Saturday, September 09, 2006

Paris Jounal, Part 2 (November, 1955)

From the outside, French railway cars also resemble ours—entrances at either end. Once inside, the resemblance ends—a corridor runs along the right side of the coach; enclosed compartments take up the rest of the space. Each compartment seats—&, in the case of couchettes, sleeps—six. Entrance to each compartment is through a sliding door, half glass & half wood, flanked by two narrow windows. Inside, two full-width seats face one another across a very narrow aisle.

The seats are covered in a slightly coarse material about the color of dark burlap. The walls & paneling are of brown stained wood—the ceiling is painted white, & covers the entire width of the car—the space over the outer corridor is used for baggage. All the windows have shades, & a three-bulbed overhead fixture furnishes light. Arm rests can be lowered out of the backs of the seats, dividing them into six separate chairs. Directly above the seats is a paneling of green wood, with mirrors & photographs of European scenery. In the couchettes, these pull down to make the second of three tier beds. The third tier was already lowered when we came aboard. Fortunately, Europe has many mountains, for it takes a very agile person to climb up into the top rack.

Jim, Roge, Bob and I were joined by a Photographer First Class who was serving on the shore patrol, & a Gunner’s Mate Second Class. We soon found out that the compartment idea is not so much for privacy as for warmth. It got colder & colder, & we never did figure out how to operate the thermostat (a long handle on a silver half-moon; one end of which said "ferme" & the other "chauld" or something like that).

As for privacy, there can be none. Six perfect strangers may be thrown in together & have to sleep together—therefore, they seldom remove their clothes while sleeping.

Bob opened his pastries soon after the train started & discovered that one piece of cake had been baked with a liberal amount of rum, which made him very happy, & the rest of us sad, for that was the only piece of that kind he had.

I read my magazine, or tried to, while everyone discussed the accident of the night before. Jim was trying to finish a pocket novel & had reached the climax, where the hero and heroine are obligingly left alone by 10,000 Amazon headhunters long enough to make passionate love. Actually, according to Jim, who kept us informed, there were only 6,000 indians left after ten pages of fighting. He was bitterly disappointed when everyone died in the end, including the hero’s horse.

About ten thirty or so, Navy habit got the best of us & we decided to go to bed. Oh, what fun that was—six guys in a space of 2x6 feet, trying to undress at the same time. I clambered up to a top rack & undressed there, which was no mean accomplishment in itself. The "sheets" were like large canvas handkerchiefs—the pillows were filled with straw, & the blankets were of exactly the same material we use as mats beneath our rugs. But it was so cold it didn’t matter.
The seats & bunks are 6’ long—Bob is 6’1", which made it a little inconvenient for him.

Our "guide" woke us about seven thirty the next morning, & the undressing process was repeated in reverse. There are toilets at either end of each car, but are not specified for men or women—first come, first serve. The commode looks directly down on the railroad tracks, which may save the railway company some money, but most certainly discourages undercarriage hitchhikers.

The sound of the wheels over the tracks was like a wild, prolonged drum solo, with an intriguing detached rhythm.

The day itself, when we had rubbed enough steam off the windows, was pensive, if not downright glum—low dirty-grey clouds covered the sky as far as the eye could see, & the gingerbread, completely un-American houses slipped by silently, like solidified shadows. Once or twice I caught sight of the type of French farms you read about in fourth grade—a square of buildings with the farmyard in the center. We arrived in Paris without fanfare & without actually realizing it—the houses just blended into one another & became streets & then the train was in the rail yards, sighing to a stop in the high-arched corrugated, iron-domed railway station. Paris.

A bus was waiting from American Express to take us to the hotel. The streets in Paris range from very wide to so narrow two pedestrians & a car cannot be on it at the same time. No horns—they’re outlawed—few traffic lights—the ones there are are either on a two-foot high pole in the center of the street, or wafer-thin versions of American lights. And above all, there are no rules—you do not drive a car in Paris: you maneuver. It reminded me of a popular ride in American amusement parks where you just sit in little cars & steer, seeing how many other cars you can hit.
Surprisingly few American cars—I guess they are too big to survive long in Paris traffic. Oh, and no gas stations as such—just two gas pumps on the curb.

