The following is a collection of memoir pieces about the time my 16 year old sister and I went to France in the summer of 1973. If I could ever publish a book, these pieces would be major part of my French chapter.
"Pig Alley!" My sister, sitting on the wide windowsill of our hotel room in the Pigalle, was reading from the guidebook we'd consulted to find a cheap place to stay in Paris. We'd neglected to read the fine print.
At the first hotel we'd tried I'd been so nervous and unaccustomed to speaking the language, that I'd forgotten to say Bonjour before I asked—in my rusty middle school French—for a room for two. I'd broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling in France. Always, always, always say Bonjour before speaking to a hotelier, a shopkeeper, whoever. The woman was so offended with my unintended rudeness that her French tirade sent me running out of the lobby. The next place we tried had been full. The hotel in the Pigalle had been our third choice.
There was a fading painted number on the crumbling wall outside, a round black bell you pushed so the cranky old concierge, a French woman straight out of a novel, could open up and begrudgingly show you to your room, eyeing you suspiciously all the while. The amenities were sparse: one double bed we'd have to share, and an armoire. The w.c. was in the hall. Did we want it? The room had high ceilings and a tall narrow window that opened out to the city streets, with sills wide enough to sit on and take in the view. We took it, thanking our lucky stars.
"Pig Alley. That's what the GI's in World War II called this place! It's the Red Light district! This hotel is in the Red Light district."
No wonder the concierge had given us the once over. She probably thought we were a couple of American girls looking to set up shop!
My younger sister was thrilled. Years earlier, when our family moved from Canada to Puerto Rico—before moving to California a year later—we'd stayed for a short time in the Condado, San Juan's tourist district. The view from our window included a nightclub called Corky's, its red neon sign lighting up the humid nights. Nancy and I would watch the front door and surrounding streets for hours, obsessed with the late night comings and goings through Corky's doorway, the drunks, the bar fights, picking out the real couples from the pickups and the pro's.
The view from our window perch in the Pigalle, while architecturally pleasing, proved less juicy. We searched in vain for prostitutes, disappointed that there wasn't a fishnet stocking-wearing working girl in sight. Maybe the concierge didn't think we were would-be working girls. Maybe she thought we were a couple of ignorant girls who didn't have the good sense required to be traveling alone.
We almost proved that theory true when we left Paris, taking the night train down to Marseilles. We couldn't afford a couchette and all the carriage seats were full, so we ended up sitting on our packs in the corridor at the back of the car. Every time someone passed through the carriage on the way to the dining car, a hot blast of dusty air blew across our faces, but we didn't care, we were headed for the south of France. We fell in with a couple of young Canadian guys after they spotted the maple leaf flag patches on our backpacks. It was the summer of 1973, Vietnam was only just winding down, and anti-American feelings abroad, especially in France, were in full swing. My dad had insisted we sew on the Canadian flags as an additional layer of safety. I was born in England; Nancy, in Turkey, to parents who were English through and through. Just like living in Canada for a good number of our formative years didn't in actuality make us Canadians, living in California didn't automatically make us Americans either. So far the only allegiances we really and truly pledged to, were our parental units, and we saw nothing wrong with waving the red & white Canadian flags, rather than the red, white and blue for a few weeks.
The boys, Jack and Peter, just a couple of nice, average Canadian guys, were genuinely shocked we were going to Marseilles that night. Where where we staying? Um, we didn't know. We'd find a place when we got there. Yeah, I could see that our arrival in the middle of the night wasn't the best plan. Way too dangerous, they let us know. Way, way too dangerous. Why didn't we head to Bandol with them? It was a nice little beach town. If we wanted to go back to Marseilles the next day we could, but in good conscience they couldn't let us get out at Marseilles in the middle of the night. It was a busy seaport they told us. Where tankers and freighters docked. Their voices were filled with such incredulity that visions of burley dockworkers hulking in the darkness of the railway station multiplied in my head. Surely, one foot off the train in Marseilles and we'd be raped.
