Posts Tagged ‘Bohemian Club’

1 March

The Greek

The Greek

March 18, 1925, Paris, France

We entered his office slowly, having no idea what to expect. The room was dimly lit, which made it difficult to see the man seated behind the desk who held our future in his hands.  Mr. Varounis waited for the maître d’ to close the door and block some of the noise of the busy nightclub before speaking.

“Please, sit down,” he said in excellent English, with a noticeable Greek accent.

He attempted a smile as he spoke, but it was obvious that this was not something that came naturally to him.  Mr. Varounis adjusted the wire rim glasses resting on his substantial nose, which appeared even bigger due to a severely receding hairline.  For several moments he gazed long and hard at us.

“This jazz music you play – my audience seems to like it.”

I started to correct him and say that they loved it, not just liked it, but per Bob’s insistence, I kept my mouth shut for once.  It was not an easy task.

“Do you know a lot of this kind of music?”

“Yes,” Bob lied. “We have been playing it in America for several years.”

Actually, we only knew a handfull of actual jazz numbers, as most of our act was standards and parodies combined with stunts designed to draw a laugh.


Mr. Varounis seemed deep in thought and ignored us for a few moments before speaking again.  “Personally, I don’t care for it much, but many clubs in Paris are playing this music now and I think some of my customers tire of Russian music and acts.  Maybe you would like to play this music for me every night.  Yes?”

“Yes, we would like that very much,” Bob said without even attempting to act hesitant in order to drive a better bargain.

“So how much salary would you like?

“One hundred francs a night!” I said not being able to control myself any longer.  I figured I would open with an outlandishly high number and back off to something more reasonable, like twenty or twenty-five francs a night.

Mr. Varounis took his glasses off and proceeded to clean them while staring at his desk, appearing to be deep in thought. I tried to read his face, but it was expressionless.

He finally look up at us. “One hundred francs a night is not the number I had in mind.”

I was holding Bob’s hand and, upon hearing these words, squeezed it so hard he jumped in his chair. I had messed everything up demanding so much money. What was I thinking?  Why couldn’t I learn to keep my damn mouth shut?

I was about to suggest 10 francs a night when Mr. Varounis continued, “But you seem very determined in your request. I believe this salary can be arranged.”

Excitement and joy couldn’t begin to express what I was feeling. We were rich!  No more growling stomach and stale corn flakes! I wanted to jump out of my chair and give this man a big hug, but did my best to hide my exhilaration.

“And dinner. We also get dinner as part of our salary.  And not any of that borsht stuff – real food.”

I wanted to look around the room, searching for where the words came from.  It took a moment to realize I had said them. Bob and Mr. Varounis were both looking at me strangely.

He smiled again, “Of course – real food.  Starting tomorrow night you perform for one hour at 9 P.M. and one hour at midnight for 100 francs a night and dinner.  It is agreed then. Yes?”

We all shook hands and politely thanked our new boss, when I remembered. “Mr. Varounis, I am sure you don’t want your refined audience listening to our music on that old, out-of-tune piano we used tonight.  They certainly deserve nothing less than a fine, grand piano.  Don’t you agree?”

The shocked look on our new employer’s face made me fear I had gone too far and he was rethinking his decision to hire us.

“I will give this some thought.”

With that he ushered us out of his office closing the door behind us.

On the long walk back to our hotel, I barely felt the crunching snow under my feet and the bitter cold Paris wind.  We talked excitedly about how we were going to spend our unexpected fortune.  My mind was on gowns and shoes, while Bob was excited about finding an apartment and having a room with a big window that overlooked Paris where he could write.  Our tomorrow had finally come and the Johnston Grand Plan for seeing the world was alive and back on track.

I tossed and turned all night, my mind jumping back and forth from our good fortune, to replaying the applause and cheers for the thousandth time to fearing last night was a fluke and we really weren’t that good.

“Darling.”  I shook Bob’s shoulders a bit.

The sun hadn’t come up yet, but trying to sleep was useless.  Bob, however, was blissfully snoring like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Darling,” I said again, and shook him lightly.

