The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.
I left the small suburban town in America and moved to Paris at age 13. Our family had shared many happy family meals around the small oak table in our home yet I had yet to experience a restaurant like the Officer’s Club in Paris. The night was magical, the setting from a movie set. Red velvet draperies, crisp white linen tablecloths, silver table settings and a young girl set on living a dream.
My father had been living in Paris for several months before the family joined him. His daily routine had included many evenings at the Officer’s Club, with colleagues from his office, sharing a meal, ending a workday and our arrival did nothing to change that. We were going “out to dinner.” For some, this is a usual event, nothing special, yet for me, it was a magical night complete with a display of Paris couturier finery and a drive along the Seine.
The room was in an old pre-war building with high ceilings and long windows open to the summer evening. The maitre ‘d met us at the entrance and escorted us to the table. Silver service sparkled on the table, the linen napkins crisply folded at each seat. We were seated at a round table on the edge of the dance floor. My eyes were wide with anticipation, I had never been in a restaurant like this, there was a dance floor, four piece band and the lights of Paris outside our window. Seating us, the maitre ‘d snapped our napkins open and spread them on our laps. My father’s eyes twinkled with amusement and anticipation of sharing this experience with us. My mother leaned in and whispered her excitement.
We had dressed for dinner in our “best” clothes, a simple habit from my father’s youth. My lace dress seemed too drab for the elegance surrounding us, there were officer’s wives in evening gowns. Seated at our table we peered out at the room. Soft conversation surrounded us, the drapes absorbing the sounds of the diners. The tuxedoed waiters brought a basket of fresh French bread to the table. Oh glorious, it smelled like heaven, yeasty and crisp, the crust mad e crumbs on the tablecloth. My father reached across the table to show me how to rest the broken bread on my knife after buttering each bite. Such a small thing to remember all these years later.
We ordered the filet, a delicacy I had never experienced. Filet mignon, served with new potatoes and French string beans. A simple American dish, prepared by a French chef for newly relocated Americans. I’d never heard of the dish let alone had it prepared to my instructions. The waiter filled water glasses, scraped crumbs from the tablecloth and hovered attentively at the edge of the room. I absorbed every detail of the evening, from the taste of the food, the service of the wait staff and the sounds of the small band playing for the dancers. My parents left me at the table and headed toward the dance floor in between courses. Where had they learned to dance so effortlessly? When had they learned the etiquette of an elegant evening? I was learning every moment.
The evening wound on, the meal was complete with an eclair, served with powdered sugar on a lace doily. I wasn’t in New Jersey anymore. The wine, the sounds of other diners and the lateness of the hour had me nodding at my place. And then with some excitement, the room came alive as rack after rack of clothes were wheeled on the square dance floor on display for the women in attendance. The waiters hovered expectantly as the wives rose and perused the offerings. Coats, jackets and gowns were offered to the women, all Paris originals and dazzling to my eyes. I asked my father, “Does this happen all the time or is this a special occasion?” “It happens every night,” he replied. Oh my, Paris originals at my fingertips. First, filet mignon, now designer clothing. Would the evening have any more magic?
I learned to expect the Officer’s Club on Thursday nights. I learned the magic could include a moonlit drive along the Seine, a soft summer walk along the banks. I learned we had begun a new life in Paris that would change my way of looking at life and I would never forget that first restaurant experience. Designer clothes, crisp linens and a hovering wait staff serving a meal I couldn’t have imagined. Magic could happen, it was up to me to decide if it could last.