Almanac Travel: Paris, the Windy Hill brawl, and a phone call

 

Inspired by Rob Spurr’s recent account of backpacking in Turkey in the late 80s and his difficulties with officials, reminded me of my run in with officials in Paris, 1974. This is my account of that time.

 

 

Col (3rd from left) in Madrid a few days after the Paris run-in with some terrific Canadian guys he met on the train.

 

My arm was locked by a vice like grip. A slow smile broke across the enforcer’s  face as I stared into his eyes. He winked, then twisted and squeezed  my arm harder. An elderly lady wagged her finger at me and shook her head, her protruding lip quivered; another customer grinned, and others stared bemusedly. My day had started wonderfully well but a  phone call home and too few francs soon changed all that.

 

Earlier that Saturday morning I had been savouring coffee and croissants with Ross, my travelling companion, in a cafe on the Boulevard St. Michel. Around us Parisians went about their daily rituals: an old man wearing a black beret smoked a Gaulloise, a waiter noisily collected cups and glasses and placed them on his tray, another waiter emptied ash trays while a third wiped down a table, as  customers came and went.  Two fashionable ladies chatted loudly, their hands emphasizing every word they spoke. A young man folded his copy of Le Monde, stood up, placed the paper under his arm, nodded to three men debating a point as Sartre did decades before and left. And, the flaneurs promenaded along the boulevard. It was one big cliché but for two young awe struck Aussie travellers in Paris, in the spring of 1974, it was magic.

 

A soccer game on the overhead television as I ordered another coffee reminded me of the footy back home, my team was playing Ross’s. This instigated some good natured banter between us about the merits of our teams. Ross proposed a small wager on the  outcome. “Loser carries both our luggage to the Gare d’Austerlitz tomorrow.” Ross was confident his Tigers would beat my Bombers. Remembering my struggles with my cumbersome pack I hoped it was not me carrying our bags to the station to catch the train to Madrid the next morning. “You’re on,“ I replied, “I’ll ring home later for the results.”

 

Saturday afternoon I spent at The Louvre. I hoped  see the Mona Lisa but  she was in Japan on loan for an exhibition. Disappointed not to have first bragging rights amongst my friends, I left and decided to make my phone call home to check the footy results hoping for better results there.

 

The Bureau de Poste is a building typical of such French institutions: old and multi-levelled, fashionable, it reeked of its glorious and opulent past. Large granite steps led up to a huge heavy door that rotated slowly and smoothly on its axis within a glass cylinder to allow a limited number of customers to enter the building at any one time. The floors were of marble, worn smooth and hollowed in places over time. Minute black lines meandered randomly throughout the stone. The dark wooden panelled walls reached up to the high ceilings, once elaborately decorated but long since faded.

 

“Suivant s’il vous plait.” (“Next please”) I was called to the counter by a stern looking official. “Je veux placer un appel téléphonique à l’Australie,” (“I want to place a phone call to Australia”) I said in my very best guide book French handing over my booking slip. She was a stout, robust and imposing looking woman. Her long dark hair was immaculately parted down the middle and tied neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her tight fitting cream blouse battled to contain her bulging breasts, while a wide belt fitted with a large silver buckle was looped into her woollen pleated skirt. A scarf of the French colours hung patriotically around her neck. Just like Gertrude Stein I thought to myself. Behind her, on the wall, a portrait of former President, General de Gaulle hung, and looked down stoically and majestically upon proceedings. I wondered why Pompidou’s portrait was not there.

 

After inspecting my booking slip she raised her eyes and looked at the long haired, denim clad young Australian in front of her, a look that gave me the impression she did not appreciate dealing with foreigners.  Eventually I was directed to an enclosed telephone booth. It was stuffy, smelling of stale cigarette smoke, and body odour. A telephone sat Dali like on a small round table. I stared at the phone  and waited for it to ring.

 

I lost the bet! Richmond defeated Essendon in what was the infamous Windy Hill half-time brawl. Despondent I made my way to the counter to pay for my call.

 

“Combien,” (“How much?”) I asked politely in my best French accent. “Votre appel telephonique en Australie etait de 30 francs,” (“Your phone call to Australia was 30 francs”) the official responded authoratively. A sudden rush of panic went through me. Thirty francs? I only had twenty francs. I opened my wallet to show the official. She shook her head. I needed more than schoolboy French in this situation. Turning,  elbows at my side, I spread and raised my hands shrugging my shoulders at the same time. “Anyone help?” I pleaded. “Sure Aussie boy,” purred a slow drawling gorgeous drop-dead blonde all American girl. “Nice jacket,” she said, tapping the Aussie badge pinned to my lapel. Thanking her, I wished the circumstances of our meeting had been different.

