I had no specific plans for the day and all my gift shopping had been done the previous day so I was totally free to wander. Walking in Paris without a plan or even a destination is one the great joys of my visits. I can stop when I please, look in windows, smoke a cigar on a street bench, sip a lazy cup of coffee in a cafe. Being alone only makes it better. I am beholden to no one, answer to no one.
Avenue Bosquet, however, was shady that morning. Most of the buildings are five or six stories tall and the sun was hidden behind them. The tip of Tour Eiffel peaked out from behind the elegant apartment houses that line the avenue and well-dressed ladies were walking their dogs. People were on the way to work, shops were opening and life had begun again.
I passed the Jardin Imperial, a Thai restaurant I had eaten in before and briefly scanned the menu. I crossed the street to gaze at a display at a floral shop. I stopped for a third cup of coffee at a cafe at the corner of rue, St. Dominique. Time meant nothing.
Crossing the river at Pont de L'Alma, I stopped to watch a barge make its way west, fully loaded and seemingly unoccupied save for the man at the helm. A bridge, a river and a barge require careful scrutiny and I gave it that morning. It had rained the previous week and the river was still running high. The barge swell almost reached the top of the embankment and the few, early fishermen risked a soaking.
Early morning Paris traffic and the attendant noise always reminds me of Gene Kelly in the movie "An American in Paris." The horns, the sirens, the busses passing by and the crowds echo Gershwin's music. There have been times when I have been tempted to dance in the street or stop and sing to children on their way to school.
I continued along Avenue George V and past the hotel that bears the same name. In 1956, as a young Pfc. in the U.S. Army, I stood in front of the hotel and watched as the Aga Kahn, the billionaire who annually had himself weighed in gold, was assisted into his long, highly polished Rolls-Royce. The photos I had seen of him did not do him credit. He appeared much heavier in person and it was easy to understand why his subjects loved him so. The value of his annual weight in gold resulted in an equivalent contribution to the poor of his country.
I reached the end of Avenue George V and turned right onto the Avenue Champs-Elysees, the most famous avenue in Paris, maybe in the world. When I first went to Paris in 1955, the Champs-Elysees was more civilized, more cosmopolitan. Today it is awash with fast food outlets, street vendors and beggars. In 1955 it was elegant, today it is grotesque. The street that was the symbol of the "City of Light" has become gaudy neon and tasteless billboards.
On Christmas Eve of 1956, about 9:00 P.M., a friend and I took the Metro from the St. Germain station to the Etoile, now the Charles DeGaulle station. Earlier in the evening it had snowed, though lightly, and the sidewalk was covered with a fine powder. The avenue was brightly lighted but all the stores, cafes and restaurants were closed and there was a total absence of traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular.
We walked down the avenue, stopping to look in windows, seeking a place for coffee or something stronger. When we reached the Rond Point, we turned and literally retraced our steps in the snow. We were alone on a famous street in a city of over a million people. It is one of my fondest memories of Paris.
I made my way east, down the avenue, stopping at the first street bench I saw to light another cigar and watch the passersby. All Paris travel books tout people-watching as a pastime when things get dull or when you are waiting for your wife or companion to finish shopping, for example. It's more than that. It's a learned skill, one that takes time to develop and master and not everyone becomes proficient.
Sunglasses help. So does leading your target. If you see someone coming down the street you wish to stare at, you look in the direction in which she will be headed Admittedly, you don't get much of frontal view but the rear action is quite impressive. Having a newspaper helps too. You can pretend to read but really be looking at the parade. In the end, a blatant stare is best. It's a French thing, not easily understood by Americans but accepted by most Parisians, both male and female.
I crossed over so I could pass by the American Embassy. For years I have made it a practice to stop and salute the flag that flies in front. American Embassies throughout the world are guarded by U.S Marines and I like to think the guard on duty may think I am a retired Marine general. I also suspect that hidden cameras take a photo of everyone who displays even passing interest in the building and that pictures of me are in some file drawer at the FBI or CIA headquarters under the category of "suspicious characters."
By the time I reached the Hotel Crillon, I remembered I had a mission for the day. One of my children, a chef, asked me to get a menu from the Hotel Ritz. The Ritz is a short walk from the Crillon but it takes you past many, expensive stores that demand attention. Much of rue de Rivoli at the western end is tacky souvenir shops or hole in the wall cafes but some of the stores are quite BCBG. It took me over an hour to get to my destination.
The Ritz begs description. It's not a big hotel by American standards but what it lacks in space it more than makes up for in sheer luxury. There is nothing faux about the Ritz, from the antique furniture to the oils on the walls to the oriental carpets on the marble floors. It has a two star restaurant, two bars, a health club and swimming pool and, I am told, the best service in the world. It is very, very expensive.
I arrived at lunchtime but passed on the offer of a table. Lunch probably would have cost me over $100 based on the prices I saw at the dining room door. Instead I asked for a souvenir copy of the dinner menu which they gladly gave me. It was not the menu given to real dinner customers, it was not bound in Moroccan leather and hand lettered but it would satisfy my son.
