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A day in Paris comes to an end

I sat with my newfound friends in the corner of a bustling bistro on the Left Bank. It was 1968, and Paris was convulsing with one strike after another. My friends had rescued me first from a strike at the Orly airport, then from three men who had very strong opinions about America's involvement in the Vietnam War at a countryside winetasting, then had whisked me away to Paris — all within just a few hours.

The bistro was elbow-to-elbow with men and women my age, many wearing what the British called "rocker" clothing: tight racer leather jackets, leather boots and scarves tied around their necks.

The bistro's owner, Roland, a short but powerful man, came over and hugged us all with great warmth. We were given large soup spoons (the French have the greatest soup spoons in the world: big, heavy and useful), then served ceramic bowls of French onion soup and a liter of obsidian-colored red wine on a rustic wooden tray.

The soup was a dream, the broth steeped in delightful aromas, the Gruyere melted on toasted bread. The wine was a syrah from his mother's vineyard in the Rhone. My friend André said it was essentially bootlegged into the bistro and was not quite legal to pour.

Legal or not, the wine was fiery-hot, high in alcohol, richly textured and heavy on the palate, with enough oak in the finish to pave a bowling alley. In this smoke-, chatter- and clatter-filled bistro, the wine and the soup were exactly what one needed as rain beat against the windows outside.

André asked Roland who the four gentlemen were sitting at a table in the opposite corner. The men seemed very intense and were bent over the table, talking among themselves. They were wearing small red armbands or red scarves.

Roland explained they were "Italian communists" in Paris to lend "some sort of solidarity" to the events unfolding in the city. I had no idea what that meant, but being Italian-American and fluent in their language, I made my way to their table. Like Italians wherever I have met them, the men were open and happy to meet me.

I expected to hear an earful of revolutionary rhetoric. But they were engaged in a very different kind of discussion — an argument, one would say, about which were more beautiful, Parisian women or Venetian women.

It was clear that all of them were quite taken with the women in Paris. I laughed out loud, much to their consternation and surprise. When I arrived back at our table, one of my new female friends asked me whether the men were enjoying Paris. I replied, yes, I thought they had "narrowed their points of interest" to a very specific area, and left it at that.

The rain had let up and I decided to get out of the closed-in feeling of the bistro and go for a walk. André prudently wrote down the women's phone numbers and addresses, which I stuffed into the pocket of my pea coat.

The freshness on the street was an instant shock to my system. I snapped out of my drowsiness and saw that Paris was now laden with fog. Ghostly images of vehicles stranded and parked haphazardly added to the poetic gloom of late evening Paris.

Turning onto a new street, I spied lights from a newsstand. Behind the counter stood a lovely young woman, about my age. I began to speak to her in French and she smiled, answering me in perfect American English. It turned out she was from Missouri, a part-time model and delighted to run into another American. She had taken this job, she said, to augment her income and to get a better feel for Paris and the Parisian people.

I waited until she closed the newsstand because she asked me to walk her home. She told me she was seeing someone, which quickly sorted out the ground rules between us. I told her my story and admitted that I needed a place to crash for the night, and she agreed that I could bunk in her roommate's room or the couch. We were simply two Americans in Paris and quite innocently made our way to her apartment.

Her apartment was above what used to be a bus barn. As I had come to France to study the wine industry, I was delighted to find out that the space was now used as a cooperative winery that delivered glass bottles of wine to various households and restaurants within the inner city — much as we used to do with milk in the United States.

The space was rented by various growers who blended the grapes and made simple and inexpensive reds, whites and rose' wines. After more than 30 hours of not sleeping, I walked through her door, thanked her very kindly, pulled my pea coat over my body and curled up on the couch. I had no idea that the next day I would be exchanging Francs for liters of wine on the doorsteps of Paris.

To be continued ...

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.