Paris Remembered

When Muriel told a story, it was almost as much fun watching her as listening to her.  I learned to read her body language, her expressions and the nuances in her voice, which often said as much or more about her story than she did with words. She relished telling favorite stories, reliving them with excitement, humor and lots of body English. She didn’t hesitate to laugh at her own foibles and social missteps.

Some of my favorite stories were about Bob and Muriel’s first crazy days in Paris.  The tales changed a little each time, as Muriel remembered other events or some fascinating gossip about the people she met, always adding a new dimension to her stories.  Here is what she told me about their first impressions of Paris.

Bob and I could hardly contain our excitement as the train we had boarded at the port city of Le Rochelle chugged its way across the French countryside and finally slowed and whistled its way into Paris. We barely waited for it to stop before scrambling off and eagerly looking around us.

“Paris!” I shouted, throwing my arms in the air. “Just look at us! We’re actually in Paris!”   

Bob laughed, grabbed my arm and headed to where our trunks we being unloaded. We had to push and shove to make our way through the noisy, colorful mass of humanity that surrounded us. People from every race, color and culture were rushing about, many in the native, exotic costumes of the countries they were leaving behind.  So many different nationalities milled about including an abundance of Russians. It sounded like the Tower of Babel as they shouted and waved to each other. 

I clung to Bob, certain that if we were separated, we’d never find each other again in that crush of people. We finally located our trunks and pulled them far enough out of the depot that we could hear each other speak. I sat on my trunk to catch my breath, still more than a little overwhelmed. We had done our research, but nothing had prepared us for our first glimpse of Paris and the Station Internationale—Grand Central Station, Paris style

I grinned at Bob. “It’s not much like our little train station on the river, is it?”

“Not even in the same universe,” Bob laughed. “But that’s the reason we’re here, isn’t it?

That was exactly the reason we were here. We spent the next few days getting better acquainted with Paris, walking miles or taking the bus, since we couldn’t afford taxies. But we were used to this, and it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with this amazing city. Paris was an eclectic mix of the old and new. …we walked down the beautiful Champs Elysees, visited lively clubs in Montmartre, spent hours at the Louvre and climbed the Eiffel Tower.   We admired the stunning architecture, centuries old buildings and landmarks, were amazed at the opulent splendor of the Palace of Versailles and awed by Notre Dame, where we stared in silent tribute at the magnificent stained glass windows. We explored and marveled at all the legendary and historical sites of Paris.

However, it didn’t take long for us to discover what was new and unique to 1925 Paris, including the overwhelming influx of people from diverse countries searching for political and/or artistic freedom. Remember, we were just coming out of that awful Victorian era, which my mother loved and I hated! So did most of the writers, artists and musicians in America, especially the black musicians. The very best of them moved to Paris where they were welcomed and appreciated. Later, many like Bricktop and Josephine Baker, became our good friends.

We had also just come out of World War I, were tired of the insanity of war and ready to move on. We knew that Paris was a melting pot of people, ideas and lifestyles, so I wasn’t surprised to see so much of Parisian life   carried to extreme…from the Dadaist Movement, to the excesses of frenetic life styles and the outrageous, exotic entertainments the Parisians seemed to love. Naturally, Bob and I had to explore each of these excesses…all in the name of research, of course! We started with the notorious Moulin Rouge which lived up to its name and left us with many less francs.

By the time we arrived in Paris, there was already a huge expatriate American colony established there, the famous, the infamous and the not-yet-famous writers and artists of our day. We were, of course, in the latter category! But I was convinced that someday Bob would be listed among those famous authors. In the meantime, we met most of them and became friends with many…some already famous and others who were just becoming so.     

 We were thrilled beyond words to discover something else exciting and new going on in Paris. The Jazz Age had arrived!  It wasn’t called that yet, but that was what was happening. Night clubs, little cafes and on street corners, everywhere we went there was a new, jazzy beat to the music, and we reveled in it!  Away with the waltzes, it was time for the Black Bottom and Charleston!

This was the spirited, seductive Paris we discovered when we got off the train in 1925.  Bob and I had always considered ourselves much more worldly and sophisticated than our peers. But I couldn’t pretend to be blasé about the incredible sights and sounds that surrounded us wherever we wandered those first few weeks.  I stared, and pointed and exulted in every new experience.

Bob teased me. ”Honey, you’ve got to quit walking around with your eyes as big as saucers and your mouth wide open!”

I did, but it took me many months to feel comfortable in new my Parisian cloak of sophistication—later, however, wearing dresses and furs designed by Chanel, LeLong and Patou certainly helped things along!

And that is one account of Muriel’s first impressions of Paris.  Her eyes still got big as saucers and sparkled with excitement as she told her story. When I finally visited Paris many years later, my experience was greatly enhanced by her memories. And when I recently saw “Midnight in Paris,” it all came alive once again.  How Muriel would have loved seeing that movie. I can imagine the running commentary she would furnish throughout the film!