A hotel's life

A hotel's life
For one couple, returning to a certain Left Bank hotel is the closest thing to coming home ... in Paris. (Paul Cox / For The Times)
Of course it's true that you can't go home again. But there are times when you can't even go on vacation again.

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.

Le Colonel

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."

As an assimilated American Jew, I knew little of the culture of the Jews dispersed throughout the Arab world when the Spanish expelled them in 1492. And it was a shock to me that I couldn't distinguish them from their Arab neighbors.

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.

Our vacation passed quickly. We spent lots of time with Michel, heard more about Daisy's love life than we wanted, and generally felt like insiders at the Bellechasse. We were even invited to watch the little black-and-white TV in the staff room off the lobby. On the day we left I went to the desk to settle the bill and got a surprise.

"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.

The renovation

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

Little did I know that just a week before I arrived a handful of terrorists would strike America, dragging us into a far more treacherous world, one we thought an ocean away. Sure, I could have canceled and hunkered down near home. Many did. Life in America had changed in an instant.

But staying home wasn't going to ameliorate any sense of loss I might have felt. Besides, one reason for my trip had been to plumb the depths of a lifetime of Paris travel experiences, so it seemed that I might as well see whether the sense of loss that was so palpable in the States would somehow survive the flight over the ocean.

It happened that the taxi driver who took me to my hotel was an Arab. That is unremarkable in Paris, but I found myself uncharacteristically on edge, a little suspicious. He was friendly enough, though, and I felt a little ashamed worrying about this nice guy who was just making a living.

Most American guests were no-shows, and images of the smashed twin towers adorned all the magazine covers in the lobby, but it didn't seem that Paris had changed all that much.

Months later some Americans would see things differently, considering boycotting France because of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and the perceived indifference of French officials. But France has always been home to currents of anti-Semitism, sometimes violent. Our narrow escape in 1982 confirmed this for me. Perhaps the trauma of Sept. 11 sensitized Americans to what they could previously ignore in safety.

On my final night in Paris I checked into the Bellechasse. The hotel façade was still simple but more elegant than before. The glass entryway seemed more imposing, with automatic sliding doors (which annoyingly opened without warning every time one ventured within 10 feet or so).

The lobby was the same size, of course, with plush couches and easy chairs and sculptures, but now there was a wide staircase leading down to a well-appointed dining room and garden. Not a cocker spaniel in sight.

The uniformed desk clerk was quite a change from the old days too. I mentioned this to her, but when I discerned the politely bored expression of a young person enduring a geezer moment, I headed for my room. The elevator was new and could hold as many as three or four people. My compact single room had a firm mattress, a nice bathroom and windows overlooking a manicured garden. CNN was always available on the TV. There was a chocolate on my pillow. But as I walked the halls, expensively papered but still dark and narrow, I half-expected to bump into the Colonel.

It was, in any event, a brief and uneventful visit, meant only to satisfy my curiosity. No adventures. No stories. No contact. Maybe there is something about affluence that retards the kind of personal travel experience that resonates within me. The more upscale the Bellechasse became, the less interesting it was.

Or maybe it was me. I had come to revisit my memories but realized that they resided inside me, not in a hotel, which was, after all, only a building.

Early the next morning I got up to catch a cab to the airport. The night clerk, wearing the male version of the hotel uniform, was tired and clearly eager to go home. After figuring out that the $600 telephone bill in his hand wasn't mine, he handed me a computer printout of my bill. I offered him my credit card.

This time he let me pay.

James Dannenberg is a writer and judge living in Kailua, Hawaii.