“What?” he growled.

“We need to talk.”

“Can’t it wait?”  He rolled away from me.

“No. This is important.”

Grudgingly rolling back over, “Okay, what is on that fertile mind of yours?”

“We need new sheet music.  We need to get your banjo out of hock.  We need to rehearse.  I need to get my hair and nails done.  All our evening clothes are wrinkled and need cleaned and I don’t have an iron – plus my gowns need altered as I have lost so much weight, with all the walking and not eating, they just hang on me like I have no figure at all.  I can’t take hiking back and forth to the club in the snow for another week until we get paid, and I can’t afford the postage to write Mother.”

“Is that all?”

“No, I think I am coming down with a cold or something and we haven’t made love in three days.”

Bob snuggled up against me, “I can’t do anything about the rest of it until the sun comes up, but that last thing I will get to work on immediately.”

29 February

Tomorrow Finally Comes

Tomorrow Finally Comes

March 18, 1925, Paris, France

The polite, unenthusiastic applause that accompanied our introduction had ended an eternity ago, leaving only embarrassing silence.  I didn’t dare look, but I could feel three hundred pairs of eyes bearing down on me.  Even the waiters, their hands still full of trays loaded with tall stacks of hot food and empty dishes, had stopped not wanting to miss the train wreck.

Still frozen in place, I tried unsuccessfully to get my feet to move towards the door that would mercifully take me out of this nightmare.  The exit was only twenty feet away, but Vetia was still standing in front of it frantically motioning with his arms towards the stage.  Given my adrenalin rush and being highly agitated, I had no doubt I could knock the Cossack Captain flat on his butt.  About to do just that, I felt Bob’s hand wrap around my arm from behind.

In my ear he whispered, “Your call, Darling.  I’m with you either way.”

As reassuring and loving as his voice was, I continued mentally debating if I was going to pop Vetia with a right hook when I got him alone or go directly for a hard kick right into his Russian family jewels. I was leaning towards the second option when a bright light from above suddenly blinded me.  The damn spotlight operator had found us in the crowd. A small, pathetic spattering of applause began again and, without thinking, I instinctively turned, waved and smiled at the audience.

The next thing I knew I was on stage and seated behind an old, up-right piano that had seen better days.  Bob had grabbed a banjo he found backstage.  Both were badly out of tune.

Still smiling, and without moving my lips, I growled loud enough for only Bob, “One number and were getting the hell out of here.”

He smiled at me and didn’t say a word.  Damn he’s a smart guy!  We sang “What Would I Do” – the same song we had done on the Kroonland.  Given our out of tune instruments and my rushing the song a bit, wanting to get off stage as soon as possible, I thought we were terrible and would get booed off stage– or best case, just ignored. I hit the last note and before it completely faded away, reached down under the piano stool for my purse.

The applause was immediate and thunderous.  It was hard to see because of the spotlight, but people in the audience were actually standing and yelling in different languages.

“What are they saying?” I whispered to Bob, who was sitting on the piano bench next to me.

“I think they are saying ‘more’.”

I did my best to act like this was expected – just another day at the office you know, but it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard, and it was I who wanted more.  We had been told by the Admiral to sing only two songs. After our third number the audience was still yelling for more.  At the side of the stage. the Admiral gave us the thumbs up to continue, much to the dismay of the violinist who was waiting impatiently to go on.

As we walked off stage after doing six songs, the audience was standing and applauding in a way that made me feel something I had never felt before. On the way back to our table, I saw Vetia standing there wearing that big, stupid grin of his.  I rushed over, gave him a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks – his Russian family jewels safe for the moment.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur as strangers came over to congratulate us.  They said their names, but I didn’t hear as my mind kept replaying the delicious applause.  I just kept repeating, “Thank you” and “You’re very kind” with what I believed to be the perfect combination of sincerity and aloofness.   Ever since I was a little girl on the Russian River, I had been practicing these words for this precise moment, never really believing I would actually get to use them.

