Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I've worked in Paris before. Previously, it was for the usual Canadian reasons: tax credits, co-pro requirements, spending money somebody otherwise can't get out of the country. This time it's for all the right reasons -- Paris made sense for the series and my Execs said "Go for it!"

My first visit here was for all the right reasons too. I came to get laid.

I was 18, going to school in London, had a new girlfriend and figured a trip to Paris was the ticket to get the relationship headed in the right direction.

Like all 18 year olds plotting a romantic weekend, I invited all my buddies and their girlfriends to come along. We decided to go to Paris for Bastille Day, July 14, 1968.

1968 was a rough year in France. A student uprising in May had rocked the city. The Sorbonne had been occupied. This was followed by a general strike and a lot of social unrest. I never fully understood the politics. But a bunch of French Filmmakers made great movies about it all (Goddard's "Tout La Bien", Malle's "Milou et Mai", Bertolucci's "The Dreamers").

When you're 18, you don't consider that you're walking into a war zone -- especially when there's a chance you'll get laid.

We caught a train to Dover, a ferry to Calais and another train to the Gare du Nord. We'd booked a cheap hotel and the lady and I checked into a snug 2nd floor room overlooking St. Mark's Square. It was going to be a special night.

As the sun set, we found a sidewalk cafe, blew through a few bottles of wine and set off to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower. Despite being warned that the city was a powderkeg, all we saw were the happy throngs partying in the streets. The music, the wine and the soft summer night soon had my girlfriend and I cuddling close and we caught the Metro back to our hotel.

As we climbed the subway steps near St. Mark's Square, I thought I heard another street party. But this one was louder and the only music was a heavy rythmic drumming.

We stepped onto the street facing a phalanx of angry students, many wearing masks and bandanas, others pounding the street with clubs a little longer than baseball bats and just as big around. The Mob blocked the street ahead, so I turned to see if there was a way to go around them and saw a solid line of blue uniformed Paris police in riot helmets carrying large grey shields and rubber truncheons.

We were right between them and the Mob. Instinct told me to move toward the cops (after all, we were tourists who hadn't done anything wrong). No sooner had we begun to move than tear gas cannisters came arcing over the Police line. One hit my girlfriend in the shoulder and bounced to our feet. I moved to kick it away. My soccer skills being what they are, it went right back at the cops.

The Mob cheered and the Police charged. The Girlfriend turtled and I tried to cover her as the Cops ran right over us, one of them making sure we stayed down by whacking me with his truncheon as he passed.

Hey, I was a long-haired and blue-jeaned kid like the students. How was he to know I had innocent bystander status.

Choking on tear gas now, unable to see, we somehow got up and kept moving. A couple more blows and few screamed epithets in French and we were far enough from the chaos to make a run for the hotel.

We were just yards from the entrance when we were tossed back by a sudden rush of air. I didn't hear the explosion until we were on the pavement, glass raining down around us.

The chaos seemed to go into hyper mode. Sirens wailed, bullhorns blasted and people shrieked. When I could see again, I realized the front doors and window of the hotel were gone. We learned later that someone had tossed a concussion grenade into the lobby.

Chipped by the glass, bruised and still choking from the gas, we managed to get into the relative shelter of a shop doorway; where for the next hour we watched a pitched battle between the students and the police. At one point the cops appeared to be getting the upper hand. Then a second mob burst from a sidestreet, out-flanking them and clubbing several down as they attacked from behind.

Soon after, more police and soldiers arrived, the students scattered and things began to quiet. We picked our way to the hotel as our friends rolled in as well. The manager was in his shirt-sleeves, supervising as a couple of Firemen hosed the broken glass and debris from the lobby. He assured us everything was fine upstairs and we went to our rooms.

My girlfriend bandaged our cuts and put some ice on the welt on my back. Then the rest of the evening went pretty much as planned.

Next morning, I woke to hear her talking to someone on the balcony. I figured it was one of our friends but emerged to find a French soldier perched on the turret of a tank lighting her morning Galois and less than happy to discover she had company.

French Guys! Honestly!

Our train left early in the afternoon and we walked to the station passing more tanks and machine gun toting soldiers in the street. We also encountered small groups of students distinguished by their camo gear and red bandanas. No matter what the uniform, the response was universal; a dismissive look to the guys and an appreciative one accompanied by a wink or whistle to the ladies.

I took it as a sign that Paris was quickly getting back to normal.


Anonymous said...

Great story.

wcdixon said...

You live(d) quite the life, Mr. Jim.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Gosh, and I thought my boyfriend being arrested and fined for underage drinking on our very first date was one of the worst things that could possibly happen.

This story has got me beat, for sure. Thanks for sharing, Jim.

KJC (who loves Paris in the springtime)

Danny-K said...

". . . One hit my girlfriend in the shoulder and bounced to our feet. I moved to kick it away. My soccer skills being what they are, it went right back at the cops.

The Mob cheered and the Police charged. . ."

Laughed like a drain at that bit.

So that means you were once accidentally a revolutionary hero of the French students - (And public enemy No 1 by the charging police).