When we landed in Paris, my girlfriend and I headed straight for the booth offering hotel information for a mere 5 francs, just over a dollar. We had dutifully marked several choices in our guidebook, Europe on $25 A Day. We found to our surprise and great disappointment that our chosen hotels were booked, not available. The thin lipped, head-phoned young woman at the counter said, Car Show, in a heavy accent. Hadn’t we left the United States and all that crass commercialism behind in search of history and art and culture? She found instead an equally cheap place in the VII arrondissement on the Rue De Lille. We had to go on good faith, too tired to argue and too limited in language skills to even discuss. Our henna-haired agent had already moved on to the next hapless, weary tourist.
It was dark and late when our taxi arrived at 40 Rue de Lille. We were greeted by a middle-aged man with short-cropped white hair wearing a baby blue terry cloth bathrobe that did not look recently laundered. Under his arm, he held a light colored, yapping terrier of indeterminate breed. The terrier did not look recently washed, either.
He waved us in, C’mon. C’mon. I don’t usually open the door this late.
Hooray. He spoke English, with a definite British accent and a tell-tale lisp. An English-speaking queen in the heart of gay Paree. This had to be better than those selected hotels in our guidebooks. We got a short lecture on being in early. He would not open the door after 10:30. Poochie would get upset. It took forever for her to quiet down and he’d be up all night.
Je suis Tony. Now run along upstairs. Micheline has the room ready for you.
A skinny grey-haired woman had appeared suddenly in the tiny lobby. Her hair was cut very short and she had a large, elegant and somewhat ruddy nose. She looked mannish except for her sleepy, shy smile. Micheline grinned proudly at the recognition of her responsibilities, then retreated behind a small door in the front of the lobby.
We climbed up the narrow stairs, lugging our few bags that now seemed way too much to be hauling around like this. The shower was on the 2nd floor, the WC on the 3rd, our floor. We had to schedule our showers so as not to interfere with the other guests. There was a sink in the room and a low, short washbasin that turned out to be ideal for hand-washing panties and bras and anklets. It was a while before I learned its true purpose but it always seemed much handier for personal laundry than for an intimate toilette.
The next morning we joined the rest of the guests for our petit dejuener in Tony’s apartment, a baguette, butter, coffee, some sliced fruit and little packets of processed cheese. The other guests were all men. One of them, cute in that boyish, tight pants, gay-guy way, was Patrick who would later send us on to Henry in London. A hustler, we surmised, but a sweet one. Shalomchai was pretty and slim-hipped, from Thailand, working at the jewelry counter in Bon Marche and studying international business. His actual name was impossibly long and got shortened to Chai. He whispered behind his hand and giggled a lot. Paul was older, traveling with his handsome, tall, and very much younger companion Jeremy. George and Charles were in Paris with the Robert Wilson Troupe performing weird new-music operas and having fun between shows doing street performances. Amazing to us that the Wilson group had recently been in residence at our very own former University of Iowa in the middle of the good ole USA, We found that we had numerous acquaintances in common. We traveled this far, to another continent, another culture, to find our cozy quarters on the Left Bank.
Tony held court in his blue bathrobe, Poochie on his lap, gazing into Patrick’s dark eyes whenever he joined the conversation. Then Tony would start in on when he would be getting some English bacon, apparently the only thing he missed from his native country. Who was thoughtful enough to bring it to him here in Paris? Anyone who supplied this was guaranteed the best accommodations and most generous favors at the Hotel de Lille. Tony’s eyes gleamed and got a far-off look when he expounded the virtues of English bacon. He got the very same look when he talked about Sicilian boys, how divine were their eyes and hair, and their butts on those Vespa scooters they all liked to ride around on….and My Lord, at the beach. It was pure heaven. Normally, chatty, nonchalant Patrick would frown and become silent.
In our little room, we relished the discomfort and oldness of everything. The floor was slanted and the windows wouldn’t close all the way but the view outside these windows, the rooftops of Paris, was pure Colette or better yet, Anais Nin. The diesel smell of the buses and the perfume of brewing coffee from the cafes that adorned every corner in our neighborhood, wafted up to us in room 14 at the Hotel de Lille .
During the day, my friend and I walked the streets of Paris and learned how not to order coffee. Don’t sit down and don’t ask for a cappuccino. It’s three times the cost of a café creme ordered while standing at the counter. Our mornings we shared with the cast of the Hotel de Lille, our evenings ended early since we had to be “home” by 10:30.
I was trying to ignore a toothache that had begun before my trip. It was getting more troublesome and more painful every day. Finally, I could no longer avoid dealing with it. Tony set me up with a dentist at the American Hospital in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. He took on another role that I had failed to notice before, that of mother hen to his young guests. The experience was less traumatic than I had imagined and my relief at getting rid of the offending wisdom tooth overcame any anxiety about having to deal with this in a foreign country. If Micheline could have pulled it out with a string tied to the doorknob of our room, I would have let her.
But Micheline seemed pretty busy as it was, not particularly with the housecleaning. Paul, who shared with Jeremy, the top penthouse suite, two rooms and a private bathroom, reported every morning on the disappearance of a bottle of vodka, or scotch or wine. His complexion confirmed what I had guessed but apparently he wasn’t doing much actual drinking in his room. He said he had left change and travelers’ checks, an expensive camera, all in plain view to bait the thief but the only thing that ever went missing from the room was booze. Jeremy added, however, that the room was always left neat and spotless. I could not say that for ours. One morning we happened back to our room after our baguette avec buerre and our café creme (not the croissant and cappuccino of our guide books) and opened the door as Micheline flung our blankets and sheets across the bed, pitching forward and landing face down on the mattress. She stood up, barely, with effort, smiled her sweet smile and staggered out the door. This apparently counted as “making up the room”. By the time she got to the ground floor, she would slowly and carefully walk to the door of her apartment and sleep it off. One night, getting back just barely before the bewitching hour, we saw a huge, young, and very dark-skinned man climbing in Micheline’s window. We knocked on Tony’s door. He answered, clearly annoyed, in his baby-blue robe, Poochie tucked under his arm. It was now past 10:30. Chai, Patrick, and a few other boys glanced up, then returned to a sitcom playing Tony’s small TV. The television sat atop a rickety TV tray that wobbled with the sound track.
Oh that’s just her boyfriend. Now run along. This show is really funny,…about the Mafioso.
The guys went back to their program and we took our chocolates upstairs. I had healed enough to enjoy fine French Chocolates from Galet D’Or, just around the corner on the Rue de Siene. We spent our evening doing hand wash in the bidet and writing in our journals.
My friend and I decided we should stretch a bit, not confine ourselves just to Paris. Patrick gave us the address of his American friend who was living in what he called “not quite a squatter” in London. There were a lot of Irish in the neighborhood so we didn’t have to worrying about bombs. He assured us that we could stay with Henry. Off we went via Amsterdam and arrived in London for the Christmas season. Henry’s room was bitter cold and the three of us slept snuggled up together on a mattress on the floor, in a mostly successful attempt to keep warm. Henry seemed desperate for company, or just plain desperate, so after a stay that proved to be too long, we headed back to Paris again.
We didn’t have any English bacon but Tony gave us a room on the 4th floor. We were moving up. Many of the same guests were there. Patrick had moved on but Paul and Jeremy still had the 5th floor suite. The theatre gang was there and had added a few more to their troupe. Being higher up meant a few more stairs to climb but a slightly cleaner room and more status in Tony’s clique. We still had to be in by 10:30 but one night, be-robed Tony asked if we would like some wine and we were allowed into the inner sanctum with the guys and the TV on the wobbly stand and lots of gossip about male celebrities, who “was” and “who wasn’t”, mostly “who was” or “wasn’t telling”. After a few glasses of wine, Tony would tell us about his plan, a little pensione on the beach, not too far from Palermo. Those lovely Sicilian boys. He’d sigh and gaze heavenward. That was the sign for all of us to leave and we’d head upstairs to more journal writing and travel book reading as we plotted our next move. And the guys headed off to the gay boites of Paris. They had all been granted keys so they could stay out as late as they wished. We hadn’t reached that status yet, just closer to the top floor, that and wine and bad TV with Tony.
We actually did move on, this time across to Germany, down into Italy, to Venice, the Dalmatian Coast, then Istanbul and finally to Greece. Had Tony seen these boys? We sent him postcards of the Charioteer of Delphi and the famous one of the hoofed satyr with the mind-boggling erection, a card that sold all over Greece-the statue regarded as a national monument not unlike the Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty. We stayed in hotels and pensions, all cheap, with varying degrees of amenities, but none seemed quite like home, not like the Hotel de Lille.