Our moment of glory was interrupted as Admiral made his way through the crowd surrounding our table and said, “Pardon, but could you please follow me?  Mr. Varounis would like a word with the two of you.”

Excitedly, I turn to Bob, assuming he was behind me, but he wasn’t there.  In all the confusion, I hadn’t noticed he had never made it to the table.  I spotted him standing ten feet away surrounded by a crowd, mainly women, who were offering their congratulations.  Had he not been married, I bet they would have been offering something more intimate.  The poor darlings, Bob was so much in love with me they didn’t stand a chance. I grabbed Bob by the arm and separated him from the herd.

As we followed the Admiral toward Mr. Varounis’ office, I told Bob, “Now don’t be shy about asking for a lot of money and a long term contract.  He saw how the crowd loved us.  Plus, I want a grand piano, and we really have to do something about that spotlight – it’s too bright and the operator doesn’t have a clue how to properly operate it.”

Bob kept nodding and smiling as I went on listing my demands until Admiral maître d’ knocked on the Mr. Varounis’ office door.

Knowing that there was very little filter between my brain and mouth, Bob leaned over and whispered, “Let me do all the talking.”

I nodded in agreement, both of us knowing that me keeping silent was probably in our best interests – and also highly unlikely!

26 February

Chateau Caucasien

Chateau Caucasien

March 18, 1925, Paris, France 

Bob and I spent the morning rehashing last night’s events, debating if Vetia could really get us an audition. Or was he just acting more important than he was?  I tended to believe him, but maybe it was because my painful growls of hunger were back.

We wanted to rehearse just in case Vetia was telling the truth, but it was impossible, considering we had no piano and Bob had hocked his banjo a week ago. Vetia had told us that we would be meeting at a Russian café in Montmartre owned by a good friend of his, a Greek man named Varounis.

In his youth, Varounis had been a paperboy and learned how to make a dollar in the streets of New York. When he arrived in Paris, he discovered the large group of Russian emigrants living here, each professing to be a prince or princess. Vetia had assured us that a few of them were, but most were just normal people who fled Russia fearing for their lives.  Be it princess or peasant, for a bowl of borsht and a glass of vodka, they would perform colorful Russian dances and songs.  Evidently, it was quite a spectacle as sometimes there were over two hundred of them. Varounis saw an opportunity and opened a club designed for these emigrants and had made a great success of it.  To me, it sounded like he was in the mafia or something.  How exciting!

We certainly hoped to get paid more than borsht and vodka, but at the moment would settle for food and drink if that’s all that was offered.  It snowed all day and by the time we left the hotel for our long walk to the club, the snow was above our ankles.  I wasn’t worried about my feet freezing so much as ruining my shoes and the bottom of my long evening gown.  We must have made quite a sight, dressed in our fine evening cloths, me holding my gown up to my knees and us jumping around trying to avoid snowdrifts and puddles.

As we rounded the last corner of our marathon stroll, running quite late as usual, we saw the glittering lights of the Chateau Caucasien, an enormous building that took up most of the block.  To our relief, Vetia was standing outside as promised and came running up to welcome us.  Grabbing my hand, he quickly escorted us into the club and out of the cold.

He first led us downstairs to the basement called the Caverne or cave.  It was packed with rather plain looking people listening to folk songs played by gypsies on what we were told were balalaikas.   Every rustic table had several candles and bottles of vodka where the Russian exiles came to feel they were back home – if only for a little while.

After a few minutes we went back up the stairs to the ground floor which was the called the Chateau.  It was an enormous room with several large crystal chandeliers and where formal dress was “obligatoire.”  Dozens of waiters dressed in colorful Cossack uniforms were scurrying about bringing gourmet delicacies and wine to the reserved crowd.  At one end of the room was a bandstand, where a large orchestra was playing waltzes and fox trots for the dancers.  Now this was more like it, but still a little stiff for my taste.

We entered the top floor known as the “Cabaret.” The room was less formal and seated about three hundred people.  At one end was a small stage, where Vetia said several different kinds of acts performed.  Currently, there were some Russian dancers doing a folk number.  As the crowd applauded politely, the maître d’ hotel came and greeted Vetia warmly.

