Five Nights and Eighty Thousand Steps in Paris, France — Day One
Judy Appel retired from the joy-filled rigors of teaching elementary school-age children in 1997. Ten years ago she founded the “Stillwater Scribbler’s,” a Stillwater writers’ group. Her published works include both print and digital media of her non-fiction writing. The one-hundred-year-old letter featured in this piece inspired her recent trip to Paris, France. It is the first of a four-part story.
Our taxi driver booted up his portable credit card register to charge my American Express account, as he delivered my daughter Nancy and me to our destination in the heart of the historic district of what Parisians call “The City of Lights.”
“Merci,” we replied in unison.
It was 1:40 in the afternoon on Saturday, March 24, 2018; the weather was cloudy with brisk winds, the temperature in the mid-40s. Nan and I wasted no time in checking into our room in the historic Regina Hotel, located on the right bank of the Seine. We were based adjacent to the Louvre Museum and kitty-corner across the street from the Tuileries Garden; the Eiffel Tower was distant but visible from our hotel room window. Contrary to how I have traveled in the past, I felt drawn to this special 5-Star lodging because I was led to believe that the hotel had been used as an American military hospital during W.W. I. My great uncle Walter Strand passed away unexpectedly in this very place. The touching letter written to Uncle Walt’s mother became a part of the Strand family history that I published in 2004.
I feel the need to present the letter to you before I continue with my story.
“November 6, 1918,
“My Dear Mrs. Strand,
“As I was with Lieutenant Walter Strand during the last days of his life, I thought you would like me to give you as many details as possible. If anything can make his loss easier, ‘. . . twil be the knowledge that in his last hours he stood for all that is finest in America.’ Parents often ask if their boys fell in a winning or a losing fight — I do not know if your son’s regiment was actually advancing when he fell, but the fighting in which he was wounded was that which made Germany finally realize that she could not win. When he died the newspaper was beside him saying that Germany had asked for an armistice.
“Probably some in his company can tell you how he was wounded — he had no memory of it himself. He was struck in five places — the right arm, left shoulder, back and both legs. The wounds in the shoulder and back were both serious. He seems to have been treated in a field hospital, or perhaps an evacuation hospital, then put on a train to go further back. At Troyes, 80 miles south, the people on the train seem to have felt that he was worse and must have an immediate operation, so they left him at the French hospital where there were already a number of other Americans who had been left for the same reason. The American Red Cross had two American nurses and two nurse’s aides on duty at this hospital to take care of the Americans. Your son was delirious when he was brought in. I do not think that he really had been conscious since he was wounded. They found his arm infected, so amputated at once at the shoulder. They said, however, that they had practically no hope for him — they merely wanted to try everything. The first night the French orderly was with him, the second night he seemed more restless so I stayed. He talked all night, quite out of his head, but not appearing to suffer at all. He talked almost entirely of his duty, of his men, of the preparations for battle. He thought he was in the camps or in the trenches and held long, quite natural conversations about little every-day things with imaginary friends. Through it all he gave revelations of a fine, upright, unusually brave nature. He was the first man I have ever seen who imagined no fear. I thought perhaps he had just come over and had been wounded in his first action, but afterward I found that he had been in all the fighting of the war; this was the third time he had been wounded and he had gotten his commission in action. He showed great generosity and unselfishness, too; when I offered him milk or water he would apologize for the trouble. Then he would call for an ambulance for someone else, or would imagine that he was buying things at the commissary to give away, or would sip a little milk and then say, ‘Drink the rest yourself, boy, it’ll do you good.’ Then he imagined that he was giving his son a talk before going into the battle. He told the men what they were fighting for, and what America expected of them. Then suddenly he imagined that he was home again talking to a big audience and what the Marines had done in France. I wish you could have seen his face shine with pleasure when he finished and seemed to hear their applause. What he said was a bit jumbled but still fine and inspiring. I shall never forget it or the beautiful brave spirit that shone through it all. Afterwards; however, he became very exhausted and pale and I went for the French night nurse and got her to give him a hypodermic. Then his doctor came and gave him another and he rallied a little. For about two days he was like this and then suddenly he opened his eyes and was quite rational, he asked to be shaved and then to see a paper. The doctors were amazed and now said he had just a chance of living. The first dressing of wounds was an anxious time but he came through it all right and suffered very little and felt much better. He knew his arm was off and he was badly wounded and very weak but did not realize that he might die. He slept a great deal and had a good appetite — especially enjoying grapes which we always had ready on his table. He gave me your address and told me to tell you that he was getting on all right. He also dictated a postcard to his brother. Then suddenly when he was eating his supper a blood vessel in his back, which was almost severed by the wound, broke, and he fell back instantly dead.