I spent a pleasant half hour walking down the hall that leads from the lobby to the Hemingway Bar in the rear. Small boutiques, mainly jewelry shops, line the hall. The sparkle of diamonds and other expensive stones gives silent evidence to the wealth of the guests of the Ritz.
As I was about to leave, I saw a man standing in the lobby I thought I recognized. He was speaking to a long haired, blond woman. She left and he turned and I recognized Henry Kissinger. This was an opportunity not to be missed so I went over and introduced myself. Mr. Kissinger was more than cordial and we chatted for a minute or two. He then asked if we had met before and I said no. He paused and then said-and this is a direct quote-"Oh, yes we have. I remember." He said goodbye, turned and left. I have told this story many times but I don't think anybody believes me.
I spend the rest of the afternoon on the rue, St. Honore, shopping in the windows of all the famous and expensive shops. I visited both floors of Le Nain Bleu, the fancy Paris toy store that rivals F.A.O. Schwartz in New York City. I sat at a small cafe and had yet another cup of coffee, a jambon sandwich and a cigar. At four o'clock, I hailed a taxi and by four thirty I was in my hotel bed enjoying my daily, late afternoon nap.
On every visit to Paris I have dinner at least once at Paul Chene's, a small but well known place in the Trocadero area. When I took my mother to Paris in 1985, we discovered it and I have gone back ever since, partly for the memories and more for the food and the service. It is not large. The main dining room can accommodate fewer than twenty customers and the room upstairs only ten. There is no bar and the restaurant is open only for dinner.
There once really was a Paul Chene. He was the chef-owner, a fairly common practice in France and he died in 1994 or 1995. When my wife and I were in Paris in 1989, we took a picture of Paul at his usual place in the front of the restaurant where he greeted his customers. When I visited Paris in 1996, I had a copy of the photo framed and gave it to his nephew, the new owner-manager. It is still there, hanging next to a photo of Queen Elizabeth II. To this day I have no idea why her picture graces the walls. I don't think she ever had dinner there.
Paul Chene's serves traditional French food and it serves it in very large quantities. It is not an inexpensive place to eat-a dinner for two with wine will run about one hundred to one hundred fifty dollars. The menu I ordered from in 1985 is the menu used today. Only the prices have changed. The service remains the same too-prompt, efficient, helpful and always professional. Over the years I have come to learn the names of everyone who works there and they never fail to greet me by name. On my last visit in May, I was introduced to the newest member of the staff, Fabrice, an eighteen year old apprentice who will someday become a waiter.
Being a waiter in Paris is not a part-time affair, it is not a job someone aspires to while waiting for a better offer to come along. It is a career, a life's work and one in which a man takes great pride. One does not become a waiter overnight any more than one becomes a doctor overnight. It is a fairly long, formal process that usually begins in the kitchen with the chef or sous-chef and generally involves the most menial of tasks such as cleaning and dishwashing. Once those tasks are mastered, the would-be waiter may be allowed to assist a cook and learn the basics of food preparation. Only then is he allowed to enter the dining room and set and clear tables. This may take years.
Fabrice, the newest apprentice at Paul Chene's, is a high school graduate, lives at home with his parents and earns about sixty dollars a week. He will serve in the dining room under the supervision of the Maitre 'de, the head waiter or master of the house, a very stern taskmaster. Mistakes are allowed, but only once. He will receive instruction on setting a table, clearing dishes after a course is finished, re-filling water glasses and, when he is fully competent, serving dessert and coffee. Until he is fully trained he will not take orders, open or pour wine, serve the first and second course or even speak to the customers.
When his indefinite period of apprenticeship is completed, Fabrice will become a full time waiter. He can elect to remain at Paul Chene's or look elsewhere. Some waiters choose to remain at the restaurant in which they began and remain for years, often for a lifetime. As a full time waiter, his salary will increase to over four or five hundred dollars a week. At those few places that have earned Michelin stars, he can expect to earn over one thousand dollars a week.
Dinner, for me at least, at Paul's always begins with a gift from the chef, a morsel of something he has created for special guests, a taste of pate, a small bite of an exotic fish, a fresh vegetable served in some unique fashion. Then I am presented with the menu. Over time, I have had everything on the menu except veal kidneys. I had kidneys just once in another restaurant, by mistake really, and I have learned my lesson. Never again!
At Paul's, my favorite order is escargots and the daube de boeuf. It has never failed to satisfy me. I am also partial to the lamb and any fish on the menu. The staff knows I do not eat dessert and my after dinner coffee is always accompanied by an ashtray and cigar cutter.
I arrive for dinner at eight and I leave a little after ten. I usually walk back to my hotel, past the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Mars and down the Avenue de Bourdonnais to Avenue De La Motte Piquet and then to rue Cler. My leisurely walk takes over an hour and is the perfect end to a perfect day. I am asleep by eleven o'clock. Another day in my favorite city.