I wasn’t always a crotchety old man. At one point I was a crotchety young man and that was back in the 1960s when I got the opportunity of a lifetime, and that was to go live and work in Paris at the Government’s expense.
If any of you have read “Waiting for Godot” by the Irish author Samuel Beckett (highly recommended) you know it’s about 2 bums who are continually waiting for Godot to show up to transform their otherwise miserable existences. Of course Godot never comes but they continually profess that, for sure, Godot will show up tomorrow and make their lives better. Well as a good friend at the time put it to me, there was a knock on my door one day and when I opened it, there was Godot saying I’ve come for you.
At the time I was single and a junior grade, civilian, internal auditor working for the U.S. Army in their New York office when I was offered an opportunity to transfer to the Army’s European headquarters office which was then located in Paris. As part of this deal I was to get a very generous housing allowance which would surely cover all my rental expense, and a generous travel allowance which would cover all my expenses when I was assigned away from Paris which would be most of the time. I was therefore, able to pocket most if not all of my paycheck. A friend I had made in the office was also given the same opportunity and the two of us transferred over and shared an apartment together in the most luxurious Parisian arrondisment (neighborhood.) ( He later became the best man at my wedding.)
This apartment was on the 16th floor of one of the tallest apartment buildings in Paris at the time, on the right bank of the Seine, with a balcony that just about hung over the river and from where you could view just about all of Paris. It was owned by an American living in Paris who had bought it as an investment so we got a good deal on the rental. Several apartments down from us lived a French movie star ( I think his name was Alain Delain, or something like that, and when I leaned over my balcony I would sometimes see him having dinner with some young beauty on his balcony.) Since I didn’t cook I would take my dates to various Parisian restaurants and try to ply them with enough wine to get them back to my apartment to “see the view from my balcony.” Shortly after we arrived I was assigned to audits in various parts of France from where I could at least return to my beautiful apt. on the weekends. My friend on the other hand was assigned to audits in Germany from where he couldn’t do this. I don’t think I saw him more than a half dozen times in the next 3 years. So while he continued to pay half the rent I had the place virtually to myself.
Paris was incomprehensibly beautiful, especially at night when all lit up. Coming from an impoverished background from one of the poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the incredible beauty of Paris never ceased to fill me with pleasure the entire 3 years I was there. I worked in places like Orleans(where St. Joan was burned at the stake) Poitiers, with narrow winding streets where some great battles of the middle ages were fought or La Rochelle, a port city south of Paris, but I always managed to get back to Paris for the weekend even if it meant driving for seven and a half hours one way from La Rochelle on lousy French roads. On the weekends I’d explore different parts of Paris, and go to little cafes or bookstalls that Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald and other American expatriates liked to frequent. Or I would visit places where great French authors like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus would hold sway with their friends. It was often just a pleasure to sit in an outdoor cafe on the Champs-Elyeeses in the warm weather sipping a beer as I watched the parade of Parisians and tourists go strolling by.
My workdays were usually quite long, well past 5 0r 6, but after work a group of us would often go to the Officers Club on the base for our pre-dinner martinis. This was the early 1960s so hard drinks at the Officers Club were 30 cents but 15 cents during happy hour (which seemed to go on all evening) and the finest German or Dutch beers were 15 cents but a nickel during happy hour. So a group of 6-8 of us sitting at a table would order drinks and we would take turns flipping the waitress $2 which would cover the cost of the drinks plus the tip. After about an hour and a half of hard drinking we would repair to some non-touristy French restaurant for a word class dinner at which one was expected to consume a minimum of a half-bottle of wine per person. After that it was either back to the Officers Club or some little cafe for after- dinner cognacs. This was a normal day virtually every day. I guess, in retrospect, it’s lucky that I have a functioning liver left.
During my stay in Europe I got to visit places like Berlin(during the cold war), Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and much more, all at the Government’s expense, but my endurance is wearing thin (that senior thing again) so I’ll save those experiences for another entry. Until then, I think Paris is still probably the most beautiful city in the world.