In Paris they were preparing to elect a new president. And getting ready for the VE Day celebration, recalling just 50 years ago this week the Third Reich fell apart and Hitler was shooting himself and a European war was coming to a triumphant end.
In England there's rarely been such an April for weather and in London they were memorializing all the gallant Brits, soldiers and civilians both, who half a century ago sang a promise to "Hang our washing on the Siegfried Line," and then, by God! went out and did it.
After six years of war the good guys had won.
And at sea aboard QE2 in curious juxtaposition, they were entertaining German passengers with good beer and flags and beer hall banners while, on the stateroom televisions, ran a documentary hosted by Vera Lynn about the Blitz and ".... doing the Lambeth Walk" and people sleeping in the Underground, while the Luftwaffe tried to burn down London. And failed.
After 14 years of Francois Mitterrand, dramatically and gallantly dying of prostate cancer, they were choosing a new president. On the front page of Le Figaro there was a touching photo of Mitterrand out strolling in the warm Paris sunshine, a camel's hair coat and scarf bundling him against a chill, accompanied by his doctor and a blue-jeaned young plainclothes bodyguard with an Uzi not very subtly concealed in his windbreaker.
In the first round of voting (April 23), the Gaullist Chirac was a close second, but a clear favorite in the second round, due to be held Sunday, May 7. And, as a sort of overture, the labor unions were staging a rolling series of strikes. My cab driver from Charles de Gaulle Airport said unemployment was the big concern of the electorate. But then again, he noted, the trees were in bloom, the weather was splendid, and the mini jupe (miniskirt) was back. I agreed with him on that, noting that whether they do or not, with these new clunk high-heeled, high-soled shoes of theirs, young Frenchwomen seem to possess the longest legs anywhere.
I dropped my bags at the Plaza Athenee Hotel, one of the great inns, and set off afoot to the Louvre. Which, it being Tuesday, was closed. So I contented myself with watching little boys sail boats in the circular pond in the Tuileries Gardens. Two hundred years ago it was here they were cutting off people's heads and now beautiful young women lazed in the sun working on the season's first tan.
There were lots of cops around the Elysees Palace and the Place Vendome. So I bought a straw hat for young Sarah (age nine months) and paused at Au Nain Bleu, the great toy store, to enjoy three frisky rabbits hopping about a little fenced-off space on the selling floor.
After these little chores I took up my position at the usual command post, Bar des Teatres on Avenue Montaigne, halfway between Dior and Ungaro and where Ungaro and Anouk Aimee used to take me for lunch. The French doors were thrown open to the sun and so I agreed to enjoy a beer. Three actresses, not great beauties but with good theater faces, were sitting at a window table going over their copies of a script with a director-type and a sort of Gallic Rex Reed, who might have played the juvenile.
There were some aging beauties and some young kids, everyone smoking cigarettes, and then a gypsy came in attempting to foist some sort of magazine on people, and they chased her, lest she glom an errant purse on her rounds.
Then a very soignee blond in her thirties came in pushing a baby stroller and zoomed right through the bar to the ladies room to change the diaper of a beautiful child. That chore accomplished, she whisked out again, not having spent a sou, being bowed-out all the way by waiters.
I know sometimes people overstate French charm. But not often.
As darkness fell I moved from the bar to a table to enjoy a steak and pommes frites while a couple of elderly regulars greeted a corpulent waiter with a handlebar mustache as "monsieur le President." And, I must admit, he could have been the reincarnation of "Tiger" Clemenceau! The sugar cubes at des Teatres, I noted with pleasure, are wrapped in paper commemorating D-Day. And my steak was so good I ordered several varieties of cheese to top it off.
In the morning I had coffee and croissant at the Plaza Athenee, no juice, at a price of 30 bucks. If you visit Paris this summer, bring d'argent. Off then to visit Ungaro who was about to leave for China. After that I enjoyed a fistfight at the Place de l'Alma between a cabbie and a delivery truck driver. Neither man landed a damaging blow. A street-cleaning truck came by announcing on its sign, "Your street retrieves its smile," which I thought rather nice. At one of the most classic of Paris museums, the Palais Galliera, they were having a retrospective of the blue jean. Old gentlemen strolled along talking vigorously to themselves while old ladies, as they strolled, addressed their small dogs. And, due to the latter, everywhere on the Paris sidewalks one encounters, as we put it delicately, ca-ca.
I took drinks with Charles Mitchelmore of the International Herald Tribune and was given a superb lunch at his Left Bank home by Pierre Berge, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent and for six years head of the Paris Opera, and had other fine adventures including a brisk walk along the Seine enjoying the usual barges and other craft tied up along the Right Bank, houseboats, Chinese junks, and demi-yachts, one of which was piled high with plywood a chap was sawing and hammering at with enormous energy, apparently rebuilding his boat right there at the quai. The river was moderately high, swift and muddy, and it was nice to watch the Bateaux Mouches slide past under the bridges and the other line of tour boats, the Vedettes de Pont Neuf, where you can sit out in the sun on the fantail and eat potato salad and neck.
In the morning, in love all over again with Paris, I rose at four (to beat a 24-hour strike deadline) and took a cab to Charles de Gaulle for a flight to England.
More on that next week.