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The French non-experience

The writer visits a Nazi-ravaged Paris and learns that the city is like a woman, uses all its wiles to trap you…

It was my first Christmas in Europe and I thought what better place to celebrate it than Paris, then in its first flush of post-war gaiety, away from the war-ravaged London and its daily lines for black bread and potatoes. So, off I went, with a friend whose father had been killed in Normandy landings and was taking fresh flowers from his garden to lay on his grave.

But it was not that simple. We landed, not in Paris, but at Calais, a god-forsaken place that the Nazis seemed to have left in a hurry, leaving behind a skeleton of a railway station and a shed that served as emigration office. As soon as we landed, half a dozen men pounced on us, all looking like Marshall Petain with their walrus moustaches and kepis and shouting in a chorus, “Passport, please.”

“Where is your visa,” asked one man, alarmed at the very idea that anyone could enter his beloved France.

“What visa?” I said. I told them that I had gone through Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities backwards and Dickens had said nothing about a visa. Silence all round. “Follow moi (me),” said one of the men in his best Bob Hope style.

Apparently, Dickens or otherwise, you did need a visa. We transacted our business in the shed at a cost of a few precious franks and the Petains departed.

We made straight for the Ritz Hotel where, the papers had said, Ernest Hemingway was staying. He had announced the liberation of Paris from its famous bar, long before Charles de Gaulle had even arrived in the city.

The Ritz is to Paris what the Taj Mahal is to Bombay but we didn’t know it. When we arrived in our scruffy clothes, while everybody went about in evening dress, the doorman took one look at us and blew his whistle. We were told that Hemingway had left for distant shores and had not left any word.

We were hungry and made for the nearest cafe, where, we were told, most writers held court. We were looking for Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, but the restaurants were almost empty. All we could see were some cats who prowled among the tables and gave us dirty looks.

Food was cheap. For a shilling or about eight annas, you could have something called aubergine fareie, which was ever more exotic than it sounds and came with free bread and wine. In London, there were no aubergines or brinjals and you paid even for the bread. The Parisians took their food seriously, as we do in India, even if all they had was a herb omelette and a crust of bread. One man we saw looked like Victor Hugo, complete with a red nose and whiskers, and he sat there for hours, munching his bread and adjusting his napkin from time to time, as he ploughed into his vol-au-vin (chicken in wine) as a man possessed.

Every city has its peculiar smell and Paris, for all its sophisticated air, stank of human sweat and garlic, about half-and-half.

You couldn’t enter a tube train without being associated by that overpowering odour of smelly humanity or walk down Champs Élysées without holding your breath. Things have improved since then, but garlic still holds sway, even in the Foreign Ministry beside the Seine, where elegantly dressed diplomats turn the other way when they pass the office canteen.

Paris is a female city and uses all its wiles to trap you, just as London, haughty and male, leaves you alone. We sat by the Seine and watched the boats go by, but it was soon after the end of the war and there were few tourists. The bookshops on the left bank were almost bare but for some German books left behind by the Nazis, who had apparently taken all French books home, though few of them knew French or, perhaps, had ever even laid eyes on a book. The only English book left was of Bertrand Russell, but who would want to read that on a Paris holiday?

This article was first published on March 20, 2010