The first time I went to Paris with an actual job I was 22 years of age. I was still a student at Oxford. My vacations were long and I had the time to work and to earn money. I’d been recruited by an American travel company to work as a tour guide and to accompany groups of high school kids and their teachers round the cathedrals, castles, museums and historic towns of France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.
The company I worked for was called Cultural Studies International, based in Sacramento, California. They specialised in educational tours to Europe for American high school kids and their teachers. The deal was that if a teacher recruited 8 students, then they got to go free. Many teachers used the tours as a way to fund their annual trip to France, Italy or Spain. Some teachers were brilliant at recruiting the kids, using their classroom charisma to convince the students (and their parents) that a trip to Europe, led by Mr Johnson was an essential component of Janey or Mike’s high school education. Mr Johnson, call me Jim, was such a teacher, a veteran of more than a dozen European tours with his loyal students. This man almost certainly knew more about the history of France than I did at the time. He taught History, US Politics and coached the Basketball Team. The kids loved him. I didn’t love him but I liked him and I liked his wife Annette too. Jim and Annette between them had a party of 28 kids. They also had Jim’s brother Carl as a third adult chaperone. Then of course there was me, tour guide, co-ordinator and general ‘facilitator’.
My first assignment in that hot summer of 1983 was ‘The Grand Tour of Europe’ a 35-day extravaganza painstakingly planned by an office-based employee with no clue about the realities of being ‘on the road’ with a group of moaning students in tow. The itinerary had a unique capability to tax and stress the most patient of souls. Little did I know when I accepted this amazing piece of work that the more informed guides declined any tour longer than 10 days in length. They knew from bitter experience that longer tours caused arguments, divisions amongst teachers and squabbling among the students. They also knew that the ‘all important tips’ did not rise proportionally with the length of the tour. So I found myself, with just two seasons of touring experience, being assigned the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’. In blissful ignorance I couldn’t believe my luck.
We’d careered through the Kent countryside to the spectacular Canterbury Cathedral for a short visit. A speedy visit included the amazing stained glass windows, magnificent Gothic architecture and a nod to the place in the cathedral where the great martyr Sir Thomas a Becket, leader of the Church in England in the 12th century was murdered by the henchmen of King Henry II. It was here that he left this mortal coil for good. Then it was back on the coach loaded with ice creams, postcards and cheap souvenirs from the city’s numerous gift shops. From here it was less than an hour’s run to Dover and the ferry that would take us, the coach and its occupants across the English Channel to France. I loved seeing the white cliffs of Dover and hiding on the upper deck next to the cafeteria – where I usually treated myself to a massive plate of fish and chips. Sometimes I did a little sketch map of the route we were following:
From Calais a long boring drive through the fairly flat and featureless plains of Pas-de-Calais and Picardy was broken by a glimpse of the occasional military cemetery and the valley of the River Somme. Here I’d regale my passengers with tales of the Poppy Fields, the horrors of trench warfare and how ‘The Great War’ 1914-18 changed the social order in Britain for good. Every family lost a father, son, brother, nephew in those terrible days of the First World War. As night fell we’d be driving into the northern suburbs of Paris and heading south towards Place de Clichy and our destination, a small hotel in the 9th arrondissement of this romantic and elegant city.
I remember the Hotel Cite Rougemont distinctly, a modest 7 storey building set back from the main road, through an archway. On the ground floor there was a reception desk, a couple of faded arm chairs and a tiny telephone ‘cabine’, for making calls, essential in the pre-mobile phone era. There was a breakfast room in the basement. The hotel had a lift that ran to the fourth floor. For higher floors you had to get out and walk. I loved my tiny room in the attic, with it’s window overlooking the roof-line of Paris. I imagined myself as a penniless author, rather than a penniless student, just days away from the acceptance of my first novel by a reputable French publishing house. My reflections were brought to a brutal halt with a loud knocking on my door. ‘Janet, Mr Johnson wants to know where we are having dinner and when are we leaving?’ A freckle-faced 15 year old boy asked me, in a slightly embarrassed manner. His name was Todd and I’d already got to like him. Whenever I spoke on the bus he listened attentively and always asked intelligent questions. Home for Todd was Sunnyvale, California. Like most of the kids this was his first trip to Europe. I told Todd that we’d meet in the lobby of the hotel at 7.30 pm ready for the short walk to the restaurant. I’d already done a sweat-inducing trot to ‘Chartier’ that evening’s dining destination, whilst the students and staff unpacked and freshened up after the long journey.
