"I say we go to Paris for New Years," John said to me from out of nowhere.
His comment was out of the blue, like a bird suddenly shitting on your forehead as you come out of a building, not knowing that the bird was even there, or knowing whether or not the bird did it on purpose, or maybe even just being the luck of the draw. It was one of the things I loved about John (name changed because I don't have his permission to put him in this story). He was spontaneous, off the cuff, surprising you with a witty comeback, or an outrageous idea like 'going to Paris' from out of the blue.
It was two weeks before Christmas so, in a way it wasn't that spontaneous. We would still have three weeks to work out the details of the trip, but it was spontaneous because I hadn't even asked him. I hadn't much thought about New Year's yet. As a matter of fact I had just spent a ton of money shipping German keepsakes back to the states to just about every family member I had. I wasn't broke, exactly, but I was almost a thousand dollars poorer than I had been.
"All right," I answered. I was intrigued by the idea, and I knew spending a weekend in Paris, on New Year's Eve with John, would amount to an adventure, and I needed one. I had just gotten back to Germany from a TDY (temporary duty assignment), had been in Germany for just over a year, and was ready for something different.
"Anybody else in," John turned and asked the others in the room. We were in A1C Beckett's room, like normal, having a few German beers, cutting up, entertaining ourselves.
"You guys are kidding around, right?" one of the guys asked. I can't remember who it was, but it's not important, the only thing that mattered is that none of them were going to go. They were going to stick to the norm, sit in one of their rooms, drink lots of German beer, and tell lots of jokes.
John looked at me and I nodded. "No," he answered. "We're going."
The bus was just a bus. It had four bus wheels, wrapped in four bus tires, twenty bus seats (although the seats were pretty comfy), surrounded by a bunch of bus windows, filled with a bunch of bus tourists, including John and I.
But, to us, it wasn't just a bus. It was a teleportation device, a transformation machine, a time traveling, warp capable, ever loving, child maker, for the moment that the bus started to move, opening our eyes with wonder, filling our minds with new possibilities of what was to come, and our hearts with eager anticipation. That bus was just a bus, taking us to Paris for a New Year's celebration, but it was the adventure we wanted, and we knew we were going to get it before we even left. For that entire weekend we would no longer be Airmen in the United States Air Force. We would be travelers to another place, wanderers, to a set destination, but not a set predicament, and not a set state of mind.
We knew we'd be up for an adventure because it wasn't the first trip we had taken together. We were accompanied by a few of the other guys on some of the other trips. We had gone to Berlin to play rugby, which I was horrible at, Frankfurt Germany just to see the red light district, and all over south eastern Germany to see different castles. Every one of the previous trips had been a pretty wild time and Paris would be no different. Unfortunately we were going to get what we were looking for, but not in the way that we wanted to.
Every time we left the base I was always struck by the difference between Europe and the U.S. In some ways it was similar. We have trees in the U.S., and they have trees in Europe. We have hills in the U.S. and so do they. We have towns, they have towns, we have tourist attractions and so on, but it's so different. You could not be plucked from the United States, and sat down in a European setting, anywhere, and not know that you were no longer in the United States. The moment you opened your eyes, you'd know that you were 'not in Kansas anymore Toto'.
Europe is older and it shows. The culture is different and it oozes from the pores of every house that they build, every building they've constructed, and every sign that they shove into the ground, like jelly oozes from a sandwich. Their style is different, viewing buildings as a chance to express their creativity, not just as a function to store their business in, but as an opportunity to show their artistic minds.
So every mile that our teleportation device took us was another mile of soaking in the difference in culture. John and I both sat quietly during the entire trip from Ramstein to Paris, but neither of us were bored. There was just too much to see.
If the countryside in between the airbase and Paris could be described as 'different' from the United States, then Paris itself, to me, was 'other worldly'.
The first thing that I noticed, before noticing anything else, because it stuck out like a lizard alien in a crowd of humans, were golden statues (made of bronze but I didn't know it at the time) of Pegasus sitting perched on massive masonry socles, as if watching over the bridge over Seine.
Culture. That's the difference between Europe and the U.S. and they shout their culture with pride, trumpeting it for all to see as you enter their city.
The bus didn't take us straight to the hotel, but took the 'scenic' route so that all of our eyes could soak in the vast and pure beauty of the city.
In the United States cities, most building are constructed with purpose in mind. They are built for efficiency, effectiveness, and purpose. They are usually square and tall, making that what draws your mind to them, towering high above you as you pass by them, forcing you to crane your neck to see the top.
But Paris was different. My eyes drawn to the curvaceous lines that trimmed virtually every structure my eyes laid upon, for there didn't seem to be a straight line amongst any of the buildings. Every one of them seemed to scream artistic flair and stylistic genius.
Once the bus driver decided that we had enough, he pulled in front of the hotel, told us we had a little over an hour to check in and eat, and we had to be back on the bus for the first stop of our tour.
Both Friday evening and Saturday morning were packed with tour stops. We went to the Musée du Louvre, soaking in the richest art a person could imagine. The highlight of that art was the Mona Lisa, kept at a distance, down a long hallway like room, roped off at the front so you couldn't even get close to it, but she was beautiful. We also went to Fragonard Parfumerie, toured the factory, and bought scents to scare away the mechanic smell that I'm sure we carried. We toured the Palais de Justice, and then headed to the Moulin Rouge which was topped off by a visit from La Toya Jackson, who passed by us, surrounded by her entourage, as we walked out from the show.
