Memories — Vignettes of Paris

Memories — Vignettes of Paris

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I keep hearing complaints from
both tourists and residents of Paris about conditions there, in the
present, compared to how they remember Paris as it was in their
childhood, or on visits in the past. Comments abound about the smog,
dirt, traffic, crowds, and generally degraded conditions. I would like
to share a few of my remembrances of Paris, and the French people, who
made my time there such a wonderful experience; during parts of 1945
and 1946, after World War II. In many ways it was a glorious period: in
others a time of sadness, for the suffering of the people, the struggle
to rebuild the economy, and the political struggle between the
communists and the Gaullists. My time in Paris, during that period,
made me wish that I could have been there in the period after World War
I which, for beauty, vibrancy and creativity had to rival the great
period of the late 1800s. But I will never forget some of the pleasant
memories of my time in Paris. Every visit I have made there since has
made me realize that the past can never be relived but can be revived.
I hope these scraps of my memories may be of interest to many of you.

*******

Going
to the boulangerie early in the morning, just as the bakers are
removing the fresh baguettes from the ovens. Buying one for a few
francs, placing it under the left arm and walking out: while before
even reaching the door, breaking off a huge chunk and savoring the warm
crusty outside and the soft bubble laden, and feather-light, piece of
heaven within.

*******

Walking
the three miles back to our quarters, in a large Catholic orphanage,
after an evening spent with the French family who had unofficially
adopted me. The fog so thick that you literally could not see your hand
in front of your face. Walking in the center of the cobblestoned street
and, if the street lights were on that night, viewing the dull glare of
the lights as a slightly lighter aura in the sky, but not seeing even
this until you were directly under the light. As you had to walk under
the railroad tracks, at the point where the train from the center of
Paris discharged its passengers, it was often the case that you could
hear others walking past you quite near, but without seeing them even
if they passed within two or three feet of you. The only reason you
could hear any of them was due to the fact that with the shortage of
leather many people had their work shoes shod with wooden soles. The
increasingly loud clomping of these on the cobbles was the only signal
that someone was approaching. The hard sound of these wooden soles on
the stones would eerily ring out as a distant sound and increase in
volume until you could direct your path to avoid the person and then
fade slowly away as the distance between you lengthened. A strange
sensation indeed.

*******

Coming
down the elevators of the Tour Eiffel late in the evening after
visiting the military nightclub, which today is the restaurant Jules
Verne. At the bottom of the elevator, buying sandwiches from a young
French couple. Sandwiches smeared thickly with brie, covered with
nearly fresh tomato slices on now day-old baguettes and happily
munching away on those 10 inch long, newspaper wrapped, totally
unhygienic and totally delicious delicacies.

*******

Walking
down the Champs-Elysées on a chilly autumn evening and buying from one
of the old women huddled against the front of one of the boulevards
great buildings, a paper cone filled with roasted chestnuts. These
nuts, whose odor could be detected a hundred feet away, were roasted in
a very unique way. The ladies, I do not ever remember seeing a man
doing this, had converted baby carriages containing a firebox fueled
with charcoal. Over this they had a piece of perforated metal covered
with the roasting nuts. Walking down the Champs under the still-leafy
Chestnut trees, peeling and munching these treats under the soft gray
skies of a Paris fall evening, I shall never forget.

*******

Climbing
the steps to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre. Walking in awe
through the vast and beautiful interior of this structure. Marveling at
its understated beauty and the magnificence of the huge dome. Then
paying the fee to climb the steps to walk across part of the roof of
the monstrously large building and climb the last winding set of steps
to the cupola at the very top. Viewing almost all of Paris below. At
this point you are about even with the top of the Tour Eiffel and the
only other point where you can see as much of Paris is the top of the
Tour. At this time strict height limits were enforced on all buildings
in Paris. From here the view was of classical Paris not cluttered in
any direction by tall, glass and steel monstrosities such as can be
seen today.

*******

Riding
the Metro free, as an American Soldier (try that one today). At first
repelled by the strong moist odors of the passageways of the Metro and
the crowds of people filling the cars, then finding a strange
attraction to this smell of humanity. Some of the smells must have
lingered here from the first beginnings of these underground wonders.
Riding until an interesting stop showed on the map over the doors and
getting off to walk through another totally different area of Paris.
Then climbing the stairs to the fresh open air laden with new and
wondrous smells of patisseries, bistros, boulangeries, fresh air and
other undefinable olfactory sensations. It was always amazing that the
smells of the different areas of Paris conveyed their own sense of
identity; as well as the buildings and people of each area also exuding
a personality of place.

*******
Then
the ultimate Parisian experience, sitting at an outdoor table, under an
umbrella if the sun was strong, with a glass of the deceptively weak
appearing French beer or a glass of wine. Watching the people pass by,
all the men with a briefcase, regardless of their occupation, most
containing only their lunch but still important looking. The women of
Paris, even wearing, in many instances, clothing much worn, still
looking as elegant as in those days only French women could. It was
reasonably easy to tell the ladies from the ladies of the evening, as
the latter were, for the most part, the only ones to have new clothes,
and when cold, warm coats. To me people watching in Paris, even with
our USA styles impinging on true old fashioned style, is still one of
the wonders of the world.

James
T. Walsh holds degrees in both business and law and has traveled the
world as an executive of several international companies. He fought in
the 86th Infantry division and spent a year in Paris with the USO.
After the war, he married his high school sweetheart and together
they’ve raised five children. The couple now make their home in
Arizona.

Copyright (c) Paris New Media, L.L.C.

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