It was time for dinner and we trooped down the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre to the traditional and typical Parisian brasserie ‘Chartier’. I loved this place, it was all steak and chips, chicken and chips, veal escalope and chips. You get the picture. We divided the group into six or eight students to a table and seated them in the back corner of the restaurant. The building used to be a library and the index cards and reference catalogues still lined the walls on the upper levels. Jim and Annette, Carl and I took our places at a table for four – next to the library shelving and slightly apart from the kids. The service was always super quick at Chartier, within moments we had food in front of us, wine in our glasses, baguette on the table. I was just about to take a large mouthful of steak when I noticed a very small, and rather cute, little mouse, making its way carefully and silently along the top of the wooden cabinet originally used for housing the card index of the library. The mouse was moving steadily away from me. I tried not to stare. Jim and Annette were chatting to each other and keeping a close eye on the kids. To my horror I realised that Carl had seen it – I had no idea what his reaction would be……He turned to me with a big grin, winked in a conspiratorial fashion and continued his dinner. I smiled and nodded back. Understood, I’d got it – it was our secret and that was how it would stay.
The neigbourhood around our hotel in the 9th arrondissement has always been a mixture of French, Algerian, Lebanese and Syrian restaurants, shops and garment stores. Round the corner is the famous Folies Bergere Theatre and just up the road is the Moulin Rouge. Here German officers queued, during the Second World War for a glimpse of those fabulously costumed dancing girls and their incredible rendition of the ‘can can’. I love this ‘quartier’ I love the atmosphere, vibrancy, joie de vivre……
Later that same evening I was taking a small group of students up to Montmartre, to enjoy the view of Paris from the Sacre Coeur. There were about eight of us. As we got off the metro some gypsy kids appeared and started begging aggressively and demanding money. We walked on ignoring them. One of them in a fit of pique grabbed the wallet of one of the kids and ran off. I was so furious and felt so protective towards the students that I ran after the culprit, grabbing him and seizing the wallet back. I got a round of applause from my kids. But to be honest, thinking back, I don’t really know what came over me. It was just an instinctive reaction. In fact it probably wasn’t really a very sensible thing to do.
I’m writing this now, decades later. My daughter Lucy is in Paris for her ‘year abroad’and consequently I’ve spent quite a bit of time in ‘the city of light’ over the last couple of months. We revisited the 9th arrondissement and Hotel Cite Rougement (see photo above). The hotel is still there, it looks just the same. I loved it here in 1983 and I love it still in 2016. In many ways it really hasn’t changed. Except the ‘quartier’ is deemed branche (trendy) these days……….For me it was like stepping back in time, I could hear the voices of the students from my group, I was sure I glimpsed one of the teachers seconds before he disappeared around a corner in the lobby. I loved those tour guiding days, they were exhausting, exciting, nerve-wracking and sometimes filled with drama. They were certainly never boring!
There’s a couple of student groups that I remember with particular affection. There was the wonderful gang from Sunnyvale, California. There was The London to the Greek Islands Tour – where numerous adventures were enjoyed. There were the fashion ladies – who were mature students from Chicago and really just wanted to shop their way around France and Italy. It just goes on and on……………….a big thank you to all of them for providing such unique and exceptional memories!
- For a fun night in Paris why not read: Paris – Kein Cross and Club Raye
- Reflections on Paris: Paris – City of Light
- Does anything here strike a chord with you? Drop me a line – tell me.
- You might like Sicily – A day in the south-east corner of the island
- Thank you for reading!
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