Vetia introduced us in his best English. “This is Bob and Muriel, famous singers from America.  They have come for an audition, because they would like to work in so charming a place as this.”

My empty stomach was now in my throat.  Vetia had led us to believe that the owner was a close friend of his and the audition had already been arranged through him – not some damn maître d’. I stole a look at Bob and could tell he was thinking the same thing.  Even so, we waited impatiently for his response.

The maître d’ seemed hesitant, staring long and hard at us for what seemed to be a lifetime.  Suddenly he turned to Vetia. “It will be impossible.” My heart started to sink down to my empty stomach, when all of a sudden I realized the maître d’ was still talking, “…for them to go on until the next show which is two hours from now.  Good?”

I was speechless and still trying to get my heart back where it belonged, so Vetia responded for us, “Perfect, my good friend.  Gives us time to eat your wonderful food and drink your vodka.”

The maître d’ led us to a small table near the stage.  After he left, Vetia informed us that the maître d’ had been one of the top Admirals in the Russian Navy and he had known him for many years. The Admiral’s entire family, including his wife, children, brothers and sisters and their families had been murdered by Trotsky.  The thought of this dampened the joy I was feeling.

Panic quickly replaced my fascination as I looked around the cabaret, which was packed to the rafters with a wide assortment of people.  Some wore tuxes and gowns, while others were dressed casually.  There were so many different languages being spoken, my head began spinning.

Vetia saw me examining the room. “You know, many famous people come here to eat, drink and watch the shows.  Just last week, the His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, sat right there,” he said pointing to a nearby table.

That did it. It was definitely time to rethink this.  We had assumed that if hired, we would quietly play in the background while customers ate and drank. We had never performed, much less sung, to an audience like this before.  Our college and vaudeville shows consisted of a few hit tunes and us acting like buffoons to get some cheap laughs.  At Milano’s, we played only instrumentals, as they wanted people drinking, not watching a show.  Even the numbers we did aboard the Kroonland couldn’t compare to performing in front of this crowd.  This was Paris, for heavens sake!  These people were used to the finest entertainment in the world. If that wasn’t bad enough, it suddenly dawned on me that most of these people don’t speak English. What the hell were we thinking?

Even a scrumptious dinner and several glasses of Vodka couldn’t calm my nerves.  I hadn’t said a word for an hour, and Bob sensed I had gone to a full stage panic and tried to calm me. “It’ll be alright, Darling. Let’s just be ourselves and have some fun.”

“Fun?” I said loud enough to get Vetia’s attention.  “You think this is going to be fun? It’s going to be a damn disaster.  I’m leaving!”

The tone in my voice and the look on my face must have taken Bob and Vetia by surprise.  Bob knew better than to argue or try to reason with me when I am like this.  Vetia suddenly stood up and disappeared into the crowd without saying goodbye.  I didn’t blame him as I hadn’t been very appreciative or good company, but guilt wasn’t going to make me stay for another second.  Grabbing my bag, I stood up and began making my way through the throngs of people towards the exit.  Bob was following close behind.

As we passed the stage, the singer was just finishing his number. The Admiral, who also served as master of ceremonies, jumped on stage and announced in English,  “Ladies and gentlemen, direct from New York City in America, please welcome for the first time at Chateau Caucasien the fine singers, Bob and Muriel.”

I froze in place unable to move.  New York City?  I had never even been to New York City and we weren’t supposed to go on for another hour. What the hell was going on?

Over by the door, I spotted Vetia with a stupid, silly grin on his face.  Had I been a few steps closer, I would have rung his neck……

24 February

The Russians Are Coming!

The Russians Are Coming!

Muriel often mentioned how surprised she and Bob were at the huge number of Russians in Paris when they arrived there in 1925.

“They were everywhere,” she exclaimed. “They were waiters, salesclerks, barmen, street cleaners, laborers, teachers, clerks and every taxi driver in Paris was Russian. And every one of them had a story to tell, most of them sad tales indeed.  Almost all claimed to be exiled aristocrats and/or royalty, with many a Prince and Princess among them. The amazing thing was, many of them actually were!”

