JAMES DANNENBERG / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
The writer contemplates a piece of stone that continues to haunt his memories of Paris.
What’s a little religious artifact theft among allies?
Of callow youth, learning to respect other cultures, and a 40-year-old confession
Lord Elgin had nothing on me.
They say that a criminal often goes back to the scene of his crime, and I can attest to the veracity of that platitude, at least in my own case. I don't even have to return, as the evidence of my mischief greets me as I rise every day and sits snugly in a corner near my computer, haunting me benignly even as I type these very words.
How to describe it? I'm looking at a dull gray block of stone, perhaps 6 inches square, chiseled into a rounded shape and weighing about 8 pounds. The side on which it rests is flat, rising as a pyramid that seems to nestle into a pair of curved horns. Viewed from one perspective, it looks like a pedestal bearing a ram's head or perhaps seashells, and from another it has a vaguely obscene appearance.
It wasn't meant to rest on the floor, however. This piece of carved stone originally adorned the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
You may well ask how this priceless part of French history, hewn from rock centuries ago by some unnamed artisan toiling to please his exalted God, came to reside in my study in Kailua, Hawaii.
The French people didn't give it to me. I didn't buy it on eBay.
I stole it.
In my defense I might argue that I was young, that I was under duress, that I meant no real harm, but judgment is yet to be rendered, and if brought to the bar I would likely plead no contest.
My first visit to Paris was in 1964, as a callow youth of 19. It was an ill-fated trip from the beginning. Never out of the United States before, I immediately experienced an aching combination of culture shock and homesickness that colored my every experience. Even London, my first port of call, seemed sinister and hostile, and crossing the channel weaned me from the meager linguistic comfort of understanding -- for the most part -- what people were saying.
Remember that this was the France of Charles de Gaulle, then in the process of withdrawing from NATO and kicking out American air bases. Never mind that we had saved his cookies during the war. Never mind that we were lining up to spend millions of dollars in tourist revenues. The official line was that Americans were Coca-Cola-swilling bumpkins with too much power and money, and they weren't about to like us.
By this time I had linked up with a traveling companion and acquired a car, a Hillman Imp. Once in Paris, however, there wasn't much else to do other than park it and find a cheap hotel, the cheaper the better. (My collection of parking tickets might well have broken the bank had I paid them, but I managed to avoid "le Denver boot.")
WE FOUND a hotel on the Left Bank, on the Rue St. Jacques near the Pantheon. Dingy would be too bright an adjective for the place, but it seemed OK to a couple of college boys. The bare light bulbs illuminating the stairwells and hallways were on timer switches so finely tuned as to force a sprint to the next switch in order to avoid a blackout. The beds bowed like hammocks. The facilities were down the hall, and in those days the French had a long way to go to catch up to America in the plumbing and TP department. Fortunately, our room had a little sink that allowed for the occasional full-body sponge bath and, I'm sorry to admit, midnight relief.
We spent most of our days walking around the town, stopping in museums, marveling at the city's landmarks and attractions, including the colorful hookers then plentiful on the Rue St. Denis, and mostly grousing about the girlfriends we had left at home.
Doug's French was pretty good -- much better than mine. Yet it seemed that everyone we ran into, from hotel clerks to waiters to folks we asked directions, had the hardest time figuring out what we were saying to them. And when they did, they couldn't help but mock Doug's accent or usage. We noticed.
It didn't help that 1964 was the summer the civil-rights movement kicked into high gear. I remember a fleeting image on French TV of officials dragging the car of murdered civil-rights workers out of a Mississippi swamp. The French were quite critical of American race relations, and we endured more than one lecture. As we felt pretty passionately about civil rights, the lectures rang hollow in our ears, especially as we could see that Africans (and Arabs) in Paris seemed to fare no better than in Mississippi.
And then there was the food.
It was in this area that the cultural divide between France and my adolescent America most clearly manifested itself. Back in 1964, most of America was strictly "meat and potatoes." France was definitely the undiscovered culinary country for these two Midwestern boys.
Almost everything on the menus seemed strange, unfathomable and foreign in all senses of the word. We usually opted for the conservative, finding solace in the few familiar items we could make out. Omelets and steak frites made up a substantial proportion of our diet.
