My memories of Paris are limited to Gare Montparnasse and Gare du Nord, so when I spotted the email listing the blog topic "Memories of Paris", it cause a bit of cringing. Much to my mother's chagrin I began my study of the language early in life, became an avid reader of anything and everything about Napoleon Bonaparte, and eventually minored in French literature and teaching of the language. But this path was not inspired by any fond childhood memory.
I was in France about the time of my 6th birthday. It is one of my earliest memories of traveling with my parents. My father was stationed north of London and the summer vacation was spent touring France, Spain, and Bavaria. We took the ferry across the Channel and went on to catch a train at Gare du Nord for Madrid. It was a facinating trip since back then the train cars in Spain were filled with all kinds of passengers; people, goats, chickens and whatever else needed to be taken across country. It was not the most modern of trains and I remember wondering if we would really make it over the top of the mountains in the Pyrenees (walking might have been faster) and then barrelling down the other side like on a roller coasters. It was great fun.
But then we returned to Paris and switched from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse to continue on to Nice and from there on to Bavaria. It was then that I learned that Americans were not particularly welcome in France, especially Paris in the 1950s. My father's attempts to converse in French (though laced with a bit of cajun accent) were met with disdain and rebuffed. After assisting a fellow Parisian off the train the conductor refused a request and would not even offer a hand to assist my mother who was holding my infant brother in her arms and trying to keep me close by. And even when she stumbled as she stepped on to the platform and fell to the concrete, the only person to come to her aid was me. The other passengers merely glared and stepped around her and the crying child she had managed to shield from injury. When my father met up with us after getting our luggage, we made our way out of the station and on to Gare Montparnasse. The reception was the same. The French travelers we encountered were cold, aloof, and offended by our presence, unlike the Belgians and Germans we met while waiting for the train. The only picture I have from that day is of a station's "welcome" sign hanging askew where its chain had broken - a fitting semblance of the experience.
Since then I have been in train stations all over the western hemisphere and never had an even remotely similar experience. So I think I need to return to Paris, see the sights, enjoy the food and most of all, reset this particular memory to a more current and pleasant view of Paris and its people.