Passionate and penniless in Paris: A magical memory

Maxine Rose Schur spins a romantic tale of a young couple penniless and passionate in Paris.


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Maxine Rose Schur
February 14, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

I sure know what Elizabeth meant. We've been to Paris five times, but the very idea of Paris still seduces. I hunger for Paris and lust over memories. Yet at night, when I lie in my husband's arms, it isn't the recent, sybaritic images I conjure to lure him into that intimate realm of memory. No. At night, fancy restaurants, scenic boat rides, chateaux and boutiques evaporate. In their place float up memories, strange and strong. Up floats an idea of Paris from my first visit a quarter century ago, when I was 22 and newly wed.

Of course, even then I had an idea of Paris. That's why, driving into the city in our VW van, I dressed in what I fancied were "Parisian clothes." Never mind they were Parisian clothes of some other century. In my long black skirt, black boots, hoop earrings, flea market scarf of pink silk, I felt like Paris personified.

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The moment I arrived in the City of Light, I was lit. "We must stay at least a month," I told Stephen, my husband. "Let's enjoy Paris!"

Paris was expensive and we had little money, but I made a fuss so at last he said, "All right, we'll stay -- but we'll have to camp."

"Camp! " I cried. "In Paris?" Nobody camps in Paris!"

We did.

That night we rolled our van, outfitted with no more than a mattress, down the ramp to the Quai de la Tournelle, where vehicles are forbidden. We parked at the edge of the river, just past the Pont de la Tournelle. When we looked left, we could see the stone bridge with its little statue of St. Genevieve, and beyond, the floodlit Cathedral of Notre Dame. Looking right, we saw our quay merge with the next, then vanish in murky shadows. In front of us, across the narrow arm of the river, rose the elegant apartments of the Ile St. Louis.

We climbed in the back of our van, lay face up on the mattress and looked out the windows.

Magic.

The effect was as if we were both inside the van and out of it too. At once cozy in an enclosed, secret place, and also right out in the city. In its very heart. Above us, apartments loomed into the stars, their lacy iron balconies bathed in light, and at our feet, the Seine flowed discreetly southward.

"Let's enjoy Paris," Stephen murmured.

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Now, a lot of practical things can get in the way of romance -- such as the need for a bathroom. But we had the courage of youth and didn't let it. The next afternoon we sat on the riverbank planning just which cafes we would discreetly visit at what times of day when a van, big and white as an ambulance, pulled up next to ours. A young man stepped out. He wore no shirt and balanced a hammer vertically on his nose.

"Gidday," he said.

This was Basil Didier, a Mormon New Zealander who'd come to Paris to research his genealogy.

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His trick turned the wheel of camaraderie. We had a few laughs together, then seeing our interest in his Citroen delivery van, he asked, "Would you like a perv?" which is New Zealand-ese for "Would you like to take a look?"

We were awed by the ingenious cabinetry: the seat that evolved into a bed, the stove built into the counter, the table hung on the wall like a picture, and the sink with its clever foot pump, small as a piano pedal.

"I'm a carpenter," Basil said with Down Under modesty. But when I opened the narrow door and discovered a flush toilet, I knew he was more than a carpenter. He was our friend.

There must have been something in the air that August 1971. The next day two more vans arrived. One was inhabited by a young New York couple who'd just returned from North Africa. The other, a rusted black Fiat, contained a bearded artist from Hawaii named Hayden and his black dog, Mahler.

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Of an evening, the couple would regale us with their adventures in Morocco and Hayden would recount the curious theatrics performed by a tribe of gypsies he'd lived with in Toulouse. For the next month, the six of us shared food, opinions, toilets and, at sunset, vin rouge. Surely there was alchemy at work, for though it was totally difendu to camp there, directly
across, as we learned, from the island home of Prime Minister Pompidou, the gendarmes never told us to leave.

Au contraire! Each night a gendarme would stop by our van to check passports and to see that we were all right.

"Ga va, jeunes Americans?"

"Ga va."

