The girl from Glasgow was cute. At the Palacio Hotel, Estoril.
The Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre. The observatory at the top of the Tour de Montparnasse. Invalides. Trocadero. There’s a lot to see in the city of light. Dad took me to all of it. And of course we recuperated from the cuisine of Great Britain.
Aside from the momentary lapse on the Metro, Dad did well with the language barrier. He was familiar with Paris and knew the ropes. While tagging along for the ride, I felt intuitively that this sublime city loomed large in my future. And nine years later, I did come back to Paris to live there as student during the summer to master the language. Later on, I came to spend a lot of time in both London and Paris on business or visiting friends. London always struck me as a familiar place. If you flew from New York towards the northeast and kept going past Boston, about 5 hours later, you arrive in London, which, like Boston, has lots of crazy streets, red brick buildings, English-speaking people with crazy accents, 7-11s, Colgate toothpaste, and a nearby place called Cambridge. However, if you pushed ahead yet another hour, you arrived in Paris, with none of those things (except crazy streets, of course). I loved the exotic quality of ditching the familiar. France feels like a foreign land, but not an unfamiliar one. It’s a place where you can dig deep in its mysteries and reap rich life experiences.
To be sure, both London and Paris ooze with the grandeur of overseas empire. This is very apparent today if you happen to catch French TV every July 14th, the National Holiday. All the former colonies of France march down the Champs-Élysée – where I almost got run over by a Jaguar in 1969 while trying to cross it – to render homage to the French nation and its President. It is a very grand solemn ceremony.
I was amazed at just how difficult the language barrier was. French in particular is distinctive with its incredible stress on pronunciation – no other language is as intolerant of tiny errors. Screw it up just a little and get blank stares. During my summer trip to Europe in 1979, I was stunned to witness a conversation between 2 native French speakers in a train station near Bordeaux. A passenger waited in line before the ticket counter, just ahead of me, and in his turn, asked to buy a ticket to a town called Dax. Incredibly, the ticket agent refused to understand the word “Dax.” I was a foreigner, just learning the language. Even I knew of that station, just a few stops down the line. It was weird, how could the clerk not understand?
So when the French claim to not understand you or act weird in any way, it is not that they are “anti-American” or “anti-British,” etc. They do it to their own kind; foreigners are just not exempt. Like I said, the language can be a little quirky. And as a nationality, I have observed that the French are a bit of an “all or nothing” type people. Meaning, you can ask someone on the street in Paris for the time of day, and they can shrug or just ignore you. You don’t exist. Then the next minute you are introduced to someone and then they insist you stay at their house. “On est chez soi ici,” they’ll tell you (Please feel at home). And you really are. A life lesson I have carried from my experiences in France is not to waste your time with the “nothing” people. Rather, endeavor to spend your time finding and being with the “all” people. This works outside of France too, by the way.
After five days, we flew to Madrid which is located on a desert plateau, very different from London or Paris. It is, of course, a stunningly beautiful city of the Paris variety (no Colgate toothpaste). Our first night, we had dinner with Dad’s friend the Marquis of Cortina Gomez-Acebo. He headed up a patent law firm called Clarke Modet & Cia which is the biggest player in IP throughout the Iberian Peninsula and South America. (In fact my second visit ever to Madrid was 40 years later on behalf of Olcott International to the very same Clarke Modet office. Naturally, I apologized for having been away so long). We had dinner at an attractive sidewalk café located next to a subway stairway. It led down to the Renfe Operadora, the local regional railway. I ran down the stairs and marveled at the modern and clean station, which was very different from the ones I knew back home in New York.
So of course, this being Spain, and after we visited the Royal Palace the next day, I wanted to see a bullfight. And despite Dad’s misgivings about this form of “entertainment,” he dutifully took me to Las Ventas late one afternoon. This outdoor arena, considered to be the world center of bullfighting, looked very much like a classic outdoor venue where you might catch a ballgame, but of course the sport here was very different, and the arena a lot older than anything back home. Bear in mind that Bullfighting resembles a Gladiator-style contest more so than any other sport you will see in our day and age, including boxing and wrestling. The gruesome reality of the matador versus the bull duel easily goes beyond any depiction you’ll see in cinema and cartoons.
Some of the bulls looked like they didn’t want to be messed with, while others trotted around dutifully. One bull managed to find the exit and didn’t want to come back out, to the delight of the crowd. Dad explained to me that in Spain (as opposed to Mexico), the matadors do not kill the bull. The duel ensued between man and beast, the matador masterfully waving the bull through his red cape. The bull is lanced many times and then led off in a weakened state.
We only spent about 3 days in this beautiful city. In the meantime, Dad had cut short our itinerary, cancelling our anticipated jaunt to Palma de Majorca. So the next and last stop on our trip was Lisbon. Actually, I never saw Lisbon itself, other than what I could see from the taxi. It looked very poor, with rickety old trams climbing hills, sparks set off by the trolley pole rolling under the overhead electrical cable.
I did get to see 2 sites in Lisbon – the Torre de Belém and the Padrão dos Descbimentos. But we stayed at a resort outside of town, The Palacio Hotel in Estoril. It was like a private club, next to the beach. This being Portugal, I was nervous about going in the ocean, what with the Portugeese Man ‘O War presumably lurking offshore. So I stayed by the pool, making friends with the pool boys and a lovely girl from Glasgow.
Each night, Dad and I walked down the Avenida Marginal to a little family owned restaurant where we enjoyed a feast of chicken and rice, washed down with a glass of delicious red wine. Not bad for a kid of 11!
Helping with the flags at the Palacio Hotel, Estoril.
On the day of our departure back to New York, the hotel bill came out to nearly 20,000 escudos, the local currency at the time. Dad looked at me, as if I had ordered one coke too many at the bar, and pulled out a wallet stuffed with pink, blue, and yellow bank notes. They looked like cabbages. My eyeballs popped out at the large denominations, like 10,000 and 5,000. Dad was able to cough up 16,000 and then he asked, “do you accept Spanish Pesetas?” The moustached clerk at the front desk nodded his head, very accommodating. Dad was up to 17,000. “How about French Francs?” “But of course Senhor!” The clerk’s arms waved open in a gesture of broad acceptance. Now up to 18,000. Dad reached into another pocket. I was starting to imagine that we would be stuck there washing dishes for years. “Pounds Sterling?” The bill was eventually settled from Dad’s reserve of Swiss Francs.
I was very privileged to have been taken to Europe in the summer between my 5th and 6th Grades – thank you Dad! On the first day of 6th Grade a few weeks later, my teacher Carl Moser asked me knowingly in front of the other kids at Trinity Lutheran School on East Livingston Street in Orlando, “how was Europe?” I felt like the king of the world before my classmates. Even Dee Ann, the blond chick who hated me in 5th Grade, was suddenly by my side all the time.
I had begged Dad to include Venice. He said no, the heat of the summer made for unpleasant odors in the canals. And the dreadful crowds. He was right, of course. It would’ve been hell. I did miss Switzerland. It would have to wait for another trip. In 12th grade, guess where the hell my roommate at Choate came from. “You don’t say?” I said to Dominique Zen Ruffinen. “Ya know, I always wanted to go there.” And we hooked up in May 1979, sliding down the Theodulgletscher in black plastic garbage bags above Zermatt. The bastard hooked me on Swiss chocolate. I’ve been addicted ever since!
My passport picture — with signature — in 1969.