I was looking for the Paris that you see on posters or hear about in movies. It’s hard to get a handle on what Paris is.
Paris, and this is just my impression, and I’m not an authority. I feel Paris thinks it’s a bright and glistening new-world machine of fashion turned into business politics and the arts turned into politics and culinary ambitions turned into politics and all of this protected by guards parading around in shiny badges and important-looking funny hats and uniforms.
At other times, and it depends on the weather, Paris sometimes thinks it’s like a seaport city where sailors come in and trample all over town seeking out its pleasures and sexual delights and then leave the next morning without saying thank you.
At other times, I think Paris thinks it’s a college town with all the social intrigue you get with a bunch of intellectuals slippingly trying to get a hand grip on a level with each other slightly above the level of us student types. Us students are like children, recognize something’s wrong up there in the tower but we’re more interested in seeking out fun rather up than trying to solve the dilemma at headquarters.
Whew! I wanted none of those intellectual doings and maneuvers. Go-with-the-flow I always say.
Paris is also a self-conscious small town that’s flits by as you try to grasp it in one thought. That’s the thought I arrived in Paris with. It’s a small town, always looking at itself in a pocket mirror, always guarding and protecting its image of itself. A lot of people migrate to Paris because they want to be associated with this image that Paris has of itself.
I prefer this .
It’s light and gay as
the song says. It’s a city where the moon is always shining, and
it’s a full moon, too.
Rudi and I were bystanders
in all of this.
Although I knew the German language well enough to get along on a social level, I didn’t know German on a level to discuss inner meaning levels and that sort of thing. Plus I don’t know if Rudi ever got down to that level of discussion. He was someone to keep the level of conversation more like on replacing a part on the Vespa or keeping feelers out on where we could get our next meal. But that was O.K. ‘cause I think if we started disagreeing on some esoteric subject, we just might end up in a fistfight or something and the whole trip would get miserable. So this was O.K. with me. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” I always said. I wasn’t looking for companionship or affection, I was looking to see the world and get things straightened out in my own head of just what my part in the whole universe scheme of things was.
When we arrived in town, we both knew Paris would like us. We represented the free spirit that the French people love. Unlike in Belgium and Holland where the country folk we met up with thought we were breaking some sort of rule, or unspoken code, or breaking some actual law by traveling the way we were. The Parisians wondered why more people weren’t doing it.
So, we were welcome in Paris. The guitars on our back, the beards, the precisely packed motor scooter ready for adventure, it all invited a welcome from people. It also helped that the newspaper announced we were in town. At bistros, a drink would arrive at our table from someone across the room with a “thumbs up” sending us a smile. Even the ticket vendor at the Ferris wheel slipped us a ‘free pass’ reserved for celebrities. It all was heady stuff, but we both knew it had to be handled with a delicate touch. And we both knew that when we left Paris and headed south, it would be a new ball game.
Toby worked on his
oil painting at nighttime so he excused himself and suggested
we go out to see Paris at night. We quickly learned the ‘Paris at
night’ that you hear about and read about is elusive. In other words
the popularity of the favorite spots are continually changing. Parisians
make it a game in trying to escape the tourists.
In one cellar and out again. Typical Parisian nightlife, where are you? We thought we had found it when we heard strains of Dixieland music coming from a cellar called the “Huchette”. We went down in there to find a mass of university students wildly dancing to something that sounded like New Orleans jazz performed by Parisian musicians. It brought a smile to my face and brought clear to me why French people smile when they see American art students trying to paint another picture of Monmarte or the Eiffel tower the way we Americans smile when we hear foreign musicians trying play jazz. The effort is there but something is always missing.
We turned around and
left just as a tour group from American Express tour Office was
entering with its crowd of customers on a ‘visit to typical Parisian
night spots’ as we left.
Inside it was actually two
guys entertaining, --one a Negro the other a White. They were seated at
a small, spotlighted stage in the corner. They were both American, but
sang folk songs in several languages according to the brochure in the
entryway of the oak-paneled 18th century-looking hall. When the song was
finished, as if by instruction, the crowd showed their approval not by
applause but by snapping their fingers.
