Another day Michel took us to the opposite end of the Paris social spectrum, when we went to meet his older brother at a posh country club outside the city. This was a Jewish club, not unlike those that sprang up outside most American cities in the 1950s, when newly successful Jewish businessmen and professionals, excluded from the old-line Gentile establishments, founded their own retreats. We might have been in Milwaukee, except for the language and the food.
"Zehr ees no bill," Michel said. I protested, but he would hear none of it. We were his guests. That was that.
The next year we returned to France, visiting Michel in Paris and at his family's apartment in Cannes, but after a few years we lost touch with each other, as sometimes happens.
In the fall of 1978 I passed briefly through Paris. My plan was to stop for a night at the Bellechasse, but when I pulled up in front I was shocked to see the hotel gone and the building a gutted shell. A sign on the front indicated a major renovation. Where had Michel gone? Daisy? Clement? The Colonel?
It wasn't until a few years later that my friend Dan sent me a brochure from the "new," two-star Hôtel Bellechasse that had risen from the rubble. By that time I had lost all contact with Michel, but I kept the brochure.
In 1982, Cathy and I returned to Paris and decided to give the Bellechasse another try. A little older and less spontaneous, we made a reservation through a travel agent, noting that the hotel had gone upscale in its room rates, which hovered around $80.
Some things were the same, however. Most of the old shops were still there. Though the hotel façade hadn't changed much, the remodeling inside was extensive. The reception desk was now off to the left, and the breakfast area, with its own TV, had been moved to the back. The stairs were in the same place, but we marveled at the new addition to the lobby: a tiny elevator.
The clerk was a young guy who spoke English well, as did most of the clerical staff. The maids were now all Africans and generally aloof. Or maybe it was us.
Naturally, we asked the clerk about Michel and his family, the Colonel and the old crowd, but he knew nothing of them and didn't expect anyone else did. So much for institutional memory.
Our room was an improvement over the original, especially because it had a private bathroom and a TV. But the French mattress and toilet-paper technology still hadn't caught up with ours. Despite its face-lift, it still felt a little like the old place, and we were comfortable there, half expecting to pass the Colonel in its claustrophobic hallways. Our visit was relatively uneventful, but not completely.
One morning we decided it might be fun to take the Métro to the Marais district on the Right Bank -- the old Jewish Quarter -- to have lunch at a well-known deli on the Rue des Rosiers called Jo Goldenberg. Come lunchtime, however, the temperature rose and we decided to pick up food and eat at the hotel, as we often did. The TV was on as we spread our lunch on one of the breakfast tables.
We watched a news bulletin announcing a catastrophe, with film of police cars and a cordoned-off crime scene. Gradually we realized that it was at Jo Goldenberg. Arab terrorists had assaulted the restaurant at lunchtime, tossing grenades and spraying the crowd of locals and tourists with machine-gun fire. Six were killed, 22 wounded.
We visited the Bellechasse again in 1990, a stay that was memorable only because Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait at the same time. The neighborhood had changed a little: The opening of the Musée d'Orsay in 1986 had brought more tourists than commuters to the area. Try as I might, I could never learn anything more about Michel. Nor did the hotel offer any additional glimpses of intimacy or familiarity.
Sometime in the late 1990s I recommended the place to friends. They had booked another hotel but checked out the neighborhood while visiting the museum. They found the building in ruins, to be remodeled once more, its third incarnation in a quarter-century.
Since my first stay at the Bellechasse in 1971, I have been to France at least 20 times and stayed at many Parisian hotels. My early Bellechasse memories have receded. I have found new interests, new friends and even relatives in Paris.
Then someone sent me a brochure advertising the again-new Bellechasse, now a three-star property of a French hotel chain. Since I was to be in Paris in September 2001, I thought I'd give it a look. I booked only my last night there, because it charged about $160 for a single. There is a limit to what I will pay for a sentimental journey.
One last visit