(originally posted on www.createdbychance.blogspot.com on 11/13/14)
An Afternoon in Paris – Then and Now
by Adam Hall
Paris, 1949. Four years after the end of the world’s most destructive war, which had destroyed large swaths of Europe, my parents chose to celebrate their nuptials by honeymooning there. Most of the details are lost, and perhaps not particularly interesting. But central to this story is the sole surviving photo from their trip. It shows them on a motorcycle, in front of a cafe, on a street corner in Paris. I came into possession of the picture following my father’s passing in 2011. Framed simply, it hangs in the central hallway of my house, above the usual line of sight. For the last two years I have occasionally glanced at it, trying to conjure images of what their trip must have been like. They seldom mentioned it, not out of any reluctance, as they obviously enjoyed the adventure, more from a perception that no one would be interested in the telling.
Los Angeles, 2013. I have recently married Amy, a wonderful woman who enjoys travel, and specifically travel with me. A fortuitous combination of factors led us to plan a honeymoon trip to Paris, from which seed a general plan of travel emerged. As I began the planning, the image of that picture of my parents on the street in Paris took more precedence in my mind and I began to view it as a quest for our trip. My most traveled friend always advised that one should have a quest on any trip, something which guides and provides directions in the absence of any other motivation. Even a honeymoon can benefit from some focus, so I imagined tracking down the location where the photo was taken and recreating it with my wife. We would be visiting our good friend, Wally, while in Paris, and he thought the challenge to be an admirable one.
As you can see in the picture, there isn’t a lot to identify the location. The Rue de L’Université is a rather long street in a city where streets tend to change names at every brasserie. Thanks to the advent of Google Street view it is now possible to take a virtual drive along a street, and so I had hopes of being able to spot the corner from the comfort of home prior to visiting Paris. Unfortunately, that did not pan out. Or more precisely, I could not pan in close enough to match any of the details. Of course, it has been over 60 years since then and not surprisingly the buildings have undergone renovations, redecorating, change of tenants and use, and even entire buildings torn down and rebuilt (although, this being Paris, that is a rare event).
It was looking like the only way of identifying the building would be to walk up and down the street hoping to find someone old enough to remember how the street appeared all those years ago. How far back would that be? Did the cafe survive 10 or 20 years before succumbing to progress? There are many cafes still in business from that time, for example the ones Hemingway wrote about in The Moveable Feast. Would I get lucky and find that this was such a stalwart? At least then the cafe might have old pictures of its history, or an owner with ties to that time period.
There was one remaining link to their trip – their best friend Frank, who I recall them saying was with them at the start in Paris, and who, at 90 years of age, is still going strong and has vivid recollections of their times together (as evidenced by a set of recollections and stories he sent me on the occasion of my father’s recent passing). Whether those recollections are reliable is debatable. Frank’s family was as literate as the Kennedy’s were orate. He also had the demeanor of a top poker player, of which there was already a representative amongst the family. The combination led to some memorable family word games (trust me, it was more interesting than it sounds.) The point being, no matter how firmly and believably Frank might respond to my questions, I had to take his answers with a grain of salt.
Paris, 2013. Upon landing in Paris, I called Frank and asked if he remembered the photo. After some confusion about who was in the picture he quickly described how they had decamped to the Hotel de L’Université, using it as a base for trips around Europe that continued through the end of the year. He recollected the address as being number 5 or 6, and the intersection was Rue des Saints Pères. The cafe, he thought, was the hotel cafe and called the Bonaparte. This was all promising information, and informed by that intelligence I set off with Amy to see what we could find. We made arrangements to meet up with Wally in that general area later in the afternoon.
Amy and I arrived at the Rue de L’Université by Metro and began walking towards the location we had identified. Eventually we came to the 10s and found ourselves in front of the Hotel de L’Université. My spirits lifted as a major piece fit the puzzle. But there was no cafe fronting the hotel, nor did it look like there had ever been a place for one. More importantly, it was not on a corner, so unless a street had been closed off Frank’s data was a bit off. And in Paris, changing a street like that would be unheard of.
We continued on down the rue, looking for the next corner. The hotel ended and we started to pass other buildings. This meant that the cafe couldn’t be in the hotel. Further down the street, number 6 was just a store in the middle of the block. But then, coming to the intersection with Rue des Saints Pères, I found two cafes on opposite corners on the north side of the street, matching the shadows on the picture showing that the café was south-facing. On the near side was the Galette Café. On the opposite side across Rue des Saints Pères was the Comptoir des Saints Pères bar brasserie. To confuse things, a sign on the outside of the Comptoir touted their “cafe a la tasse” and “chocolat chaud”, similar to what was on the window in the original picture. But everything was different from the photo. Then, looking above the Galette Cafe, I spotted the window and filigreed iron railing on the second floor, and a smile lit across my face as I realized that I had found the same building. Amy and I excitedly looked back and forth between the photo and the building, and confirmed that it had the right features.
We crossed the street to the cafe, but it was closed until lunch time. With an hour to wait before it opened, and also for Wally to arrive, we adjourned to the bar on the other corner to do what Parisians love to do anyway – enjoy an espresso and watch the world go by. I showed the picture to one of the older waiters. He said that had indeed been the cafe across the street many years ago. I had my confirmation! After a bit Wally arrived. We shared our success with him, and all sat down to await the opening of Galette.
Shortly after noon, the blinds went up and Galette Café was open for business. We walked over, sat down, and showed the waitress our picture. She and her husband were the owners (he was from Brittany, hence the specialty of galettes – buckwheat flour crêpes – in the name and on the menu) and we all traded mutual travel stories for a few minutes, including me telling about my parents’ trip 64 years ago. They had opened the restaurant about a year ago, and the previous place had been there for 30 years, which still did not go back to the original from the picture. But we knew we had the right place. We then sat down to a delicious lunch of galettes, and planned our next steps.
Paris has a system of bicycle rentals on streets throughout the city, and we decided to rent one of them to recreate the picture ourselves. Put our own spin on it, as it were. We found a nearby bank of bikes and took one back to the cafe, which by this time was half-bathed in bright sunlight coming down the street. We needed to wait for about 30 minutes until the sun passed behind the street’s buildings, so we settled into the Comptoir bar across the street again for another libation. It was a very European thing to do anyway.
Presently, the sun went behind a building and we were clear to take the re-creation photo. We took our places with Wally assuming Frank’s role across the street as photographer. I tried imagining what those three experienced on that day more than 60 years ago. Of course theirs was a spur-of-the-moment photo. Between getting the pose right, lighting, and constant foot and vehicle traffic, it took us about 20 minutes to get the shot. I felt very uncomfortable with people staring at me so I guess I could never have a career as a model/actor. Amy and Wally (both actors) on the other hand, enjoyed the hell out of it.