This winter, with its bouts of subzero temps, offers much more time to reflect on my long life. The summer of 1967 -50 years ago- still shines.
I was finishing my graduate studies (at The University of Michigan) and had a celebratory dream- to travel abroad. To that end I waited tables, cleaned houses, painted silly slogans on 50 white toilet seats and sold them to the fraternities and sororities that lined Washtenaw Ave. Stuff like ‘Pop, pop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is,’ ‘Moose poop is purple,’ ‘The pause that refreshes,’ ‘This way out,’ etc., a novelty that went over big. After two years I’d saved $1800 – a decent amount of money, then- and so, flew to Europe in late May to explore it for three months.
It was a safer world then, for an independent young woman.
My backpack contained one long sleeved wash-and-air-dry dress (one wore dresses or skirts then, especially in Europe), undies, socks, a spare pair of comfy trainers, a foldout raincoat, a sweater, a toothbrush, a roll of toilet paper, and a hairbrush. Oh-and a much-thumbed, thick Michelin paperback guidebook crammed with advice, regional descriptions and detailed maps.
A money belt holding my passport and travelers checks never left my waist.
I included a slim knife that slid into a sheath attached to my arm.
It would come in handy in France.
Paris was absolutely crammed with gorgeous medieval buildings. In Notre Dame Cathedral a kind old French-born priest who spoke English with a British accent happily answered my awed questions and even showed me rarely viewed rooms. Tourists wouldn’t show up until mid-June, so he had more personal time. I learned so much!
Every morning for two weeks I left my cheap, clean garret, with its lumpy single bed and tiny window, to walk the winding cobblestone lanes to the patisserie about two blocks away for my breakfast- a croissant and French coffee. (That fresh food and delicious brew defined ‘excellent’ for years afterward.)
By the way, in almost every Paris café dogs lay quietly, dozing next to, or under, their owners’ chairs while they ate. No one made a fuss. It was normal.
Most eating/drinking places had little tables outside where I enjoyed a glass of wine and a meal in the cool of the evening. (Vincent Van Gogh captured one of these picturesque cafes; it is so very beautiful.)
One evening I finished my simple cafe meal about 9 o’clock, and made my way toward the hotel when I felt- watched. Three twenty-something men I’d passed a bit ago were coming up behind me, making suggestive comments in French, their hands moving, their laughter too intense and high. They’d been drinking, I thought, and picked up my pace. But they did, too. Well, thought I, do the totally unexpected thing....Veering into a feebly lighted close I took out my knife, dropped my right arm into a relaxed, non-threatening position, held my knife behind my back with the other, and waited. They rounded the corner and made straight for me, commenting that the stupid tourist had made a big mistake going in there...
They stopped suddenly fifteen feet away then, noting how still I stood, totally relaxed, maybe armed, but they couldn’t be sure in the semi-darkness. What might that other hand hold? I looked straight at them and made a very small gesture that said-‘come close, and see what happens.’
This behavior stymied them. They gabbled and flung their arms about, deciding how to respond, so I yawned, projecting a trace of impatience and boredom.
(A male friend had advised this approach: Project quiet confidence, and quiet menace. The Polar opposite of what was expected. To attack me was one thing. My casual invitation for them to sample what I had to offer was quite another. Its- peculiarity- made them wary, and very uncomfortable.)
One finally shrugged and said, pseudo-sadly in broken English- “No love?” I didn’t honor that face-saving query with an audible response, but remained relaxed and dead still, keeping eye contact. Laughing (nervously, I thought), they backed away then, to walk unsteadily back down the ancient lane to the bar where I’d seen them first, probably to order another round of drinks and discuss crazy, unpredictable foreign women.
I continued on my way at a reasonable pace, never running.
Only in my room did I breathe again.
This incident was the single time that summer I had to deal with a potential problem.
I left Paris two days later for Amsterdam, having walked a hundred miles through the heart of The City of Lights, drinking in every wonderful thing.
I would return in the early 1970s with my husband, to enjoy its glories again.