Paris had long held a special attraction for Russians from the early 1700’s when Czar Peter first visited; to 1814 when Alexander I entered Paris after defeating Napoleon; to the state visit of Nicolas II in 1896, at which time there were already over 5000 Russians living in Paris.  Russian aristocrats and royalty wintered there and in southern France.  In fact, Paris became known as “Russia Abroad.”

The chaos, terror and suffering that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War of 1917 was the catalyst that drove over 2 million Russians (200,000 of them Russian Jews) out of their homeland, desperately seeking asylum in dozens of foreign countries. The Bolshevik regime stripped the exiles of their citizenship, wealth and lands. They were literally without a country. It was a mass migration that included everyone who didn’t accept the brutal, new Communist regime—wealthy landowners, educated and skilled workers and rural property owners.

France, especially Paris, became the refuge of choice for thousands of Russian aristocrats and former royal families. Add to this mix, the thousands of Russian unskilled laborers who were hired by the French government to help rebuild France after the devastation left behind from World War I.  France lost over 1,500,000 men in the war, and had at least that many injured.  They had very little manpower left to rebuild their country, so they hired the exiled Russians who could no longer find jobs in their own country.

However, when the rebuilding was finished, there were no more jobs for them. They, along with many of the aristocrats, were forced to take menial jobs.  Russian Doctors, teachers, University Professors, scientists and the former aristocracy became the waiters, clerks and taxi drivers…if they were lucky. By 1925, when Muriel had arrived, there were reportedly 400,000 Russians in France, over 50,000 of them in Paris.

The Russian community in Paris was bound together in the hope and expectation of the downfall of Bolshevism and a return to Mother Russia. They believed their mission in Paris was to preserve Russian culture, language and liberty and, above all, to educate the west about the dangers of Communism.

So, they organized! Over the years, they recreated their traditional lifestyles, establishing schools, churches, publishing houses, newspapers, theatres and literary circles, political groups, dance companies, cultural and language centers and even nightclubs. Paris became the political center and unofficial capital of Russian emigration in Europe. They greatly enhanced world culture, but many still help a deep love for Russia and dreamed of someday returning.

This was the Paris that Muriel and Bob discovered in 1925.  What a rich melting pot of humanity, causes and cultures. Bob must have found more than enough raw material here to fill several books, for there is no doubt that the massive Russian emigration impacted 1920’s Paris—it’s culture, politics, geography and especially its arts and nightlife.

The popularity of Russian nightlife rose dramatically in the 1920’s.  There were over 100 Russian nightclubs featuring the best caviar, 60 kinds of vodka, music and dance, balalaikas and gypsy music as well as traditional Russian folk music…usually gut-wrenching and sad songs that pulled at the heartstrings.  One of the most popular Russian nightclubs was the Chateau Caucasian, later renamed the Caveau (Cave) Caucasian, where Bob and Muriel had their first success.

Muriel described it this way:  The Chateau Caucasian was a huge three story building.  In the basement, or Caverne, the gypsies played their balalaikas and sang folk songs. There were candles, samovars and bottles on the rustic tables, recalling the bohemian atmosphere found in the small Russian cafes.  The ground floor was the Chateau, with crystal chandeliers, formal dress “Obligatoire” and waiters dressed in very formal white Cossack uniforms. Guests were served gourmet delicacies and wines while a large orchestra played for dancing.

The top floor was given over to the Cabaret.  The room seated about three hundred people, had a small stage at one end upon which appeared several different acts—sword dancers, soloists, a Russian quartet, and more gypsy dancers. The atmosphere was informal, the gay colors blended with the bright costumes of the performers. This is the room where Bob and Muriel performed nightly for several months, and where they became good friends with so many of the Russian performers and waiters.

The Russian influence on Parisian fashion was led by Coco Chanel in what was later to be called her “Russian Phase.”  She created more ornate fabrics in bold colors and added furs to her collection.  At the time, she was having an affair with Igor Stravinsky, and hired Russian models and salesgirls from the Russian aristocracy.  Vogue featured the fashionable “Slavic Style” of dress and included pictures in their magazine.

