Choisy-le-Roi, is an unglamorous suburb southeast of Paris halfway out to Orly airport, which is no doubt why they located the Youth Hostel there, where real estate values were low enough to make it sustainable to cater to road addicts, students, travelers of all ages from the Third World and Americans "on the Bummel" at discount rates. It was thus I found myself in an interstice "time out" between my Junior and Senior Year of college in California taking my first leap "across the pond“ and onto the international high road with the savings I had built up working nights in a hospital pathology laboratory in Encino.
I had read Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad" but little suspected how green I was as a charter member of the American Baby Boom generation out to see the world. Though I was well packed,, drawing on six years of Boy Scout experience in camping in the High Sierra with a scarlet nylon modern backpack and ultra-lite sleeping bag bobbing from its bottom straps, and equipped with Travelers' Checks drawn on the Bank of America and a three-month EurRail Pass, International Student ID & Youth Hostel Card I was soon to discover the rites of passage of the international greenhorn.
My first mistake was in the area of care and protection of the invaluables: money, Passport, air-tickets (Yes! Paper-triplicate air tickets still existed and the loss thereof might threaten your ability to ever see home again!) and critical phone numbers, addresses and bank numbers). Needless to say, such important stuff seemed vital enough that it should be kept together. Before leaving California I had purchased in a department store an immense double-sized folding billfold large enough to hold my Passport and all my many travelers’ checks, which made a gigantic bulge in my coat pocket that must have made the mouth of any pickpocket water. I had not yet discovered the virtue of the neck-pouch which I have invariably used for road-travel since then.
Thus arrayed I arrived for the first time in Paris fifteen days before my twenty-first birthday at the Gare du Nord, on the Rue du Dunkerque, the city's busiest station. My first impression on exiting the turnstile was that of seeing a young street tough, stylishly dressed, kicking the holy shit out of a pay-telephone---I never knew if it was our of revenge for having swallowed his coins, an act of pure spiritual malice, or of theft.
At the time, my philosophy of "On the Road" travel was Kerouacian, namely to lose oneself in the drift-tides of the eternal by boldly going where one has never gone before, to go with the flow "without Baedeker (or Lonely Planet which did not yet exist)," and immersing oneself in the mysterious forces of "the beyond" which might draw one towards some possible enchanted or enfated path. Or rather, perhaps I was drawing on my recollection of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker ( Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire) from my literary studies, in which he recounts his “rêveries,” solitary walks in consort with nature, adrift in communion with a natural dimension beyond the “torrents of this world” to which he knew he could never belong, sometimes being literally adrift laying on his back in a small boat on a lax country stream. Accordingly, I boarded random buses, or got off at Metro stops with intriguing names and took in the sights of the City of Love. To give some idea of how green and inept my French was, peering from the bus windows my first impression was the ubiquity of the words posted everywhere: "Defense d'afficher." My conclusion was that the Gaullist right must be in the ascendant as these signs clearly indicated the omnipresence of the French Defense Department on every street!
At length, however, succumbing to fatigue and consulting my directory of Youth Hostels I identified one of the cheapest on the outskirts of the “capital of the arts”----Choisy-le-Roi, and found my way there by taking an early stop on the train de banlieue on the way to Orly airport, purchasing a student-discount pass for the local buses and trains good for ten days. That night I shared a room with a low-budget reporter from New Delhi, a German student and a couple of Danes, luxuriating in sleeping late the next morning at the cost of missing the included breakfast.
The next four days, however, allowed "La Ville-Lumière," The City of Light to fully live up to its promise. The obligatory ascent of the Eiffel Tower yielded to two visits to the Louvre and to the Picasso Museum, passage under the Arc de Triomphe , sorties to the Place de la Concorde, Tuilleries, Left and Right banks, Notre Dame, nights in the Montmartre and the endless spectacle of the streets of the capital with endless streams of beauties and lovers, old men in suits and lawn bowling in the parks.
