04 November 2004
My stomach was taut with anticipation. We’d crossed the border and were in enemy territory now. Hurtling through the darkness, we burst into the daylight and made haste across the countryside toward the ancient capital. The rumbling juggernaut knew but one direction—forward. There was no turning back. We would not stop until we’d plunged into the very heart of this hostile, foreign land.
As soon as we came to a halt, the doors of our vehicle burst open and those around me put on the burden of their gear and quick-timed it outside. We all moved with a purpose across an urban terrain populated by locals who spoke an alien tongue.
Through wireless communiqués, I’d been instructed to meet my handler at a link-up point due south of my position. The route would take me over the city’s fabled river, but I would not have time to pause and consider its beauty. I had to make my rendezvous on time.
We were to meet in front of a statue that was very martial in nature. People in these parts are fond of such monuments. This one had a triumphant muscular figure bearing a sword stepping on the head of a defeated enemy. The bloodlust of the tribes in this land is legendary.
Slightly perspiring, slightly out of breath, I made my objective on time. I removed and secured my pack and waited for my contact to arrive. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Thirty. Still no one. Had my contact been intercepted? Was I being set up? The hostility of the indigenous population had been made clear to me several times by my senior commanders.
I tried to keep a low profile, attempting, as best I could to blend in. My attire was intentionally local, though my fair skin and light eyes were somewhat out of place.
“Come on,” I thought. “Where are you, dammit?!”
From behind me I heard the accelerating clip-clop of shoe heels on the pavement. I turned to see my counterpart came into view. “Bonjour Jim!” she said with a beaming smile as she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Welcome to Paris!”
France, a pillar of “Old Europe,” was the final stop on my brief respite from the Middle East. As in England, I’d be spending time with friends from a previous chapter of my life. While I was working in New York, I socialized with a group of young French expatriates who were living in the City. They were a fun bunch. We’d meet up every Thursday night for drinks and good times. (These parties were not purely Francophonic in nature. There were folks from all over Europe, plus plenty of North and South Americans, and even a few Asians thrown in for good measure.) We knew each other for some two years, before moving away from New York and on to other adventures.
It was Annabelle who met me in Place St. Michel. She was always my favorite. A pretty girl, she is lean and possessing of a perfect complexion. Her eyes are dark and bright, her hair soft, and she always smells nice. (Having lived for some time now in the Middle East, this is one thing I’ve come to really appreciate.) Annabelle is a kind, smart, shy girl, who feels uneasy and self-conscious around strangers, but is animated and delightful among her circle of friends. Indeed her pent-up emotion bursts forth on those she trusts, as witnessed by the big hug I got when we were reunited in the public square. Because she is selective with whom she shares her self, those of us who do make her smile feel very special indeed. Back in New York, a hug from Annabelle made me feel great for days.
It still did. But there was no time for excessive embracing. My days in Paris were few and the people to see were many. There were parties every night at places like the Next Bar on Rue Tiquetonne, The Coolin (pronounced “Cooleen”) on Rue Clement, and Café Latin on Rue St. Andre des Arts. All of these are in the colorful and vibrant 6th Arrondissement. (This neighborhood resembles somewhat the West Village in New York. The sounds are those of jazz, laughter, and clinking glasses. The smells are of perfume, cigarette smoke, and the bouquet of red wine. The sights are of flirting couples, clusters of inebriated youth, and old people dining alone.) I was reunited with Olivier, Sara, Candace, Caroline, Julien, Stephanie, Martin, Vincent and whole host of other chums with wonderfully nasally French names. They drank Italian wine and Dutch beer while smoking American cigarettes; Lucky Strikes were the favorite of the group. Some were heavier than I remembered, some thinner. Some were married now, some divorced. Caroline was six months pregnant, but still as beautiful as her days as a single girl in New York. No alcohol or cigarettes for her. Strictly orange juice and…well, maybe just one cigarette.
It was, as a previous American visitor to this city described it, “a moveable feast.” The feast lasted for days and roamed from restaurant to restaurant, apartment to apartment, all over the city. We laughed and sang, told old jokes and came up with new ones.
Not surprisingly, all of my friends wanted to know about Iraq. They were very polite and respectful in their questioning. One of these conversations took place in a metro station. A passing, boorish drunk heard me speaking English and started shouting “Le-Bush-shay! Le-Bush-shay!”—a play on the French “Le Boucher” meaning “The Butcher.” This was the only anti-Americanism I encountered on my whole trip, and my huddle of friends were quick to stamp it out, telling the bum in words Teresa Heinz would appreciate where he could go and what he could do when he got there.
One night, Julien threw a dinner for me in his smart 4th floor flat on Boulevard de Sebastopol. This is smack dab in the magnificent center of Paris in the 1st Arrondissement. Once again, the gang was all there. To make me feel at home, my old friend served up cold beer, cheeseburgers, and “Voila!” he said as he pulled the hot tray from the oven, “Freedom Fries!” That got a laugh from everyone. We spent the rest of the night listening to American and British pop hits from the 80s that Julien had downloaded onto his computer.
The next night, we headed to another friend’s house off of Place de Trocadero, in the 16th Arrondissement in the western part of the city. Along the way we passed a statue of Benjamin Franklin. You may recall that he was our man in France during the revolutionary war, securing from them the support we needed to defeat the British. (Incidentally, near Annabelle’s home is a monument whose centerpiece is an American M4A2 Sherman Tank nicknamed “Georgette.” Indeed, the friendship between our two countries goes back a long way.)
Near the Trocadero is the Palais de Chaillot, through whose courtyard the Eiffel Tower is visible in full. Just as we spied it, the whole structure burst into a thousand flashing lights, bringing forth many happy gasps from the nearby picture-snapping tourist crowd. “It may sound silly,” Annabelle said self-consciously, “but when I look at the Eiffel Tower it always makes me feel proud to be a Parisienne.”
She should be.