Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

The Last Time I Saw Paris

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 10:37 pm on Friday, September 16, 2022

by Robert M. Katzman © September 16, 2022

By January 1992, I knew the end of my independent travel/foreign language bookstore was soon to be a certainty. The giant chains were rampaging across America: Borders. Barnes and Noble and Super Crown. My store was located in what is now, publicly at least, called BoysTown or the gay district in Chicago. Like in most cities across the country, usually the most interesting part of any city in terms of theater, bookstores, restaurants and other places with an intellectual flavor.

My store was located at Clark & Belmont, called Europa before I bought it. My time in that store was from March 31, 1988 to November 17, 1994. I mourn that date each year like it is the Yom Kippur of my retail life, or the best time I ever had in recreating a business and interacting with people from all over the world.

Although I had, somewhat involuntarily, taken twelve years of foreign languages: French, Hebrew, Spanish and German, I was no good at any of them except for German. My parents spoke Yiddish fluently, of which German was a major component (Hebrew and Polish were the other two parts of the thousand-year-old self-created language of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe) and I picked up many words from them, later taking one year of German at my high School, Lab School in Hyde Park, Chicago in order to learn enough connecting words to be able to form coherent sentences. Only in the present tense, however, no past or future were in my limited vocabulary.

My teacher, Herr Gregor Heggen, who had been a prisoner of war in England, “picking potatoes”, he told me, knew I would receive no credit for taking one year of a language there since two years were required, after we discussed it, he knew I was only there to pick up as much vocabulary as possible. He had an impish sense of humor, I was to discover. I failed every test he ever gave, and once turned the test paper over to write a poem on the back of it. When he returned it, he ignored the test part and made some corrections to the poem. 

I was the oldest student in his class, at 17 in my senior year, in 1967, and it was probably the best time I had in that difficult school because the teacher and I were on the same wave-length. When the school year was over, he gave me a passing grade, just for the hell of it. I was graduating. We shook hands and never saw each other again. I later learned he lived to be one hundred years old. He still remains intact in my memory, however.

I did not know that it would be twenty years later before I became part of that bookstore, which I renamed Grand Tour Bookstore, and would use German in my transactions all the time. I wasn’t fluent, and had no accent, but other German speakers who were unable to speak English could understand my simple sentences and I was able to make successful sales.

Soon after, I learned that the world’s largest bookfair was in Frankfort, Germany at a giant convention center called der Messe. I began going there every year in the first week in October and then after finishing visiting the various publisher’s booths I wanted to see to buy new items for my store, I’d take a train to other parts of Germany and Europe. I knew enough German to eat, sleep and travel, and be friendly, too.

One note I want to add before gradually getting to Paris: The day I flew to Germany was the day the two parts joined together. When I left America there was an East and West Germany and when I landed, there was only Germany. I should mention that the first country in Europe I saw was the last country I ever wanted to set foot in. The Holocaust consumed my family who then lived in Lithuania, Byelorussian and Poland during World War Two. I had to suppress that revulsion in order to help my business succeed. 

Because of the Bookfair scheduled a year ahead of time, when no one knew Germany would be reunited, all the hotels in Frankfort were full up and the closest I could find a place was Aschaffenburg, twenty-seven miles away from Frankfort. When I arrived at my hotel, there was this enormous parade blocking my path to the hotel’s entrance. It was an endless stream of tall German men wearing medieval hoods over their heads, Lederhosen, short or knee-length leather breeches which are worn as traditional garments in some regions of German-speaking countries and carrying glass containers with candles in them held up at the end of a long stick. My first night in Germany and there I was, in the middle of a torch parade. Not my best moment.

Five years later, when my business was steadily dropping, I borrowed a thousand dollars from a friend to go to Germany one last time in January 1992, and then take an overnight train to travel. That is the most cost-efficient way to travel, sleeping and moving from country to country at the same time.

There was a Gift Show in the Messe and I decided to visit a limited number of booths to see greeting card companies who published cards in multiple languages, in case I somehow could survive the Giant Bookstore devastation going on in America and I would add them to my inventory.

But when my flight landed, it had been delayed and by the time I arrived at the Messe, it was closing for the day and all the dealers were gone. There was this mob of people pouring out of the Messe and no one going in. Not being able to see the booths that night would throw off my schedule for the trip to Paris. I had to get in there to see which booths I would want to visit the next morning. I had a list in advance from the organization which managed the shows in the Messe, and I knew who the card dealers were, and what their booth numbers were, as well. I should mention that about a thousand dealers could fit inside of the Messe at one time. I had a list of twelve dealers to see.

When I travel, I wear comfortable clothes that make me look like I might possibly be sleeping in the street if someone didn’t know any better. Jeans, sneakers and a khaki shirt were my usual outfit, which is what I was wearing at that moment when I was watching the crowds exiting the Messe that evening. On the ground at the top of the escalator where I was standing, I saw a small stack of ten foot two by four pieces of lumber which workmen used to construct the booths. These must have been left over. 

