La Première Fois: A Paris Memory by Peggy Atwill

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La Première Fois: A Paris Memory by Peggy Atwill
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 new series. (Read other installments here.) Below, Peggy Atwill describes her first trip to Paris in 1970, serendipitously staying on the Île Saint-Louis. I love Paris. My first trip was on a flight (with students) from UC Berkeley for $99.00 from Oakland to London on September 19, 1970. My friend and I took the ferry boat to Calais.  We hitchhiked to Paris. We stayed with a friend of mine from the university who was going to the Sorbonne for a year before she went to law school. She rented a room in a nice apartment on the Île Saint-Louis on Quai de Bourbon. We had no idea what a great spot we were in. A French family owned the apartment. Their son and daughter lived there while attending the university. Lucky for us! I had many surprises on my first trip. The beauty of Paris and the magnitude of the history and art– that everyone appeared to live with so casually– amazed me. I just walked around thinking, “Oh my God, look at that!” In the Louvre we could walk right up to La Joconde and look at the painting closely, as it was hung with no barriers as it is today. I believe the wood fired bakery on the Île Saint-Louis that we loved is still there today. This is where I developed a love for croissants and all types of French bread. The cheese shops and other small specialty shops were plentiful. The chocolate was so much better than any thing I had every had, but there were not as many chocolate shops as there are today. Paris felt like you were emerged in French life in a deep way. People would insist you speak French! They insisted I struggle and hurt their ears with a poor accent, rather than accept my English. Nowadays when I try to use my French, the locals quickly let me know they speak English. I liked it the old way because it made me think in French and that enhanced my experience and contact with French life and culture, which is why I go to France. To me Paris is still the most beautiful city, but it does not feel so dramatically French, they way it did in 1970. But truly nothing is the same anywhere. I miss the gritty feel, of life and history that used to exude from the place, but, in contrast, modern methods have made Notre Dame much more beautiful in white! (And it is possible to find a WC.) Having contact with French students also opened our eyes to other ways of being in the world back then. We were surprised to find that the apartment owner’s son, and not the daughter, was given the large and well appointed bedroom, while the daughter was given a much smaller room in the back. (My student friend was renting the maid’s room, but glad to do it). We were told that part of the reason was that the son was expected to meet and marry a girl from a wealthy family and his rooms needed to be finely appointed.  (At the time, it was the opposite– daughter finds wealthy husband– which was an undercurrent in American culture.) We were expected to greet the brother each morning when he was there. (We had been as quiet as church mice and tried not to disturb him to minimize our impact for him of being in the apartment.) Fortunately, my friend had learned French while living in Aix-en-Provence for two years as a child and could speak with him easily. I, on the other hand, despite 4 years of French, and very self conscious of my accent, said: “Bonjour Pierre, Ça va bien aujourd’hui?” And then tried my best to respond correctly to any questions he might have. We were sensitized to our American puppy-like friendliness in contrast to what we perceived as a more formal way of interacting. I still don’t understand how to interact the French way, but each time I go to France, I always look for clues! For our generation, there was a style of dress that was counter culture and distinctly different from ‘establishment’ attire. We were surprised to find that less common in Paris. Even at a Rolling Stones concert we attended in Frankfurt, the clothing was not obvious or dramatic. The concert was held at a rather small community venue. The seating was on the floor or in the balcony which encircled the floor. When the concert started, we were surprised to find that no one got up and started dancing. So after the first song we just got up and danced. By the end of the third song, everyone else did too. Mick Jagger actually thanked us from the stage for starting that! I was not able to get back to Paris until 2002, after my student trip in 1970. The change was dramatic. However, between 2002 and 2016, the city seems to have changed as much it did the 32 years between 1970 and 2002. There are many more things I see that evoke images of the U.S. But the European style has also made its way into American design, and so newer areas of our communities in California now evoke images of France/ Europe– lucky for us! But maybe not so much for the Parisians? Peggy Atwill has been a…

Lead photo credit : L'île Saint Louis by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/ Flickr

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  • Fran Ambrose
    2016-12-01 15:08:08
    Fran Ambrose
    I loved it because I was there in 1964-65 with an apartment on Rue Vaneau. I was just there and was remembering the horse carcass hanging with a rose painted on its side. Bunnies were hanging there also with little cuffs of fur around the four legs. My room mate and I always held our noses as we passed. They are gone and a few shops have appeared close to the Rue de Sevres. Many many interesting memories for a 19 yr old....a young Woody Allen, Josephine Baker and Audrey Hepburn. Magical