Paris 1947: Of cathedrals and brothels

By Alice D. Outwater | Contributor

WWII,_Europe,_France,_"American_soldiers_watch_as_the_Tricolor_flies_from_the_Eiffel_Tower_again"_-_NARA_-_196289Aging is not restricted to our later years. I recall a potent period when I was 17 years old. This first of two remembrances is in post-war Paris; the next, in the French Alps. I was unprepared for the physical and emotional challenges—somewhat like what I am coping with in this later period of my life.

It was June, three years after the end of World War II. I was the youngest of 300 college students brought together by the Experiment in International Living for a summer in France, some of us to be counselors in camps with war orphans. On the train from Le Havre to Paris the sight of gravestone after gravestone overwhelmed my senses, each one a quiet sentinel marking the resting place of a young soldier who had died defending France. The checkerboard fields of brilliant red poppies accented by rows of white gravestones numbed my mind.

After such lighthearted preparation, I was now confronted with the unadorned reality of a France still recovering from German occupation. We brought K rations so as not to deplete the scarce food supplies. Each of us had also collected two large boxes of clothing to distribute. To be considerate of French sensitivities, none of us packed any new clothes that might mark us as Americans.

An air of desolation hung over Paris. Although it had escaped bombing, retreating Germans had ravished the capital in 1944. We bicycled through grim neighborhoods of deserted houses. Almost all of them had shattered windows; some were covered with cardboard, while others had gaping holes opening into empty interiors. Many building exteriors bore the telltale pockmarks of random gunfire. The litter-strewn streets exposed a disheveled city, still traumatized by vast problems, with inadequate resources to tackle them.

During the 10-day Atlantic crossing on the Marine Tiger, a converted troop ship, the boys talked continually about Parisian nightclubs. Mike Baxter, my new beau from shipboard, was meeting his 26-year-old college instructor Jake Cole in the city. The latter was allegedly researching Paris nightlife for his dissertation. They planned a thorough after-dark investigation. I admired their audacity.

“We’ll go to all the most shocking spots in town: the gay bars, the transvestite hangouts, the striptease joints. Alice, we want you with us. You’ll just love it.” Perhaps my presence legitimized the daring adventures. I was irresistibly intrigued.

It was the first time I remember trying to listen with my heart, to listen to my life—and I felt inadequate and self-conscious.

Flattered to be included in their mission, I did not understand the shows, but they seemed glitzy, naughty and quite forbidden. Seeing it all made me feel worldly. As gentlemen concerned for my welfare, they walked on either side of me as we strolled the streets. They continued to check on my well-being as the night wore on, and the acts grew more appalling.

In one club, men appeared on tiny stages with women’s wigs, lipstick smeared in exaggerated rosebud lines and long false eyelashes, which they fluttered. They stuffed the bodices of their gowns with padding to create breasts and danced close to each other while kissing. In another bar, ugly, aging women, sullied by years in brothels, did striptease routines to the accompaniment of noisy music, banging drums and heckling customers.
Cigarette butts overflowed ashtrays. With stench of smoke and stale liquor, I could hardly breathe. A dismal tackiness and forced gaiety pervaded those places, but such distractions seemed to help patrons in their desperate attempt to deal with the aftermath of four years of brutal occupation.

We drank only a glass of wine here and there. Mike and Jake concentrated intensely on the acts. They elbowed each other or exchanged winks as each act became more outrageous. I surmised they found them as unfamiliar as I did and were also in uncharted territory.
The shattered city and the intensity of the nights made me long for a quiet place to regain my equilibrium. I was desperate to clarify these new experiences and recover a frame of reference. I found a quiet haven in the churches; they fascinated me and I made many trips to them, usually alone.

Notre Dame was my favorite with its soaring, gothic interior, galleries and flying buttresses. The gray stone floors were uneven underfoot, worn by years of worshippers coming down the aisles to pray. Sitting by the altar in a front pew, I watched as knots of women dressed in black, with shawls covering their heads, murmured as they lit votive candles. Kneeling in the pews, some wept quietly in depths of misery as they said their rosaries over and over. Were their tears for husbands? Or sons killed during the war? Had some once lived in those pillaged houses we passed? I connected to them as we sat searching for the Holy Spirit. The church with its vaulted ceilings was both solemn and keenly comforting.

It was the first time I remember trying to listen with my heart, to listen to my life—and I felt inadequate and self-conscious. I wanted to pray but realized I didn’t know how, even after years of Sunday school. I could repeat my prayers at night—“Now I lay me down to sleep…,” I could ask God for favors when in difficulty, but now I needed something far more complex and elusive.

The church seemed to embody a deep and mysterious soul. I felt if I tried hard enough I might catch a fleeting glimpse of God or some signal of his presence. Those afternoons in Notre Dame marked the beginning of a lifelong search for spirituality and meaning.
After a week in Paris with little sleep, I repacked my knapsack, joined my group, and pedaled toward the chateau country in the Loire Valley. I never again longed to go into another nightclub. Stale liquor and smoke nauseate me to this day. I sometimes think back on my crash course in post-war Parisian nightlife—how thorough it was and how well the two boys looked after me. I wonder if we missed anything…