A cook and chef since the late 1960's, Jack writes stories of his well-traveled working tours of the tail-end of the twentieth century. His first published book, Sonoma Picnic, a California Travel Companion, is available through the sonomapicnic.com Book Shop.
NO ORDINARY ROOM
The train from Le Havre was packed with people returning to Paris from a weekend at the Normandy coast. I slept most of the way, recovering from the rigors of an exceedingly rough night ferry crossing from the port of Rosslar in County Wexford, Ireland.
There had been one hell of a spring storm blowing out over the St. Georges Channel. The ferryboat was corkscrewing through a very heavy sea. I spent most of the evening braced at the bar drinking ale and trying to hang on to the kippers and ham I had eaten for lunch. There had been no hope of sleep, not until the ship had passed out of the weather and south of Penzance between the Isles of Scilly and the hard rock of Lands End.
I had been living in Portland, Oregon, and all through the sodden, drowned winter of 1986 I had been planning on this trip to Europe.
Dreaming through a season of work, wistful for springtime and Paris, I spent every spare moment searching through the antique malls and coin shops for discount French pocket change. It was a small secret among seasoned budget travelers in those days that if you were diligent in your quest, if you had some time to kill, you could purchase heavy French ten-franc coins (worth about a dollar twenty then) for ten cents or a quarter. Sometimes less!
The search for this small treasure involves hours of sorting through shoeboxes, coffee cans and biscuit tins full of foreign coinage--all the discarded souvenirs from other people's holidays.
By April I had amassed a sock full of these coins. A heavy sock full, and I came to wonder if the weight of the coins was worth the bargain price. I wound up lugging the darned things for a month through England and Ireland. In the end they came in handy, but I can now recommend that this approach to travel savings works best if you are planning a flight direct to Orly!
I was doing things the hard way.
I had also not bothered to call ahead and reserve a room at my favorite Parisian digs.
Dublin the day before had been a seriously mad scramble. The whole town seemed a bit out of sorts. The people were facing the prospect of a blackout due to a breakdown in talks between the Union and the Power Company. There were city-wide work stoppages in hospitals due to a breakdown in talks between the Union and Management. And, there had been deliberate stalling of flights at Shannon Airport due to a dispute over new radar equipment . . . .
I had raced about the entire day trying to make my way south by train to catch that ferry to Le Havre. Once off the boat from dear old Ireland, I caught the first available train to Paris.
There had been no time to phone ahead to my cozy little Latin Quarter hotel. I had made my way by Métro and on foot all the way out past the Place de la Sorbonne only to have the sweet proprietress tell me: "Moi désolé monsieur. Complet! Complet!"
At every small hotel and chambre d´hóte for a mile around it was the same story: "Complet!" "Complet!"
It was with a very heavy backpack that I was trudging back down the Boulevard St. Michel. Finally, after suffering numerous doorstep and lobby rejections, I found the three-star hotel L´Observatoire to have a room.
It was an indication of my increasing desperation that I even bothered to inquire at such an up-scale establishment.
When the jolly fellow at the desk said, "Oui Monsieur, F 250.00," I pulled out my sock full of coins and said, "Quel dommage?" showing him I have only F 150.00 to spend.
"Momment, momment," he replied, obviously amused by my straightforward and other-worldly presentation.
"OK! F 150.00 tres bon!"
He showed me to a small corner room on the top floor of the hotel. He explained that a woman, a beautiful woman, had checked out unexpectedly late in the day. He said that if I did not mind the rumpled and unmade bed, the room was mine.
This was no ordinary room. I accepted his generous offer on the spot!
It is not enough to say that this was a room with a view. A room with two large casement windows that you could push all the way open. This in itself is a wonder. And you could also lean out the windows and see most of the principal sights of the city spread out like a living map beneath you.
A wondrous view to be sure. But the truly remarkable thing about the room was the way it had been left to me. The covers on the bed had been thrown back to reveal a delicate dent in the sheets where the former resident had spent her evening's repose.
There was an ornate and mirrored mahogany dressing table that perfectly matched the bed. It was littered with a dainty potpourri of feminine debris. The whole scene was right out of the 1930's. A fantasy 1930's Parisian boudoir with all the trimmings, real and imagined.
I slept that night quite simply French. I dreamed in black-and-white. And about the pillow, I swear, there lingered a fragrant blue subtitle from an art film.
A Note From The Author
If you are planning a visit to Paris this spring, I highly recommend you call the nice folks at Hotel Observatoire Luxembourg, 107 Boulevard Saint Michel, Paris, France 75005 (phone: 1-46-341012).
It has been many years now since my memorable night, but I will guarantee this is still one great hotel. It is centrally located near Boulevard Saint Germain and the Luxembourg Gardens. Métro stop Luxembourg. Room rates about F 800.000-900.00 per night.