Or not. We'd never know because we took their advice and stayed on the train until we reached Bandol. The guys were pitching a tent in someone's front yard. We were welcome to join them. The train station was lit up but empty when we arrived, the town was silent, still asleep as we walked down the hill from the station in full darkness, the only sound the comforting crunch of gravel beneath our feet.
Reaching the house—their friend of a friend's uncle—Nancy and I stashed our packs on the lawn behind the wall, grabbed a couple of clean t-shirts, our shared bar of Irish Spring and headed down to the little bay the boys had told us about, while they set up their tent and crashed. The sun was barely beginning to think about rising by then, the water was cool and the color of charcoal, the sky a lighter shade of grey. Sitting on a small jetty we slipped out of our jeans and grungy t-shirt and slipped into the water in just our bras and panties. Lathering up the soap as best we could in the sea, we bathed almost naked in the Mediterranean, washing away the dirt and grime from the trip while amber lights glowed here and there on the hills above the curve of beach. Floating in the bay in the not quite morning light, keeping our voices hushed and quiet as we talked things over while the cool water lapped at our hips, caressed our arms, and kissed our lips, both of us wished we could somehow hold the day at bay. Still, long before the sun rose and the staff from the hotels even started thinking about setting out umbrellas on the beach, we knew our next move was finding a real place to stay.
Clean from our bath in the sea, awake and running on adrenaline, my sister and I hit the town in search of someplace to stay. Even back in 1973, the hotels overlooking the beach at Bandol, with their pea gravel patios set with painted wooden tables and colored umbrellas, were too pricey; even I didn't have to ask to know that, so we headed to the port side of town.
Fronting the harbor, a row of shops, bars and outdoor cafes lined the road. Later when the sun dazzled, the promenade would be overrun with visitors reaching across tables for cheek to cheek kisses, lilting French tones singing out in the air. For now, in the quiet of the sun-glinty morning, the main street was subdued as restaurant owners opened their doors and swept the sidewalk, the beach birds and the slip slapping of the sea hitting the hulls of the docked boats in the background. Nancy and I found an affordable pension at the furthest end where we bid the old woman beating the welcome mat out front a polite good morning. We were learning.
The name of the place—clean, small, perfectly comfortable—has long been forgotten but not the look on the owner's face that first day when we returned long after the included second meal had been served and cleared. She was furious. My rudimentary French had failed me again. My skills, not used since I'd left Canada and my eighth grade French class behind, mainly allowed me to find out the basics: the where (Ou est?) the how much (Combien?) and the time of day (Quelle heure est-il?) Nuance and subtleties such as the workings of a pension where the price included breakfast and dinner went right over my tete. While Nancy and I had picked up a couple of sandwiches on baguettes —jambon avec du beurre for me, sans for my sister, plus a large Coka—from a street vendor, we were oblivious to the preparations being made at the hotel while we were basking on the beach. While I initially thought the fact that I'd paid for the meal meant it shouldn't matter whether I ate it or not, I came to realize that other people's time and energy mattered. The potato and leek soup mattered. The potatoes peeled, the leeks chopped, it all counted. The waste meant something.
I'd learned a similar lesson while visiting my grandmother and my uncle at his home in England that same summer. He was a cameraman with ITV and had a lovely home in Chorleywood but it didn't have a dishwasher. Young and thoughtless, I felt virtuous simply for offering to wash the dishes by hand. By hand! Back home in the states we had a dishwasher and I was used to rinsing and stacking mindlessly in the machine. Washing dishes in the sink wasn't something I gave much thought to except to think what a good houseguest I was being, washing the dishes, allowing my grandmother to watch the telly uninterrupted. I can still see her face, the same pinched, pained expression as the owner of that French pension, furious at my thoughtlessness. Letting the hot water run and run while I sudsed and scrubbed away. Water wasn't free, she taught me. And hot water definitely wasn't. Every drop of water from the tap was being tallied by the meter, somebody had to pay. If I was the one paying the bill, she said, I'd be more mindful of what I was doing. There's a price to pay. She was right, I was thoughtless.
