The First Time I Saw Paris

A young man’s trip of a lifetime

By Tom Allen

April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom

Holiday tables under the trees

April in Paris, this is the feeling

No one can ever reprise

In the spring of 1975, I was there. April, in Paris, though I had never heard Yip Harburg’s lyrics to the hit song composed by Vernon Duke for the 1932 Broadway musical Walk a Little Faster. Wouldn’t have known a chestnut tree if I saw one. But the feeling that “no one can ever reprise?” That, I remember; yet my sojourn to the City of Lights almost didn’t happen.

The only foreign language offered at my high school in the ’70s was French. Not a lotta takers. Why I signed up escapes me. Perhaps I thought a language might look good on a college application. By the time I graduated, after three years studying French, I could conjugate verbs, sing a few Christmas songs, and even read a little Victor Hugo.

During my junior year, Madame Arnold, our teacher whose slow, Southern drawl made the language easier to hear and understand, organized a weeklong trip for members of our French Club. The trip would take place over Easter break. 

I wanted to go. More than anything, more than ever, I wanted to go. My parents’ initial response was “no.” It wasn’t the cost as much as the fact I was 16 and had never been out of North Carolina, much less the country. And I’d never flown. My dad was concerned the plane might crash, a carryover from his Army days in Europe 30 years earlier. My mom worried I might wander off, get lost, be kidnapped. My paternal grandmother, who lived next door, shared Dad’s concern. A farm wife who’d never seen the ocean, she questioned why anyone would want to fly across that ocean to someplace where “you can’t understand a word they say.” My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, thought it was a great opportunity: “You can bring me back a bottle of French wine.”

I recall pleading for days, a form of manipulation that rarely worked in my family. I would help pay my way, I promised. My meager checking account still had money from summer tobacco work. I think I even cried, just like I cried the year my buddy got a motor scooter for Christmas and I didn’t. Those tears, I recall, were wasted.

Eventually, my dad caved. Reluctantly, my mother agreed. One grandmother immediately started praying for safety. The other gave me cash for that bottle of wine.

On Easter Monday, five of us, under the watchful eye of Madame Arnold, departed Raleigh-Durham for New York, then an overnight flight to Paris. I savored every moment of the trip, from the plane ride and its preheated meals to the beauty of Paris by night from atop the Eiffel Tower. I was especially proud that I understood the language and happy the French could understand my Southern accent, even when I had to ask, many times,“Parlez plus lentement, s’il vous plaît.” Please speak slower.

We visited sites seen only in classroom film strips or 16 mm movies — the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées, the beaches of Normandy and Mont Saint-Michel, the Palace of Versailles, and the château of Chambord. I remember the grandeur of Notre Dame, still heavy with the scent of lilies and incense from Easter Masses, and the taste of éclairs and macaroons from hole-in-the-wall pâtisseries.

Our last night in Paris, we attended dinner and a show at the Moulin Rouge, its cabaret and can-can dancers immortalized on canvas by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Only after pages of permission slips our parents had to sign, were we allowed to see the possibly provocative performances, accompanied by a half-glass of champagne with dessert. But the night was less risqué than we imagined, a classy and colorful evening of great food and lots of laughter.

When I returned from our grande soirée, I packed the small bottles of perfume and lace handkerchiefs I purchased for my mom and grandmothers, a wallet for my dad, and that bottle of Vouvray for Granny Pate. The only souvenir I bought for myself — my caricature by a street artist in Montmartre.

The next day I bid adieu to what had been the trip of my young lifetime. Others would follow — a summer in England during seminary, a honeymoon in Bermuda, a pilgrimage to Israel. But my taste for travel was sparked by that high school journey to République Française, a taste we encouraged in our daughters, both of whom studied abroad during college.

My own college days included more French because I simply loved the language. Sadly, I’ve had few opportunities to converse since. Like anything else, use it or lose it. Two occasions in ministry afforded me the opportunity to say the Lord’s Prayer in French. One was a small, private wedding for a lovely couple, the bride and her family from Québec. The other, the funeral of a parishioner, also French-Canadian, a friend with whom I occasionally conversed. The prayer, in the language of his childhood, was his request, and one I was honored to fulfill.

Every year, the week before Easter, I visit my parents’ graves. Sometimes I stand in silence, but other times I speak. Words of gratitude are always expressed, for their lives, their love, their generosity. And for the gift of giving into my pleas and sending their only kid to the other side of the world.  PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

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