On the fourth day, however, disaster occurred. After visiting the Pompidou Center’s modern art collection I was walking towards the Seine in the afternoon sun, and overheating took off my coat and slung it over my shoulder, enjoying the light step of the boulevard on a glorious afternoon. Then thinking to buy a cold drink at a stall I reached for my precious oversized folding wallet. Gone!---Passport, air-ticket, EurRail Pass and fatefully all of my travelers checks!---The doom-wracked prospect of having to wire my family for a ticket home and of cutting short all my dreams of the Grand Tour of Europe and points beyond---the Orient Express to Istanbul and points east---sickened me until I had to slouch onto on a park bench to avoid collapsing. ---There were two possibilities: either a fascile pickpocket had taken advantage of seeing the fat juicy wallet, so much like a rich merchant’s wallet of the last century, and plucked his fortune, or by sheer stupidity I had let it fall to the ground.
The next three hours were an angst-ridden retracing of every step back to the Pompidou, the last place I could be sure I had used the wallet, and a doom-ridden inquiry with the concierge there with the expected reply. Then another retracing of steps, plaintively glancing into the eyes of strangers in hope of some angelic rescue or into the eyes of suspicious faces to find someone’s neck to wring. No use.
By nightfall there was nothing to do but give up hope and think of what damage-control was then possible. Luckily, I had two wallets, my normal small hip-pocket wallet and the missing mega-wallet. Luckily still, just that morning I had cashed a hundred dollars of traveler’s checks and had the loose franc bills in my small wallet, along with the local bus-rail pass. All I could do now was to buy a long French bread, a small cheese and a bottle of milk and eat in the park, then make my dreary way on the banlieue train back to the Youth Hostel at Choisy-le-Roi, which was paid until the next day and collapse onto my dormitory bed.
The next morning I awoke after a fitful night, hoping that it had all been a bad dream. I pointlessly and idiotically emptied my backpack and pockets over and over in a useless search of every conceivable possibility. Perhaps my memory had played tricks on me—but no, the reality was inescapable. I inquired of the Hostel staff, who advised me that the only thing to do would be to go to the US Embassy and start the process of replacing the passport. Using my local bus-rail pass I could travel to the center of the city free and my visit to the embassy resulted in being re-directed to the Paris police, who needed to be notified first, and with their receipt I could begin to apply for the new passport. Reams of paperwork at both places ended with the advice of the junior consulate official advising that it would take a minimum of ten days to confirm my identity through the Washington passport records before any duplicate could be provided! And a visit to the Bank of America Paris office confirmed the grim consequence that the travelers’ checks could not be replaced until I could prove my identity with the new passport. Asking if the embassy could provide some temporary aid, the result was predictable: Nada!
Back at Choisy-le-Roi, the Youth Hostel staff were sympathetic but insisted I pay for the night. After breakfasting one last time I then thought of what I had to do. I had camped out hiking in the Sierra Nevada for weeks on end and it seemed the thing to do. Luckily, the Hostel had a free luggage-check room to store my bag in and I walked out, making my plans. The Youth Hostel was on the banks of the Seine River. I scouted along the banks a half-mile in both directions until I found a patch of trees along the bank with some substantial brush that would cover my presence in case the police came around. I marked the spot in my memory and then resolved to go into the city, spend the day, and then return to collect my backpack in the evening and then take my sleeping-bag to the riverbank for the night. First though, I would scout the area to see what I might expect of the locals. To my surprise the area looked more like Morocco than France. The majority of the local population seemed to be Arabs and “banlieuesards”---denizens of the poor suburbs on the outer reaches of Paris. This was America inverted on its head. In Los Angeles and most of America the suburbs were the rich and luxurious sectors of the city to which the upper-crust returned in their Mercedes and Volvos after their lucrative work in the city, taking a dip in their swimming pools before dinner. In Paris it was the direct reverse: the suburbs, the banlieues, were the ghettos of the city and the wealthy paid for the privilege of living in the center of the city. In later years, just like in the black ghettos of the 60’s in the US, these banlieus would erupt into centers of rioting and unrest, occupied by a militant police, and sometimes walled in with barbed-wire and ruled by criminal gangs. Now, however, in 1972, the district was poor but peaceful, and it seemed one could camp out without undue danger or harassment. So I set my plan in motion.