These days, I live in California where we're in the midst of a drought. A drought that harkens back to the dry days of the late 1970's. A devastating drought that demands we watch every drop of water. These days I often think of my grandmother as I fill the kettle with the precise quantity of water needed for two cups of tea or when I turn off the tap as I brush my teeth.
Today, as I toss out rotten zucchini unearthed from the bottom of my refrigerator's vegetable bin, I'll think of that French innkeeper too. Waste not, want not. There's always a price to pay.
After a rocky start we were settling into a rhythm in Bandol. Good morning we smiled at the proprietress of the pension, so cheerfully we almost curtsied. Bonsoir we greeted her, dipping our heads like novices in a convent, when we returned each afternoon to find the rows of tables newly set with fresh white linen tablecloths. Bonjour! we cried to the owner of the little stand where we bought our lunch every day, his hands reaching for the baguettes before we could get the clumsy 'jambon avec beurre' 'jambon sans beurre' out of our mouths.
Sandwiches, a litre of Coke in hand and beach mats tucked under our arms, we'd head for the Corniche Bonaparte, a tree-shaded avenue that led up the hill and around the point to the Plage Renecros, the beach at the quiet little cove where'd we'd bathed on our first morning. We'd sit on the low rock wall flanking the road, gathering our breath for the climb, as beautiful boys and girls in bikinis came bouncing down the hill on their Vespas. Like my 16 year old sister Nancy, all the French girls seemed to have long glossy brown hair that flew in the wind when they passed. I deeply regretted chopping off my own hair like a Mia Farrow wannabe.
The Plage Renecros was where we fell into the habit of spending our days, floating in the sea, idly wishing we had the extra cash to rent a pedal boat. Lying in the sand, we tried to make sense of the chorus of French voices drifting by, the lilting tones, up and down, as irresistible as any top 40 hit blasting out of an AM radio back home on the beach in Santa Monica. While we'd heard all French women went topless, we didn't spot any at this family beach, but the men more than made up for it in their Speedo-esque swimsuits. The rule of thumb seemed to be the bigger the gut, the briefer the cut, as the European men let it all hang out.
Back home in California our beaches were covered with guys who preferred to cover up; floral trunks, surfer's baggies, cut-offs made from old Levis and jammers down to their knees. Those were the bathing suits we were used to. The idea of seeing le banane—just one of the many slang words the French have for penis—covered with a thin layer of stretchy fabric, was total culture shock. We'd be sitting there, innocently taking in the scene—the turquoise of the sea, those two cute guys on the pedal boat, the group of toddlers digging in the sand—when some grey hairy-chested man would come loping by, his penis practically swinging in our faces. Glancing at each other, eyes wider with every occurrence, each 'banane' sighting sent us into fits of laughter. Prurient Americains that we were, we couldn't get over it.
We also idly wished we had the extra cash to stay at the Golf Hotel. While we sat cross-legged on our rush beach mats, unwrapping our ham and cheese sandwiches, careful to keep out the sand, the guests of the Golf gathered up their belongings at precisely the same time everyday and sauntered over to the hotel's beachside cafe. Everyday they pulled up chairs at tables under the shade of the hotel's outdoor umbrellas before commencing an elaborate ritual that involved a lot of cheek-to-cheek kissed greetings, the pouring of wine, the breaking of bread, the passing of multiple dishes back and forth, and intensely fascinating looking conversations. I didn't envy them their food; I wanted no part of their bouillabaisse, shells and fish heads swimming in a sea of oily broth, but I fell in love with their noisy communal chattering clatter, their cheek kissing, the way they sat back and smoked at the end of the meal, arms slung over their neighbors chair, their contented gut-patting air.
One day, I thought. One day.
Nancy and I talked about leaving, taking the train to Nice, Cannes or St. Tropez. Shouldn't we go to Monte Carlo? Maybe tomorrow, we thought, licking the crumbs from our lips, taking one last swig of warm Coke before stretching out like cats on our mats, in our own spot of sunshine. Maybe tomorrow.
Did I? I looked at Michel, his head cocked in that charming questioning manner. He brought his hands together like a child saying his prayers.
