First posted: December 17, 2013
Forty nine years ago this week in December, 1964, I drove to Paris in my Austin Mini to visit a girlfriend. This being the start of the swinging 60s, I obviously stopped off in London for a Friday night party at the house in Swiss Cottage which my cousin Maureen shared with four other girls. Maureen had a rock singer as a boy friend.
The party was long, loud and a little on the wild side. I woke up in a strange bed in a strange house with a rather attractive young lady. We had walked to this basement flat in the early hours and in the cold, damp, pre-dawn morn, I hadn't a clue how to get back to Maureen's where my car was parked. And I had a ferry to catch from Dover.
I ran up and down umpteen streets until I recognised a landmark and eventually found the car. Fortunately the early morning traffic through London wasn't too bad although the weather was miserable. I hurtled down the A2 (before motorways) to Dover, a place I had not been before, and followed the signs for the docks. I thought I was bound to have missed the crossing. But there was the boat with the last cars driving aboard. I joined the end of the queue and was the final vehicle on board. Phew. A close run thing.
The ferry was sparsely populated and I took a seat at the bar and bought a beer.
'What time do we arrive in Calais?' I said.
'We don't,' said the barman. 'We're going to Ostend. We dock in about three hours.'
That was just the start of a nightmare journey. We docked at dusk and I attempted to map read myself to Brussels with the intention of turning right for the French border. The road signs confused me and after a couple of hours I ended up back in Ostend.
Merde, as they say in France. Shit, as they say here.
I arrived in the suburbs of Paris knackered. A Mini is not the greatest form of transport for long distances. I knew the area I needed to get to; I had visited it before. The apartment was in Rue Cail in the 18th Arrondisement. It was at the bottom of the Boulevard de la Chapelle. Not a very fashionable area of town but it was walking distance to Montmartre and la Chapelle led to Pigalle.
But I was tired and fed up and, within striking distance of my destination, ended up on the Peripherique ring road going the wrong way. I got off and tried again and when I saw I was repeating my mistake, I foolishly attempted to do a U turn. Right in front of a police van.
The gendarmes at that time were not noted for their patience and good humour. The trouble in Algeria was going on and even the ones on duty at the bottom of the Champs Elysees toting submachineguns stood behind sandbags. So these chaps were wary and angry.
When they discovered I wasn't a terrorist but a 22-year-old stupid Englishman they shouted at me. 'Idiot!' they said, but with a French accent, and I was inclined to agree with them.
They let me go without the use of rubber truncheons and I made it to my destination after midnight, avoided the concierge, and was finally united with my girlfriend in a top floor one room flat that was both a garret and a haven.
I spent a week there. My girlfriend worked in a bank in the Place Vendome. I drove there only once; I had forgotten how bad Paris traffic was and I still judge it to be the most challenging city in the world in which to drive.
We met for lunch every day and I discovered never to argue with a Parisian waiter when he rejected my 10% tip and insisted it should be 15%. No one wins an argument with a Parisian waiter.
I spent the rest of the time walking around Paris until it was time to meet my girlfriend from work, discovering the place on foot. The weather was cold but dry and I rarely used the Metro. There was a lot to discover and I soon came to love the place. The smells, the sounds, the shops, the markets, the people, the vibrancy. It has élan, class and style and it remains my favourite city in the world.
The return journey back to England went a lot more smoothly. My girlfriend came with me in the car to Calais; when I took the ferry, she took the train back to Paris. It was a smooth, and much shorter crossing, going back to Dover. But in England, the weather changed and a pea soup fog descended. It was so bad, many drivers stayed off the roads which was just as well.
I was young, impatient, and certain of my immortality: I drove far too fast, especially along the M1, and it was a miracle I made it home to Blackpool and another 50 years of life.