Late this summer, Christopher Buckley, the author of "Steaming to Bamboola," and John Tierney, a writer at Science 82 magazine, embarked on a two-month Grand Tour of Europe -- the itinerary consisting of wherever they could find a free room. When we last left them, they were emerging from a heady weekend in the British countryside, their bags full of newly clean laundry, and preparing to invade France.
WE'VE BEEN expecting you," said the gatekeeper as he took our bags, and suddenly all our groveling seemed worthwhile.
We were standing on the Rue Faubourg St. Honore, a block down from the French presidential palace, which we decided was a rather modest imitation of our newfound lodgings: the residence of the United States ambassador to France. The ambassador, Van Galbraith, an old family friend of Buckley's, had been too polite to turn down our plea for a free room in Paris during our Grand Tour. He had also been wise enough to arrange to be absent during our visit. (Had he heard about our diplomatic gaffes in Iceland?) The result was a moocher's dream: an empty, 40-room furnished palace. It would be nice to boast that we were the first to freeload there. But the Nazis beat us to it. They seized the home, which used to be owned by one of the Rothschilds, and turned it into a club for officers -- high-ranking officers, presumably.
The gatekeeper led us into the courtyard, which he said was sometimes used as a tennis court. Then it was up the steps, into the marble entrance hall, past statuary and a 15-foot-high portrait of George Washington, up another 50 steps on a curved staircase we can only describe as sweeping, and down three hallways until the housekeeper announced, "Votre chambre." We were about to ask why we were both being put in one room -- the palace was empty, after all, and we were sure that there were at least two spare bedrooms -- when she opened the door. One look and we told her this would do nicely. Quite nicely indeed.
"Do you suppose they use this as a basketball court?" asked Buckley, standing there and trying to take it all in.
"They're probably too busy playing golf in the back yard," said Tierney as he opened the door to one of the four balaconies overlooking the lawn and garden.
Our room was called the President's Room. The Reagans had stayed there a few months earlier; Henry Kissinger, the housekeeper told us, is fond of the shower with its seven nozzles that shoot water from three walls. The President's Room is about 40 by 25 feet, with 16-foot molded ceilings, double queen-sized beds, a dining table with a bowl filled daily with fresh fruit, two sitting areas, dressing room, and bathroom with two sinks, a make-up table, and bathtub in addition to the shower. Getting to the bathroom in the middle of the night has been likened to the Long March.
For some reason, the dignified splendor of our surroundings promptly brought out the sixth-grader in us. We developed unseemly urges -- like playing indoor frisbee in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, our bedroom turned out to be just a little too small for proper playing. For that we had to go downstairs to the ballroom, which had a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of tapestries covering the walls; or to the state dining room, which was especially suited for nighttime play (a fluorescent Moonlighter frisbee, of course, was de rigeur). The trick was to avoid the gold candelabras on the sideboards and the three 19th-century crystal chandeliers in the center.
We stayed four days in Paris and confined our sightseeing mainly to the garden. We have since learned that there are beautiful attractions in the city -- there's said to be a river with two banks -- but at the time we could see no good reason for leaving our palace. We preferred lounging on the veranda, strolling around the lawn (the path at the perimeter is about a tenth of a mile), and reading about the Lost Generation in Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."
Sitting there in the wood-paneled library and thinking about our own coming of age, which spanned the '60s and '70s, we concluded that ours might be called the Lost and Found Generation.
The visit raised a serious theoretical question about freeloading: Is no host the best host? We missed the Galbraiths and all that hosts can provide -- good company, local lore, new acquaintances, regular meals. Yet with the palace to ourselves, it was at least impossible to offend anyone. At our next stop in France we learned exactly what an advantage this can be.
We joined a house party in Aups, a village in the mountains northwest of Nice, surrounded by vineyards and the spectacular canyon called the Gorge du Verdon. At first glance the situation seemed ideal. The hostess, an elegant American, was wonderfully gracious. There were engaging guests -- a witty political columnist from London, a beautiful newsmagazine writer from New York, some old friends from Washington. Everyone delighted in complaining about the French. The house, built as a convent for the Ursuline nuns in 1639 and seized from them after the French Revolution, had traditional charm and modern plumbing. We told our hostess that we had made time in our busy schedule for a brief 10-day visit.