Taking a chance the building’s security guards wouldn’t notice me doing so, I picked up a couple of those ten foot two by fours and balanced them on my shoulder as I walked into the darkened convention area, like I was some local German worker making some last minute booths for the next day. I actually was in real life an experienced carpenter who built all of my own bookshelves for all my stores, and so my carrying those heavy pieces of lumber was no big burden for me. I could carry them and look casual at the same time.

I did see one security guard looking at me from a dozen yards away, and I impulsively waved at him with my free hand, and he waved back, smiling at me. Just two workers doing their thing in the Messe. Once inside, I raced from booth two booth, running at full speed until I had seen all of them, which enabled me to decide which ones not to see the next morning. Inside of thirty minutes I was out of there, mission completed, and I rode down the escalator toward the exit, one more guy among hundreds. I saw that same guard but this time I turned my face away from him so he didn’t see me and become suspicious.

The next morning, after finishing going to the card publishers I preferred, taking their brochures with me for my store’s unknown future, I went back out of the Messe within a couple of hours – no running in the aisles while the Messe was open and operating – I left the building and killed some time before going to the train station for my overnight trip to Paris, a place I had never been to before. I was forty-two years old, thirty years ago. 

I arrived early, because like in most of Europe, but especially in Germany, the trains always operated on time.

I found my car which had two sets of bunk beds, three beds on each side, because that was cheaper than a private bed for me for the overnight trip. All the other five beds had couples in them cuddling and cooing to each other, I had no one. It was a lonely trip for me listening to all the love-making sounds in that car until I fell asleep. People are less inhibited about doing those kinds of things publicly than in America.

The train arrived at the Garde-Nord, which I am probably misspelling, at about five am, but it was the northern train station in Paris. When I left the train and climbed the stairs, there was a pad with a map of Paris on it sitting on a table, showing where every McDonalds restaurant was located in the city, in case that was the reason people came to Paris, I guess.

When I reached the top of the stairs, dragging my wheeled luggage up each stair and reached the outside of the station, my first image in the misty damp air was of an illuminated Eiffel Tower, which was an incredible thrill for me. Seeing a world-famous image like that in reality, in that damp winter climate, remains unforgettable for me.

I knew exactly where my very cheap hotel was, which I learned from a Rick Steve’s book which I sold in my store. It was located about a block away from the Eiffel Tower, but in winter, Paris isn’t crowded. It is freezing. Paris, France is located directly across the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland in Canada, north of the United States northern border. 

I was walking along, and there were crates stacked up in front of closed stores as I passed them, some of them with live chickens in them. I could hear my luggage’s plastic wheels bumping over every crack in the sidewalk in the black and silent streets of Paris. But also, I could smell for the first time the wonderful buttery fragrance of croissants being baked to sell to the working commuters when the shops opened in a little while. That too has lingered with me thirty years later.

When I reached my Grand Hotel Leveque on Rue Cler, it was open and everybody there spoke only French, which was interesting because even though I had to take French classes beginning in seventh (1962) and eighth grades and then my first two years (until 1966) of Lab School, I never passed a single test in those languages either, but nevertheless, every teacher passed me. Maybe they were afraid they’d have to have me for a student for another year. Regardless, aside from a mass of independent words in my subconscious, I spoke no French.

Didn’t matter. The cute-as-a-button young women behind the counter showed me to my room while twittering like birds. It was fascinating. 

The street in front of the hotel was cobble-stoned and I thought nothing of that in such an old city, but the next morning: Disneyland! There were a mass of carts lined up in something like a movie setting of a French town, where each cart sold one thing: cheese, wine, breads, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, soups and in one, an enormous fish several feet long atop many other fish who were less intimidating. I walked around all of this just amazed at the transformation of the street from a few hours before. Turned out this was a regular weekend thing all year, but I didn’t know that. 

I kinda munched my way from cart to cart, using French money because this was before Euros. One cart sold little shrimp in paper containers, and another, more disturbingly, sold cooked rabbit in a kind of sauce, which in fact, does taste like chicken, but not as good.

I only ate food from grocery stores, never a restaurant, because they were far too expensive for me to do that.  I knew a lot about travel and this was no hardship. I could buy a hunk of cheddar cheese, some excellent French rolls and maybe a chocolate croissant, some cold grapes and walk along the street eating out of a paper bag. 

Later, in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, the place that recently caught fire, I saw this guy with a wheeled metal cart with a gas container below it and a flat round metal area above it where he heated up crepes and then spread whatever flavor a person wanted, in my case chocolate, for very little money. I had a lot of those during my time there.

I also went inside of Notre Dame Cathedral which was a magnificent experience and the ceiling and towers soared above me. I saw many things in the few days I was in Paris. I spent hours in the Louvre, where I saw the arm-less Venus de Milo and world-famous painting of the slightly smiling Mona Lisa. Like most Americans probably did, I assumed it would be this massive work, but actually it is two-foot-six inches by one-foot-nine inches. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate it, but it sure was a tiny painting, you know?

