Pretty French Postcards

Pretty French Postcards

My trip to France with Mindy in '89 was very different from my visit with my sister Nancy, sixteen years earlier, when I was twenty and she was just sixteen. When Mindy and I stayed in Paris, we stayed in a newish hôtel in the business district, an area called la Defense. Modern, comfortable, the kind of place that catered to business travelers. We could have been anywhere. Paris, France. Paris, Texas. New York City. What the hôtel lacked in character it made up for in amenities. A real front desk. A fax machine. A bar off the lobby. A bidet.

The place that Nancy and I stayed at in the Pigalle had a fading painted number on the crumbling wall outside, a round black bell you pushed so the cranky old concierge, a French woman straight out of a novel, could open up and begrudgingly show you to your room, eyeing you suspiciously all the while. We barely knew what fax machines were in 1973 but if we had, our little no-name hôtel wouldn't have had one. What it did have, besides one double bed and an armoire, was a tall narrow window that opened out, with wonderful foot wide sills you could sit on, and take in the view.

"Pig Alley!" my sister read from the guidebook we'd consulted to find a cheap place to stay, neglecting to read the fine print. At the first hotel, in a better part of town, I'd been so nervous and unaccustomed to speaking the language, that I'd forgotten to say Bonjour before I asked, in rusty middle school French, for a room for two. I'd broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling in France. Always, always, always say Bonjour before speaking to a hotelier, a shopkeeper, whoever. The woman was so offended with my unintended rudeness that her French tirade sent me running out of the lobby. The next place we tried had been full. The hotel in the Pigalle had been our third choice.

"Pig Alley. That's what the GI's in World War II called this place! It's the Red Light district! This hotel is in the Red Light district." No wonder the concierge had given us the once over. She probably thought we were a couple of American girls looking to set up shop!

Nancy was thrilled. Years earlier, when our family moved from Canada to Puerto Rico—before moving to California a year later—we'd stayed for a short time in the Condado, San Juan's tourist district. The view from our window included a nightclub called Corky's, its red neon sign lighting up the humid nights. Nancy and I would watch the front door and surrounding streets for hours, obsessed with the late night comings and goings through Corky's doorway, the drunks, the bar fights, picking out the real couples from the pickups and the pro's.

The view from our window perch in the Pigalle, while architecturally pleasing, proved less juicy. We searched in vain for prostitutes, disappointed that there wasn't a fishnet stocking-wearing working girl, in sight. Maybe the concierge didn't think we were would-be working girls. Maybe she thought  we were a couple of ignorant girls who didn't have the good sense required to be traveling alone.

We almost proved that theory true when we left Paris, taking the night train down to Marseilles. We couldn't afford a couchette and all the carriage seats were full, so we ended up sitting on our packs in the corridor at the back of the car. Every time someone passed through the carriage on the way to the dining car, a hot blast of dusty air blew across our faces, but we didn't care, we were headed for the south of France. We fell in with a couple of young Canadian guys after they spotted the maple leaf flag patches on our backpacks. It was the summer of 1973, Vietnam was only just winding down, and anti-American feelings abroad, especially in France, were in full swing. My dad had insisted we sew on the Canadian flags as an additional layer of safety. I was born in England; Nancy, in Turkey, to parents who were English through and through. Just like living in Canada for a good number of our formative years didn't in actuality make us Canadians —I know, I've checked with Immigration—living in California didn't automatically make us Americans either. So far the only allegiances we really and truly pledged to were our parental units, and we saw nothing wrong with waving the red & white Canadian flags, rather than the red, white and blue for a few weeks.

The boys, Jack and Peter, just a couple of nice, average Canadian guys, were genuinely shocked we were going to Marseilles that night. Where where we staying? Um, we didn't know. We'd find a place when we got there. Yeah, I could see that our arrival in the middle of the night wasn't the best plan. Way too dangerous, they let us know. Way, way too dangerous. Why didn't we head to Bandol with them? It was a nice little beach town. If we wanted to go back to Marseilles the next day we could, but in good conscience they couldn't let us get out at Marseilles in the middle of the night. It was a busy seaport they told us. Where tankers and freighters docked. Their voices were filled with such incredulity that visions of burley dockworkers hulking in the darkness of the railway station multiplied in my head. Surely, one foot off the train in Marseilles, and we'd be raped.

Or not. We'd never know because we took their advice and stayed on the train until we reached Bandol. The guys were pitching a tent in someone's front yard. We were welcome to join them. The train station was lit up but empty when we arrived, the town was silent, still asleep as we walked down the hill from the station in full darkness, the only sound the comforting crunch of gravel beneath our feet.

Reaching the house—the friend of a friend's uncle—Nancy and I stashed our packs on the lawn behind the wall, grabbed a couple of clean t-shirts, our shared bar of Irish Spring, and headed down to the little bay the boys had told us about, while they set up their tent and crashed. The sun was barely beginning to think about rising by then, the water was cool and the color of charcoal, the sky a lighter shade of grey. Nancy and I sat on a small jetty, slipped off our jeans and grungy t-shirts, and slipped into the water in just our bras and panties. Lathering up the soap as best we could in the sea, we bathed almost naked in the Mediterranean, washing away the dirt and grime from the trip while amber lights glowed here and there on the hills above the curve of beach. Long before the sun rose and the staff from the Golf Hotel even started thinking about setting out umbrellas on the beach, we knew our next move was finding a real place to stay.

In 1989, Mindy and I stopped in Bandol on our way to Nice. Sixteen years had changed both Bandol and me, neither one of us necessarily for the better. I couldn't imagine that crowded curve of beach could ever enjoy a quiet moment in the morning. I couldn't imagine being free enough to ever be that girl, floating in the bay with my sister in the not quite morning light, keeping our voices hushed and quiet as we talked things over while the cool water lapped at our hips, caressed our arms, and kissed our lips, both of us wishing we could somehow hold the day at bay.

Forty years gone since that first early morning cleansing swim and I've changed much, much more than I ever dreamed I would. The pretty little postcard of a bay, the Bandol in my head, is the only thing that stays, impossibly, the same.


Continue the story?

Part Two: The Price of Potatoes

Part Three: Sous le Soleil

Part Four: Le Walk

Part Five: Garlic & Gauloise

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