I hadn't been to France in several years, and was concerned by the reports drifting in. "France has really spruced itself up in the past few years," a friend assured me. "The phones work. The postal system works. The trains run on time. You won't recognize the place."
These words were like a dagger through my heart. No, I did not expect to get dysentery from the stagnant water in the communal bathroom in the cheap hotel room beneath whose windows a man in a beret with a tiny dog played Edith Piaf songs on his accordion as I sat eating croissants, smoking Gaulloises and reading "The Stranger." But when I heard all this modernization stuff I felt a longing for the France I had known and loved as a student. Would that France, the one that had existed as recently as my last trip in 1986, have vanished?
The early signs were not good. My connecting flight from Paris to Toulouse was not delayed four hours by a wildcat strike. The exchange in the Paris airport did not charge 9.8 percent to cash my travelers checks. There were no mongrels foraging in the first restaurant I ate in. And when I tried making a call from a public phone, I got straight through to my party. Terrifying.
The next few days, my pathetic attempts to ferret out the France of my youth were cruelly rebuffed. At a village festival in the Midi, the "traditional" music was supplied by a French heavy-metal band that not only wore inverted crucifixes and had naughty words sculpted into their scalps, but could even create MTV effects with a smoke machine. At a wedding party near Revel, people were drinking wine coolers! True, some were smoking Gaulloises -- but they were Gaulloises lights.
By the fifth day of my trip, I had fallen into despair at the sight of this super-efficient culture. Then, when all seemed lost, a glimmer of hope. On a trip from Castelnaudary to St-Raphael, I was charged 28 francs to reserve seats for myself and my 6-year-old daughter. When we got on the train, our seats were already taken, and when we tried to get the trespassers removed, the conductor sneered that the French train system didn't book reservations on short junkets (the trip took six hours). And he wouldn't give me a refund.
In the coming days, La France de l'antan would reassert itself with a vengeance. During a mild electrical storm near Carcassonne, all the lights went dead. During a mild electrical storm near St-Tropez, all the phones went dead. During a second mild electrical storm near Carcassonne, all the lights and phones went dead. One day I read in the paper that some people in Languedoc had complained to the French electrical company that their water faucets were giving off shocks. So the EDF boys came around, did a little repair work, and the next two people to take a shower were electrocuted.
But it was in ordinary conversation that the France I had always loved truly reaffirmed itself. How was Angela Davis these days, a copain asked? And Carlos Santana, inquired a mec: still "cool"? Had Frank Zappa finally received the critical acclaim he was due, a mon vieux wished to know. And Chester Himes -- was he not the equal of Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Brautigan? And this John Fante, author of "Wait Until Spring, Bandini" -- was he not a ve'ritable e'crivan comme il faut?
"Wait Until Spring, Bandini"?
The next few days brought even more joyous proof that France would never die. I spent three days in bed clutching my stomach after a dinner of gaspacho with garlic, langoustines in garlic with garlic croutons, and smoked salmon in aioli -- a heavy garlic sauce. In a restaurant in Frejus, a German shepherd stole three french fries off my plate. In a restaurant in Amiens, a man upbraided the woman sitting next to me because she wouldn't let his dog lick her plate. In a swimming pool not far from St-Tropez, a man upbraided me for upbraiding him about flicking his cigarette ashes into the water. What was I, a Green, alors?
No, the France of my youth would never fade away. The bill for the toy car I rented for a month came to $1,250, no extra charge for the cassette deck I had to operate by sticking a ball point pen inside the hole where the "eject" button should have been. The leftist newspaper Liberation devoted three full pages to a story about the restoration of Sam Peckinpaugh's original edit of "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." And Chester Himes, John Fante and Richard Brautigan books were everywhere.
"Wait Until Spring, Bandini"?
As I sit here writing, I am still recovering from a mysterious gastrointestinal disorder contracted during my trip. When my doctor asked what might have caused it, I said, "Gee, Doc, it could have been the french fries at the Gare du Nord, could have been a parasite in that couscous in Albi, or it could have been something in those last 16 souffle's I ate in Picardy. But that doesn't mean I'm entirely ruling out the rancid croque monsieur I ate in the Eiffel Tower snack bar."
I had gone to France expecting the worst, but returned with a peaceful, easy feeling that the France of Henry Miller and Anais Nin and Ernest Hemingway would never, ever die, no matter how many minitels they install, no matter how many chunnels they build. Because France abides in the feisty soul of the French people -- a people typified by the garc on who served me a croissant and a cafe' cre`me in a thriving cafe near the Hotel des Invalides the day before I left. "How much do I owe you?" I asked. "Thirteen francs," he said. The croissant was so fresh, the coffee so tasty, the ambience so charming that I ordered another.
"Fabulous croissants, fantastic coffee," I beamed at the barman. "How much do I owe you?"
"Fourteen francs," he replied.
It was great to be back. Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, N.Y.