WHERE DINNER BEGINS AT NOON!

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I'd not been to Paris for nearly two years. Not since the Yves Saint Laurent fete of early '92. Yet little had changed.

My rooftop rooms at the Hotel San Regis gave a view to the right over the chimney tops to both the Tour Eiffel and the glass ceilings of the Grand Pal ais, which, I am happy to report, now remains illuminated all night while even the tireless commercial neon blinks out eventually.

On Sunday, the day I left New York, a quarter million Parisians manifested in the streets for (or against, I was not quite sure) the government's education policies. There were marvelous signs and placards. "Down with the Pope! No money for priests!" How good it was to be back in this Roman Catholic country with its grand old anti-clerical traditions.

In the Herald Tribune Patricia Wells was declaring the latest "best restaurant in the world!" was Joel Robuchon, in the 16th arrondisement. A national treasure, it was said. Remember Jamin on the rue Longchamp? That was M. Robuchon's place, too, and Pierre Berge used to take me there.

On the TV Monday the news was dominated by the Los Angeles quake. There was also extensive coverage on the Northeast cold. The French love American disasters. I slept three hours Monday afternoon and then set off into the pleasant (40 degrees or so and slightly gray) Paris winter. Along rue Francois Premier near Dior a tall young girl wore a denim workshirt as a sort of minidress over black tights and knee-high black boots, the whole affair under a black motorcycle jacket. Nice look.

I nipped into the Bar des Theatres and was embarrassed I'd forgotten what a demi-pression (a small draft beer) ought to cost but had one regardless. It was three degrees in New York and here I was wearing a tweed jacket and an old tennis sweater.

A doorman from the Plaza-Athenee across the street nipped in for coffee at the bar and then a young Anouk Aimee in a boutique clerk's costume, black dress and stockings, plus a parka, came in for two hot chocolates and a buttered roll to go. I had another pression on the basis of that. When I asked a waiter when they began the dinner service he said, "Ah, monsieur, dinner begins at noon!" I was so pleased with this I came back later for a steak and pomme frites.

I strolled about a bit, noting they've thoughtfully paved over stretches of what used to be parking along the Champs Elysees to provide more sidewalk on what already must be the widest sidewalks in the world. By dusk the bridges were lighting up and the traffic was jammed and in the couture houses they were working late on the new shows. When I phoned my daughter in New York she said it was snowing again. While here, within a few hundred yards of each other, Givenchy, the most elegant man in Paris, Ungaro, and Yves Saint Laurent, plus Dior and Lacroix, were all creating clothes for spring.

The fashion collections were in but I didn't go to them. It was fun to read about them in the Herald Trib. Suzy Menkes, the fashion writer, didn't seem to like much of anything. I'm sure there were tantrums over that. There was much copy about the cover girls. Robert Altman is here and I suppose he was at the shows, tasting the ambience for his fashion movie, "Pret a Porter." He starts shooting in the spring and they say it will be wonderful and he is already over budget.

Over on the Left Bank Deux Magots was closed for its annual vacation, five days. Don't ever call the French lazy. Not when there's a buck to be gotten out of tourists and other idlers. There is much excitement about the March 27 opening of "La Guerre Civile," a play by Henri de Montherlant. Wasn't Montherlant a wartime collaborator? No matter. Vive la France! Ambassador Alphand died at 86. He was French emissary to Washington during the Kennedy years. His wife was blond and later worked for Cardin. They gave dinner parties and I used to go. How young we all were.

Tuesday morning was bleak but again not cold and all over TV was the quake. I left that morning for Normandie on assignment but got back late in the week for another day or two in Paris, a brief stay highlighted by a visit to the new Carrousel du Louvre, which is underground and smashing, and lunch at the Brasserie Lipp. Lipp is the Elaine's or the Langan's of Paris and I was tremendously excited to see up on the walls, along with the request that "amateurs des pipes" not smoke their damned pipes, s'il vous plait! a new petition. This one asked that on behalf of "tranquility and our clientele," portable phones not be used.

I am so fond of Lipp I immediately ordered choucroute and a large beer (a "seriux," not a "distinguee;" I wasn't that thirsty). Choucroute, if you've never had it, is an Alsatian specialty consisting of about four pounds of sauerkraut, several boiled potatoes, two slabs of different hams, and two distinct and very plump sausages, the whole to be slathered in hot mustard and washed down with flagons of beer. By mid-afternoon I was forced to truncate my touring and return rapidly to the hotel where, let us say, I "rested" for about 24 hours, taking "digestifs" and swearing off choucroute.

Long ago I learned when you fall ill in France, whether victim to a broken toe or an earache, you ascribe the malady to "une crise de foie," "a crisis of the liver." This explains everything to the French. They are satisfied with this and question you no further.

Oh, yes, that assignment I mentioned, truly a dream job.

Walter Anderson of Parade magazine, aware that the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the 1944 Invasion of Europe was coming up June 6, asked me to go to Normandie and write about it. Normandie was one of the decisive battles in world history, the beginning of the end for Hitler, and of course it liberated France. "Walk the beaches, walk the cemeteries," Anderson told me, "and come back and write about it." That's all he said.

So it was on a winter's morn I was aboard when precisely on time, the Caen Express pulled out of the great echoing old steel shed of the Gare St. Lazare, en route to old battlefields, en route to young graves.

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