The year is 1972. We’re young, Alex Jones and I. In our mid-twenties. We have decided to travel through Europe for as long as our money will last. We’ve quit our jobs and emptied our meager bank accounts. We have no responsibilities. We have enough money to travel for a year, at least. We have our shiny unbroken backpacks. We meet up in Greece and travel through Eastern Europe that summer, storing up adventures and encounters.
Sometime that summer, as we are tramping along, Alex says, “We need to live in Paris.”
I’ve never been to Paris, so, I think, why not?
When we arrive, we go to the American Center where they have listings of apartments for rent by Americans for Americans. We find one listing for an apartment in the 14th arrondissement, wherever and whatever that is. The address is 43 bis villa d’Alésia. The short description sounds promising. I go there alone. The apartment is located on a pretty little curved street that is cobblestoned.
I knock on the door, and it’s answered by Dorianne Lee, a young American woman from Hawaii who teaches English in Paris. She leads me up a flight of stairs to show me the apartment. I encounter a huge room. It has door-high windows that open to the street below. I almost gasp. I’ve never seen a place like this.
“I’m looking,” Dorianne says, noting me carefully, “for a female roommate.”
I realize this an opportunity that must be seized. Oh, no, you aren’t, I think. You’re looking for two guys. And those two guys are us.
I return with Alex. He’s from Tennessee, and he can charm a spoon with his beguiling southern speak. So, after one or two hours of flattery, promises and little white lies, not to mention traveler’s checks, we convince Dorianne to accept us as roommates. I wonder, now, who was looking out for us? Someone, somewhere, I’m certain.
43 bis villa d’Alésia. At the top of the stairs, a door opened into the kitchen, which was spacious, friendly. Then, to the left, a doorway that led to the main room. It was a huge, light-filled room. It had been a painter’s studio. Think of it: we were living in a painter’s studio in Paris! That was out of a book. Or out of a dream I was too inexperienced to have.
The vast room’s ceiling was two floors in height. The wall that faced the street was made entirely of glass, floor to ceiling. The glass was opaque. You couldn’t see through it, but a profusion of natural light entered the room. In the center of this glass wall were those two large doors, also of glass, that opened to the street. We threw them open in good weather, inviting all of Paris into our room. Sounds, smells, conversations, footsteps on the cobblestones below, the songs of birds, all became part of our every day. Not to mention the Parisian air, traced with diesel fuel and life.
Upstairs was Dorianne’s room and, beyond that, a second bedroom. From Do’s—everyone called her Do—room, there was a balcony from which you could look out onto the large main room below. This often became a stage where one of us, usually me, created manic, improvised, often interminable theater after dinner for everyone below. There was a round table in the atelier where we ate and talked and laughed and told stories and where guests sat when they came to eat Do’s wonderful food. Because Do was a wonderful cook.
There were times when I’m sure Do might have regretted her decision to let these two rogues into her life, much less into her apartment. She was gracious and calm. We were coarse and boisterous. In the morning, on her way to work, she would inevitably encounter a half dozen empty wine bottles on the table and ashtrays heaped to overflowing with Gitanes and Gauloises, those harsh-tasting French cigarettes. She might have said no to us and saved herself from several near nervous breakdowns. But, years later, she’s still talking to us.
I speak no French. But I'm bold, and I don't mind making a fool of myself. I will learn, bit by bit. I’ll enroll in a class at the Alliance Française. The French I will blurt out will sound like baby talk. I won’t care.
In our neighborhood, there is a store with the word boucherie above the entrance. I can see, looking at the display of meats in the window, that it's a butcher shop. There's one with the name boulangerie written on it window. Bread, I see. A bakery. The bread is long and tall. How can you make sandwiches of that? The store is full of women buying. Later, a Tunisian bakery in the Latin Quarter will provide the answer to a hungry me on how a sandwich, cheap, filling and delicious, can be made from a baguette.
Everything is new to me, and different, and has the ring of a place that is very confident of itself. I see different cars. Renault, Peugeot. What are these? I see workers in blue jump suits. Blue?
My ignorance is bliss. Indeed, because it puts me in a state of wonder and of learning. It throws me back in time to when I learned things for the first time as a boy. What is more exciting than learning? In another sense I am being uneducated. I am seeing that how we live in the United States is not the only way to live and in fact, in many cases, clearly not the most satisfying way. How narrowly I looked at the world before. Every step I take is a lesson. A tutorial. There is no tuition.
I walk down the rue des Plantes and come to rue d'Alésia. It is only many years later that I learn that Alésia was where a great battle took place between the Romans and the Gauls. I turn right, and I remember that this is the way to the subway. Which they call Métro. Our stop is Alésia. There is a restaurant next to the entrance and a large stone church you can see when you turn the corner. I don't really know where I am at the start. But one thing I do know. This is our neighborhood in Paris.
Alex and I settle in. We have six months ahead of us where we have Paris all to ourselves. Every day, we’ll wake up in Paris. Every day, we will set out to discover this storied city.
Now, fifty years later, I look back at those two young men, and I try to speak to them. I reach out to them. Don’t take this for granted. I want to tell them how lucky they are. Did they know? I hope so. I think so.
Richard: I do, too. Did you go this summer with the Spalding group? My friend Roy Burkhead, Spalding, MFA, did and enjoyed it. How could one not? As for the swift passage of time, like a river in flood, I am trying to live in the present, not in the past, except for recalling good experiences, like Paris, and as for the future? I trust God. Peace, Ken
Richard, You bring Paris to life. I recall my wife’s and my visits there, including one with our then-young daughter. Now, she is 34. Where did the years go? I rejoice in my experience, as you do in yours. Thanks for awakening my memories. Peace, Ken