Reporting the News:
From Daily Journals to Dangerous Duty
Sunday, April 1, 2001
Relive trips in pages of travel journals
SIGHTS & SOUNDS | By Drew Murphy
It was cloudy in Paris 46 years ago today. I didn't pay much attention to the weather, though, because I was packed and ready to leave for a month in sunny Italy.
I wouldn't have remembered cloudy Parisian skies on a certain day, many years ago, were it not for notes I made in a journal. Before leaving the City of Light for Italy I had spent four and a half months in New York and six weeks in Paris — all courtesy of the Ford Foundation — and all recorded in two little books I still have. After Italy there would be a month in London.
You may not be interested in the recollections to follow, but I hope you will remember this: When you travel, keep a journal. I can promise you that years later it will provide some fascinating reading.
I should do a little explaining about the Ford Foundation. In the 1950s the foundation awarded fellowships to high school teachers whose applications sounded appealing and creative. I guess they liked what I wrote about wanting to audit courses at Columbia University in New York, studying French in Paris, and spending a month each in Italy and London.
My school year away from the classroom began in New York, where I had friends who let me stay in their Greenwich Village apartment.
New York, in 1954, was a relatively safe, intriguing place. Even before Lincoln Center was built there was more activity than one could handle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the Cloisters (branch of the Met Museum), the old Metropolitan Opera House, and the innumerable theaters clustered around Times Square — not to mention scores of movie houses.
And then there were parties where I met exotic (to me) people like Jane Timberlake Waring, who smoked pink cigarettes with gold tips; and Herb Bronstein, who worked at the Museum of Modern Art and had a small Calder mobile in his office.
There was dinner at a restaurant around the corner from the tiny house Edna St. Vincent Millay had in the Village, and there were art shows at Washington Square.
There were beers at the White Horse, a tavern where Dylan Thomas often stopped — and where red-headed Peggy sang "Twa Ravens."
The Old Vic Company came from London and staged "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Metropolitan Opera. That was the production where the whole cast "flew" off stage at the end.
Many other delights were savored before I left the Village on a snowy Jan. 13, 1955, boarded the SS United States at Pier 86 and headed for Europe. The crossing was very rough, making us 24 hours late. I remember dining room furniture being tied down and tablecloths being wet to keep dishes from sliding off. Its business killed off by the trans-Atlantic jet plane, the United States went out of commission in 1969. The story of this great ship deserves a separate column, later.
Once in Paris, I settled in a small, family-owned hotel off L'Avenue de l'Opera between the Opera House and the Louvre. I looked up friends I had known during World War II, and made some new ones. I took private French lessons at the Alliance Francaise, and dined regularly at a tiny restaurant around the corner called Le Gallic.
I could walk to the opera, where I attended a performance of Rameau's "Les Indes Galantes." Back in my room I recorded these impressions:
"This evening I went to the opera — Rameau's Les Indes Galantes' — the most stupendous operatic spectacle I have ever seen by far. One's senses are numbed by the sheer weight. Was lucky enough to get a front row seat right behind the conductor, Louis Fourestier.
"At certain points I felt like laughing helplessly — at things like the Goddess of Love descending in the clouds, pink and blue cherubs ascending and descending via a cloud concealed escalator, a great shipwreck, and of course the volcanic eruption with much hissing steam, flames, black smoke — and at its climax, blocks of lava thrown all over the place. The program notes quaintly informed me that the villain of the piece, an Inca high priest, had "artificially" caused the eruption.
"Thank God it wasn't the real thing. The place stank enough as it was, with all that smoke. But everything was taken care of. After intermission, at the beginning of the Entree des fleurs,' somebody thoughtfully put a heavy scent of roses in the air-conditioning."
The smoke was all gone. I loved it. Remember: Keep a journal.