yes, I had to fork over 50 cents every time I wanted to use the common bathtub.
The room was well lived in. The mattress was so old it had a human form molded into it. Lying down, it cradled you, only permitting an on-your-back sleeping position. My landlady had a 26 pound black cat as a pet – and it scared the crap out of me every time I had to sashay past it in the lobby.
During my nightly excursions down to the banks of the river Seine, I witnessed the same scene play out over and over again, yielding much respect and admiration for the European educational system. While it was common in the states for a high school student to study a single foreign language, maybe two including Latin, this limitation was not visible with the young people I hung out with.
As I sat down in a group of about15 students, they recognized me as an American and began speaking English as a polite concession to me. But then a Spanish, or Italian, or German student would arrive, and without missing a beat, the entire group would switch languages with a cadence as smooth as the butter melting on a fresh morning baguette. Slack jawed, I sat in awe of the apparent infinitely malleable discussion. I was humbled.
This was my first trip anywhere alone, and I committed the most grievous error of over packing for the trip under orders from my mother. The end result was that when I left Munich with my knapsack and camera bag, my suitcase remained behind at the Agfa School of Photography. The folks there assured me they would ship it to me no charge when I landed at my final destination.
A quick phone call and it was on the next train to Paris. I was well prepared for my trip, to the extent that I actually packed a stainless steel four-reel film processing tank and all the Kodak chemistry I would need to process film abroad. It did not go to waste, as me and my 4 roommates used the equipment every evening so we could attend class with film ready to print, avoiding the two plus hour delay of working in the lab.
I had to find my way to the Orly International shipping terminal, which meant navigating the bus routes that joined with the subway to create a course of travel. It wasn’t easy locating it: there was a nearly mile hike after the last bus stop. Naturally, no one spoke English, but I had my customs form -- which I utilized as a bread crumb trail to locate the correct office. Stepping inside, I inhaled and froze at what appeared before me.
The scene was right out of ‘Casablanca’ or any 40’s European film noir starring Humphrey Bogart. Behind a small, cramped, wooden desk lit my an exposed bulb hanging from the ceiling sat an overweight undershort balding Frenchman with a mustache. Timidly, I offered him my paperwork and with a grunt to his assistant my luggage was fetched. It was opened and its contents unceremoniously dumped on the already overloaded table. Mr. Moto apparently had no issue examining my dirty underwear but was stopped dead in his tracks by the tank and reels. Stymied, he machine gunned some French at me, inquiring as to the purpose of my tools. We entered phase one of a game of Charades, me trying to formulate the correct hand gestures that would read: “Film processing gear.” Try that sometime when you’ve got some time to kill with a friend.
Ultimately, I made my point, he stamped my import papers, and neatly folded my soiled underwear, returning it to the correct compartment. Back in the day, luggage had no wheels, so I hoisted it over my shoulder and trudged back through the withering heat to the bus stop, carefully retracing my route to the hotel.
As I was about to climb the stairs to the street, I noticed the young mother and child sitting on the bottom step, gazing at the people walking past the entrance above in a light drizzle. She seemed to be light years away, lost in an impenetrable thought, concealing a story I was not privy to. The noise of my Nikon’s mirror slapping at 1/30th of a second got her attention after my third exposure, and she read me the riot act for disturbing whatever deepness she had succumbed to. I shot up the stairs and out of the station as quickly as I could.
The pathos I observed that day was not unique. It played out over and over again in France, Germany and Italy. I was not directing my eye to find these moments; they just flooded my field of vision wherever I happened to be.
It was almost as if a sense of foreboding hung in the air, infecting everyone who drew it into their lungs, unable to exhale, unable to move.