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Vacation Memories : Paris Can Offer Smile Even When You're Glum

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

February 15, 1987|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

Preconditioned by those great romantic ballads? Certainly. Influenced by Renoir, Cezanne and Monet? No doubt about it.

My wife, Joyce, and I were infatuated with Paris long before we ever saw her.

Indeed, Paris is a beautiful lady but, as a tour director once advised us:

"Love her all you want, all you can, but remember, she is fickle."

On our last visit we caught her in an off mood. The weather was muggy and the gabled rooftops, the steeples and the architectural marvels of both the ancient city and the new were leaning against a sky that was getting grayer by the minute.

Things were not the same as they had been on our earlier trips. There was tension in the air. It was two days before Bastille Day. The city was jammed with people.

The taxi drivers, with the extra traffic to fight and half the main streets closed off because of parade preparations, were even more testy than usual.

Hotels were full and the sidewalk cafes had extra tables jammed everywhere tables could be jammed. Still, lines of people waited. And the waiters, carrying twice their accustomed loads, were brusque and more impatient.

Indeed, the lady was not smiling her usual seductive smile. In fact, she was behaving like a mother with a house full of flu.

Joyce and I approached the concierge at our hotel. We had wanted to see Giverney and the gardens that had inspired so many great paintings. We knew a tour to Monet's home was available.

The concierge, from a platform behind his desk that gave him a height from which to glower down on us, consulted a booklet and advised us that we could take such a tour in two days and that it would include a trip through the beaches at Normandy.

We had been to Normandy, the beaches and through the American Cemetery. There was no way we could go through that heart-wrenching experience again. Nor did we want to be away from Paris on Bastille Day.

"Madam, Monsieur, " the concierge announced, closing the booklet abruptly, "please feel free to contact me when you have decided on your priorities."

With that he turned his attention to someone else.

Visiting Old Friends

We tried to spend the day visiting old friends--the Louvre, the Grand Palais, the Tuileries, the Seine. But there were too many other people trying to do the same thing. There was a line at the cafe on the Champs Elysees where Joyce and I had always stopped before.

So we simply walked the streets until well after dark, each of us with a growing disappointment, a feeling that we had lost something and that we would never find it again.

Into the Metro

Footsore, we walked down the stairs into the Rue de Bac Metro station to take our train back to the hotel.

The station was large, silent and empty. We stood on the platform for several minutes.

"Are you sure we came to the right Paris?" Joyce asked.

"Maybe not," I said.

There was the sound of leather scuffing on concrete. An old man in very old clothing, with a harmonica in one hand and a tin cup in the other, entered and stood on the platform across the tracks from us.

He smiled and called out something in French, not a word of which I understood.

I smiled back, shrugged and said, "Je suis Americain."

"Ahhh," he answered, nodding eagerly. He put the tin cup into his jacket pocket, raised the harmonica and began to play it badly.

Joyce and I listened intently for a minute before we realized what he was playing. It was "Over There." After a few bars he changed to the "Star Spangled Banner."

As I heard the rush of our train coming, I waved my hand and called out a merci.

He shook his head and called out, "Non--merci por vous!"

Then he came to stiff attention and gave us a military salute.

The train came between us and Joyce and I got on. There was just time for me to get to the window on the opposite side before the train pulled out.

A Grin and a Wave

The old man was still standing at attention and holding the salute. As I returned it he dropped his arm and gave me a toothless grin and a wave.

With two long warning toots, the doors slammed shut and the train pulled out of the station.

We left Paris the next morning, two days ahead of schedule. I had been thinking that I never wanted to come back to Paris again.

Then she smiled.

We'll go back. Next time I think we'll try it in April.

Now where do you suppose I got an idea like that?

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