Coop Goes to Europe Part 17 – Rue Titon

Part 17 – Rue Titon

Kandinsky’s Painting “In White II”

On Thursday November 8 1973 Steve and I left the hotel where Walter had put us up for the night after picking us up hitchhiking just outside Hendaye in southwestern France and driving us some 800 kilometers to Paris. Along the way he had treated us to the most extensive and expensive meal either of us had had since leaving the States. He had been such a gracious and giving host, but also had revealed to us in conversation, just this morning, his right-wing political orientation including sympathies for Adolf Hitler, whose army he had fought in as a young adult soldier during World War Two. I was still struggling to reconcile all of that, him taking us under his wing and into his confidence for the day. Did he think we would share his pro capitalism, pro Hitler, anti communism worldview? Did he think he could sway us to that worldview? Or was he just simply sharing honest feelings that we could take or leave?

It was a quick walk to the Gare du Nord train station where we phoned the hostel on Rue Titon, where we had stayed previously in Paris, and confirmed they had beds for us. So we took the metro there, checked in, dropped our packs off, and then headed to our backpacker oasis of sorts, the American Express office. I was delighted to get another stack of mail from my mom and dad and several of my friends back home. I read my letters as we walked from there to the German embassy off the Champs Elysee where Steve was going to check out about the possibilities of getting a job in Germany. Turned out the embassy was only open until Noon and it was already past one in the afternoon. I agreed with Steve that it was ridiculous that the embassy would have such short office hours. So we stopped at a bar for a beer and some pinball and returned to the hostel.

The young woman working at the desk at the hostel was tall and striking in appearance, and not much older than I was, and when I checked in introduced herself as Jeanette. She spoke English, with the sexiest low voice and French accent, and seemed endlessly talkative and opinionated. When I told her that Steve and I were planning on going to the little Algerian restaurant we had been to our last time in Paris, she launched into a rant of her own about how in her (not so) humble opinion, the Algerians in Paris were the ones who did most of the stealing, and that they continued to live in poverty even after they were making decent money, because they were brought up with stealing as part of their culture. She cited several incidents where she was convinced that young Algerian guys staying at the hostel were stealing stuff from other folks staying there. She said that though she had to let the Algerians stay if they paid their money, she watched them, “like a hawk”, and we should not leave any even semi-valuable possessions anywhere where they were noticeable.

Jeanette was so good looking, sexy and flirty, and leaned toward me with the flesh of her nice tits visible between the unbuttoned top of her blouse, and looked directly at me with her big dark eyes and even put her hand on mine as she made her points. My libido made me stay and listen to her rant, just to be in that presence, smell her perfume and the scent of her body and imagine her naked on top of me making passionate love. I was not going to go so far as fein agreement with her just to curry her favor but I did prolong the engagement by trying to counter her with my story of the presumably Algerian dishwasher who had found my journal the next morning after I left it in the bar across the street from the hostel. She listened attentively with just the littlest hint of condescension in her smile, shook her head, touched my hand again, and looking deeply into my eyes said “he only gave it to you because it was of no value to him!” As she spoke I pondered in my mind whether I would kick her out of bed due to her politics and despite the rest of her sexually intoxicating presence.

It seemed a bonanza of vivacious women at the hostel that afternoon. There were three young women travelers checking in when we were who were happy to chat up two tall good looking young men like Steve and I. One was an American from Georgia, whose father was a pilot for Eastern Airlines, so she had a free two-month unlimited air pass on Eastern’s European partner airline, Alitalia. The two Canadians were from Windsor, just an hour east of my hometown of Ann Arbor, just across the river from Detroit. We exchanged exploits from our travels, and I certainly contributed my fair share. The two young women from Windsor were also big fans as I was of their hometown AM radio station CKLW, and all the Motown music they played. One of us would just call out a Motown group – The Supremes, The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops – and the other two would ooh and aah and call out their favorite songs of that particular group.

Why we didn’t suggest that the three of them come to dinner with us, I pondered while Steve and I walked to the Algerian restaurant. He had claimed he was not just into guys, but he did not seem to have the same fire in his heart for female types as I did, though he agreed with me that Jeanette was a “stone fox”. I on the other hand was into just about every young woman I met, but just too shy to do much about it other than engage them in conversation and fantasize about more intimate and erotic encounters. It would have been an interesting time at the restaurant with those three young women in tow. The place was devoid of women but full of Algerian men smoking hookahs, eating wonderfully fragrant dishes, and boisterously singing along to the Algerian music playing on the jukebox. Like the last time we had been there before hitchhiking to Spain, we had a big plate of couscous, cooked with aromatic spices and piled with pieces of fish and chicken, and washed it down with a bottle of cheap rose wine. Oh well… “C’est la vie!”!

