Two Inch Heels Part 17 – Rue Titon

Kandinsky’s “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 all the way to our destination of 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 that, him taking us under his wing and into his confidence for the day. Did he really think we shared his pro capitalism, pro Hitler, anti communism worldview? Since he spoke only with Steve, in German, had Steve said something that made him think we agreed with his worldview? Or did he finally just get comfortable enough with us to drop his guard and share his honest feelings?

I broached the topic with Steve as soon as we exited the hotel.

“Did Walter say anything when you two were talking in the car that he was some sort of a closet Nazi?”

Steve grimaced, obviously in thought.

“We didn’t talk about politics in the car. He asked me a shitload of questions about me, my family, where we lived in the States, and what I thought of Europe compared to the States”, he said, “Then he told me matter of factly all about his education, his work, his wife, his son, and finally his daughter, her marriage, her kids and now the separation from her husband. I was too tired to translate it all for you!”

“Yeah I figured that”, I noted, “I was happy just to doze off in the backseat.”

“Yeah I noticed”, he said with an edge to his words as he gave me his best mock askance look, “You’re welcome by the way!”

He was right of course, he had to engage with Walter all day yesterday while I snoozed in the back.

“Thank you!” I said, “I appreciate you doing that. It was your speaking German that got us that amazing ride.”

“I’m good for something!” he noted sarcastically, nodding and pursing his lips, which I figured included yet another dig for refusing his sexual proposition in Granada. Then he finally gave me that “I’m your big brother, and I have to put up with you, you ungrateful little shit” look.

“Yeah”, I responded, noting that look and all its telepathic subtext, but not wanting to go there. I had sacrificed too, always willing to spend all that extra time trying to hitchhike rather than just taking the damn train. That was my telepathic message back at him.

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, confirming they had beds for us. So first we took the Metro to our backpacker oasis at the American Express office. I cashed a travelers check, and 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 got back on the Metro 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 one last Metro ride got us to the Rue Titon hostel. The young woman working at the check-in desk at the hostel, who I don’t recall seeing when we were there before, was tall and striking in appearance, and looked not much older than I was. She introduced herself as Jeanette. She spoke English, with the sexiest low voice and French accent, and was endlessly talkative and opinionated, but in a flirty kind of way.

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 about how in her (not so) “humble opinion”, the Algerians in Paris were responsible for most of the crime in the city. That they continued to live in poverty even after they were making decent money, because they were brought up with lawlessness as part of their culture. She cited several incidents where she was convinced that young Algerian guys staying at the hostel had stolen stuff from other folks staying there. She said that though she had to let them 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. To emphasize each point in her rant, she leaned toward me, looked deeply in my eyes, and touched my hand with hers. I couldn’t help but notice the flesh of her nice tits visible between the unbuttoned top of her blouse. I was like a deer in her headlights, so to speak, my libido forcing me to hang on her every word, 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 mean I was not going to go so far as fein agreement with her just to curry her favor, but I did prolong our conversation by trying to counter her with my story of the presumably Algerian guy who worked at the bar across the street and had found my journal the next morning after I left it there the night before. She listened attentively with just the littlest hint of condescension manifesting in her smile, shook her head, grabbed my hand this time for added emphasis, and looking deeply into my eyes spoke.

“He only gave it to you because it was of no value to him!” As she spoke, squeezing my hand now and staring at me with her deep dark passionate eyes, 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.

There seemed to be a number of vivacious young women at the hostel that afternoon. There were three female backpackers checking in when we were, who were happy to chat up two tall young male backpacker types 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 other two were Canadians 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 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.

“And Martha Reeves!”

“Ooo yeah, ‘Don’t Mess with Bill’! Oh wow, seventh grade!”

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, though pretty racist, 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 female types 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 presumably Algerian music playing on the jukebox. Like the last time we had been there before hitchhiking to Spain, we split a big platter 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. What an evening we could have had. Oh well… the frustrations of being shy!

The next morning I was disappointed to find a thirty something man at the hostel desk rather than foxy and flirtatious 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 a place like 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 within the market area 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 some final aspect of my own travels. I think I felt that bringing home presents would somehow contribute to changing the nature of my relationship with my 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 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 canvases 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 generational comrades 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, tearing 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. Those big abstract canvases 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 separation. 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. 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 good 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. Now shortly “sans Steve” I would be beginning “Phase Three”, the last leg of this journey that would lead me back home. Back home fucking triumphant.

I saw myself as a veteran traveler now so I figured I wouldn’t get so lonesome, and be okay this time. Sure I’d be alone from time to time, but there would be all kinds of opportunities, particularly on trains and at big city youth hostels, to connect with other members of my backpacker cohort. Particularly the female types, and maybe I would even encounter one, like Miranda (or Steve though not female), who would want to get physically intimate with me. And maybe this time I would not bail, and enjoy some brief oh so romantic thing with her. Return to the States no longer a fucking virgin (Ha ha ha I thought, an oxymoron!), or at least having kissed and made out, short of actual full on sex. That sort of possibility, whatever the real chances, was way less likely to happen traveling with another guy, like Steve. My finances were okay as well, with a total of about $225. So I could keep to my budget of about six dollars a day and still have $40 for emergencies or presents.

I shared some of these feelings with my mom in the postcard, though not any of the ones about women. I was glad I knew she was back in the States reading my cards and letters always concerned for my well being. And that I had the kind of relationship with her that I could be honest about my feelings. I concluded my note by writing that her last opportunity to write me at this point would be to the American Express office in either Amsterdam or London. Figuring I would be at the former around December 7th, and the latter soon after that.

Our last night at the Rue Titon hostel the place filled up. It felt really good, a portent of things to come when I was again on my own. 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 that subset of young women among the mostly male throng, with all their requisite agency and pluck 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 I did 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 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 big song they played on the radio, “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…

You can get anything you want
At Alice’s restaurant (excepting Alice)

But this song of his that Prudence played and sang, “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 might meet on the road (though I never figured out the chickens part)…

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?

(Chorus) 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

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

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, 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 common area 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.

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

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