There was a walled country house owned by the artist August Rodin, which was filled with his work, and much more of it standing and laying in the open garden behind the house.

At night I visited the Left Bank where my memory of the largely deserted clubs there was the million Italian lights twinkling in the dark.

I walked along the Seine River and saw so many newsstand-like structures where usually men sat and sold antique postcards or books, too. Some sold current newspapers and magazines, which was deja vu for me, because from 1965 to 1985 when I owned Bob’s Newsstand in Hyde Park in Chicago, I sold many of those same periodicals and newspapers, and I was still doing that in my then-current Grand Tour bookstore.

I walked back and forth across the many bridges crossing the Seine, saw a lot more 15th Century churches, more museums, and walked many of the arrondissements of Paris, which are like neighborhoods but on a map are shaped like a snail. I walked these sections late into the night, trying to experience as much of Paris as possible in a few days and nights.

I visited some department stores to compare them to America’s, saw their bookstores which were everywhere, like fast food joints, all over Paris. The places I visited had white books with no pictures or photos on the covers and were organized by their spines only. I guess the French don’t need pictures on the covers of their books to persuade then to buy a book.

One of the most memorable experiences was my visit to Sainte Chapelle, which Wikipedia describes this way: The Sainte-Chapelle is a royal chapel in the Gothic style, within the medieval Palais de la Cité, the residence of the Kings of France until the 14th century, on the Île de la Cité in the River Seine in Paris, France. Construction began sometime after 1238 and the chapel was consecrated on 26 April 1248.

The concrete between the vast stained-glass windows is so thin and the glass so wide it was stunning. I had never read about it so my stumbling across it was unexpected. However, it was partly closed for repair work on the ceiling. There was an admission fee, but it was too much for me right about then. But I noticed something. You may want to go back re-read the part about how I was able to get into the Messe in Germany even though it was closed.

A small group of teachers were herding a large mass of children into the building and I was suddenly caught in the middle of the herd. So, I spontaneously decided to become one of the teachers who were trying to keep the very young French children together so they didn’t wander off.  This worked, and in a moment I was inside of the 14th Century Chapel. The kids flowed in, I backed up against a wall, the teachers said a bunch of things about the place I couldn’t understand, then the kids flowed out and I was alone. I didn’t speak French, but I did attend art school for six years and knew what to appreciate when I saw it and that place was overwhelmingly beautiful on that sunny morning, all the huge stained-glass windows filled with light.

I walked through the Sorbonne University which was a very small building for being such a famous place. However, like near all universities everywhere, there was a Chinese restaurant across the street from it, and like all Chinese restaurants everywhere, it was very cheap to eat there, my only restaurant in Paris.

I walked around the Marais north of the Seine which was originally a Jewish ghetto as decreed by the French in the 17th Century and still felt that way with walls everywhere. But when I went there, there was a Picasso Museum and the only Jewish deli in Paris where I remember a German Shepard dog sitting on the floor of the small place. The prices for kosher food was sky-high, so I just stood in there and inhaled. As it happened, I owned a kosher deli in 1969 at 19 years old, and working there largely cured me of desiring deli food. My place was called the Deli-Dali and it existed in Hyde Park from 1969 to 1975. I sold out though in 1970. 

I remember something else, too. The average French person, man or woman, walking around seemed very well dressed. All the clothes they wore fit perfectly. The men and women seemed shorter than the average American, but they sure looked good, like they were advertisements for clothing companies. These well-dressed people, however, at that time, owned little dogs which they allowed to crap all over the sidewalks and streets, so that kinda cancelled out the glamour of their clothing.

The one time I took a ride on the Paris metro, I noticed on the list of stops were Ville de Juif and Ville de Juif Sud. Village of Jews and Villages of Jews South. I wondered why no one thought to possibly consider changing the names of those places, especially after World War Two when 77,000 French Jews were killed. Not everything makes sense and some questions have no answers, I guess. Perhaps those names are no longer Paris Metro stops. I have no idea.

Paris was filled with gardens, sculpture and everywhere I walked was a vista of some kind, a sense of being inside of a painting. I had a lot of energy when I was forty-two in 1992 and saw far more than I am describing here. I have been to many places in the world since that one time in Paris and I can say with some confidence that Paris is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. 

Maybe I can never go back there again for the first time, but I sure am grateful my friend loaned me the thousand dollars that allowed me to go there at that time when my career was again in peril, now so many years ago. Bless him.

Au revoir, everyone.

2 Comments »

Comment by bruce matteson

September 17, 2022 @ 1:00 am

safe journey friends!

Comment by Jim Payne

September 18, 2022 @ 4:57 am

Bob, you are the best tour guide I’ve met. You kept each step interesting, so interesting I skipped along with you. Your travel to Europe is as interesting as your unconventional life. May your honeymoon with Nancy be as interesting and sweetened by your love.

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