One warm evening, as Hayden was inside his van painting on its walls by candlelight what he called his "private vision of Paris" and the New Yorkers were playing gin rummy and Mahler was barking at every kerosene barge that chugged up the river, Basil, Stephen and I sat on the quay, dangling our feet over the water. Stephen and I were drinking wine and trying in vain to get Basil to taste the marked-down cheese we'd bought from the Monoprix. But Basil was too busy preaching how French cheeses were decadent.

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"Food should be just matter to fill up space," he said.

Then he went on about sex.

Mormonism forbids sex before marriage and in his opinion that was "too right," for any fool could see sex is merely a fad. A style! A kind of fashion!

"Sex," Basil explained, "is just Gucci Hootchie-Kootchie."

Bored with his ideas, we told him one of ours: to drive from France to India. "And what we need," Stephen said, "is a camper, fixed up like yours."

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Basil was happy to take the bait. He said he was "right tired of dead Didiers," and would be pleased to help us make our van into a camper. Our joy turned to dejection, however, when we realized the impossibility of such a project that required power tools, for we had no electricity nor any access to it.

"Too bad, too," I said, "when there's electricity all around us ..."

The maintenance crew at the Collhge de France looked up from
their lunches, astonished when we drove into the courtyard.

"Why are you driving your vehicle in here?" demanded a
gray-haired man in overalls.

"Where else would we outfit it for the expedition?" Stephen
retorted.

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"What expedition?" the man asked as the rest of the crew
stared.

"What expedition?" I asked silently.

Then in the same ringing tone used to call out metro station names, Stephen announced, "L'expedition ` l'Afrique du Nord!"

The man looked skeptical and the other men laughed.

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But Stephen began relating the details of our "expedition
scientifique,"
how we needed to collect flowers in Morocco and how
outfitting the van for this botanical study was part of the project.
Stephen blended gobbledygook with what the New Yorkers had told us about
Morocco.

The man threw his cigarette butt on the ground. "I'm sorry
but my men cannot help. Union rules absolutely prevent involvement."

"Monsieur!" Stephen cried, "we wouldn't dream of troubling
you. We only need to use the electricity here -- and some power tools."

The man paused, looking hard at Stephen and me. And in that
pause I dared hope he'd play accomplice to honeymooners.

Finally, in a voice low and sly, like beer trickling out of
a jug, the man said, "Well then, it's not impossible ... is it?"

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For the next three weeks we spent our mornings in
construction. Basil drew a blueprint copying the classic VW camper
interior. The crew chatted with us every day and cheered us on. They not
only supplied power tools, but gave us steel rods and rollers from the lab
to make the couch scoot into a bed. They also told us where to find scraps
and army surplus items. While Stephen and Basil built the cabinetry, I
bought the supplies and sewed curtains.

Then, each afternoon, when Basil went off to his French
class at the Alliance Frangaise, Stephen and I fell in love all over
again. With each other and with Paris.

We strolled the Left Bank bookstores, plunging headfirst
into musty books, anticipating delight in finding just the right one --
for each other. We read Baudelaire at twilight in the spooky ruins of
l'Arhne de Luthce, a Roman amphitheater off Rue Monge. We sipped tea in
tulip-shaped glasses in the garden of the Paris mosque, and every other day
crossed the bridge to the Ile St. Louis to bathe at the municipal baths.
In our private washroom, as we splashed each other with warm water from the
copper pail, we were serenaded by the soulful tunes of the Muslim men who sang
in their showers. "Mustafaaaa, Mustafaaaaaaaa!" they wailed.
Their
mellifluous voices washed us in music. Then, damp-haired, we'd stroll at
dusk along the riverbank, our sandals clapping on the cobblestones while
above us, softly and silently, chestnut leaves fluttered, like the wings of
giant butterflies.

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The day our van was finished was also the day Basil ran off to
Toulouse with his French teacher, Jacqueline. It was also the day before
Pompidou was to return and the day the gendarmes told us to go. "We have
to leave all this beauty!" I cried. To cheer me, Stephen said we'd have a
farewell feast in a restaurant. That evening we climbed up the
steep market street, Rue Mouffetard, but found all the restaurants full.
Ambling down an alley we came upon a Chinese restaurant jammed with
boisterous diners at tables no bigger than record albums.

