The Box up the Stairs, Part Ten and Dénouement: Amiable France, with an Algerian Motif
Leaving Italy, I reconnoitered with Western civilization in France. French officials were straightforward in providing train schedule information without bribes. People were helpful. My ancient college French drew smiles of goodwill and English responses. France would probably have been wonderful any time, but it probably had a slight edge at being superlatively wonderful for my having come directly from Italy.
Even without my college French accent, I was readily identified as an American by my uniform: a Gore-Tex parka and khaki cargo jeans, the eight or so pockets of which were stuffed with rolls of film. It was, after all, 1981, and cameras used film, a bulkier accessory than memory cards. On my final day on the continent, I was walking down a street in Paris, and a fellow who looked Algerian hailed me from across the street with a hearty, “It’s be nice to Americans day!” He crossed the street and handed me a rose. I thanked him and kept walking. Uncertain whether or not people with roses were designated with any particular purpose in mind, I stuffed the rose in my pocket.
Some days earlier, I had been walking around Marseille, the only part of France I found a little rough and seedy. It was certainly no worse than the port district of Houston, but it’s not the nicest spot on the Mediterranean, either. I was simply seeing what I could until it was time to board my train to Aix-en-Provence, where I had an address of a friend of a friend back home. As I was about to alight at a café table, an Algerian fellow approached and asked whether he could show me around. I declined with thanks in my best German.
I arrived in Aix-en-Provence in the early afternoon, and asked a bus driver which bus I should take to get to the address I showed him. He gave me directions, and I boarded a bus that served my target neighborhood. The driver on that bus spoke no English at all, which certainly didn’t surprise me, since Aix-en-Provence at that time was a fairly small town, and certainly I knew no bus drivers in Bozeman, Montana who spoke French. I simply showed him the address I had, and soon, he motioned to me that we had arrived at my stop. He then explained in high-speed French how I should find the address I sought. I was unable to understand a word he said, but certainly I saw no reason to detain him when he was under no duty to speak any English at all. I walked about, looking at street names, and after maybe fifteen minutes I happened upon the street where my friend’s friend lived. I found her address and knocked on the door, suddenly wondering why I expected that this woman, a professional, would happen to be home on a Saturday afternoon to receive an old friend’s American friend on virtually no notice.
But Dorothee answered her door, and my French suddenly escalated at least to second-year competence. We quickly understood who we were with respect to one another, and she assured me that she was excited to meet me. Our mutual friend had written her that I would be coming sometime that month. And in fact, she happened to have back-up on hand, a friend who spoke very rapid English, and who thought Americans were terrifically funny.
My hostess was an architect and her contemporary home was decidedly stylish. Dorothee and her English-speaking friend showed me all over Aix-en-Provence, and the following day, I accompanied them to church in a small, very ancient cathedral.
My itinerary was rapidly condensing. I had a day to get to Paris, a day to see the city, then a few days left for Dorset, which I have already chronicled in Part Four of this series. From Dorset, I would return to London and fly home. I took a morning train to enjoy daylight viewing the whole way to Paris.
I had to change trains at Lyon, and the train from Lyon to Paris was very late. I was unable to understand anyone trying to explain why, but then a woman heard me speaking English, and offered to buy me some coffee and a sandwich. I told her I would buy some coffee and a sandwich and that I would be pleased to join her. She lived in Paris, and was concerned that our late arrival presented a hazard to my finding a decent hotel. She lived with her husband and daughter in an apartment overlooking the Seine, walking distance to Notre Dame and the Louvre, and invited me, if I did not mind a soft couch, to be her family’s guest. Since it appeared at that point that our arrival would be after 9 PM, and I preferred never to enter a city and find a place to stay after dark, I gratefully accepted her kind offer. Her apartment was on the fifth floor of a venerable old building with narrow stone steps that provided, especially with my fully loaded backpack, good practice for my next day’s excursion to Notre Dame Cathedral.
I headed for Notre Dame in the morning. The monks were singing chants, and the sound resonated very beautifully among the stone walls. I spent a couple of hours just walking and sitting in different parts of the cathedral before heading up the hundreds of narrow triangular steps to the turrets, gargoyles, and expansive panoramic overlook.
The Louvre was a fair hike from Notre Dame, so I had lunch at an outdoor café before heading that way. I kid you not: yet another Algerian offered to show me around. I told him such a thing would not be necessary, as I wished only to see one more thing before leaving the country, and I had my bearings very well. He waited around nearby, but he was a little lame and I outpaced him easily.
I saw the Mona Lisa in her hermetic glass enclosure and walked through several galleries of the Louvre, then returned to my hostess’s home. She had invited me to return for dinner, and then she and her husband would drive me to the Metro, or subway, that would take me to the train station where I would get a train to Dunkerque, my point of sail for England.
All was going very well, and our ETA would be in plenty of time to catch my train to Dunkerque. Then, suddenly, for no reason I could understand for the confused, shrill, high-speed French all around me, the Metro stopped in the dark. There was no platform in evidence. I asked passengers around me whether anyone spoke English so I could find out what was going on.
A woman a few rows behind me, probably using her elementary school English for the first time in her adult life, explained what had happened just as the Metro resumed its course. “Some men,” she said, “they made the train to stop.”
“Stop where? We were not at a Metro stop, were we?” I asked. “Who did this? Who were they?”
At this point, my informant reverted to French, but it was simple enough for me to understand. The conductor put two men off on the tracks somewhere — who cares where — because they tried to commandeer the train. Apparently they were Algerians.
I caught my train to Dunkerque, changed my remaining francs to a few English pounds, and killed the time until the boat’s departure by becoming nearly hysterical trying to find the boarding dock.
I was most ready to return to England. I now understood and appreciated the fact that England was my only true point of cultural and rational nexus between America and Europe. Even Switzerland, rational as it was, had seemed stiff and overregulated.
I also learned that my sense of humor is English, not French, and certainly not Italian. When I first arrived at Gatwick Airport a month earlier, the customs man asked me, referring to my backpack, “Is that the sum total of your belongings suspended about your neck?” “Only the belongings I’m willing to trust to English soil,” I countered, grinning. Recall that this was 1981, and you could still joke in airports. The customs man told me how much he and his wife enjoyed visiting Florida, and asked me whether Montana was in the Appalachians.
The homebound crossing to Dover was exceptionally rough, an outing I later memorialized.
Sailing to Dover
Disco lights and vodka tonics
do not pacify this awful sea
that separates cuisine from culture.
A guy on speed insists on singing off
his tension to the ghastly green of us
who can hear above the moaning ill,
and I hope he doesn’t crash
before we’re safely to Victoria
where they have a bomb squad.
The hapless St. Eloy bumps bravely on,
stout as matchwood, and I wretch
on the shoulder of an Englishman.