"Ten days!" she exclaimed. "How wonderful!" But we thought we detected a slight hesitation between the exclamations, and we immediately began suffering symptoms of that deadly occupational hazard, Moocher's Paranonia. During the first stage, the victim merely experiences mild feelings of guilt accompanied by a morbid fear of not being invited back. But if the subject is unable to overcome this conviction that he has overstayed his welcome, the results can be ghastly. He begins analyzing every remark of his host looking for telltale clues, such as when the host stops asking "How long can you stay?" in favor of "When are you leaving?" The fatal blow, of course, is the discovery of a plane schedule on the bedside table. At this point some deranged victims have been known to insist on picking up checks.
In our case there was nothing specific that our hostess did. She was utterly charming and hospitable. But there were vague portents, particularly after the incident with the ducks. Shortly after our arrival in Aups we went to the village's annual fete, which mainly consisted of a traveling carnival. There were bumper cars, skeet ball, and a shabby haunted house designed by someone whose idea of a special effect was switching a lightbulb on and off. The only thing that interested us jaded veterans of King's Dominion was the ring toss booth, where live ducks huddled in terror as people tried to win a bird by throwing a ring around its neck. Fearing the wrath of the ASPCA, we played. (Buckley justified it by a desire to give the animals a respectable home.) We won two and proudly carried them back to the house, stopping along the way to ask an old lady sitting on a stoop what we should feed the birds. At least that's what we thought our hostess was asking. It was only when the old lady responded and we heard the words "pate'" and "a l'orange" that we got worried.
"Did you ask her how to feed them -- or how to feed them to us?" asked Buckley, horrified. "You don't want to kill them, do you?"
"Oh no," said our hostess.
"Well, if you want to eat them . . . it's your decision," said Tierney, also horrified, but not about dead ducks. He was thinking of exiled guests. Freeloading is hard enough without bringing along uninvited companions -- moochers-once-removed as they are known in the trade -- and the ducks were clearly not invited. Worse, they were not toilet-trained. But Buckley insisted on sparing their lives. As our visit wore on, our paranoia increased in direct proportion to the droppings in the courtyard.
Why, for instance, did our hostess so enjoy talking about what a perfect setting the convent, with its dark halls and staircases and eerie shadows in the loggia, would be for a murder? Was it really a lighthearted joke when she donned a sheet in the middle of the night and snuck into Tierney's room carrying a candle? How did the bat get in Buckley's room? Why did our hostess keep offering to help us reconfirm our plane reservations?
We were distracted from these fears, at least momentarily, by a more menacing threat -- a forest fire that began raging around Aups midway through our visit. Roads were blocked, the army was called in and planes flew steadily over the village carrying water from the nearby lake to drop on the fire. At a fire several years earlier, we were told, a pilot had touched down on the water, opened the cargo bay doors to take in water, unknowingly scooped up a snorkeler, flown back to the fire, and dropped the poor fellow into the flames.Why, we wondered, was our hostess taking us every day to swim at that same lake?
It was on the sixth day that we finally snapped. We were having lunch in the shade of the sycamore tree as planes droned overhead, smoke billowed into the courtyard, and black embers the size of silver dollars fell into our pasta salad. It was a tableau out of World War II -- enjoying wine and pate' as the artillery pounded and the invaders approached.
"I wonder if it's time to think about evacuating," said our hostess, glancing at us and sounding almost hopeful.
"You mean leave?" asked Buckley, panic-stricken.
"We don't have to just yet," said one guest. "At least that's what the firemen in the village said this morning. You know, they mentioned that the fire was probably started by an arsonist."
"An arsonist?" gasped Tierney, looking at Buckley in disbelief. Buckley cleared his throat and stared at the hostess.
"I don't think it was necessary to destroy 3,000 acres," he said.
"We can take a hint," said Tierney, rising in a huff. "I'll start packing."
"So soon?" our hostess asked, sweetly.