From “A Paris Notebook”
A plane delayed in leaving meant that at the other end, the next midday, the Paris train was missed. The station board showed another train three hours later, so it was an inconvenience, nothing more.
Briefly it occurred to me to telephone ahead to advise the hotel of the slight change in schedule. But our reservations had been confirmed long in advance, and anyone knows that traveling is an uncertain business. Surely it wasn’t worth the bother of a call.
So we left our stack of cargo — the gear for seven months in France — in a porter’s charge, and set off, my two teenage daughters and I, to poke around the capital of Luxembourg duchy. We saw a bit of the city. The three hours passed. Our detritus was heaved aboard. The train ran south into France, then westward down the long green fold of the Marne valley to Paris. And two taxicabs delivered us from the Gare de l’Est across the Seine at evening to debark a final time on the sidewalk outside the Hôtel de France in the Rue Monge.
The girls sat atop the baggage mound outside, while I stepped into the hotel’s tiny lobby and passed the Telexed confirmation across the reception desk to a small, dark-skinned man who looked at it, then back at me, with the saddest eyes you can imagine.
“Yes,” he murmured. “But you were to come at 6 o’clock” — he looked at the clock, which said after 9. “And now your rooms are taken.” His own regret was plain. “Until 8 o’clock I kept your places. But then, when I did not hear, I had to give them. I am only the night clerk, and those are my instructions. So the hotel is complet. There are three big expositions now, and I am afraid all Paris is complet.”
My whole life did not pass before my eyes. But the possible shape of that night revealed itself — a night huddled somewhere on benches or curbs. Idiot, screamed an inner voice, not at the man behind the desk but at the fool who stood before him in my body. For lack of a telephone call. Idiot!
I went out to the sidewalk to report.
“There’s a problem about our rooms,” I said. People passing to and from their revels scarcely turned to look. Castaways are common on the streets of Paris, though usually not so elaborately burdened.
“Then we’ll have to go to another hotel,” one of the girls said logically. Fathers are counted on to be capable and provident. Fathers do not oblige their children to sleep atop duffel bags in the miasmic open air of alien cities. If small problems do present themselves, fathers solve them with dispatch.
One of the current expositions was a European jazz festival. Street bands were playing on nearly every corner of the quarter, the gaiety mocking my predicament. Blue night was gathering. I went back inside.
“Look,” I said to the clerk, “could you try some other places?”
“I will try,” he said. “But I am afraid —”
The Hôtel de France is one of that prolific class of small Left Bank hotels offering spotless comfort at a bearable price. He telephoned all the others in that same category. And several in the luxury class. And some others, far away in different quarters, that may have been wretched holes.
How many he called I couldn’t say, dizzy as I was with fatigue and despair. But two dozen anyway, maybe more. The conversations with his colleagues on those night desks were urgent, courteous, brief. And then, looking up finally with eyes even sadder than before, he sighed and closed the directory.
“Complet,” he said. “In all Paris tonight there is not a room.”
One daughter came in from the sidewalk, which was emptying of people. About the providence of fathers they were beginning to have doubts. It was after 11 o’clock now, and 34 hours since the last bed.
“Let me ask you,” I said to the small, dark man. “In my place, what would you do?”
“Possibly there is some friend you could go to?”
“No one. I have the names of people who may be friends later. But none yet.”
What seemed like several minutes passed in silence. And then he picked up the phone.
“So,” he said. “I will call my friend, and he will take you to my room. It is far from here, and it is a small room. I live alone, and my clutter is there. But there is a bed. A bed, a table — it’s what I have. And tomorrow, if someone leaves the hotel, you may come back here.”
That was the choice: this stranger’s room, or the street. I tried to thank him.
“I do it for your daughters,” he said. Not for the fool, for the fool’s daughters. But offered so shyly, with such humility, that I don’t expect ever to receive a more elegant gift. Our bags we left at the hotel, taking only things for the night. The friend came and guided us there, and laid out bed linens new from the packages, never used. And finally, sometimes after midnight, we slept — the girls pressed close together on the single narrow bed, me crossways at the bottom, their feet across my back, my own feet resting on a wooden chair, one blanket covering us all.
And when, a minute later, the dawn came over the chimney pots and into the single window, I got up quietly and crept out and down to the street for the finest pastries I could find. And brought those back and we ate them and took stock of where we were.
He had said the apartment was mall. Four steps exactly, it measured, from wall to wall. Besides the bed, a table and four chairs and a primitive cabinet of unpainted wood completed the furnishings.
Atop the cabinet was a small transistor radio, a corkscrew, a hookah pipe for his occasional smoke; and on the floor, an electric space heater and a pressing iron. Offset from the room was a sink, a counter and, separated from that by a plastic curtain, a stool and shower — all this measuring one step by a bit more than two.
In the sink were pink glass dishes stacked to be washed. On a hotplate beside it, a pan with the remains of something cooked. Wedged behind the exposed water pipes against the wall were his toothbrush, razor and hairbrush.
And that is all: the few needs and slender comforts of a man alone, living frugally, swallowed up in the immensity of a city far from his home, which, as we would learn, was a place you might not even be able to point to on a map — the island of Mauritius, a dot of habitation far out in the vastness of the southern Indian Ocean.
Oh, yes. There was one other article in the room, which I would not have mentioned but which my daughters spoke of later when, coming from his all-night duty at the hotel, he insisted on taking us for coffee in a cafe and refused to let me pay.
“We like your bear,” one of them said, with the wonderful artlessness of the young.
On his bed, when we had come there in the night, was a large Teddy bear, woolly haired, worn from the years of being held by a boy and then a man.
“Yes,” said Soyam — for by then we knew his name. “I am by myself, and the bear is my friend. He is Guillaume.”
All that has been weeks ago. it seems even longer. We are established now in our apartment in a pleasant quarter — lodgings that, to Soyam, when he comes to supper here, must seem spacious almost to excess, although his goodness doesn’t let him speak of that or even, possibly, notice.
We only give what we have, as he did — though he gave much more.
Years from now, when their recollection of all the rest has paled, I know that my daughters will remember their first night in Paris, their first night ever abroad. Not for anything it told them about this city or the French, but for what they learned about the surprising, the saving, decency that is still possible in the world.
— Paris, June 1984