29 December 2010

France in 1970 – old letters

Five years ago when my mother sold her house, I learned that she had kept all the letters I wrote to her over the years, starting in 1970. We used to write a lot. All of us, I mean. MA also had packets of letters I had received from friends I went to college and spent time in France with. The letters were in boxes in the attic and garage, and I didn't know it. Or had forgotten.

I found one this morning that describes my trip to Paris on Saturday, March 21, 1970. I took the train from Marseille to Paris with an American from Nantucket who was friends with a fellow student of mine in Aix. We left Marseille at 10 p.m. and spent the night on a train, in a compartment with three French guys, two Englishwomen, and an Englishman. With us, that made eight in the compartment, so it was crowded.

Letters to the parental units from 1970

Two of the French guys — brothers about my age — were traveling with what I described as "a cute little kitten," and sometime during the night the kitten peed all over my pants leg. I was really fresh, as you can imagine, when we arrived in Paris at 7 a.m. that Sunday morning. I had turned 21 years old just a few weeks earlier.

Recently, remembering back, one of the things I've been wondering about that two-week trip to Paris so long ago is how I afforded it. Well, the answer is in the letter. We arrived in Paris early in the morning and all the passengers from our train compartment went off in different directions, including the American from Nantucket. He was going to Amsterdam. I headed for the Latin Quarter. I wrote this in my letter to my parents:
Found a hotel within an hour, for 15 F a day (including breakfast) [Fifteen French francs were worth less than $3.00 U.S. at that time.] Small single room, creaky floor, very clean. Shower costs 2.50 F extra. Slept until 1:30 p.m., took métro to Place de la Concorde and strolled up the champs-Elysées to the Arche [sic] de Triomphe. Went to a movie after dinner and then to hotel and bed.
So that's how I afforded it. Less than $3.00 a night for room and breakfast, and there were plenty of Paris restaurants where I could have a full meal for 5 FF — less than a dollar.

I found this sticker in with my old letters.
"I lost my heart to Paris," it says (more or less).

Before going, I had written in a letter that all the other American students I knew were "spreading out all over Europe, from Greece to Scotland," for the two week spring holiday. Not me:
I figure I'll buy a round trip ticket to Paris for $40 and stay there until I get tired of it. Then if I run out of money I'll be guaranteed passage back to Aix when I do.... I figure I'll have $10 a day, even after train fare, and that should be plenty. Europe on $5 a Day lists hundreds of hotels in Paris where single rooms cost $2 – $3 a day, so that should be no problem.
One more paragraph from a letter I wrote a few days after my 21st birthday:
Sunday we took a bus excursion to Nîmes. Six of us Americans and about 20 old (over 60) French people. Kathy, a girl from Duke, got sick and threw up, so the bus driver had to clean up. Plus, every time we stopped they had to wait for us to get back on the bus. Old people get tired and don't want to stop and see as much. The bus driver got lost twice and had to ask directions from old men working in the fields alongside the roads.
My parents were in their early 40s at that time, so I could talk to them about "old people" without risking any offense or hurt feelings! I'll be 62 in a few months, and I can attest that my observations as a 21-year-old were spot on.

Most of my letters from back then include at least one
paragraph like this one. I was an accomplished beggar!

I still looking at letters to see if I wrote anything about going to Les Halles in Paris during that trip.


  1. Your handwriting hasn't changed a bit. This letter looks as if it was written yesterday. That should make you feel much younger, old man! LOL

  2. sounds so familiar.......i too have all my letters from 1969/70 that my parents saved....the begging for money part sounds familiar too....you could ask but then it took weeks to get any actual $$ so you had to think way ahead......i remember going to the AmEx office in Paris looking for $ that had been sent....i think our school gave us an allowance of 3F for lunch....which sometimes bought me a yogurt....sometimes a lovely bottle of wine in a plastic bottle

  3. I was a beggar too! I'm glad we were able to go when France was so affordable. Those dollar meals were very good as I remember.

  4. Hi CHM, I think this is ironic: If you hadn't left Paris to live in America in 1969, and if I hadn't left America to spend several years in Paris starting in 1969, we probably would never have met, worked together, and become friends 15 years later. As for the handwriting, I'm starting to get arthritis in my hands and writing anything longhand is more and more difficult. I much prefer to type on a keyboard.

