Sunday, July 10, 2011

She Went to Paris...and I Went, too (guest post by Dad)

I had a phone conversation with Dad earlier this week. While we were talking I began to have insane cravings for European dark chocolate, stuffed croissants, cheese, fruit and good wine. Why? Because Dad was telling me about his and Mama's time together in Paris. Today, knowing I would be publishing his piece about those magical three days, I went to the one bakery in town I know of where the pastry chef was actually trained in Paris and can make an excellent croissant. The bakery, Essence Cafe, was closed. I shook my fist at its dark and empty interior as we drove away. My perfect chance to celebrate my dad's Paris post was denied me.

Still, here it is - perfect for Sunday daydreaming. I hope that Dad's posts will become a regular thing here, but at the present time he is working on his fourth book, and that is more important.

Enjoy! (But if you find you start craving pastries, don't blame me.)

My beautiful wife Karen on the Pont Neuf
You've read it, or heard it – Paris is filled with Frenchmen who hate Americans, Parisiens, in general, are rude, Paris stinks, Paris is full of pickpockets, Paris is expensive, Paris is not as wonderful as you've been told, on and on and on and on – some truth, yes, but mostly nonsense.

Paris is like any other very large city, anywhere in the world, in essentials; it has its rough neighborhoods, raucous traffic, graffiti, squalor, etc. It is, however, completely unlike any other city in essence. In essence, it is something quite special and wonderfully rare. At its heart is an ancient environment, a living monument to a glorious and beautiful past, where every building seems to have been constructed with an eye to form rather than function. I have recently come to understand that my wife, the lovely and gentle Lady Karen, belongs there, in that city, more than she belongs anywhere. You see, I'm the man – the astoundingly fortunate man – that accompanied her on her first trip to that marvelous place in June of 2011. At the first, I admit, during our passage on the RER from CDG airport into the city, I was as cynically critical as any imperialistic American. It took but one evening to soften my attitude and but one day further to transform it utterly...

Our son, Nate, and our daughter-in-law, Natalie, live in Bournemouth, in southern England; consequently we see them rarely. You see, my wife and I are not people of means, so we seldom travel. This fact is due mainly to my desire to be a writer of books rather than an earner of wages – a litany of failure that is best left unlisted. We married when we were very young and very poor. From the beginning, there was a wolf at our door, and he is still there. A bit longer (and duller) in the tooth, perhaps, yet he persists in his attempts at entry. Many times, he has nearly succeeded in breaking in and consuming us. He is there, even now, as I write this.

Knowing our continuing pecuniary circumstances, my son and his wife decided to bring us to Europe to visit them. As an added surprise, they insisted on sending us to Paris for three days, in honor of their Mum's birthday. Mum (my gentle wife) was astonished and overjoyed. For my part, I accepted as graciously as possible, muttering to myself that no one needed to spend that kind of money just to put a fish such as myself so abominably far out of water.

Everything went fine at the airport, but the train ride into the city seemed to confirm my belief that Paris was nothing special. The train runs down from CDG through the northern parts of the city – dozens of blocks of squalid ghettos that would easily be at home in L.A. or Baltimore. It was unseasonably hot as well that afternoon. I remember remarking to Karen that, “I don't see anything special about this town.”

We got off at the Gare du Nord station, one of the roughest parts of Paris. Had I done my homework properly, we would have caught the Metro (a magnificent means of getting about town) and gone on to Gambetta station, near our B&B. Instead, I led my high-heeled wife by the hand through several very seamy streets until we came to a main thoroughfare and caught a cab. And there, the transformation started.

Joseph, our cabby on that day, is a native Parisien. He spoke only broken English, but knew exactly where we needed to go, took us there directly for very little money, and along the way educated us in kindly tones as to the basics for enjoying his hometown. At 36 Rue de Boyer (pronounced Vwa-yay), we met Anna, a Corsican woman that grew up in Paris and spoke very good English. After she got us settled, she offered to point us toward any one of several good restaurants in the area for supper. I told her that I preferred to get some wine and cheese and settle in for the night. Surprised, but approving of this decision, she gave us directions to the establishments where she often shopped for these things. We went out and up the Avenue de Menilmontant to Rue de Pyranees where we found Nickolas Wine shop and purchased a very fine Medoc. Coming back toward Anna's, we entered the fromagerie, bought a cheese called comte, then found a patisserie, where I went a little bit nuts – they put dark chocolate in many of their pastries – then on to a fresh-fruit shop where we acquired a small container of cherries.

