We were going to France for spring break! I was a junior in high school and my sister Paula was a senior. At the time, French was the most popular foreign language class in our school. The organizer was Madame Brody, chair of the language department. Born in France, she retained a slight accent, and with her hawkish features and demeanor, she made a formidable leader for a field trip. Paula and I got our first passport photos and went to the Passport Office to submit our applications in person, apprehensive and excited.
I started working after school and on Saturdays as a checker at the local A&P grocery store. Most shifts were humdrum and I rang up and packed groceries, drank gallons of diet soda, got sore feet, and smoke blown in my face. Occasionally, stockboys with beer breath would bring out treats that had “broken open,” I managed to earn my share of the cost (Paula says it was $440. My job paid $1.80/hr).
The trip was to last beyond spring break because it was educational, almost two weeks in all, and the itinerary would take us to Paris, Normandy, and along the Loire. A lot of my compatriots from French class were going. We packed enormous suitcases that had no wheels.
We started in Paris, cruising on a bateau mouche, drifting under bridges that cast a deep gray shadow over the water, past kiosks of booksellers along the Seine. The Louvre, Chartres, and Honfleur followed, one quick tourist stop after another, until Mont Saint Michel, one of my favorite places in the world.
Walking up the curving main street of Mont Saint Michel on a very warm day, with our jackets around our waists, we goggled at the ancient buildings and bought more postcards. The cobbled street corkscrewed upward, with views out over the blue water of the bay on one side and fields on the other. The bay extends for miles, so shallow that people walk out farther than you can imagine.
Landward are fields and forests running into the distance, connected to the monastery by a narrow spit of land now topped by a bit of road. There is a museum at the top, where we looked at fragments fallen from the battlements, read about the building’s construction, and admired relics of the monastery’s more active days. Even in 1968, Mont Saint Michel was more a tourist destination than a pilgrimage site. We sat at sunny café tables, learning to be adults by buying our own drinks, discovering orangina, l’eau minerale, and biere. No one was ready to return to the bus.
We had a serious moment at the Normandy Beaches, but for us another challenge was to follow. Madame Brody was determined to have us all eat real French food and arranged lunch for us at the Lion D’Or, a famous auberge (restaurant) in Normandy. We assembled at long white covered tables, huge napkins unfolded across our laps.
Our first course was a single large Belon oyster. This was a rare treat, especially for visitors young as we were, and it was a disaster, pure and simple. It was just one oyster, but it looked long, gray, wet, and rubbery. Most of our group took one look and didn’t even lift a fork. Kids sitting to either side of me had never even seen an oyster. At least I knew what an oyster was, but I was accustomed to oyster stew, where little gray cooked blobs floated in milky soup, or smoked oysters the size of a nickel, perched on a Triscuit, not this raw monster seasoned with only a dab of lemon. I’m pretty sure the only people to eat them were the head table of chaperones and a few students from the advanced classes, my sister Paula, and her friend Jenny. Madame was mortified after arranging for such a delicacy and being unable to get most of us to eat it. That was one step toward the eventual state of anarchy that overtook us.
Our hotel in Rouen was the next step. I am sure that Madame was not aware that part of the hotel had been destroyed in a fire and awaited rebuilding, as most of the hotel was open and functioning. A group of us were looking around and found doors that led to the ruined area. We gawked at the collapsed timbers and leaned out over the burned remains that we could see just beyond, filling our imaginations with what we’d heard that day about Joan of Arc, patroness of the city where she was burned at the stake. Sure, we’d been to the gorgeous chateau of Chenonceau that day, but sooty ruins were much cooler.
Back in Paris, we were housed in two hotels on the Left Bank, the base for our last four days in Paris. These were small family-run hotels, and our rooms were basic, with as many beds as possible in each. None of us minded the lack of an elevator, or the limited décor. We were in Paris.
We didn’t know that trouble was brewing throughout France until the street near our hotel was blocked off. We had no experience with protest and didn’t know the issues, but we were fascinated, and went to the end of the street to peep at the demonstrators. The far end of the block was filled with protesting university students masked with bandannas, shouting, and pulling up paving stones and trash to form barricades. Our visit was in April 1968, and for seven weeks starting just a week or two later in early May, France was the scene of constant rioting concentrated around the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, very near our hotels. We were watching the early days of a protest that paralyzed much of the French economy, left a great deal of our Left Bank neighborhood in ruins, and led to a national general strike. It almost unseated DeGaulle as president of France.
Madame wanted us all to stay in and away from possible violence, waiting out our stay until the day we left for the airport. It was springtime in Paris, and we were not going to miss out. In what I recall as something between an announcement and a shouting match, she threw up her hands and said that she was done with us, and would expect us all to be ready to leave at the appointed time a couple of days hence but in the meantime we were on our own.
Delighted pandemonium ensued. No mandatory field trips, no curfew, no chaperones. We were wild to get out and see Paris. The group divided into clusters; mine rode up the Eiffel Tower, saw the Arc de Triomphe, visited the the canary and flower sellers along the Seine. We ate croissants and drank café au lait, bought baguettes, cheese, and bottles of wine for lunch, and walked around the neighborhood late into the evenings. April in Paris is always beautiful. We were surrounded by flowering trees, green parks, and blue skies. The air in the Jardin du Luxembourg smelled delicious. We took the Metro to Sacre Coeur and looked out across the city. We criss-crossed the Left Bank, then walked across the bridge to Ile Saint Louis, taking another lap around Notre Dame. We always returned to our hotel via a route that avoided demonstrations and possible tear gas, not thinking a thing about it.
At the appointed moment, we thumped our suitcases down the flights of stairs, crushed our hand luggage climbing into the bus, and departed for the airport. No one had been tear-gassed, no one was injured, we were all exhausted and elated. We had been to Paris on our own.
It was the Best. Trip. Ever.