The next morning I was disappointed to find a thirtysomething man at the hostel desk rather than foxy and flirtacious Jeannette, and the three other women who lit up the previous afternoon, at least for me, must have headed out before we were up. Steve’s and my itinerary for the day was the Flea Market in the morning followed by the Modern Art Museum after lunch.

As usual, what I enjoyed most about the Flea Market was not so much the merchandise but the intimate geography of the place. Narrow streets lined with open air shops connected by arcades with high arched steel and glass ceilings. In the wider streets temporary carts and stalls. Not seedy like some flea markets, but colorful and classy, in a Parisian sort of way. The clothes in the stalls and shops were fairly expensive. Even the small stalls selling jewelry, gloves and other leather goods were not cheap, and one nice pair of gloves for my mom would have wiped out my entire contingency slash Christmas present budget. Nothing was real cheap, except at the army surplus stalls which were full of cool off the wall stuff that I liked – like gas masks, berets, tank crew helmets, c-rations – but nothing really appropriate for my mom and dad.

It was interesting that I was so focused on bringing home Christmas presents, particularly for my mom and dad, rather than spend that last extra bit of money on myself or some final aspect of my own travels. I think I felt that that bringing home presents would somehow contribute to changing the nature of my relationship with my two parents from one where they bestowed gifts on their child to one more of equals exchanging gifts with each other. Oh well, I would keep looking when I got to Italy where things might be cheaper.

We skipped lunch and spent the afternoon in the Modern Art Museum, where I saw a lot of what I described in my journal as “wild” paintings, by Matisse, Picasso, Klee and Kandinsky. I had learned from my mom that “Modern art” did not mean art from our current time, but described a trend or movement at the beginning of the 20th century, “Modernism”, when many painters and sculptors moved away from representing things from real life – people, landscapes and still lifes – towards abstracting and reconfiguring reality. Thus the term “abstract art”. The trend had begun in the 19th century with the impressionist and expressionist artists who were painting still recognizable people and landscapes but not in the way you would see them with your own eyes.

Seeing all the big provocative abstract works side by side filling large gallery rooms heightened the sense that these early 20th century artists were intent on reinventing art and by extension I presumed, attempting to celebrate and further inspire the reinvention of human society and the world. I resonated with that, feeling like I and my comrades of my generation were trying to tear down and reinvent the dysfunctional world that our parents and their ancestors had created and sustained. Like the anarchists and nihilists I had learned about from my avowed communist high school history teacher Mr. Peacock, tear down the conventional institutions that attempted to control human life and constrain all those aspects of the hippie ethos – peace, love, joy, sex, drugs and rock and roll. The big abstract canvasses challenged every convention and everything conventional.

Particularly stunning in that context were the paintings by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, inspired as I had read previously by the ideology of the communist revolution, juxtaposing elements of geometry and bits suggesting machinery in paintings I saw like “In White II” and “Black Grid”. Or the suggestion of a face defined by a circle within a block of color and bounded by straight and curved line segments in “Yellow-Red-Blue”. For me, his pieces captured that sense of complete transformation or everything.

There was one less abstract, much less bombastic painting of a street scene in a North African town, “Les Fellahs”, by Kees Van Dongen, which was actually my favorite. Amidst all the mind boggling bombast of many of these large paintings from the Modern period, this piece was relatively small, simple and quiet but had a stunning sense of place to it. Perhaps its quietness around all these other more formidable works was soothing to me, the weary traveler. I sent a postcard of it home to my mom.

As we walked home from the gallery, Steve shared with me that he was staying in Paris until Monday morning to hit the Swiss embassy and then hitch to Basel. I wanted to head to Geneva instead of Basel, so this seemed like the moment to make the split I had been ruminating on for over a week, and I shared that thought with him, feeling in some senses like a member of a couple suggesting a divorce. But it was funny about Steve, whenever I said something that was not what he wanted to hear, he wouldn’t say so directly, but would instead say something indirectly, like he thought that a rail pass was a waste of money. When I didn’t say or do what he would have liked he got snotty like that. We had developed that sort of underlying tension between us ever since I had spurned his request to have sex with me back in Granada. It was like that competitive way many guys are with other guys took over once he realized there was no chance I was going to be some sort of love interest for him. Or maybe he did not want me to think that he was some sort of sissy because he had propositioned me. Given that he wasn’t going to get into my pants, I was still a pretty good travel buddy – easygoing, upbeat and thoughtful. And I think he still had a crush on me or was envious of whatever he thought I had that he wanted.