"Entrez! Entrez!" the diners shouted at us. We were lured
inside and before we understood what was happening, tables got squeezed
together and we were seated with two men plowing through some inscrutable
Chinese dish.

The two were as different as gruyhre is from gruel. One was
tall and elegant with dark, wavy hair. An architect, dressed in a chic suit.
The other was short, fat and had a ruddy face. He appeared to be some sort
of factory worker, for he wore the blue working class jacket. In minutes we
were drinking wine, enjoying mushy chow mein and listening to the men
bemoan how Paris was no fun anymore as nowadays people were obsessed with
making a living.

"What a pity we have forgotten the zany little ways of life!"
the architect wailed, and we all drank a toast to this loss, feeling giddy
with joy.

As the evening wore on, I no longer cared that our intimate
tjte-`-tjte had turned into a tjte-`-tjte-`-tjte-`-tjte. We drank a lot of wine
and laughed like crazy. In fact, the whole restaurant was a boat of
merrymakers on the brink of capsizing.

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When the lugubrious waiter asked if we'd like dessert, and I
declined, the architect appeared offended.

"Do you mean to say, Madame, that you won't even try La
Banane du Chef? It is the specialty of the house!"

"I don't have room for it," I answered.

"No room! Nonsense! You will have the room when you taste it!"

"Very true," the ruddy faced man said. "It tastes like
nothing else in the world! Am I not right?" he asked the waiter. The
waiter nodded as one might on identifying a body in a morgue.

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"Why don't you try it, if it's that good?" Stephen urged,
knowing my fondness for sweets.

"I'll have La Banane du Chef!" I said to the waiter.

As conversation and wine flowed, it occurred to me (through
a little haze) that this dessert was taking quite a long time. I was about
to question the waiter when the lights in the restaurant went out, plunging
us into darkness and causing a collective scream from the patrons. Then the
kitchen door was flung open and our waiter walked through the black
restaurant holding high a tray with a flaming dessert. Somberly, he made his
way to our table, guided by the blue-yellow light of the flames. He set
the plate in front of me and announced gravely, "Madame, La Banane du Chef!"
To my amazement, these words brought a hand-clapping and foot-stomping from the other diners. I looked down.

Banana fritters formed in the shape of a male's private
parts.

Every eye in the place was on me, waiting for me to take a
bite, but I was giggling so much, I couldn't. At last, when I did take that
first bite, loud cries of " Ooh-la-la!" went up and the lights came on.
All four of us shared the dessert, which was delicious.
After dinner,
Stephen took my hand and led me up Rue Mouffetard. Up and up we wound our
way along the medieval street. The night was bright with moonlight, which
gave the ancient gray houses the look of tarnished silver. We stopped and
kissed, our bodies like clasped hands.

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"Where are we going?" I whispered.

"You'll see."

For some time, we threaded up and around some side
streets until suddenly Paris was spread before us. How beautiful it
looked! Exactly like my idea of Paris. Like everyone's idea of Paris.
Vibrant and askew. The gold-lit Eiffel Tower tilted jauntily, and for a
beret, wore the moon. The bateaux-mouches were now spaceships floating on a
black iridescent ribbon, while at the Place de la Concorde, the obelisk was
a rocket taking off. And far at the city's cusp sailed Sacri Coeur -- a
white ship guided by stars. Yes, that night, it seemed Paris, in sympathy
with us, twinkled and trembled, and leaned too in fervent anticipation. An
excited city listing toward love ...

So if in the day, I recount some delightful French meal,
shopping discovery, historical site or museum exhibit, you'll understand if
I say that at night, a more passionate nostalgia beckons. At night, when
I lie in my husband's arms, I need only whisper "Gucci Hootchie-Kootchie"
or "L'expedition scientifique" or, if feeling particularly naughty, "La
Banane du Chef," to lure us into the realm of memory. Lure us back to
that long-ago couple, fearless and fanciful. Back to the quivering nights
of a time-distant Paris when the air was dusty with miracles and the stars
were hung lower. Closer to our hearts.


Maxine Rose Schur

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