Posts Tagged ‘Jack London’

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.

21 February

Monsieur Buttercup 1

Monsieur Buttercup

March 16, 1925, Paris, France

As Bob and I slowly stroll arm-in-arm down a quaint street in the Montparnasse section of Paris, I still feel in awe of my surroundings, not quite able to accept the fact that we are really here. We’ve been in Paris for two weeks now and have taken a long walk almost every day.  I can’t imagine ever tiring of it.

The city has exceeded my expectations, which I thought impossible. The architecture, the museums, the history, the sidewalk cafés, the vast assortment of people wandering about – there truly is an energy and elegance about Paris that is captivating. On every street artists hover over their easels, trying to capture the elusive essence of the city’s personality on canvas.  Writers sit at sidewalk cafés with papers and books scattered all about intently searching for the magic words that will one day touch the world. Tantalizing music of all genres flows from hidden doorways and street corners as musicians push themselves to find the perfect combination of notes that will capture the imagination of those passing by.  Many will fail, but just them trying gives Paris a scrumptious ambiance.

Bob and I have a more immediate, less artistic pursuit – to feed our aching stomachs.  Every time we pass a café or bistro, the smells of the sizzling steaks and seafood, covered with what I can only assume are the delicious French sauces, makes me want to cry.  My stomach growls so much, diners sometimes turn their heads as we walk by wondering who is making that awful racquet.  The only good news is that I have lost about ten pounds from all the walking and lack of food.

We got a better rate on our tiny hotel room if we paid a month in advance, which we did, but it left us with almost nothing.  We buy day-old bread and cheese, which are cheap enough but not very filling and even that is now gone.  We haven’t eaten in two days and have been drinking warm water right of the tap just to put something in our stomachs.  Sometimes we mix the warm water with some spices we found in a cupboard and call it the Johnston soup-de-jour.  I still want to believe that tomorrow will take care of itself, but I wish to hell it would hurry up.

A week ago we decided that we should look for a job and started visiting some of the small clubs, but struck out everywhere we went. We couldn’t even get an audition. Apparently, no one is interested in listening to two naïve American kids right off the boat.  We even offered to forego pay and just “sing for our supper,” but were repeatedly given the bum’s rush – usually very loudly and rudely.  Rejection is not something I am used to and Bob is doing his best to keep my spirits up.

Of course no one suspects our plight.  We walk through Paris trying to look unimpressed, fearing we might be mistaken for a mere tourist.   We always dress for our walks and appear as if we haven’t a care in the world. We certainly have the wardrobe for it – although now my stomach is suggesting that it might have been wiser to save some of that money for food. Kind of ironic since we thought the world was going to be our personal buffet from which we were going to gorge ourselves just for the asking. Right now I would have been thrilled with one of Mother’s plain, grilled cheese sandwiches.

The thought of her kitchen, filled with enticing aromas and the familiar sounds of pots and pans clanking while she softly hummed a gentle tune suddenly overwhelms me.  I become so bereft I want to curl up right here on the sidewalk and cry. Not even the luscious combination of Bob at my arm and Paris all around me can console my quickly deteriorating mood.

“You all right, Minkling?” he asked with concern.

I nodded my head, angry that he could read me so easily, like one of the books he disappears into at every opportunity. Having others uncover my frailties, even Bob, is unsettling and just not acceptable. I will have to learn to do a better job at disguising them.

Without saying a word, Bob takes my hand, wraps it around his elbow and guides me down a small side street, back towards our hotel. We had never been on this street before and normally I would be eagerly taking in every sight and sound, but my mind was still back at the Russian River in Mother’s kitchen.  I can see her dishing up our Sunday dinner – home made chicken and dumplings. The smell of a rhubarb pie still in the oven makes my mouth water.

My stomach growls so loudly, Bob stops and looks at me with real concern. Goodness knows what he is feeling – thousands of miles from home, not a friend on this side of the Atlantic and unable to feed his wife.

I gave him my best smile and leaned over to plant a kiss on his cheek when I spotted something that instantly lifted my spirits.  In the display window of a small flower shop was a huge, black cat lounging lazily, his body wrapped around a crystal vase that held a single, exquisite red rose. He looked as if he was smiling at me.  I adore cats.  Bob says it’s because they are so much like me – beautiful, unpredictable and aloof. And if you rub them the wrong way, they’ll scratch your eyes out.

I walked into the shop and began petting my new furry friend gently around the ears.  He purred and rolled on his back offering me his stomach.

“Americans, yes?” someone said in broken English, walking up behind us.  “This is very strange. Monsieur Boudon d’or…how do you say in English?  Buttercup?  Yes! Monsieur Buttercup doesn’t like people very much. He usually just hisses or ignores you and runs off.”

“Of course he does,” Bob whispered in my ear.  “He’s French.”

I replied with a quick elbow into his ribs. “Monsieur Buttercup knows what and whom he likes – don’t you sweetie?”

I began rubbing his haunches even harder and his purring grew louder. We turned to see a rosy-cheeked proprietress smiling as us.  “May I help you?”

“No,” Bob said. “We just came in to visit Monsieur Buttercup. How did you know we were Americans?”

“Most of my customers are Americans.  The Americans are good flower givers – better than the French, I think.”

For the next half hour we had a delightful conversation with the woman and, as we left, I was positive that Monsieur Buttercup wanted to come home with me.  He probably would have changed his mind when he discovered that all we could feed him was leftover Johnston soup-de-jour.

We said our au revoirs and hadn’t travelled very far when the woman came running up behind us with the exquisite rose that had been in the vase.

“Monsieur Buttercup wanted you to have this.”

I was quite touched and almost cried.  Bob bowed and thanked her.  Watching her walk away, Bob said, “Minkling, I believe this is a good omen.  Fabulous things are going to come our way very soon.”

