I had a pretty good idea what to expect when I checked into the Libertel Hotel Bellechasse in Paris' trendy 7th arrondissement, just around the corner from the Musée d'Orsay and midway between Boulevard St. Germain and the Seine. It was one of many Left Bank boutique hotels, with an elegant lobby and sitting room fronting the narrow Rue de Bellechasse.
The clerk, an attractive young woman in a salmon-hued business suit, found my reservation on the computer terminal concealed in her faux antique desk and asked, "You have stayed with us before?"
"Yes and no," I replied. Appearances notwithstanding, this place was more than just a hotel to me, and I'd brought a lot more baggage than my carry-on.
My mind raced back to the first time I walked into the Bellechasse in 1971, before this kid standing before me was even born. It was the same old building, maybe 40 feet wide and four stories tall, but it was not the same hotel, not by any stretch of the imagination.
My friend Dan, an old Paris hand, had recommended the place, and my wife, Cathy, and I were happy to find a one-star hotel in such a prime Left Bank location. It wasn't as prime as it is today, of course, for the Musée d'Orsay hadn't been built; it was still the bustling Gare d'Orsay railroad station. The room set us back about $10 a day -- not the cheapest room in town back then but affordable for a couple of weeks.
There was nothing special about the tiny room, which had a swaybacked double bed and a sink. Bath and other facilities, such as they were, were down the hall (with brown folded sheets of toilet paper the consistency of paper bags). The halls were narrow and dark. The lobby, guarded by the fattest cocker spaniel I had ever seen, was, to be charitable, simple, with a few breakfast tables near the entrance, a reception desk at the opposite wall, and a creaky spiral staircase to the left. Amenities were scarce; the décor was tattered and shabby.
But we were young.
It seemed a fairly typical tourist place, and that's what it may have been for some guests. That wasn't our experience.
The desk clerk, Michel, was a Jew raised in Oran, Algeria. He had studied at Berkeley, so he was fluent in English, and we had lots to talk about. Michel's family managed the hotel, and he was helping out for the summer along with his cousin Daisy. He was quite an operator, having, so he said, fought in Algeria as a teenager and been a swimmer on the 1960 French Olympic swimming team.
There were many interesting characters at the Bellechasse. There was Clement, the night clerk, a little guy with red cheeks, a red nose and a beret cocked on his bald head. He didn't speak any English, but he was garrulous and friendly, especially after sneaking around the corner for a cognac. There were the animated Spanish maids.
But most memorable was Le Colonel. We never knew his name, and it never dawned on us to ask. A pensioner living at the Bellechasse, he was a gaunt, small man in his 70s who shuffled around the lobby for hours at a time, always dressed in the same shabby dark suit and vest, always covered with ashes from a yellow Gitane cigarette.
He was retired from the French army, having begun his service as a teenager in World War I. Although a bit worn around the edges and slowed by age, he had a haughty and detached demeanor and still looked like a man used to being saluted.
Because of our poor French and his poor English, I never got much information on his military career, except for his oft-repeated tale that he learned his English while working as an orderly for Gen. Pershing in 1917. Critical as he might have been of Americans in the abstract, he took us under his wing, chatting us up whenever we crossed paths in the lobby.
Because it was August, a time when, back then, much of Paris was closed down, he took it upon himself to escort us around the neighborhood to point out the best choices among the few open bakeries, butchers and wine and cheese shops. The Colonel gave the latter special attention, trying as best he could to pass on what seemed arcane knowledge about goat, sheep and donkey cheese. It was as animated as he got, his reedy voice rising as he gestured tightly toward the bewildering displays. We didn't have a clue what he was trying to tell us, except when he brayed like a donkey, but the cheeses were all great.
Michel and his relatives adopted us during our two-week stay, taking us to places we would never have seen as tourists. Some were exotic. Some not.
One evening Michel announced that we had to experience couscous for dinner. He drove us to a neighborhood that seemed to me what the casbah in Algiers might look like, with young Arab men hanging out on streets dominated by shops and restaurants with Arabic lettering. It seemed a little disconcerting, even threatening. We pulled up in front of a cafe, and Michel hopped out and shook hands with the owner, beckoning us to follow him inside.
I asked him if he was uncomfortable eating at an Arab restaurant. "But, Jeem, zeez are not 'Arabians,' " he said. "Zay are Jews." Gesturing dismissively at the "real" Arabs down the street, and ever conscious of the divide between Arab and Sephardic Jew in Paris, he added, "Jewish couscous eez better."