Dad and I boarded our Air France flight to Orly Airport and, as customary, I grabbed the window seat. I was only 11 but still I understood that Dad was looking after his business affairs while we were in Europe. We had visited one of his best English clients – Massey-Ferguson – and he had pushed his joint venture discussions forward with the senior partners from Marks & Clerk while in London. He had scouted out possible locations for the proposed operation in the Channel Islands. His work done, and the Apollo 11 astronauts back home safely, it was time to leave the Anglo-Saxon world behind and see something completely different.
France was an important country to my Dad’s business from an operational point of view. While he did not have any customers there, all of his clients (be they American, British, Italian, or Japanese) did have large portfolios of French patents on which renewal fees had to be paid annually in French Francs. Therefore when he went to the French Patent Office on the rue de Leningrad (later to be renamed rue de St. Petersbourg) earlier that decade to win acceptance for his bulk payment process, it was a real coup when they readily agreed to accept his bulk payment process. In fact, the top 3 countries in Europe for patent registrations – UK, West Germany, and France – all accepted his instructions direct from New York. Even though Dad only studied a little French in high school, he sure loved him some France as his operation there was a huge money maker.
Put another way, as surely as my Grandmother loved to whip up some French cuisine, Dad and I surely loved to eat it. After two weeks in the UK, our stomachs were ready for France.
On arrival, I immediately noticed that like England, France was developed on a similar small scale (as compared to back home in the USA). But everything in France had the appearance of being just a little bit more thin or light – traffic lanes, cars, walls, even elevators seemed to be a bit on the skimpy side. England certainly had its share of old structures. But France in 1969 seemed to be older still. My Aunt Mary Fran in Orlando had explained to me that during her time in Germany with her husband Kit (he was an US Army Helicopter pilot stationed at Ramstein) they had traveled to France many times. In her opinion, France had not been as repaired and rebuilt as Germany.
As a school year resident of Florida, where an old building meant it was built “5 minutes ago,” I don’t think I had ever seen anything truly rundown before. Well, I got my chance. After admiring the streetscape in Paris from the taxi, which is striking in its consistent elegance and beauty, we arrived at an ancient building. Now, Dad was penurious and he was used to traveling by himself in the old world. He might have overdone it this time. The hotel was decrepit and squalid. When we opened the door into our room, I was astonished to see the ceiling open in one corner and the wall crumbling from top to bottom. It was so dismal that I must have been openly catatonic. Dad could see my distress and we immediately set out to find a “renovated” hotel, settling eventually on Hotel Le President, which I think may now be the Radisson on the Place de Mexico in the 16th arrondissement. It was comfortable and modern. I have never failed to admire a nice renovation since.
It was late in the day, and as mentioned earlier we were hungry. It was time to unpack our appetites. We found a little sidewalk café in the neighborhood. I ordered chicken and rice. It arrived smothered in a wine sauce. It was the best meal we had had in 2 weeks. While eating, a friendly neighborhood cat came by and sat down in front of our table, eyeing me expectantly. See, I told my Dad, French is not so difficult. Genius that I am, I picked out a piece of chicken and held it out for my new friend. He ate it with gusto and appreciation. A bum in shabby clothes walked across the street, glaring at us. He was shouting and cursing, mostly into the air, but occasionally stealing glances at us. I asked my Dad if he was shouting at us. He said he didn’t know. The bum eventually walked on. We slept well.
The next morning, the first order of business was to see the Eiffel Tower. That involved my first ride on the Paris Metro. It was quaint; a pedestrian’s friend that went everywhere. I marveled at the vaulted ceilings and the rippling sound of the door handles slamming shut. It also had (and still does) a very distinct odor, like freshly baked brand new tires. Someday someone will create an aromatherapy scent of it and make millions.
Back in 1969, the Paris subway still used large “Portillons Automatiques,” which were huge metal doors or gates that opened and closed to cut off access to the platforms (after you went through the turnstiles and went downstairs.) They were automatically operated to close when a train approached the station and then open again when the train left. The idea was to prevent overcrowding on the platform when the train arrived. But like a traffic light that had just turned yellow, everyone understood that when the Portillon was closing, it meant, “run like hell, the train is here.” Dad knew all about these things. He had my hand and as soon as the things started to close, everyone took off like a shot, racing to beat the Portillon. If you got stuck in front of it, you were left standing there like a horses’ ass listening to the train doors open and close just a few inaccessible feet (or meters) from where you stood. Besides, some people in Paris in 1969 had different hygienic and personal space standards and this gave the visitor another chance to admire certain aspects of a European city. Luckily the Portillons were deactivated sometime in the early 1970s so when I came back to Paris in 1978, there was no more running of the bulls in the metro. Maybe someone from the RATP heard me complain (just like the Bank of England heard me kvetch about the pre-metric monetary system).
So we’re on the train. I asked Dad which station to get off for the Eiffel Tower. He stood up to look at the map on the train and discovered that, lo and behold, the Tower was not marked. (To be fair, the Empire State Building is not marked either on the NYC subway map). You have to know it’s the Bir-Hakeim station, named after a notable victory of the Free French forces over Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
This brings me to the very special thrill of going to a non-English speaking country for the first time with your parents as a kid. Mainly this means you can watch your parents make fools of themselves trying to make themselves understood. While at the same time sympathizing with them.
So Dad asked the nice man on the Metro sitting next to the map, studying his Le Monde intently.
“X-coose meh-wah. OOOOO ay le too-er Eye-fol?”
The nice man looked up from his newspaper, stretching his neck in a gaullic gesture of minor pique.
My Dad tried again. “Eye-fall toor!?” He gestured with his hands up and down, drawing an imaginary long object in the air.
The man realized suddenly that this was a puzzle of some sort. He held his finger up to his lips in deep thought. I could see the brain cogs spinning, scanning for pattern recognition.
Like a game of charades, Dad keep spinning the vowels. “Hay-ful tower?” “Arf-ul tee-ar?” “Barad-dûr?” “toor-ooor EEf-hall?” “Ee-ful toor?”
At this last one, the man stood up, his hand in the air. “Ah-ha!” He had cracked the puzzle. “LE TOUR EIFFEL!” he announced triumphantly. Dad repeated the phrase, this time pronouncing it correctly. Champagne corks popped! Bitches did recognize, yo!
The whole thing was like a scene from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Price, when the pilot could not understand that the Prince only wanted him to draw a sheep. Here’s a wonderful satire of that scene by the French artist Gotlib. The moments of confusion and comprehension between Dad and the Metro man were kinda like this. In the satire, the Prince actually draws, quite well, what he wants the Pilot to do:
They both huddled over the map and the man gave Dad detailed instructions as to where to go and where to get off. We did and we were at the foot at one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks minutes later.
My picture of Notre Dame, Paris 1969. There was parking in front of Notre Dame back then!
Next Week: Madrid and Lisbon
Postface – December 4, 2016:
I regret to write that Marcel Gotlib died today in France. May I offer my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. Our world has lost a great talent in writing, drawing, satire, and of course humor.