The style of buildings is old, 1890ish & a bit heavy. They apparently are very fond of buildings with rounded-corners, and as most of the streets shoot off at odd angles, you see them often.
And almost every building, no matter how big, has some sort of slanted roof. No matter how new the building, it manages somehow to look old—their version of "modern" is largely of the neo-modern style favored in America in the mid-to-late 30s.

On the way to the hotel, we passed Bastille (pronounced Bahs-TEE) square, where stood the prison so often mentioned whenever France is the setting for an 18th century novel. Not a stone remains of the building—a tall column stands in the square, engraved with the names of the 1,305 people beheaded on that same spot by liberty loving revolutionaries.

Drove past Marshall Foch Avenue—at the end of which, on top of a gentle rising hill, stands the Arch de Triumph. The same street, on the other side of the Arch, becomes the Champs Elysees.

We were now entering Monmartre—the naughtiest part of naughty Paris—but you’d never know it—shops, stores, banks like anywhere else. The gates of St. Mark’s & St. Denis’ stand guard over a now-wall-less city; two of the three remaining gates to the ancient City. At one time there were 14. They look vaguely like narrow Arches de Triumph.

A left turn on Rue Faubourg; on one corner an advertisement for pizza & another for a movie Le Cusine d’Angeles (an American picture originally called "My Three Angels"). Further down the same street, another movie was playing something I was unable to translate, but had a billboard with an unmistakable Rhett Butler & Scarlet O’Hara. All this time, streets were coming & going aimlessly.

And then at last came the Gran Hotel Suisse (Swiss); a four story building of yellow plaster, at the top crotch of a Y of streets. Down farther, in the opposite direction to where we’ve come from was a large sign underlined with a red arrow, saying "Follies Bergere."

After unloading all our gear & stacking it in the lobby, we went directly into the dining room to the right of the desk for breakfast. The Europeans waste an awful lot of plates—they serve everything in courses. The main course for breakfast (& the only one I can recall) was ham & eggs—the ham placed directly in the center of the egg, so that you had to eat them together. The French eat an awful lot of bread, which is really quite good; it has real body to it & a crisp, thick crust. It is roughly oval, & cut at an angle, instead of straight, like we do.

Water had to be asked for, & came in bottles—evidently it is so horrible all over Europe that few people drink it, subsisting on wine, which is frequently as weak as water.

After breakfast, we were assigned rooms—two to each room with an adjoining bath connecting, or close by, two rooms. The keys were of the large skeleton variety, attached to tags resembling large sheriffs’ badges. Bob & I took room 123, Jim & Roge in 124. They were up two flights, through plain red-carpeted halls which creaked as we walked down them.

Our rooms were at the end of the hall. The doors, like all the doors in the corridor, had no knobs & were opened by the keys only. Jim & Roge’s room was a bit larger than ours, having a small entryway between the door and the bedroom. It was located on the corner of the building, with two large French windows facing in the direction we’d come. It was also very cold all the time because it had two outer walls.

Our room was next door, facing a narrow side street. There was a splendid view of an open-fronted fish market across the street; the proprietor had a particularly loud voice, no doubt through much use, as he called out his wares. The whole street was lined with open shops, stands, and push-carts. The French do not believe in paper bags—everything you buy is wrapped in newspaper.

Our room was also cold—a small iron radiator, painted yellow, stood against the wall behind the door. By holding a hand about two inches away, a very slight warmth could be felt. The knob was turned all the way in one direction, so we turned it all the way in the other—which did absolutely no good at all, so we gave it up & wore our peacoats most of the time.

Against the rear wall, near the window, stood a large plain wardrobe, with the inevitable full-length mirror. We unpacked our things into the drawers at the bottom right side of the wardrobe, washed, shaved, and were joined by Jim & Roge, who wanted to use our sink since their room was far too cold. My electric shaver was of no use; French electrical sockets consist of three small round holes arranged in a triangle.

By this time it was around ten or ten thirty; since the first tour did not start until two, we decided to go out & walk around, to more or less get our bearings. There was no sun & no prospect of any, so we left our cameras.


Ken Beemer said...

Your Gran Hotel Souise sounds alot like The Albergo de Libya in Tripoli where Ali and I would stay when we (mainly I) could come up with the money. But for two 22 year
lod guy in love it was paradise!
Funny stuff, huh?

Dorien/Roger said...

Memories...especially good ones ...are wonderful and powerful things. I'm delighted that these long-ago letters can trigger warm memories in others.