The bus driver encouraged us to experience a little of the Parisian night life before taking us to the highlight of the tour which was the New Year's celebration at the Arc de Triomphe.
John and I began to walk down the strip near the Moulin Rouge, soaking in all of the different pubs that were available for our drinking pleasures, and we were ready to get our drink on. Both of us had pretty much gotten our fill of tourist attractions and we both wanted to sit and have a cold one.
Of course, as military men, young at heart, full of spunk, and completely lacking in normal intelligence, we stopped at a door with a simple sign that read 'girls'. It sounded like the perfect place.
But it wasn't perfect at all.
We walked up a flight of stairs and our first clue to leave should have been the emptiness of the bar. The streets below had been crowded, elbow room only, pretty much, but the bar was deserted, dimly lit, and the only person we could see was standing behind a counter. He directed us toward the back, toward an empty stage, booth style seats covered in red velvet, and nothing else.
We sat and waited for a minute before someone came to ask us what we wanted to drink. We both ordered our favorite; beer.
"This place is weird," John said.
I nodded my head. "One beer and we're outta here," I said, not knowing that one beer later would be too late.
Before our drinks arrived a girl walked up onto the stage. At one time this girl had probably been a knockout. She had light brown hair, blue eyes, and a nicely shaped body. She walked up onto the stage, gave a nervous glance toward the other side of the bar, toward where the man had been standing when we came in, music began to play and she began to dance.
Her dance was not graceful. She wasn't enjoying herself, teasing us seductively with a sly smile, encouraging us to enjoy her beauty, or daring us to have a good time at her expense. She was going through the motions, not by choice, but by unseen force. Unseen to our eyes, because nobody was currently beating her, but the evidence of those beatings glowed against the lighting on her legs, stomach and shoulders.
It was grotesque.
We should have run right then and there; got up from our seats, and bolted. There wasn't anything we could do to help the girl. Her life course had already been chosen, her destiny painfully apparent in the bruises on her body, but ours wasn't. Running would have been much cheaper.
The moment the girl was naked it was as if the show was over. She quickly gathered up what she had worn, slinking them up to her chest, covering herself shamefully, and she bolted from the stage. Apparently she had done enough to satisfy her boss and she was outta there.
"I think I've seen enough," I said to John. I could tell that he was as bothered by the scene as I was. We were both in shock, both naïve enough to believe that this kind of thing was something that you watched in a movie, but never really saw first-hand, up front and personal.
"Let's get the fuck out of here," he nodded.
But before our hind ends could leave our seats, two girls approached, and slid in next to us. "Can we join you," a decent looking blonde woman asked. She had taken residence in the seat next to John, and a Whoopi Goldberg lookalike was sitting next to me. Neither of the girls was exceptionally beautiful in any way, but neither of them was exactly ugly either.
Sometimes it right to be rude. Sometimes being polite is the worst thing you can do. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to look someone in the eye and say, "no, you can't join us. No, we don't want your company, and no, we won't buy you any drinks."
We said none of those things.
We did just the opposite. So stupid.
We agreed to let them join us, we agreed to buy them drinks, and we let them buy whatever they wanted. Looking back, I see just how insane that is. I see all of the signs that had led up to our mistakes so clearly, and I know now how idiotic it was to even be inside of that place, let alone buying two strange women the drinks that they were asking for.
The started off light. Each of them ordered a beer, but before they so much as took one full drink from each of their glasses they were asking if they could have wine. "Sure," we stupidly agreed, "wine sounds fine."
They didn't just order a glass of wine, but a bottle of it. No biggie. How much could a bottle of wine cost? Twenty, thirty, forty dollars?
Try twelve hundred.
No, you read that right. It isn't a typo. It wasn't a mistake that I made when I wrote this. When the bill came that bottle of wine was on the bill for twelve hundred damn dollars. Each of the beers was listed at eighty dollar a piece. Of course, at the time, the bill was written in franks, it was 1990 and that was the currency then, and the twelve hundred dollar wine had 4,800 written next to it, but the conversion was 1200 dollars.
"What the fuck," John said as he read the bill, "this has got to be a mistake!"
The girls tried to calm us down. They told us that these were the normal prices in France.
"The fuck they are," I said, "we've only been here for the weekend, but so far nobody has tried to charge us eighty dollars for a mother fucking beer!" I finished with an overly loud voice.
"Relax, baby," fake Whoopi said, "just pay the bill and we'll make it up to you after."
"Yeah, and what will that cost us?" I yelled, "fifty grand?"
We both marched up to the counter and began to demand an explanation. The guy behind the counter wasn't budging and he threatened to call the police if we didn't pay. We argued with him for at least a half an hour, finally getting a concession, but not nearly as much of one as we thought we should have. In the end that little trip to the bar with the sign reading 'girls' ... four hundred dollars.
For four beers, and a bottle of wine, probably not expensive wine either, probably just your everyday house wine, but the charge! A whopping eight hundred bucks total!
But, in the end, it was worth it. I didn't know it as we finally left the scam artist's bar, but I was about to have one of the most incredible romantic experiences of my life, the story of which, is why I chose to write this piece in the first place.
For life often offers you a dark tunnel, before it shows you the light at the end of it.