Harry’s Ramblings Paris in 1957
by Harry Pope
My mum won £150 on the football pools in 1957, so treated the family to a week’s holiday in Paris. She was so proud when she walked in the Nat West Bank in North Cheam in south London to deposit her cheque, she had already told them beforehand so the manager emerged from his office with a big grin of welcome. It was the only time he did that, normally the family at that time was close to the red line.
I don’t think mum had ever been abroad, the only time dad had gone was twelve years previously when single-handed he had won WW2, or so my immature mind thought in hero worship. We went by train from London, then to Dover Priory where we walked to the ferry. At Calais, we found the train for the four-hour journey to Paris. We stood all the way, I asked dad if Calais was above Boulogne, he was very vague with the answer. The refreshment cart came round, I had my first experience of a Continental cheese and ham roll. We were pretty tired by the time we arrived at the main Gare du Nord railway station, but then we went into the hole in the ground called the Metro. I had previously been on the London underground, but nothing prepared me for the smells, sounds, and sights.
The smell was of garlic. I have smelled this a few times over the years in other places, it always brings me back to 1957 Paris as a ten-year-old. It is so distinctive in such an enclosed area, the air displaced by the train doesn’t completely dissipate for the heightened youthful senses. The sound was also rare. In those days the trains ran on solid rubber wheels/tyres, so noisy, and when the train arrived into a station there was a horrendously loud screeching of brakes. The sights were myriad, but the lasting one for me was the advertising on the walls as you arrived into each Metro station platform. When you were close, it said DU, then closer it said DUBO, then just before emerging from the tunnel the wall said DUBONNET.
We stayed at the Hotel Londres Brexl, my dad and I shared one room with twin beds, my mum and older sister did the same. After a quick snack, we were soon in bed, ready for the first day. We had breakfast in a local café, strange hard rolls with a different tasting marmalade and butter like none I had ever tasted. Different cows, I am sure. Dad had bought a book of Metro tickets, but we had to walk. My sister is three years my senior, there was inevitable friction between us, but the very fact that we were enjoying our first overseas holiday seemed appropriate for a truce. All photos show me as a miserable little sod, no smiles, except for when we were in cafes. It was my first experience of drinking French Coca Cola, they were a different shape bottle, with those funny dimples. The taste was not the same either, probably less sugar in a just free from austerity society. We went to the Eiffel Tower, I couldn’t get my tongue round its name, finding great amusement in called it the Piffle Tower. To this day I sometimes refer to it in this way. We walked up to the first stage, I refused to go further, much to the relief of others. We walked back to our hotel. That second night I had a French omelette with fries, a delight I have appreciated many times over the years, something unique.
Day three and it was off to the zoo. Dad took two photos of sister and me on the back of a camel, being led round by an uninterested attendant with overalls, beret, and obligatory unfiltered cigarette in mouth. The experience was so memorable that I have absolutely no recall of this treat. In the photo sister is smiling, I am not. Day four it was yet more walking, picnic in the park, and a wonderful boat trip. This is something I have repeated half a dozen times since, but that first time is still memorable for no particular reason, it was warm, Spring, just a few days after Easter, we sat on the long wooden slatted bench seats listening to the commentary in French, expecting my sister to immediately translate, as she was in her second year in that particular class. Waste of time, if you ask me. We passed under an interminable number of bridges, then when the trip was ended we walked over them as well. Every one, it seemed. We had a picnic in the park, it was idyllic.
Dinner for me that night was half a chicken (small), plus frites with some mayonnaise. The skin on that chicken was light, it had been cooked in more garlic and butter, it had that everlasting fragrance that can never be repeated. Chanel should place it in a bottle and sell at Christmas. I only used my fingers, licking them clean for ten minutes until my sister became exasperated with the sucking noise I was making.
Day four was the Sacred Coeur. Montmartre was such a magical place, the men with their easels drawing black and white portraits in under five minutes, all the while Galois smoke curling around their right eye, or those fascinating little intricate silhouette postcards for just a few francs. The ladies in their fashionable flowing short skirts, the pavement café. We had walked up the many steps to the top, I didn’t moan because I wasn’t in a whiney mood, I didn’t want to leave, I was enjoying it so much. In 1957 it wasn’t pedestrianised, you had to be aware of a bare-headed scooter rider, or one of those fantastic black Maigret Citroens with the front doors opening in an unnatural way.
Day five started with more optimism, to be immediately destroyed. Uncle Albert, back at home, had inconsiderately decided to die suddenly, so our instant return was expected. How could this be? I was on holiday, he was already dead, so another two days wouldn’t make any difference, surely. Nope, adults decreed we should curtail, so the whole day was spent travelling back. But what memories.
Harry Pope was an Eastbourne hotelier, in partnership with an alleged businessman from California. His book Hotel Secrets is all about this experience, available on Amazon at £3.99 e-version, or £5.99 printed. ‘Don’t buy that hotel’.