We had been traveling for several months before my parents sent me an angry letter, to the American Express office in Athens. It seems they had been receiving angry letters as well, from the university. Instead of using grandmother’s inheritance to pay off student loans, I had taken the money and run. Seemed like a good thing to me but not to my dad. My uptight, no-adventure, stuck-in-the-mud stepmother was especially offended. Her own daughter had stayed home and taken a job with the state whereas I had shown a “complete lack of responsibility”. I should come home immediately and “take care of this!” My money was running low and instead of finding a job and settling in Paris, which had been a sort-of plan, I had traveled and seen so much. I could not feel bad about my choices. Even so, I knew I could not avoid reality forever and so I made plans to go back. My traveling companion had been more resourceful than I and vowed to keep traveling. We went back to Paris to enjoy the amenities of Europe one more time. She would soon be off to Teheran to hook up with another friend who had gotten her a job there teaching English. I would spend a few days on my own in Paris and then fly back to the good ole US of A and start the task of looking for a job and being, god knows, “responsible”.
This time when we arrived at the hotel, Tony was not in his baby-blue bathrobe, but in a jaunty, snug Italian sweater and a pair of khakis, showing a slight paunch, but very little color in his face. Had we ever seen him in daylight?
Here’s a key. You might want to take in some late nights before you go.
My goodness, and the top floor too. Jeremy and Paul were back in the US. Paul had stumbled drunk, Tony told us, outside the hotel. Messed up his knee and had to go back for some sort of surgery to repair it. Tony put Poochie on a leash and they stepped out onto the narrow sidewalk for a morning stroll.
My last 2 days in Paris were sad and sweet. My companion was now on her way to the Middle East for more adventure. I made the most of my time and shopped for a few things, a yellow cotton scarf patterned with little palm trees, a vintage scottie dog pin from the 30’s some antique French postcards with glitter, but my money was low. I had budgeted barely enough for cab fare to Orly and then to a girlfriend’s apartment once I finally landed in San Francisco. There was little else to spare. My last night, Tony fixed his “famous” c dinner for the guys and for me. He did not say that it was especially for me but still I felt honored.
My friend flourished at her teaching job and wrote me faithfully of her adventures in the Shah’s Iran, those last heady years before the revolution. After a few frugal years of being responsible, we planned to rendezvous in Greece. We had not planned to go to Paris but two weeks before I was to leave again for the US, we decided we needed to get a taste of Europe. There was no questions as to where we wanted to stay. Through a travel agency in Athens, we found out that, yes, the Hotel de Lille was still in business but the cost of staying there had gone up considerably. We couldn’t communicate with the Greek travel agent to determine if Tony was still the proprietor, then again, we didn’t know his last name or even if Tony was just a nickname.
After a grueling bus ride, far more adventurous than we had planned, we made it to Paris and into a taxi and to 40 Rue de Lille, sil vous plait. Yes, it looked exactly the same. We rang the buzzer and a tall, older, harried-looking man answered. Oui Oui. The lobby was cleaner but unchanged. The smiling woman was not shy, homely Micheline but a crisp, well-dressed matron. Coming down the stairs a young but very-expensively dressed American couple sailed by without so much of a nod of greeting. My friend and I looked at each other. The phone was ringing, and our hotelier ran off, smiling and bowing into Tony’s old apartment, now an efficient looking office.
We stayed a few days. Our room was cleaner but it was unseasonably cold and snow flakes drifted in as the windows still did not close properly. We still had to arrange for showers and share the WC but no gossip and no cheap red wine or bad French TV. Paris was lovely, more familiar and more comfortable, but we made a point to stay out most of the time. The hotel was now just for sleeping. That morning we were leaving, I was finally able to stop our frantic hotel man long enough to ask about Tony. At first he just looked at me, puzzled or perhaps distracted as he always seemed to be. Maybe it was my English as he seemed to speak mostly French.
Ah, I believe he is in Sicily. He retired you know.
Retired, I wondered, or perhaps he did not fit into the new, slicked-up version of the Hotel de Lille. But not to worry. I pictured Tony quite happy, in his baby-blue terry cloth robe, slight paunch over his Speedo, Poochie under his arm, relaxing at the beach on the Mediterranean, and all those lovely dark-eyed Sicilian boys.
Tony, I knew was in paradise.