The first of everything is golden — our first step, the first articulate word we utter, the first kiss we experience.
The first thing I learned in Paris took place on the third floor of the Hôtel Danemark. I arrived Christmas morning near dawn. It was something below zero and the streets were covered in slush and almost deserted. In my hand was a scrap of paper with the address of a trustworthy hotel within walking distance of the Gare du Nord. A friend in Denmark had pressed this in my hand before I left with the advice that I should not trust taxis. It wasn't much, but it was all I had.
The next morning there were more cars and people on the street. I made my way through the Métro to La Coupole, the famous restaurant bar, in Montparnasse. I never once considered going inside. I'm sure I had less than the price of dinner in my pocket. I stood there for the longest time imagining Sartre with his pipe and odd eye scratching the incomprehensible into tiny notebooks. My journey began there because the Alliance Française was a short distance north, or down, or vers la Seine, where I was scheduled to study French. Between La Coupole and my ultimate destination, not far from the Rodin statue of Balzac that glowers at oncoming trafic, I saw an image that seemed predestined — a sign that read, Hôtel Danemark. I summoned my courage and registered for a room.
I looked for the Hôtel Danemark on the Internet recently and was shocked to find that it's still there, utterly stunned to discover that today it's a charming hotel with Italian marble bathrooms, specializing in English language tourists. My first thought was, they must have torn it down and replaced it with something capable of supporting marble.
When I walked in, the man who ran the desk, the man I suspected might own the place, appeared after an enormously long wait, more than long enough to discourage me from registering. He had the air of someone who had just been torn from the winning goal, or the details of a televised scandal. He managed, at last, a pained, but polite stare. I suppose you could count this as learning, but the truth is, I wasn't quite sure what I had learned or if I was learning anything at all. The hotel, this peculiar man, the language, the exchange of strange notes and stranger coins, the spiral staircase with room for no more than one, the portable bidet, the WC down the hall, and the paper thin walls, were a wonderful — perhaps wonderful is not quite the word — mystery to me.
It was later that day, the day after Christmas, my first full day in Paris, that I learned something I was capable of understanding. The front door — I suppose I call it the front door out of habit. The only door — there was no bathroom door, no closet door, because there was no bathroom, no closet. There was a small table near the window, an uninteresting chair, the portable bidet, a sink with occasional hot water, and a bed. But they were in Montparnasse. I was in Montparnasse. I was walking in the footsteps of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Miller. The room seemed perfect. Except the door. It didn't lock. It bounce back when you tried to close it. It didn't lock. It didn't latch. Either I had missed that chapter in all the stories about Paris or else the door was broken. I agonized over this before spiraling down the staircase to the front desk.
I received, I think, the iciest stare of my life, and I had just spent two years in the military. He disappeared for a moment and then reappeared with something like a tool box, in fact, a wooden box with a rope handle filled with tools. I followed him up the staircase, past the WC, down the hall, to my room. I dumbly pointed at screws and nuts eager to help, desirous of improving international relations. Finally, it occurred to me. I rushed to a phrase book and recited, "Est-ce que je peux vous aider?" May I help you.
He dropped a tool in the wooden box and smiled. I had obviously managed a connection. He grabbed me by both shoulders in a manly way and backed me up to the bed, where he forced me to sit. He held me like that for an uncomfortable length of time before saying, "Oui." Then he added the first thing I learned in Paris, something I have never forgotten. Very calmly, very clearly, he said, "Moralement." I could help him a great deal if I just did nothing.