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The first time I saw Paris.

Posted by Big John on November 24, 2008

Usually at this time of year I take a trip across The Channel to do a bit of pre-Christmas shopping in France, but this year I have decided to give it a miss due to the problems after the fire in the channel tunnel, the strikes and other industrial action at both British and French ports and the fact that we will soon be getting one euro to the bloody pound.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have visited France over the years and how many towns and regions I have explored, but I can still recall my very first visit way back in 1951 when I was just twelve years old …


I can remember crossing the channel on a steamship ferry and travelling on a train, in a carriage fitted with wooden seats, all the way to Paris  (Yes, a very long way in those days) with a group of other boys and teachers from my school. In the city we stayed in a school which I assumed was closed for the summer holidays. The only thing that I remember about that school were the toilets, which were situated in the playground and, apart from a roof, were completely open to the elements. In other words anyone passing could see you sitting on the loo, or rather squatting over a hole. Still I suppose that this was quite normal for a country where men urinated in the street and you could still see signs requesting that you not piss against the wall of someone’s house.

My introduction to French food was a bit of a shock and far removed from what I so enjoy today. Breakfast was a large bowl of coffee and a lump of bread. Apparently you were supposed to ‘dunk’ the bread in the coffee. Our first dinner consisted of a green vegetable that looked a bit like a cactus and which none of us had a clue how to eat, and a plate of large sausages covered in stewed plums. There was some hard bread and something which looked a bit like melting ice cream, but was in fact some sort of ‘sour’ cheese. All very strange to a kid used to his mum’s steak and kidney pie and ‘spotted dick’ and custard.

At that time London, where I lived, was still showing it’s scars from the war, with ruins everywhere, but Paris seemed untouched. Rationing was still in force back home, and it probably was in France, but as I recall we boys stuffed ourselves with chocolate and bought things like packs of sugar to take home to our mothers. I bought a bottle of red wine for my dad, who only liked Guinness, so I doubt if he ever drank it, and a very, very, very small bottle of perfume from a very posh shop for my mum, which I know she made last for a very, very, very long time.

One of my great pleasures when in France is to sit at a table in a pavement (sidewalk) café and ‘watch the world go by’, and at the age of twelve I did this for the first time when, with one of my mates, I seated myself at a table outside a boulevard café and watched the strange sight of a policeman wearing a kepi directing the noisy traffic by waving a white truncheon in the air.

A waiter approached and asked us what we wanted. Well, for all I know he could have been telling us to “bugger off !” for my ‘schoolboy French’ was limited to say the least at that time.absenthe

I had no idea what to order and so pointed to a large advertisement painted on the wall outside the bar .. “Deux … s’il vous plaît” .. I ventured. The waiter nodded and went inside the café, returning a couple of minutes later with two ‘fancy’ glasses and a bottle on his tray. He placed the glasses on our table and poured two generous measures from the bottle. It was ‘Martini’, it was sweet, and I liked it !

Thank goodness I hadn’t pointed at …

the poster on the right !


One Response to “The first time I saw Paris.”

  1. Ginnie said

    It all sounds very glamorous to me. I can’t imagine living so close that you can do your Christmas shopping in France. I recently flew from Heathrow to Rome via British Air and was very pleased with the service.
    (Much nicer than the American Airlines trip from London to Raleigh, USA.)

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