We were not in “tourist” Paris, but in a real Parisien neighborhood, so in none of these shops was English spoken easily. I speak very little French, but Karen and I are both disposed to be polite, believing that people are essentially the same everywhere on the globe and, in general, will respond to a respectful and friendly attitude. Such is the case in Paris, France. Almost everyone was kind and helpful; other customers, some of whom spoke more English than the shop-owners, aided us in acquiring what we sought. And I have to say that, though fairly reasonable in cost, the quality of our purchases would have commanded outrageous prices anywhere in America – and would have been worth every penny.

That was an extraordinarily pleasant evening. We sat on our fifth-floor balcony, gazing out over the city, and enjoyed our marvelous repast as the sun went down over Sacre-Coeur and left its last fading glint on the heights of the Eiffel. Already, Paris was seducing me. Karen, more clever than I, needed no such seduction. She knew the city's worth instinctively (well, in her distant ancestry, she is, after all, French). [Although, in my most distant ancestry, I am Roman, and as I like to remind her, my people conquered her people – but that has no place here.]

We are no longer young, but on that night we felt like newlyweds. She was lovely as always, we were unconstrained by any inhibiting factors and, well, I must not continue in this vain; there is a risk of imparting too much unnecessary information...

Ah, Wednesday, a whole day to spend in Paris. We breakfasted with Anna, with the Eiffel tower a mile or so away outside her window, then went to Gambetta station to catch the Metro into town. We went to Notre Dame first. And there we found our first rude Frenchmen. You see, Notre Dame is surrounded by places of business where actual Parisiens work. Think about it; if you had to walk to work (and lunch) everyday through mobs of mostly young, uncouth, too-rich, overweight Americans, and hordes of kung-fu cameramen from China and Japan, you, too, might very well sour on the whole idea of tourism as a source of national income.

We decided to ditch the crowds. Before leaving, we got our obligatory photos of Notre Dame, with Karen in the foreground, of course. Well, without her in it, for me it's just a photo of a very impressive church. You see, she came to see Paris – I came to see her in Paris.

We strolled along the Seine westward until we came to the Pont Neuf. There have been so many movies made with handsome men kissing beautiful women on the Pont Neuf; so I wanted to kiss her there. And I did; yes, I did. I may not be handsome, but she is beautiful, so we had at least half the formula down pat.

In the island, in the middle of the Pont Neuf, I spied a doorway, just wide enough for one person to negotiate, beyond which there was the interior of a small cafe. We slipped inside. A few people were seated at the tables clustered along one wall, and none of them were speaking English. It's a family-run cafe, and a very small affair. Because of its situation among residences and places of business, and the distance from all the well-known landmarks, tourists have not found this place.

Between my inadequate French and the waiter's slightly better command of English, we managed to order. Beside the fact that my meal (an open-faced sandwich with ham and broiled goat cheese) contained the word “aveyronndaise” in it, I can say only that it is the tastiest thing I have ever eaten. Really, it's true, the French can cook. Everything that I consumed in Paris was remarkably good; and the wine, fantastic.

About one o'clock, the cafe filled with young professional people on their lunch. Sitting next to us were two men, one of whom, on hearing us speak, addressed us in very good English. He asked us how we found the place (by accident, I told him); and he went on to point out a photo of Georges Simenon on the wall. The great French writer (creator of the Paris police Detective Maigret, one of my favorites) evidently had loved this little cafe and ate there every noonday during the last decade of his life. We ordered more wine, and then coffee. What a pleasant two hours we spent there!

Then it was off to the Eiffel Tower. It was a beautiful day, so we turned away from the Metro station and decided to walk the mile or so along the Seine. Yes, we were scammed by the woman who pretended to find a gold ring on the sidewalk, then asked us, “Is this yours?”, before saying that we might as well have it, but it's good luck to give some money in return. After meeting up with others of her “sisters” further along, we were glad to have the fake gold ring, so that we could just show it to each of them as they appeared to play their little game and then simply move on.

And yes, I foolishly bought two works of art that later turned out to be prints, brazenly signed by the fakers, but Hey!, they came from the banks of the Seine, so they will always mean something to us even if they have no real value.

As we strolled westward through Napoleon's magnificent city, the Eiffel began to rise up impressively on our left. By now, I was completely under the spell of Paris.

Of course, there was still the afternoon and evening to go, and one day more. I hadn't yet endured the Hour of Panic, nor had we met the mugger.....

Continued...She Went to Paris, Part Deux

If you enjoyed this story, click on the link at left to read excerpts from the Kelven's Riddle fantasy series, another great story by my dad, Daniel Hylton.


  1. Great post, Hillary! Thanks to your dad for sharing. It's obvious where you get your writing talent ; (From Camille--I messed up my identifier when I subscribed to your blog!)

  2. Yes, this was a great post, Camille. Too bad it makes me yearn to see Paris, and there's no way that's going to happen any time soon! Ah well, at least I covinced my dad to share the experience in his words with those of us who have never been. And my mom looks so beautiful in all the pictures.


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