The impact of Russian refugees on the Parisian art and literary scene was immense, and remains so today.  Perhaps we have forgotten how many gifted artists, writers and musicians came to us as exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution, many via Paris.  Consider this: Serge Diagilev’s Ballet Russe found a home there, as did choreographer George Balanchine; actors, Yul Brynner and George Sanders; designer, Oleg Cassini; musicians, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky and Serge Prokofyev; writer, Ayn Rand; and artists, Marc Chagall, Survage and Kandinsky.  These artists found the artistic freedom they longed for in Paris…a freedom they could have never experienced in Russia.

So, 1920’s Paris was a brightly shining beacon promising artistic freedom for many cultures and movements around the world.  While we tend to focus on  our American expatriate group in Paris who helped bring to life the glittering, frenetic Jazz Age, others seek their own country’s role in that crazy decade of change and upheaval. No one came out of it as innocent as they went into it.

Least of all, Bob and Muriel Johnston.

23 February

Table For Two, Please

Table For Two, Please

March 17, 1925, Paris, France

Today didn’t start out any better than yesterday.  Our morning walk and job search was uneventful and after a breakfast and lunch of cornflakes with warm water, what had tasted delicious last night had lost its appeal.  Even so, I checked the bottom of the box finding only a few small flakes.

Bob flipped open one of our trunks and pulled out my aqua blue evening gown – one of his favorites. 

“I think you should wear this tonight,” he announced.

He saw my confused look and added, “Come on now.  Hurry and start getting ready.  Tonight we are going to dine at the Café du Dome.”

I look at my husband wondering if the hunger had scrambled his brain.  The Café du Dome is one of the most exclusive – and therefore expensive – restaurants in Paris.  Even if we could afford dinner, it was located several miles away in Montparnasse and we had no money for a cab.

“Look,” Bob said, “I am tired of being hungry.  What’s the worst they are going to do – make us wash dishes?  Throw us in jail?  At least in jail we get three meals a day.  Besides, your beauty is being wasted in this hotel room and must be shared with the world,” he concluded very dramatically as if on stage. 

My only thought was why hadn’t he thought of this sooner?  For once in my life, my hunger was a stronger force than my vanity, so I was dressed in record time.  We exited the hotel for a night on the town looking like a million bucks.   After an hour of walking in my high heels on uneven Paris streets, I started rethinking our plan.  My feet were killing me and, as the Café du Dome came into view, I started getting nervous about what might happen to us when the check arrived.  I kept my thoughts to myself, as Bob and I entered the club like we belonged and they were damn lucky to have us. 

It was packed and I look around excitedly hoping to see someone famous.  It was then I realized that I could bump into someone famous and never know. I know who James Joyce is, but have no idea what he looks like! How silly. 

We had to wait almost two hours for a table, during which time the waiters kept rushing by with large trays containing mountains of heavenly smelling food.  It was all I could do to keep from tripping one of them and quickly stuffing my mouth with whatever landed on the floor.

I tried to keep my mind off the pain in my stomach by doing some serious people watching (one of my favorite things). This was certainly the place to do it.  As people drifted by, I heard several different languages being spoken although I didn’t know what half of them were.  They were probably discussing the weather or Uncle Bert‘s gallbladder operation, but in a foreign language it sounded so mysterious and romantic. 

Finally, our table was ready and a tired looking French waiter took our order.  We gorged ourselves on sautéed shrimp, mushrooms, roasted beef with potatoes sautéed in butter and lamb covered with a white sauce so delicious I wanted to lick the plate.  By dessert the two of us had already emptied a large bottle of wine and were about to finish off the second.  After peach pie and a huge bowl of ice cream, I was about to explode.  We each had a couple liquors followed by coffee – one cup after another waiting for the inevitable.  

The check had arrived quite some time ago and neither one of us had the courage to peek at it.  Finally, I couldn’t resist anymore.  My God! It was nearly ten dollars not including tip.  Outrageous!

