Friday, February 18, 2011

The last (and only) time I saw Paris...

By Jim Heffernan

I watched the movie “Casablanca” on TV for the umpteenth time the other night. If you have never seen it, or don’t know anything about it, you probably won’t “get” some of the things in this column. So many people have seen it, there’s no point in explaining the allusions to the movie here.

That said, the other day the New York Times ran a review of a book called “Paris Was Ours – Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light.” Turns out everybody loves Paris in the springtime, in the fall, in the summer, or any time at all.

I was there once on a too-brief visit about 10 years ago, but I have lasting memories of it. I wasn’t there long enough to fall in love with the city of light, but as I frequently say to my wife, “We’ll always have Paris” (see “Casablanca”), often at wildly inappropriate times, like:

She – The garbage needs to go out.

He – We’ll always have Paris.

See what I mean? But I have vivid memories of Paris nevertheless, not that I could say “Paris Was Ours,” the way Hemingway or Sartre could, together with the 32 contributors to this book. Also Brigitte Bardot.

On our big night in downtown Paris (I’ll wager nobody has ever called it that before), we took the underground (it’s a subway, not a crime organization) from our hotel in an outlying area, and when we got off we ran smack dab into a large demonstration against something or for something, we couldn’t tell which. It could’ve been Madison, Wisconsin.

It happened to be at the Place de la Concorde where they beheaded everyone in “A Tale of Two Cities,” and also the French Revolution. Of course we were somewhat alarmed to climb out of the underground into the heart of potentially angry demonstrators. But hold it. They were demonstrating for Amnesty International. These were sweet, peaceful French men and women. No danger whatsoever. Smiles all around. Not all French men and women are this sweet, you learn.

We’re all for peace, but we high-tailed it out of there anyway, hoping to pick up on some of Paris’ fabled nightlife. Not knowing the town and without a map we headed for what we thought was the Champs Elysees, perhaps the most famous boulevard on the planet (Earth), but the traffic seemed awfully light for such a busy thoroughfare. Soon we realized that we were not on the Champs Elysees at all, but a block down on a parallel street. This was tantamount to walking along Michigan Street in Duluth thinking you were on Superior Street.

So we quickly headed a block over in some direction and there it was, the Champs Elysees, the Arch de Triumph looming at one end. Exciting. Very exciting. Right in the middle of the promenade there’s an underground station named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which makes you feel at home and pretty good, depending on where you are on Social Security.

By then we were hungry. So we found a kind of indoor-outdoor restaurant and sat down. Menus were proffered, and we studied them knowledgeably, not having the knowledge of the prevailing language to read them. I saw a word that looked like “pizza” though (I’m better in Italian) and one of our American companions and I decided to share one. There is no Sammy’s in Paris, but you make do.

The pizza was fine. Very different. This one had a poached egg right in the middle, kind of like a hubcap on a large wheel. Sharing the pizza with another person presented the problem of who gets the poached egg, but we worked it out. I got the poached egg, he got the last wedge.

After eating – should I say dining? – we tromped around the Arch de Triumph and sauntered along the boulevard soaking in the nighttime atmosphere of the City of Light before catching the underground back to our hotel.

The next day we found ourselves lunching on a baguette near the Paris Opera, next to a building that, a plaque on the exterior wall said, once contained the apartment of Jacques Offenbach. If Jacques Offenbach doesn’t ring a bell with you, he wrote that Folies Bergere music the showgirls dance to as they lift their skirts and kick their legs, or is it kick their legs and lift their skirts? As you can see, I don’t know much about the French I took. The Folies Bergere is still there, although Offenbach isn’t.

But now, as the sun sets gaily in the west, it is time to leave Paris. We vow to return, “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday, and for the rest of our lives.” Well, not the rest of our lives, certainly, but it sounds so good when Bogart says it in “Casablanca.”

So here’s looking at you, kid. And remember, we’ll always have Paris. (Oh, is that my heart pounding or is it German howitzers along the Maginot Line?)


Kath1e said...

It's a thrill to read that I'll always have Paris since we're going in a matter of weeks. Hopefully one of many bucket list items.

Jim Heffernan said...

Kath1e: You will enjoy seeing Paris. It's steeped in so much history and literature and seeing it in person is worth it. Of course, you'll be walking on the Champs Elysee and I hope you'll find that "poached egg in the middle" pizza. Thanks for reading and enjoy Paris!