After all the formalities of wrestling with the French, American and banking bureaucracies were over in the first two days there was nothing to do but wait for the new passport. I had about a hundred dollars in French francs, which I couldn’t use up on further nights at the Hostel as it would only last a couple of days that way, and I needed to hold out for ten. I could have done something drastic like demand the embassy contact my parents and have them wire the funds, but I was too proud, or too ashamed to do that, so I fell back on Emerson and Thoreau’s dictum of Self-Reliance. If I could emulate Thoreau at Walden or the pioneers on the High Sierra, sleeping rough, I could get through the ten days, get my new Passport and then hopefully get my traveler’s checks reissued and be able to save a bit of my dreams and come back home without my tail between my legs.
The first night on the banks of the Seine was peaceful, though it was hard to sleep, not knowing who or what might appear during the night in that strange spot. I got up at sunrise and packed my things in my backpack, changed socks and underwear and then went to check my bag with the concierge of the hostel, anxious that I would not be observable to the police in the light of day. Luckily, nobody hassled me about taking a shower in the dormitory men’s room, so really it was not so much different than staying there as a paying guest---except no breakfast, of course. I had my local bus-train pass so I could get into the center of the city.
I spent that day, and the next week then, walking around Paris broke. It might have been depressing, but instead it was rather a perversely enjoyable adventure, an existential challenge even! I would walk up and down the life-filled streets, always carrying my small book-bag with some small edibles---cheap French bread, cheese, and some cider, cheap wine or milk. Restaurants were out and picnicking in the public parks was in. At night I would walk in the center of the city taking in the lights and sights, often seeing couples concealing themselves in the dark spots under bridges or along embankments to kiss or pet.
After a while I became adept at the life of the clochard, boulevardier or banlieuesard. And always I had my books. I had a fair supply in my backpack, from which I replenished my bookbag. I got through Maupassant’s Short Stories on the banks of the Seine or in the public parks. I sympathized with his starving soldier who drank the excess milk from the traveling wetnurse’s breast on the train, especially when I observed the lovers petting and I didn’t know a soul in the City of Love.
On the fourth night I had a good sleep and decided the risk of police action was slim, so I took the opportunity to lay in the morning sun reading the Red and the Black. To my surprise a limo pulled of the road and a beautiful black woman strode over and said hello. I was a bit ashamed of my status, and a bit reticent about letting on to my troubles so I kept the conversation general, trying to appear just as an eccentric nature loving youth. She asked what I was reading and I showed her. It turned out she was a jazz singer in the city and she was seized by the uniqueness of my camping out on the banks of the river. She shared a bit of food---some breakfast items with bread and cheese and some wine, which her girlfriend brought over from the parked limo. After an hour we said good-bye. Later, young idiot that I was, I realized that there had been something sexual in her coming over. But I had been too uptight about being down and out to pick up on it. If I had she might have invited me to go with her and some real adventure might have happened. But I was too middle-class, despite my affectation of literary bohemia, and felt too insecure to be in such an embarrassed and insecure situation as a potential love connection. “Uptight” would have been a good word for it. Actually it would have been the distress that attracted her in the first place. As friend Shakespeare might put it, there is a tide in the affairs of men and women which taken at the flood leads on to great fortune, avoided all the years of their lives is passed in the shallows. In short I missed the tide.