I leaned over and whispered to Bob, “The waiter is talking to the manager and they are staring at us.”

“My guess is that we aren’t the first to try to pull this scam and they have figured us out.”

Sure enough, the waiter and manager were headed our way looking none too happy. They both started making large gestures with their hands and shouting rapidly in French.  I can only assume they weren’t complimenting my gown. It was almost comical as the two of them looked like something out of a bad silent movie.  I ignored them and looked the other way as if bored with the whole situation. However, they did get my attention when I heard the phrase officer de police.

Looking around the room, I noticed a young man sitting a couple tables away staring intently at me. He was tall and rather nice looking with a pleasant smile framed by a strong, square chin.  Dressed in a neatly pressed Cossack uniform, he stood up and headed in our direction.

“Perhaps I can be of service,” he said in English with a heavy Russian accent.

 He picked up our check, pulled out some money and handed both to the waiter, dismissing him and the manager with a few words in French and a wave of his hand.

“May I?” he asked, sitting down at our table before we could respond.  “My name is Vetia.  I told them that this misunderstanding and was my fault as you were my guest and I was late.”

“Why would you do this?” Bob asked suspiciously.

 Still smiling at me, Vetia answered, “Why not?  Someday soon you will pay me back.  I can tell about people.”

The waiter brought us three beers, which evidently Vetia had ordered, and we began chatting.  He was so charming and unassuming that soon, even Bob warmed to him. 

We learned he was a Captain in the Russian Army and for the next hour we chatted nonstop.  Vetia’s story of how he came to be in Paris was so sad and horrific.  He was a member of Russia’s White Army in exile, along with 70,000 other Russian emigrants who fled to Paris after the Communist Revolution.  I remember reading about the fall and execution of Czar Nicholas II and his family in the newspapers, but had no idea how many millions died and the misery they endured during the Russian Civil War. 

The leader of the revolt, Leon Trotsky, even executed hundreds of thousands of civilians for not succumbing to his new communist regime.  Vetia’s firsthand account of the war and aftermath was quite sobering and made our problems seem quite unimportant.

“So tell me, what brings you two to Paris?  Holiday, no?”

“I’m a writer,” Bob explained.  “And we are traveling the world to gather ideas for the book I am writing.”

“A writer!  Excellent.  Maybe you will put me in one of your books someday.  After all, I am very fascinating.  No?”

Vetia laughed loudly at his joke, but his smile quickly disappeared, “So how are you going to travel the world without any money?”

Bob and I glanced uncomfortably at each other. Hearing this stranger say the words neither one of us had dared utter was an unwanted dose of reality.

Vetia looked at one of us, and then the other, waiting for a response.  Seeing that none was coming, “So, what kind of work can you do?”

I could see Bob was becoming agitated at having a man we just met delve into our personal lives and ask questions we didn’t want to deal with.

“Vetia, we appreciate you buying us dinner and we will pay you back, but…”

“Bob is an excellent writer and has a degree in journalism, so maybe a newspaper might be interested in hiring him,” I interjected.  “And we have both done secretarial and clerical work.”

Vetia thought for a moment, “I know of no jobs like this. Anything else?”

“Well, I play the piano and Bob the banjo.”            

Vetia slapped the table and said loudly, “Surely destiny must have brought you to me.  I know just the place you should work.  Tomorrow night I will take you there.”

Our new friend told us where to meet him and, as suddenly and mysteriously as he arrived, he said goodnight telling us he had a late date.  Our bellies full, Bob and I made the long trek back to our hotel, both us being unusually quiet and somber. It had started snowing and I pulled my coat around me tighter trying to keep warm.  The gentle, warm California evening breezes seemed so long ago and far, far away.

“Why do strange men keep showing up and helping us?”  Bob suddenly asked, sounding befuddled.

“Simple darling,” I responded. “I bewitch them with my eyes and they have no choice but to do my bidding.  Just like I did you….”

I took his arm expecting a laugh, but he looked at me strangely trying to figure out if I was being serious.