He was right, because that evening we found, hidden behind a large chair, a half full box of corn flakes we had forgotten we had purchased when we first arrived.  We didn’t have any milk, but even with warm water it tasted delicious and hopefully would quiet my rumbling stomach long enough to get a good night’s sleep.  As I closed my eyes, thoughts of Mother’s kitchen once again invaded my mind, but instead of making me homesick, it gave me a warm, gentle feeling and I fell asleep confident that tomorrow would be a new day full of beautiful possibilities.

19 February

France At Last

France At Last

March 2, 1925, La Rochelle, France

During the final few days of the voyage, everyone on the Orita was somewhat subdued as we all quietly reflected on what a close brush with death we had during the hurricane.  In the evenings there was still music and dancing, but it wasn’t the same as before the storm. We had had enough of the journey, and now we just wanted to reach land and our destination as quickly as possible.

As we neared the French coastline, our spirits started to rise and by the time the ship docked at La Rochelle, we were all back to our old selves, laughing and once again beaming with excitement.  The morning was sunny and beautiful as several men in fishing boats with gaily, colored sails waved at us as we entered the harbor.  I waved back yelling “Bonjour”, one of the seven French words I had learned so far.  I had also learned goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome, hotel, restaurant and most importantly – bathroom.  I figured between those words and my talent for charades, I had everything covered.

It took several hours to clear customs and, finally, we boarded a train headed for Paris.  For us it was like a dozen Christmas mornings all wrapped up into one glorious moment.  The train was much too slow for my taste, but we made the best of it by having a gourmet lunch in the dining car with champagne served by elegant waiters who didn’t seem at all impressed with my French.  When we got the bill, the food didn’t taste quite as delicious as it had only a moment before, but that put only a temporary damper on our spirits, as watching the beautiful French countryside pass by outside filled us with such joy. We kept looking at each other and giggling like kids.

Workers were tending the small farms and vineyards we passed, and we saw women hanging laundry on lines next to their thatched roof houses.  I marveled at the light and colors and landscape – no wonder the great artists of the world traveled here for inspiration.  I looked at my husband who was also completely engrossed in the view.  He had opened a window and was hanging his head out like a puppy trying not to miss a thing.  I could almost see him arranging, and then rearranging words and phrases in his head trying to capture what his eyes saw and his heart sensed.  At that moment I felt like the richest and luckiest woman in the world. I want to remember that moment and that feeling forever. I mentally wrapped up the moment and put it in my heart’s memory book to savor when I am very old.

As the miles sped by, the farms were finally replaced by factories and soon the train’s whistle blew several times announcing our arrival in Paris.  It came to a stop in a huge, bustling depot inhabited by masses of people headed every which direction in seemingly organized confusion.  We located our trunks and stood amidst the hubbub wondering what to do next.  It was getting dark. We had no hotel reservations or any idea how to get there even if we did have one. The grand Johnston plan for seeing the world, three years in the making, had brought us to this spot and no further.

We spotted a small bistro near the depot and began dragging our mountain of trunks, one by one, to its front door. A man, who we assumed was the manager, opened the door and stuck his head out.  For about a minute he loudly rattled off several sentences in French while his arms made several gestures that seemed none too friendly. We didn’t grasp a word he said, but understood him perfectly – there was no way we were bringing any of our trunks into his restaurant.  We stacked the trunks outside the window and grabbed a table where we could keep a close eye on the sum total of all our worldly possessions. We ordered some coffee while we planned our next step, with knots in our stomachs and a pocketbook that contained less than a hundred dollars. I looked at the people passing by, each looking to be in a determined hurry to reach their destination as quickly as possible.  We, on the other hand, have no place to go.

We asked our waiter and several others if they spoke English, hoping to locate an inexpensive nearby hotel.  Some shook their head no and rushed away and the others ignored us completely.  We sensed the waiter had grown tired of pouring us coffee, not ordering dinner and taking up his prized table for what he expected would be a small tip.  Finally, he stopped coming to the table all together and just glared at us from a distance.

Glancing back out the window at the trunks, I noticed a pleasant looking, blond haired man walk by and smile at me.  I smiled back politely and thought nothing of it until he suddenly appeared at our table, still smiling.

“Pardon me,” he said. “But given the stack of luggage you keep watching, I am guessing you just arrived in Paris.  Are you Americans?”

As exciting as it was to hear English again, we were cautious as we had been warned about casual encounters in foreign lands.

After a moment of silence, Bob responded, “Why yes – yes we are indeed Americans.”

He sensed our skepticism and, after introducing himself, added that he was an artist, or at least trying to be one, and had been in Paris for ten years. He said he recalled how hard and confusing it was when he first arrived and offered his help.

Bob asked, “Do we look like we need help?”

The stranger smiled again and looked over at the waiter whose angry stare had grown more intense.  “Yes, you do, because if you don’t leave or order something soon, that waiter is going to go crazy and probably kill us all.”

We laughed and invited him to sit down.  He signaled the waiter over and, in fluent French ordered a coffee and demanded that he refill ours.  The waiter said something nasty in French and our new friend verbally dressed him down.  Within moments we had three fresh cups of coffee.

“Don’t take him being rude personally – rudeness is part of their waiter training program.”

For the next hour we shared our grand plan to travel the world and he told us of his.  We checked our trunks at the depot and this stranger took us to a café he liked better, bought us dinner and finally delivered us to a small, quaint hotel near the depot that was affordable – for a couple of nights anyway.  Bidding us farewell, our angel who had rescued us disappeared into the Paris night. After he left, we realized that we never got his name and didn’t know how to contact him. We made a promise that one day we would do the same for some other stranger in need.

Our Paris adventure had begun.