I pondered the fact that I would soon be back on my own again. I saw myself as a veteran traveler now so I figured it would be easier, plus I felt like I was starting the back leg of my odyssey, the last month. My finances were okay – with a total of about $225 I could spend about six dollars a day and still have $40 for emergencies or presents. It felt like “phase two” of my odyssey was ending, this last three weeks I had spent with Steve. Phase one had been me mostly on my own, after I had parted with Angie in London. That first week traveling with Angie in England had been a fun adventure with a dear friend, and didn’t really qualify in my mind as part of the “odyssey”, which began when I left London without her, full of ambivalence about continuing but driven by pride. Soon I would be beginning phase three, the third leg of the triangle that would lead me home.

I shared a lot of these feelings with my mom in a postcard. I was glad I had the kind of relationship with her that I could be honest about my feelings. I told her that her last opportunity to write me at this point would be to the American Express office in Amsterdam, where I figured I would be on December 7th.

Our last night at the Rue Titon hostel it was full, many of the crowd were our fellow long haired young backpacker types, the full array from the States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Great Britain and various other European countries. I of course particularly enjoyed the minority of young women among the mostly male throng, with all their requisite agency and pluck (only later would I learn the term “chutzpah”) needed to survive on the road. Survive in a rough and tumble world where still a certain percentage of the men they encountered, whether fellow travelers or locals, might adopt a predatory attitude towards them, something I as a male type person had the privilege to not have to worry about.

One of those young women had checked in at the same time we had with a guitar strapped to the back of her big pack. She had of course caught my eye at the time with her short but stocky stature, mane of curly black hair to her shoulders ala Janis Joplin or Grace Slick, and round John Lennon glasses with little plastic flip shades attached. I think her name was Prudence. I had noticed her a couple times coming and going but had not had the opportunity to engage her in conversation.

In the main room of the hostel that last evening she held forth with her guitar and sang an Arlo Guthrie song that I had not heard before. I was familiar with his hit song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, a humorous anti-war shaggy dog story of sorts, and the rest of his tongue in cheek Alice’s Restaurant album. But this song, “Coming Into Los Angeles”, was much more poignant and serious and celebrated in its way the elan of the hippie traveler ethos, and the cast of characters one would meet on the road…

Coming in from London from over the Pole
Flying in a big airliner
Chickens flying everywhere around the plane
Could we ever feel much finer?

Coming into Los Angeles
Bringing in a couple of keys
But don’t touch my bags if you please
Mister Customs Man

There’s a guy with a ticket to Mexico
No, he couldn’t look much stranger
Walking in the hall with his things and all
Smiling, said he was the Lone Ranger

Coming into Los Angeles
Bringing in a couple of keys
But don’t touch my bags if you please
Mister Customs Man

Hip woman walking on a moving floor
Tripping on the escalator
There’s a man in the line and she’s blowing his mind
Thinking that he’s already made her

Coming into Los Angeles
Bringing in a couple of keys
But don’t touch my bags if you please
Mister Customs Man

I was drug savvy enough, and proud of it, to recognize that “a couple of keys” referred to a couple of kilos of marijuana, or given the British starting point, more likely its more concentrated form, hashish, which seemed to be much more prevalent in Europe than the dried leaves and buds themselves. I knew my cannabis well enough to know that two kilos of hash would take up a lot less room, hidden say inside an acoustic guitar, than the same weight of those dried leaves and buds.

Prudence sat alone on one of the two big couches in the middle of the hostel’s common room, slamming the strings of her beat up guitar, which was covered with decals, including city names, beer logos, the familiar peace sign, marijuana leaf logo, and the less familiar to some but familiar to me, women’s liberation symbol, a woman’s symbol with the circle and distaff below but a clenched fist within the circle. Lots of young backpacker types were milling about in the room, some in line to check in for the night, others meeting and making connections, others discussing where to head out for a late dinner or a beer, still others kicking back on the other couch or various chairs about the room in lively discussions. Only a few of the some thirty people in the room were actively focused on Prudence’s performance, but you could tell that everyone in the room was hearing it, and at some level in sync with and grooving to its message – hey you adult authority figures, please let us be, don’t force your rules and regulations upon us, let us pass through your gauntlets unmolested.

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