“I thought that you would be glad to know that in spite of his many wounds he did not suffer at all. At least he was spared that by dying while he was still too weak to have much feeling. All who came in contact with him — the nurses and the other wounded officers — became devoted to him.
“He was buried in the French Military Cemetery about a mile from the hospital, the American flag was draped over his coffin and soldiers (only a few were in the town) walked behind the hearse.
“If there is anything else I can tell you, perhaps you will write and ask me. I shall always think of your son as a typical American. He had all the things that go to make a hero.
American Red Cross Nursing Bureau,
Hotel Regina, Paris, France.”
The Regina Hotel staff was unable to verify my belief that their structure, which was built in 1900, had actually housed hospital beds during the First World War. Instead their published literature only praised the family that has been in continuous ownership of the property for over 100 years. I also was not able to locate an American Military Cemetery nearby. My Uncle Walter’s remains were in time shipped to America and he is now interred in the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Given the short time my daughter and I had in Paris, we abandoned our family archival research and returned to our room in the Regina Hotel. We began our preparations for this first day’s sightseeing. Our focus would be on major landmarks and nearby gardens.
Finding that YouTube videos that I had watched before packing led me astray by suggesting that all women in Paris wear high-heeled leather boots, Nan and I both took our stiff new footwear off and slipped on tennis shoes. We snacked on the hotel staff-delivered welcome gift of luscious fresh fruit, zipped up our jackets, and tied up our neck scarves. Now looking more like Parisians, we set out to explore. Pulling our door closed we descended four stories, walking down the elegant winding hotel stairway (my daughter thought that during our stay we should avoid the elevator and take every opportunity to stretch our legs). At this point I agreed.
“Au revoir,” we signaled to the smiling hotel concierge.
Nan booted up two apps on her smartphone. One was a GPS that would keep us located and headed in the proper direction, as we sought out our destinations. The other both located restaurants specializing in entrees we craved and rated their quality. It was our plan to walk through the Jardin des Tuileries (garden in French) then on to the Champs-Elysees, to the Arch of Triumph, finally over to the left bank of the Seine where we could get photos of the Eiffel Tower. As we had found on our past European adventures, public places are highly revered and continuously being enjoyed by Parisian families. We passed singles comfortably lounging around the garden fountain and pool, both mothers and fathers pushing small children in strollers. It was a bit disappointing to see that most plants and trees in the gardens were still resting. Only daffodils and recently planted primrose were in bloom on this cold, windy afternoon. As we passed the gigantic Ferris wheel, the mammoth Grande Roue de Paris overlooking both gardens, didn’t seem to be in service, probably because it was such a windy day. I snapped a photo of a crepe kiosk along the Champs-Elysees. Street-prepared crepes come in at least 30 varieties. We plan to have brunch at a sit-down crepe restaurant later in during our stay.
It was 4:30 PM as we approached the Musée de l’Orangerie impressionist art gallery on our way back to the Regina. Hurrying up the museum steps, we were turned away by the door guard as he announced that the place closes at 5:00 PM. We added the Orangerie to our schedule for Wednesday thinking that the tour would be a good way to say goodbye to Monet. Tuesday is set aside for a bus trip to Giverny to tour both his home and gardens.
Our stomachs were growling when we approached the Regina. Neither Nan nor I were interested in any of the dishes listed on the hotel menu for Saturday night. The concierge graciously pulled out a map to give us directions to three nearby restaurants where we could sit down for moderately priced authentic French cuisine. All three were located on the right bank of the Seine. The sun was setting when we chose L’Ardoise. Nan ordered a cod risotto, I ordered a hake fish fillet served over steamed lemon-and-butter infused celery. Accompanied by a white Saint Véran wine, we left smiling and made a leisurely walk back to the hotel, window shopping along the way.
Settling into our soft, cozy and crisp sheets, I pulled the lightweight down quilt up to my chin, said good night to Nan and turned out the light.
“We did 18,000 steps today Mom, sleep well,” Nan whispered. *