I bowed and said a very graceful thank you. We continued singing until Rudi whispered to me and left with one of the students he had been talking with earlier during the break. . I stayed with the group a little while longer while more and more people and musicians joined in. It was past midnight and the whole event started feeling like a sing-along at summer camp. The spontaneity was leaving and I lost interest and slipped back to Toby’s.
“You guys made out O.K last night?” Toby asked when we woke up the next day.
“Sure did”, I said
“Isn’t he going riding today?”
“Guess not. He told me
to have a good time, and that he’d check with me tomorrow. That
leaves you and me, Toby”
By the time Toby was nineteen, he had come into some money, sailed to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth and set up his fifth floor studio in Paris. There were plenty of young people doing that in Paris – trying to become well-known artists. And they were from Spain, Canada, even Brazil and Russia.
But to me, that doesn’t show much imagination if you’re really serious about your art. Wouldn’t it be better to get away as far as possible from other artists and let your juices flow without the influences from other artists? Oh well. I can’t fault Toby for doing what I wouldn’t do. He was a guy looking out for himself, but we was also a guy wanting to look out for other people. That’s what I liked about him.
Out on the bikes again, Toby showed me some of his favorites spots, the former garret of Modigliani, and then around the corner where Leibnitz once lived. We passed the legendary bookshop of Silvia Beach, “Shakespeare and Company”.
Speaking of that, I could tell by all the books back in Toby’s studio that he had accumulated a lot of books by famous people, not popular mystery writers and stuff like that, but heavy stuff like Nietzsche and Karl Marx, the writer I was supposed to stay away from when I got trained for my job in the U.S. Army.
When it started raining, we stopped for coffee at an indoor café and talked a little bit about the big rage about communism back home and why it might be the way the USA might be moving. I didn’t tell him about my job in the CIC back in Wuerzburg and how I was supposed to find out who had communist sympathies among the Europeans who wanted to immigrate to America that I interviewed. It would have spoiled our relationship. So I just listened mostly. Besides I’m not a believer in any ‘ism’ or things like that. I just let it be. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “I wouldn’t die for anything I believed in, I might be wrong.”
That’s how I felt about talking about politics with people on my trip. If I did disagree, I might discourage someone from saying anything; I was more on this trip to hear what others would be saying about such things, not the other way around.
I remember that’s one
thing Rudi told me and I always liked it. He said, “Engh, it’s
always best to play dumb even if you know all about what the other person
is talking about. That way you can learn more about something even if
you thought you always knew everything about it.”
I guess luck was on our side when it came to two people trying to get along when faced with not knowing what the next day would bring, especially on a limited budget like we were.
And that brings up the subject of funds. Rudi had none. He had spent all of the money he had saved from his coal-mining job near Duesseldorf to fixing up his travel bicycle, camping gear, and a small sum to pay for a passport and visas, postage stamps and things like that.
I on the other hand did a lot of touristy traveling during my Army service. It just about drained my paycheck each month because I figured if I was going to be in Europe, I ought to go out and see Europe because I just might never have the chance again. Puff! The money was gone at the end of the month.
But -- I did have an ace-in-the-hole. During my high school years I had started up a beach umbrella renting concession in my town, Ocean City, Maryland and had hired high school youngsters to man the beach umbrellas, beach chairs and surf mat rentals. It supported me as I went on to “higher education” at a prep school in Pennsylvania (I was a lousy student in high school and barely got a diploma) so I elected to get some “book larning” before I went on to art school in Baltimore. When I decided to go on my motor scooter trip, I made a 50-50 deal with my older brother, Lynn, to manage the beach umbrella rental business for me while I was gone. He would send me a $25 American Express Traveler’s check once a month to General Delivery (Poste Restante) in the next big city we expected to be in. This worked out pretty good, even in Paris, probably the most expensive city in Europe.
The rain had stopped and we were on our bikes again. We gazed for a while at Notre Dame cathedral and Sacre-Couer up in Montmartre and of course the Moulin Rouge with all the can-can girls and Folies Bergere which Rudi and I intended to go to before we left town. I got sad at the thought of leaving.
Paris was growing on me.