On the seventh night I laid out my sleeping bag as before, but about two in the morning I became aware of a well-dressed man in a suit pissing against a bush about five yards off. He seemed completely drunk and had parked his car on the side road, perhaps to sober up as well as to piss. This would not have been unusual, but what became unusual was that he failed to put his prick back into his pants after he had pissed a full minute or two and emptied himself. After about fifteen minutes of standing there “au natural” he seemed to be making motioning gestures and noises in my direction. “C’est bon!” he seemed to be saying. As I got his drift I was quick to give him a definitive wave-off and he strolled down the river a spell, then found another figure in the dark. Evidently the bridge a couple of hundred yards upstream was a known trysting place for lonely or horney men of his persuasion. It confirmed the image of Europeans men as having such proclivities that I had gathered from film and books. Later when I was in the US Army I was chagrinned to become the butt of jokes suggesting the same thing of me and the fellows of my state, chiding others to watch out for those Californians!
Finally, on the ninth night, having carried on much as before, I had exhausted all of my pocket money, and my hope was that the new passport would arrive in the morning and that I could then redeem my travelers’ checks at the Bank of American and get my life back. I had nothing to eat that day, but happily found a patch of raspberries on the bank of the Seine close to my sleeping place, so I ate my full, some being ripe and others not quite so ripe.
Then on the morning of the tenth day, I used my local bus-rail pass to make my way back to the American Embassy in high hopes of finding a new passport waiting for me. I entered the consular section of the Embassy and found the junior consular official who had helped me fill out the forms. He told me to wait. After ten minutes he came in and stood before me. In his hand was not a new passport but was my own oversized double folding wallet! He handed it to me. I opened it, not expecting to find anything of value remaining. Instead, I found almost everything intact! My passport was there, then a quick search revealed the airline-ticked in its slot, and then turning to the opposite side, Hallelujah!---all of my travelers’ checks were there along with my EurRail Pass, good for another two months of unlimited travel free across Europe and as far as Turkey! The officer explained that it had been found in a mailbox by a postman the day after I missed it, and finding the passport, the French Post Office had forwarded it via the police to the US Embassy. It had been waiting there for the last five days, but they had had no way of contacting me until my appointment on the tenth day! If it had taken by a pickpocket he was enough of a humane criminal as to take only the cash and was so kind as to deposit the rest in the mailbox, or if I had simply dropped it some citoyen had done the same. I felt like Lazarus risen from the dead! From that day I have had a tender spot in my heart for the French people, even their criminals!
The next stop was the Bureau de Change to convert some hundred of dollars of travelers’ checks into French francs (no, no Euros yet!) then to a great hotel normally beyond my budget, the Hotel Meurice, a quick shower and dry-off with luxuriously-soft towels, and then back to Choisy-le-Roi to get my backpack. The night was spent splurging on a ne plus ultra binge of celebration in the hotel dining room overlooking the Tuilleries, scarfing down a crispy green ravioli with a fricassee of snails and wild garlic as a starter, with spit-roasted marinated red-wine pigeon with red cabbage and apple juice, and a galette of finely sliced button mushrooms and verjus marinated foie gras dressed with hazelnut oil, washed down with a fine wine, fruit and cheese, and finally cappuccino and green Chartreuse. Showering the next morning I sang the Marseilles three times through, or as much of it as I could remember from having once memorized it in French. Two days later I boarded the Orient Express with my EurRail card from Paris to Istanbul and launched my first foray into the Middle-East.
Epilogue: Returning from Europe to California some months later I faced up to the dreary reality of having to finish my BA degree, which I did only after a few other phases of delay. I took another year of French on my return, but as the twists of fate go, I gave that up and concentrated on my German instead, later spending two years studying at the University of Heidelberg in Germany as part of a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from my California University. I later studied in the Ph.D program in Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, but in German, Russian and Chinese instead of French. I went to law school and became a professor of International Law at Peking University in Beijing China and also taught World and Comparative Literature in China, where I have lived for many years, and where I wrote several novels, including my latest, Spiritus Mundi. But with all that I have never forgotten my lost and found experience in Paris, an episode which propelled me ever further into the wide, wide world.
Copyright Robert Sheppard 2012 All Rights Reserved