A tale of two cities

Never invite a French bartender to your house.

I learned this the hard way. But my passport says I am older and wiser now.

My late husband and I spent the better part of a week in Paris in the ’70s, ensconced on the top floor of a rooming house that rented to tourists like us – with small pocketbooks.

After exploring Paris each day, we ended the evening at a British-style pub that was cozy, familiar enough not to be intimidating, and conveniently close to our digs.

It was a neighborhood joint sort of like Cheers, but with a French accent. Not a tourist in the place – except us. When we returned the second night, we were greeted warmly, “Alors, you came back!” Big smiles all around with a clap on the back for Tom. Armand, the barkeep, lavishly presented me a beautiful pink peony with my champagne.

The local patrons were patient as we tried our mangled French. There was the retired Legionnaire in black beret and monocle, seated in the corner with his Belgian hound at his feet. He was the first to send us a drink. The gray-haired artist and her goateed husband sat at the end of the bar – their nightly domain. A few older veterans swapped war stories from “the big one,” and another half dozen became recognizable by our third visit.

They embraced us. And despite all we had heard about the unfriendly French, they were welcoming, kind, and very helpful. They gave us advice about areas to avoid and how to get to Montmartre to visit the artists’ stalls and bakeries.

On our last night, the champagne flowed, and I guess the conversation did, too. Somehow, both Tom and I gave our business cards to the bartender, Armand. And of course, I told him that if he came to the States, he had to visit us. I didn’t say “Give us a call.” I said, “…visit us.”

The letter from Armand came the following springtime. It was addressed to Tom at his office in New York, where he worked for the treasurer of Pan American Airways. I worked at American Airlines headquarters about six city blocks away. We commuted daily on the train from Connecticut.

The day the letter arrived, Tom handed it to me on the train home. The lavender note said Armand would arrive in three days, meet Tom at his office, and would be staying us. What??? Mon Dieu!!!

“You got this,” Tom said. “I don’t speak a word of French. I wouldn’t know what to do with him, and besides, you were the champagne bubble-breath who invited him to visit.”

Tom got a message to Pan Am’s counter at Kennedy airport so Armand would know where to go – my office. He somehow made it to 633 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

My little office was on THE executive floor, not far from the president and all the head honchos. When the elevators opened into the reception area, the quiet elegance told all who arrived that this was THE PLACE. I was intimidated the day of my interview, but it didn’t faze Armand one bit.

He arrived in Executive Reception with all his luggage, in a white jumpsuit, turquoise platform boots and a head topped with a well-greased, tall pompadour. He reeked of poor hygiene bathed in heavy cologne.

I was told he sat down, spread out, lit up a cigarette and turned on his transistor radio.

When the phone rang at my desk, the soft-voiced receptionist said, “Mrs. O’Brien, your guest has arrived. Will you be right down?” I told her I had one item to finish on deadline and would be there quickly. Two minutes later, the phone rang again. “Mrs. O’Brien, how soon can you retrieve your guest?” She didn’t sound soft and lovely the second time. As I hustled down the corridor to reception, I heard the end of a loud kerfuffle. When I arrived, Armand was on his feet, trying to explain to security, in French, why he was there. I was later told that American’s president had encountered him, demanding to know, “What is that skunky Elvis doing in my lobby?”

I whisked Armand into the elevator, called Tom from downstairs and we met for lunch. I checked Armand’s luggage, and he wandered the avenues of the Big Apple until train time. No one sat near us as Armand showed me his Greyhound “See America” pass he had purchased in France. He was leaving the next day. Whew.

We had a hilarious fractured French dinner reminiscent of Paris. When he took the train with us the next morning, he was happy, excited and full of thanks.

We received a lilac-colored thank you note a month later – just about the time we got his “aroma” out of our house.

I still occasionally chat with bartenders, but they all speak English and I keep my business cards in my purse.

But, y’know, not one has given me a pink peony with a side of champagne. We’ll always have Paris.

Marcy O’Brien can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com,


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