Up ahead, a girl was sitting on a large rock by the side of the road. She’d taken her shoes off and was rubbing her feet while the guy she was with, peered at a map in the moonlight. He all but scratched his head.
The girl waved a shoe at us as we approached.
She proceeded to speak in French, fast and far, far above my limited knowledge of the language. Michel shot back a complicated linguistic volley, his response complete with pointing back down the road in the direction he and I had just walked. The boyfriend just stood there staring, as I did, first at one and then the other, utterly out of the loop. For all we knew they were making plans to ditch us.
“He says it’s that way” the girl told the boyfriend in English English, in a precise shade of the language that reminded me of my London-born mother.
“Are you trying to get back to Bandol? To town? You just keep walking straight down this road and it will take you right to the waterfront.”
Obviously, that was exactly what Michel had just told her but I wanted in on the action.
“Oh, you’re American?!”
I didn’t say no. I didn’t go into the details, my complicated little story of actually being British, born and bred, but raised in Canada and now living in California. I realized then and there, that yes, I was an American. Certainly as far as any true Brit was concerned, I was a Yank. American with—like plenty of my fellow Americans—deep British roots. Instead we had one of those short conversations travelers have, sharing briefly where we’d been, where we were going. I explained I’d been introduced to Michel less than an hour ago.
The girl, pretty and fresh-looking with the kind of shampoo commercial long straight honey blond hair that, once again, had me regretting my own short haircut, had been at the dance with her boyfriend, and now were heading back to town. They thought they might have missed the turn off. It was good—the dance—they both assured me. We were almost there, another quarter mile. A half mile at the most.
“The thing is I don’t really speak French. You know, beyond getting a room, asking how much something costs. And he doesn’t really speak English either.”
Michel had been following our conversation, bouncing back and forth between us, like you do at a tennis match. Like the boyfriend and I had done moments before.
“No, I can see that.”
I looked at Michel and made a sad face.
“Je ne parle pas français.”
He smiled, shrugging.
“Je ne parle pas américain.”
He looked so funny, his shoulders up in the air, his face pulled into a ‘so what’ question mark, I had to laugh.
“You’ll be fine” the girl told me, laughing too, slipping her shoes back on. “I just hope my feet make it.”
And with ‘bon chances’ ‘bon nuits’ we were off. We carried on in the black and blue night, listening to the sounds from the dance for awhile, drums and guitar strums and the hum of voices, muffled then clear, muffled then clear, before Michel stopped and turned to me. His voice was thick, like it was drenched in syrup, his rudimentary English, so much more advanced than my rudimentary French, oozing with adorable mispronunciation.
“You speak good English.”
I laughed. He had to be joking, right?
“Of course I speak English! Er ... Mais oui. Certainement!”
“But you are américain, oui?”
“Yes, I’m American! Oui. Mais en America, um ... nous parlez? No that’s not right. Um—nous parlons? Nous parlons Anglais.”
We stood staring at each other, the both of us speechless, eyes narrowed, brows knitted in the universal expression of confusion, deeply doubtful we knew what the hell the other person was talking about. Neither one of us had the language skills to traverse this little morass. Did he really not know Americans spoke English? Okay, not the king’s English, but English all the same. Or was he putting me on? Was that why he broke our stare-off by shrugging again and smiling? I didn’t have a clue.
If we didn’t get to the dance soon, the night could turn into a complete disaster. In the meantime, he sure did have a cute smile. I thought about that little kiss on the cheek and we kept walking.
When I arrived home in California I must have taken that roll of film and dropped it off at the Fotomat kiosk for developing. Picking it up, I would have leafed through the shots and deliberately chosen that picture, purposefully stuck it between the plastic pages of my photo album. I'd replaced the confusion and anger I'd felt when Michel had taken my hand and moved it down over his genitals with some sanitized version of the requisite vacation romance. Writing 'Michel, my belle' I'd romanticized a botched one night stand with that boy in Bandol into a night to remember. I'd taken the hurt I felt when he left me standing alone in the dark on that gravel road and rewritten it as just another vacation adventure story. That makes me so sad for the girl I used to be, even sadder to know that a small part of that girl lives in me still.