 

The official placed her pen on the pad in front of her, raised her right hand to her glasses and slowly lowered them towards the tip of her wide and bulbous nose. Lowering her head, her chin resting on her chest, she raised her eyes over her glasses and stared into my eyes. “Vous voulez dire que vous ne pouvez pas payer ce que vous devez juste titre la République de France?” (“You mean you cannot pay what you rightly owe the Republic of France?”) I glanced at de Gaulles’s portrait. I explained through my newfound American friend previous calls home had been much cheaper. The official glared at me, then, in a loud resonating voice she called for the security guard. “I don’t think she’s happy Aussie Boy!” drawled my friend.

 

The security guard moved to the counter and looked to the official for guidance. She pointed at me, her arm outstretched like an archer taking aim. “Il ne peut pas payer,” (“He can’t pay”)  she stated firmly. The guard grabbed  my arm. The official by now had left the counter and approached the guard, her arms flailing as she recounted the event emphasized the seriousness of the predicament I was in. “If you are unable to pay the account the official says she has no hesitation but to call the gendarmerie,” my friend informed me; then she winked, “things don’t look too good Aussie Boy.” The Aussie Boy thing was beginning to grate and get on my nerves.  I began to realize the seriousness of my situation.

 

I explained I had travellers cheques at the Youth Hostel where I was staying. The official shook her head slowly from side to side. The security guard still holding me showed some initiative and pointed to my watch and the camera hanging around my neck. His finger beckoned me to hand them over.  The official examined both items closely, shrugged her shoulders then reluctantly nodded. After a short discussion it was explained my goods would be returned once my bill was paid.

 

A quick heartfelt thank you to my new found American friend (I should have asked for her contact details but I was too flustered!)  I turned and made my way out of the building.

 

Instead of being relieved by this outcome, it only compounded my problems further. It was late afternoon and I had about two hours to complete my transactions. And the Youth Hostel was a quite a distance away.

 

I rushed to the nearby Metro. Gasping, I wished I had never taken up smoking. Thankfully there was no queue. I purchased my ticket.  Down the steps, a quick sprint to platform two, where, lo and behold, the French Railways had a train waiting for me.  Thanks were quietly given. Slumped in my seat I caught my breath and counted the stations to my stop.  Recovered, I took the stairs two at a time to ground level, found my bearings, as the soixante-deux bus was pulling in to the stop. I could not believe my luck. The hostel was only a kilometre down the road.

 

Ross was writing a letter as I burst into the room. Frantically I searched for  a cheque in my bag. I asked Ross the time, swore and breathlessly blurted, “Don’t worry about carrying your bags tomorrow!” A wide-eyed Ross stared open mouthed as I rushed from the room. I had one hour left.

 

Thankfully the French Transport system and the gods were still in harmony with me as I reached the Bureau de Poste with minutes to spare before closing time. And like de Gaulle making his triumphant return to Paris, I held my head high as I strolled boldly to the counter, and smiling broadly I presented my cheque for payment. “Madame ma dette est payée. Merci.” (“Madam, my debt is paid”) With my camera and watch returned, Aussie Boy turned and left the building.

 

Nearly fifty years on I wonder why I didn’t ask the American girl to lend me the money and pay her back later rather than all the hassle I had to go through.

 

Naïve young travellers do not always think and act rationally I can now say with the advantage of hindsight!

 

More from Col Ritchie can be read Here

 

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About Colin Ritchie

Retired teacher who enjoys following the Bombers, listening to music especially Bob Dylan, reading, and swimming.

Comments

  1. Daryl Schramm says

    Great read Colin. Now we have the 80s and the 70s covered hopefully someone can cover a 90s overseas officialdom event. I suspect a 60s personal experience may also be possible, but unlikely. Interesting parallel with upsetting the Republic of France by an individual in the 70s and at government level recently.

  2. Wayne Matthews says

    An outstanding recollection of your encounters in Paris CGR. So precise describing your observations and the perilous circumstances you had to extricate yourself from. I struggle to remember what I did yesterday yet alone fifty years ago. I am intrigued though you recognised the brand of cigarettes an elderly man was smoking along with the colour of his beret.
    I do have a question as one or two comments seem contrary to your often preferred topic for discussion. I read you described, quite thoroughly, the Post Office employee as, “She was a stout, robust and imposing looking woman. Her long dark hair was immaculately parted down the middle and tied neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her tight-fitting cream blouse battled to contain her bulging breasts, while a wide belt fitted with a large silver buckle was looped into her woollen pleated skirt”. Yet, the lass that noticed your predicament, all you mention is “…purred a slow drawling gorgeous drop-dead blonde all American girl”.

    So was your flustered state caused by who you should now ask to take for coffee, or by the prospect of an Essendon suspension as a consequence of the Windy Hill brawl??

  3. Quite the adventure Col.

    We might have to rename you Papillon!

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