1986: No Ordinary Time

I spent the spring semester of my junior year of college studying in Paris.  Certainly, this was an important and formative experience for me personally.  However, it was also a remarkably interesting period of time in terms of world events.

La Confrerie des Eaux de la Seine: Chris Wagner, Bill Dobrow & The Major

During my Paris days in the spring of 1986, these are some of the significant things that occurred on the planet:

  • Within two days of my arrival, I woke up a radio newscast in which the announcer was speaking very quickly and excitedly about an explosion.  He kept using the word navette over and over again.  Within a few hours, I came to learn this word forever.  It meant “shuttle” in English.  On January 28, 1986, the American space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
  • As you may have read in my previous post …to the shores of Tripoli, during this time Libyan terrorists blew up a nightclub in Berlin killing and wounding numerous U.S. military members.  On April 15, 1986, President Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon, an assault on Tripoli via U.S. Air Force bombers and U.S. Navy Tomahawk missiles.  France’s President François Mitterand refused a U.S. request to allow American jets launched from England to fly over France.  Tensions between France and the United States were frayed during this time.
  • Chernobyl

    Just 11 days later, we began to hear about nuclear explosion in a place in the Ukraine (then part of the USSR) called Chernobyl.  The reports were confusing at first.  Like the current Fukushima Daiishi disaster, the news got worse over time.  Chernobyl was only 2,000 kilometers (about 1,200 miles) from Paris.  We wondered which foods were affected.  In Italy, people were advised to avoid verdura, green vegetables.  Everyone wondered what would happen if the winds shifted east to west.

  • In France, right-wing parties won legislative elections.  This forced leftist President Mitterand to appoint a right-wing prime minister.  For the first time in its history, France had a cohabitation government.  Many in France were predicting that the sky would fall.  It did not.
  • Speaking of Mitterand, we had a brush with Monsieur le Président.  Late one night, a group of us was staggering walking the streets of the Latin Quarter (the old Roman section of town on the Left Bank).  It was shortly after arrival, and we had just learned that France did not have a law prohibiting the carrying of open containers of alcohol.  We came upon a street that was blocked off with barricades.  While some of us attempted to walk in a straight line in front of the two or three flics (French cops) stationed at the barricade, our buddy Bill walked right up to them and started joking with them.  The result: the police thought we were hysterical.  It turned out that they liked Americans.  We found this everywhere in France — French people who defied the stereotype of American-haters.

My friend, President Mitterand

Anyhow, Bill asked the officers what they were doing there.  One agent told us that Mitterand lived on that street.  I laughed this off — everyone knew that the French President lives in the Elysée Palace.  I thought the cops were trying to fool us.  After a few minutes, the police radios went off and the flics went into action.  They moved the barrier to one side and moved us to another.  A small car appeared and was let through onto this quiet, unassuming, narrow street.  At a house about halfway down the block, the President of the Fifth Republic got out.  We shouted to him, and he waved back at us.  Then, we went home.

  • People-power revolutions took place.  In Haiti, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier left power.  In The Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos was deposed, and Corazon Acquino became that nation’s first female president.
  • While walking home from the cinema, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was assassinated in the street.  This sent shock waves throughout Europe.  It made us realize how small the continent is, and how interrelated its states are.
  • Jim McMahon, Fred “Refrigerator” Perry and Coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears won the Superbowl.
  • Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s safe, discovering only a bottle of moonshine.
  • On the day I left France, Hands Across America took place to raise money to fight hunger and homelessness.

Pretty significant events, eh?

As for me:

Paris (bad hair part)

London (freezing my cojones off)

Rome (dig the bad cargo pants)

At Versailles with a friend visiting from London.

Goofing off in Alsace with Bill Dobrow.

The Eschbach family of Strasbourg who took in three scruffy Americans. Note the lovely choucroute that Madame fixed for our Sunday dinner.

Working on my diplomatic skills at Madame Tussauds in London.

My first encounter with Colonel Gadhafi. We will meet again. King Hussein looks bemused.

Let's just say that my style needed a little refinement at that point.

What's with that pose? I assure you, I don't do that anymore.

Jim Morrison's Grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetary. At some point afterward, the statue of Jim on top was stolen. It has never been recovered.

That plaid jacket was really awful. It must have smelled terrible after all that travel.

At the Spanish Steps in Rome. Check out the enormous loaf of bread I'm clutching.

Che si dici, Signorina?

Trying to look pensive and cool at the Roman Forum. How'd I do?

One final noteworthy event that I observed somewhat first hand:

  • Upon arrival in Paris, I had to go to the local Prefecture of Police in the Montparnasse neighborhood to register as a temporary resident.  After receiving my Carte de Séjour, I went across the street to Cimetière Montparnasse and saw the grave of philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.  During my stay in Paris, Sartre’s long-time lover with whom he lived, Simone de Beauvoir died.  The day before I left Paris, I went back to the Prefecture to return my card.  Afterward, I reentered the cemetery.  Simone had joined Jean-Paul in eternity.

— The Major

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