By Joan Whicher
It was Paris 1962 and I was visiting my boyfriend who would later become my husband. He was staying at his aunt’s flat in Boulogne sur Seine, while working as an intern at a French insurance company in the centre of Paris. The previous year he’d attended a business studies course in London and it was during that year that we fell in love and decided to marry. We were very young.
This was my second visit to Paris and I’d booked in to a nearby hotel to not only spend time with him, but also to meet his mother who was staying at the flat, visiting her sister. A day or so later the sisters received a phone call to say that their mother was dying in Lebanon and that they should get back immediately. So the sisters packed and departed and I moved into the flat with M.
A couple of his school friends, Joseph and Paul were also in Paris. I had already met Paul the previous year as he was studying at Cambridge University. He was a Syrian from Damascus. Joseph was the son of ‘pieds noirs’ living in Algiers. We all met up and the three of them hit on the notion that it would be fun to hire a car and go exploring in the direction of the South of France. The boys, for that is what they were at this time, hired a Renualt 4CV and the following day we set off for the Cote d’Azur.
We headed out of Paris towards Fontainebleau, the boys shared the driving and the cost of the fuel. We trundled on all day stopping briefly for a baguette sandwich and a lager for lunch, and finally stopped for the night in Vichy well after nightfall, by now tired and hungry and desperate to find a bed for the night. We handed in our passports at the reception desk as was required at the time. The French had no problem with our sharing a room even though we were not married – as clearly demonstrated by our passports.
The second day we picked up the Route Nationale 7 and set off towards Juan les Pins, which was to be our first glimpse of the Mediterranean. It was incredibly exciting and we all rejoiced. The combination of the blue sea, azure sky and the characteristic pine trees leaning inland was a scene straight out of a Cezanne painting. For me though it was different vegetation and scenery from anything I had previously seen. Joseph remarked to M that the landscape was very like Lebanon.
We meandered along the coastal road passing Antibes and then on to Nice stopping at the Negresco Hotel where I confidently walked in to use the facilities. My brother had honeymooned there a decade earlier. We sauntered along the Promenade des Anglais eating ice creams, taking in the atmosphere and breathing in the local smells before getting back into our tiny car to continue our journey to Monaco.
In Monte Carlo we attempted to enter the casino. None of the chaps were wearing ties but the doorman said they could hire some for a small fee. It seemed a pity after all not to visit it since we were here, so they paid up and we all went in. We were not in a position to place any bets as we were now becoming aware of an impending shortage of cash. We had seriously under estimated the cost of the fuel. All our remaining funds, we now realised, would be needed to get back to Paris.
We’d satisfied our desire to look round the casino then got back in the car and headed up to the palace. M and Prince Rainier had a mutual friend, so by making use of this information we decided to call in and see if we could perhaps enjoy some hospitality which would help with our cash flow. The gate keeper informed us that sadly the Prince was currently out of the country, and after telling us to wait for a moment, reappeared with a gift pack for each of us.
There was one last hope of hospitality. The boys knew a priest who had been their philosophy tutor at the Jesuit College of Jamhour in Lebanon where they had all been educated. We called at the Monastery and were invited in and made welcome by this charming man. They all chatted and reminisced but the hospitality only extended as far as wine. Unaccustomed as I was to drinking alcohol I soon felt light headed. All of us were extremely hungry and this had been our last chance of a free meal.
M and I were offered a room for the night and a bowl of soup, but Paul and Joseph had to find somewhere else. They went to a café and made a cup of coffee and one baguette between them last for hours until the café owner, waiting to close, asked them to leave. They explained their predicament and begged to be allowed to spend the night inside the café, Paul even offering his very expensive watch by way of payment. The proprietor took pity on them and allowed them to sleep on the benches where they spent a cold and uncomfortable night.
The next day, with no one daring to spend any money on food, we shared some coffee, stole some sugar lumps for the journey and headed back to Paris in one hit. We had badly miscalculated the cost of fuel but somehow the money and the petrol just lasted.
So it was with a huge feeling of relief that we went back to the comfort of the flat and had our first square meal in three days. After visits to the bank to replenish their cash supplies, and to celebrate our safe return and the success of our adventure, we booked tickets for the four of us to go and see Adamo, a hugely popular singer of the day, at the Olympia Theatre.
This was a trip that none of us surely would ever forget.
Jwieski, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons