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Traveler's Journal

His Paris Nostalgia Is Part Rock, Part Hard Place

Larceny in his heart and revenge on his mind earn a writer a daily reminder of a youthful indiscretion

June 09, 2002|JAMES DANNENBERG

A criminal, it is said, often returns to the scene of his crime. I can attest to that, at least in my case. I don't even have to return, actually; the evidence of my mischief greets me every day, sitting snugly in a corner near my computer, haunting me even as I type these words.

I'm looking at a dull gray block of stone, perhaps 6 inches, chiseled into a rounded shape and weighing about 8 pounds. The side on which it rests is flat, rising like a pyramid that seems to nestle into a pair of curved horns. From one perspective, it looks like a pedestal bearing a ram's head or perhaps seashells.

It wasn't meant to rest on the floor. No, this piece of carved stone originally adorned the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

You may well ask how this priceless part of French history, hewn from rock centuries ago by some anonymous artisan toiling to please his exalted God, came to reside in my study in Kailua on the windward side of Oahu.

I stole it.

In my defense--and, as a judge, I know something about this--I might argue that I was young, that I was under duress, that I meant no real harm. But judgment is yet to be rendered, and if brought to the bar I would likely plead no contest.

My first visit to Paris was in 1964, when I was a callow youth of 19 from Wisconsin. It was an ill-fated trip from the beginning. It was my first trip abroad, and I immediately experienced an aching combination of culture shock and homesickness that colored every experience.

Even London, my first stop, seemed sinister and hostile. Crossing the channel to France weaned me from the meager linguistic comfort of understanding--for the most part--what people were saying.

This was the France of Charles de Gaulle, then in the process of withdrawing from NATO and kicking American air bases off sovereign French soil. Never mind that we had saved his cookies during World War II. Never mind that we were lining up to spend millions of dollars in tourist revenues.

The official line was that Americans were Coca-Cola-swilling bumpkins with too much power and money, and the French weren't about to like us.

By this time I had linked up with a traveling companion, my old school pal Doug, and acquired a car, a Hillman Imp. Once in Paris, however, there wasn't much to do other than park it and find a cheap hotel, the cheaper the better. (My collection of parking tickets might well have broken the bank had I paid them, but I managed to avoid "le Denver boot.")

We found a hotel on the Left Bank, on the Rue St. Jacques near the Pantheon. "Dingy" would be too bright an adjective for the place, but it seemed OK to a couple of college boys. The bare lightbulbs illuminating the stairwells and hallways were on timer switches so finely tuned as to force a sprint to the next switch to avoid a blackout. The beds bowed like hammocks. The facilities were down the hall, and in those days the French had a long way to go to catch up to America in the plumbing and toilet-paper department. Fortunately, our room had a little sink that allowed for the occasional full-body sponge bath.

We spent most of our days walking around the town, stopping in museums, marveling at landmarks and attractions, and grousing about the girlfriends we'd left at home.

Doug's French was pretty good, certainly much better than mine. Yet it seemed that everyone we ran into, from hotel clerks to waiters to folks from whom we asked directions, had difficulty understanding us. And when they did understand, they mocked our accents and usage.

It didn't help that 1964 was the summer the civil rights movement kicked into high gear. I remember a fleeting image on French TV of officials dragging the car of three slain civil rights workers out of a Mississippi swamp.

The French, it seemed, were critical of America's record on race relations, and we endured more than one lecture. We felt passionately about civil rights, so the lectures rang hollow, especially because we could see that Africans (and Arabs) in Paris seemed to fare no better than minorities did in the American South.

And then there was the food.

It was in this area that the cultural divide between France and my adolescent America most clearly manifested itself. In 1964 most of America was strictly meat and potatoes. France was definitely undiscovered culinary country for these two Midwestern boys.

Almost everything on the menus seemed strange, unfathomable and foreign in all senses of the word. We usually went for the conservative, finding solace in the few familiar items we could make out. Omelets and steak frites made up a substantial part of our diet.

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