It was October, 1955, a week or so before my twelfth birthday. My mother and I, my three year-old sister, and my grandmother — who’d been living with us at that point for several years — found ourselves on final approach to a late-night landing in Paris.
We weren’t supposed to be landing in Paris. We were supposed to be landing in Frankfurt am Main en route to a reunion with my father at his new army posting in southwestern Germany. That, at least, was what was printed in our official travel orders. Now there was to be at least another day added to our schedule. The captain of the government chartered Seaboard and Western Constellation we’d first boarded early that morning in New York had just announced over the cabin intercom that since Rhein Main airport in Frankfurt was completely socked in, he was diverting our flight to Orly, the nearest international airport still clear of fog. So, like it or not and ready or not, we were now headed not to Frankfurt but to Paris, the magical Cité de la Lumiere that so much had been written about. My grandmother had taken me to see an American in Paris when I was eight, but no one had ever so much as hinted to me that Paris was a place that I might one day set foot in myself.
It was nearly midnight when we finally touched down on the runway at Orly. After the ceremony of deplaning, the guided trudge through the terminal, and half an hour or so of rummaging in purses, fumbling for passports and travel documents, and whispered negotiations incomprehensible to my not quite twelve year old self, we were bundled onto a dilapidated bus and ferried to our hotel through a mist-shrouded, and by this late hour largely extinguished City of Light.
Our hotel turned out to be the Hôtel le Littré, a modest establishment situated on the Rue Littré, less than a mile from the heart of Montparnasse, not that any of us had a clue at the time exactly where we were, or how improbable it was that any of us should have fetched up there at all, let alone by accident, let alone in the middle of the night. Standing in the lobby, with my ears still throbbing from the noise and vibration of the engines during our long flight, my first impression was of a somewhat muffled, somewhat claustrophobic lounge, with brocaded furnishings reminiscent of pictures from one of my grandmother’s old photograph albums.
While my mother was simultaneously engaged in juggling my sister and signing the register, a tiny, ancient-looking woman at the equally tiny front desk handed my grandmother a pair of the largest keys I’d ever seen. They were formidable, these keys, as though originally tasked with unlocking some ancient fortress, an impression enhanced by the fact that each was attached to a half-pound oval of brass with a number engraved on it. Looks more like a cell number than a room number, I remember thinking.
Mais non, my grandmother explained to me as we were being led upstairs to our rooms, such keys were not at all weird. Because it was customary in France to leave your key at the front desk when you were away from your room, and to pick it up when you returned, there was no need for it to fit into a pocket or purse. Besides, she said, the bigger and heavier a key was, the less likely it would be to wander off by itself. How she came up with this, I had no idea, but it sounded plausible, and my grandmother, who had been a world traveler with her father as a young girl, had never been the sort of person to make stuff up.
Okay, then. Maybe French keys weren’t actually so weird after all, but they weren’t the only things French that seemed weird to me that evening, and I was far from done pestering people for explanations. Why was it so warm in our room, I demanded, why were there half a dozen pillows and almost that many rolled-up (rolled up?) quilts piled on the beds when it was already so warm, and what was that thing in the closet off the bathroom that looked like a toilet, but wasn’t? (My utterly exhausted grandmother sighed and rolled her eyes at that last question, and then, with a perfunctory nod to her daughter, got up and padded silently, shoes and overnight bag in hand, to her own adjacent room.)
The next morning — very early the next morning — we boarded the same dilapidated bus that had delivered us the night before, and set off again, still somewhat bleary-eyed, for the airport and the final leg of our journey to Frankfurt. As we crept through the slowly awakening city, there was still little to see, but I marked the cobblestones, the improbably broad streets, and the middle-aged men with rolled-up sleeves and calf-length white aprons cranking out awnings and arranging chairs and tables on the sidewalks. Sidewalk cafés, I suddenly realized, sidewalk cafés just like in the movies.
Then, as we turned a corner, there it was in the middle distance, floating above the rooftops and autumn foliage of the city, the upper two-thirds of la tour Eiffel. This, somehow, was not just like in the movies, this was more like the word made flesh of religious hyperbole, and I was motoring away from it like a soul being banished from paradise.
The moment didn’t last. I was a little more romantic, a little more literary at twelve than the average American kid, I suppose, but I was still a kid, and I liked airplanes and adventures too. I was really looking forward to trying out my ten words of German when we finally got where we were, after all, supposed to be going.
I’ve never returned to the City of Light, not once in the 65 years since I saw it for the first and only time just as the first rays of dawn were beginning to filter through the autumnal branches of the trees lining its famous boulevards. Even so, I suspect that I’m as glad as any Parisian is that it’s still there, and that it’s still Paris. Some places, Grâce à Dieu, are eternal. Paris is one of them.