La Première Fois: A Paris Memory by Kathleen Burke Comstock

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La Première Fois: A Paris Memory by Kathleen Burke Comstock
The Bonjour Paris editorial team recently requested reader submissions with memories from first trips to Paris. We were overwhelmed with wonderful responses, which we are publishing in a special series. (Read other installments here.) Below, writer Kathleen Burke Comstock paints a vivid portrait of Paris in the 1970s. 1973 Orly international airport. At the taxi stand, I watched in horror as a man urinated behind a barrier. He was using what I was to discover was a commonplace receptacle in France, the pissoir. An invention of the 19th century, the pissoir claimed real estate on many of Paris’s grand boulevards, aiding and abetting men who otherwise would have gone into a street gutter or against buildings. The man promptly finished his business, slid out from behind the pissoir and zipped up as I– too late– tried to avoid his indolent stare. My teen American self was not prepared for this type of Parisian welcome. There would be more to come and as it turned out, many city accoutrements like the pissoir would in the not too distant future, become obsolete. Orly airport itself was soon to be a backup international airport to the newer Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle, changing forever the way Parisians and tourists alike would arrive at and depart from the City of Light. Bleary eyed from first-time jet lag, I had one thing on my mind, to get to where we were going and sleep. But my host Eddie had other plans. First we would sample his favorite café in the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne, where Eddie and my friend’s sister Anita were studying medicine. They had secured me and my high school roommate a guest room at the university. It was February and very cold. I could not stop shivering. It seemed heat was a privilege offered in short bursts from rarely-sighted hissing radiators or not at all in the drafty halls of this age-old institution. So, in hindsight the café was a good second option to soothing a weary frozen body. At the café, we cuddled up against one another, rubbed cold hands, and chatted about the voyage. Black and white penguin-looking waiters glided and shimmied about the crowded café, eventually delivering to our table petit cups of espresso and for me an oversized mug of the most delicious hot chocolate I ever tasted. My time change clock had not yet adjusted, so I also requested a yogurt, delivered in the tiniest container (4 oz) I had ever seen. It was the first of many times my stomach growled in disappointment as I tried to tame an appetite never quite satisfied with this ‘small is better’ style of dining. When it was time to make a phone call to connect with my roommate, I was told I would need a jeton. Reading the puzzlement on my face, Eddie laughed and proceeded to usher me towards the bar where he handed over some francs for a silver coin, the jeton. We descended a winding staircase to the lower level where more pissoir type setups stood in plain view for the men, and a ripe-smelling and leaking toilet room was available for the ladies. I inserted the jeton and Eddie dialed. Jetons would be used for further phone communication as well, whether in a post office, café or public booth. In Paris, it was the intermediary between you and your interlocutor. We next donned coats and hats, headed towards the nearest bus stop and waited in line as an agent punched little white tickets that Eddie handed over. In the crowded space, we were pushed along to the back of the bus. It was a platform bus, with a rear standing-room only section open to the outside and that raw biting cold. The hop-on hop-off idea circa 1973. “Now you can see all of the city as we go!” Eddie cried with delight. The hot chocolate’s success in warming my hands and feet quickly dissipated in the wind-blown chill of the swiftly moving bus. Teeth chattering, I offered a polite nod and prayed that wherever we were it wasn’t far from the Sorbonne. That evening Paris was so cloaked in winter’s widespread, indecipherable, and dark mantel that I could neither analyze nor appreciate the city’s beauty. All around, the French chattered in a Parisian clip that simply did not translate to my eager and alert ears. So much for four years of high school French. And then there was la lettre pneumatique, another communication tool integral to daily life in Paris. One could place a letter in a cylindrical container that would be inserted into a city-wide sub system of pressurizing duct work that would accept the tubes, or navettes cylandriques, and direct them to one of many terminal destinations. In the span of an hour or so, the communication was delivered. Often used for government and business purposes, local color also had it as the means whereby the French conducted their mid-day amorous rendez-vous. I never used a pneumatique, but its convenience and popularity had been at an apogee through the mid-20th century and even beyond. Back then no Parisian woman in her right mind stepped out of her home in jeans, or in other than her highest best heels. Heels on which they managed to traverse a city cobbled in stonework replete with crevices and cracks. That these women managed to expertly navigate these stumbling blocks is a testament to the ever French prioritization of appearance and la mode. The hair style of the day was a…
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Lead photo credit : Kathleen Burke Comstock in February 1973 at the Sorbonne

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