    Hi Melinda, the lunches at the RestauU in Aix in 1970 were 1,60 FF. I think the program doled out an allowance to all students of 100 FF a week. That way, they could be sure we didn't go completely broke while we were there. In one of my letters, I wrote about going to register myself at AmEX in Paris, rue Scribe, so that people who came to the city could look me up and find out where I was staying. In another letter I say that "a quart" (a liter, of course) of red wine cost 1,40 FF. They were bouteilles étoilées, the kind you paid a deposit on and returned to the store when they were empty.

    Judy, souvenirs ! souvenirs !

  5. Great post, great letters home, great video! And, you have a GREAT Mom!

    Have you told us how you and chm met? You've piqued my curiosity.


  6. Hi BettyAnn, I left Paris in 1982 after three years there and moved to Washington DC. I was looking for a job and took a translation test. CHM hired me to work on his staff. We did a magazine in French published by the U.S. government. I worked with him at the U.S. Information Agency for four years, and we became friends. I moved to California in 1986, and CHM had friends, and then bought a house in California, so we stayed in touch. Now he comes to Paris every summer and we spend a week or two with him.

  7. Was that some sort of a bilateral cultural exchange. LOL

  8. I agree with Anonnymouse Ken... your mother's great for having kept for you a whole host of memories for you to look through... that'll keep your grey cells from drying out! Each letter is going to fire the synapses in another filing cabinet and bring back the pictures as well as the associated smells, people not mentioned....etc, etc!

  9. I hate remembering how inexpensive things used to be. Then I remember how little money I used to have and the lower prices make more sense.

  10. Oh - the memories of Paris in the late 60's! I was there, too, with my Europe on $5/day, eating Borsht at a Russian Restaurant for $1/person and staying in the Hotel Splendide behind the Tour Eifel for $1.59/night. I looked at 3 of the suggested hotels in the book but after climbing up 5 flights (usually) and seeing fleas jump on the sunken beds I went out on my own and found a treasure. It was so good I took my parents there a couple of years later.

    My mother saved all of my letters, too. I'm glad you're enjoying rereading your thoughts. I did, too.

  11. What a fantastic archive of your life that you are able, thanks to your mother, to call on for accurate memories of that time.
    As a parent of two children in their 20's, it means such a lot to me to be included in their lives. The details are almost always the brief ones that can be written in text or email form, or sometimes as photographs.
    I cherish these in the same way that your mother must have cherished your letters.
    Your posts are really interesting Ken.
    Happy New Year to you and Walt and best wishes for 2011.

  12. Wow, Johnny Hallyday in his early days! I don't think I've ever seen him perform at that age. And... Sylvie Vartan!


  13. I have the letters to my parents from my visits to France. It is fun seeing how things looked the first times. It is pretty amazing that a lot of us did most of our traveling when we had NO money! Good that we had friends in interesting places. Of course we had no money at home either so it didn't make a lot of difference.

    Remember back then that there weren't credit cards, not many ATM cards. There were American Express Office lines though to cash travelers' checks.

  14. We were definitely at the Pierwige at the same time! I arrived there in February 1970 and stayed through summer.
    Until June, I had a roommate from my college program and we spent most of our time downstairs in the salon with the engineering students from the school next door. Paul, my husband, was one of them!
    There were also foreign students like us and students from the university, but most were at Eyrolles, the engineering school. There was the private school and the Préfecture de Paris and the Ministry also had their engineering schools based there.

  15. More Pierwige
    Did you ever watch TV in the salon? The trick was to tie a thread around the franc coin for perpetual payment. I think it was a franc for an hour of TV, black and white, of course. (Paul has just confirmed the price.) I remember how much they loved "Wild, Wild West"
    And Zaza, the concierge... You have opened a minefield of memories.

  16. Hi Ellen, and Bonne Année, meilleurs vœux, et tout. I never watched TV at the Pierwige, don't remember that there was one. I probably didn't have a franc to spare, and didn't know the string trick.

    I assume Zaza is the same woman I knew as Madame Suzanne. She was a kick for me, learning French and all. The weather outside was frightful, as I've said, much of the time I was there, and I spent a lot of time just sitting in the lobby talking with her, and listening to her interactions with and opinions of the other customers who came in or were already staying and the hotel. I'm sure I learned a lot of French over those two weeks.

  17. This is very touching. I remember those airmail envelopes! I also remember that when I was a student in Tours in 1980 -- so 10 years later -- we sometimes ate at a little "restaurant ouvrier" for 3.50 francs for a three-course meal. That restaurant proved to be a little too rough for us, though, so we ended up eating dinner in a little place in Le Vieux Tours that served a 3-course dinner for 5 francs.

    I may have to look for some letters at home this summer...

    Happy New Year too!


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