Perhaps we should have been more adventurous, but our situation had deteriorated to the point where we were prepared to do cultural battle with the Gallic Philistines. Waiters preferred to sneer at our food quandary rather than guide us through the gateway to gustatory revelation. Well, if we wanted Coca-Cola with our dinners, that might be cause for derision in their eyes, but we came to feel that we were defending our very national identity with such gestures. The lines were drawn.
Nor did it help that we were cheap.
One evening, it all came to a head when we were dining in, of all places, a Chinese restaurant. We had eaten there before, mainly because it was extremely inexpensive. After we ordered our usual -- egg rolls and rice -- we noticed that the waiter, a Chinese guy who also mocked our French, was engaged in a heated discussion with the manager. He then came over to our table and said, in French, "You don't order enough. You have to leave."
It took a while to actually figure out what he was saying, but when we realized they were kicking us out, we were dumbfounded. Hey, I admit that we were cheap, but the place wasn't full and we were otherwise presentable. I actually wore a corduroy sport coat, didn't have long hair and had recently bathed.
THE INJUSTICE of it all was not lost on us, and we were quick to see this humiliation as part of a broader cultural conspiracy. We were innocent Americans set upon by Old World bullies unappreciative of our selfless touristic gesture, not to mention our saving their bacon in the war.
We walked the streets of the Left Bank in despair, reminding each other how much we disliked this heartless city, when we found ourselves behind the Notre Dame Cathedral. A gate was open, and spread out on the ground were numerous stone objects, apparently part of a renovation project. There were gargoyles and other stone pieces that had obviously fallen off or been removed from the cathedral walls. We went inside to have a look. Doug joked that we ought to take one of the gargoyles, just to spite them. They were far too big, weighing hundreds of pounds, but I noticed a smaller piece in a corner and, without thinking, snatched it up and walked back out to the street, carrying it all the way to the hotel.
Back in our room, it dawned on us that we had probably broken numerous laws and might end up spending the rest of our youthful years in a French jail, an unattractive proposition. Returning the piece seemed too risky, and we weren't about to turn ourselves in. We couldn't mail the thing home. It was too heavy for our luggage.
Since I was planning to ship the car home, I simply put the piece in the trunk. If it disappeared en route, as I fully expected, that would be that.
Leapfrogging to the end of that chapter, I found my chunk of Notre Dame in the trunk, just where I had left it. Thirty-seven years later I still have it.
Attitudes change. People change. Ironies abound.
Back in those dark days as a cultural refugee I vowed never to venture past the U.S. border again, but how quickly a few years and a little experience can change one's perspective. In time I came to appreciate French history, politics and culture, and, of course, French cuisine. Over the years I have returned to France perhaps 20 times, exploring virtually every corner of that beautiful country.
My French still isn't very good, but I can get by. Contrary to my earliest experience and contemporary mythology, most French folks have proved friendly and helpful. There is much to love about the place.
Mind you, I wouldn't call myself a Francophile. The French are as weird as any people, and every culture has its darker corners, but these days I don't trip over myself trying to find them.
Improvements in French plumbing and a strong dollar haven't hurt, either.
I understand that my French malaise was mostly of my own making. I was the victim of a bad attitude, as are many tourists who travel to a foreign destination in hopes of finding what they already have at home.
Which brings me back to the evidence of my ancient transgression. So, now that I've come clean, exactly what am I to do with my little piece of historical plunder?
These days folks seem pretty sensitive about the removal of national treasures, and for good reason. Whether it's the theft of icons from Angkor Wat or the poaching of threatened animal species for body parts, there is little to debate about this seamy traffic.
But is there some sort of statute of limitations at work here? The British Museum has no intention of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, nor has the Louvre offered to repatriate its ancient-Egyptian collection. On the other hand, museums in the United States and elsewhere are still confronting the problem of art stolen during the war.
I admit to having grown fond of my piece of history, but in the end I suppose that I will return it if I can figure out a reasonable way to do so.
Though I'm no longer worried about confronting the gendarmes, I think it's safe to say that I have rehabilitated myself over the years. I appreciate the wrongfulness of my juvenile acts and have come to respect the culture toward which I showed such immature disdain.
And I hardly ever order Coca-Cola with dinner anymore.
James Dannenberg is a retired District Court judge who lives in Kailua. His tales from the road have appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.