Who’d be crazy enough to plan a weekend in France when airfares are through the roof and a croque-monsieur in a sleazy dump costs $50? OK, me. But I have a good reason: When I find out that in honor of Mai ’68—those historic student riots and general strikes that almost brought down the French government 40 years ago—a number of chi-chi Parisian shops have issued memorabilia like sterling-silver cobblestones (the rock being the weapon of choice in those heady days), I pack my carry-on. So seriously does the rock figure in the mythology of Mai ’68 that “Sous les pavés, la plage“—”Under the cobblestones, the beach”—was the premier slogan of the movement.
This is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to combine my two passions: left-wing politics and buying expensive, useless items. So off I go, even if it’s June (the stuff still has to be in the stores, right?), using miles to pay for my ticket—though American Airlines hoses me for $127—and all the fun of international travel begins! I squeeze into a seat that would challenge an Olsen twin (guess those Weight Watchers meetings had a point after all) and watch a video that tells me that I can use my seat cushion as a flotation device (goody gumdrops), that there’s a whistle for me to toot in the middle of the Atlantic, and that I should not even contemplate disabling the smoke detector in the bathroom, which even though I haven’t had a cigarette in over a decade, makes me want to climb on top of the toilet and give it a try.
Seven Unisom-fueled sleepy hours later, we’re here! I drop my bag at the hotel (guess what, mathletes—turns out that 160 euros a night is $300 if you throw in breakfast) and hightail it to the legendary Rue de la Paix, where the jeweler (or joaillier) Dinh Van is offering silver cobblestones, with chains, starting at $275.
I am buzzed into this hushed emporium, which is one of those jewelry stores where you sit at a desk and the staff wears gloves and presents the baubles on a velvet tray. I mumble, “Pavé soixant huit?” and the saleswoman looks at me as if I am a pathetic, aging communard (which I am, sort of) who makes her want to throw up. But then again, all Parisian salespeople look as if they want to throw up. (Remind me why I love this place so much? Because I do it love it, against all odds.)
She emerges from the back room with a shiny little cube in her little gloved hand, and it’s OK, but unless I wave it in people’s faces and say, “Guess what this is! A sterling-silver paving stone from a store on the Rue de la Paix!”, there doesn’t seem to be much point in buying it. So I move on, the surly vendeuse happy to see the back of me.
The next day is Saturday, and I rise early so I can go to Vanves, an antiques market on the far Left Bank that caters mostly to dealers. I take the Metro, which has its good points (there are condom machines in the station; your cell phone works on the train) and bad (it’s not air-conditioned). At the market, amid tables laden with Victorian pillowcases and ’50s magazines, I actually see a piece of Mai ’68 ephemera: a weatherbeaten placard that reads “Les Jeunes Assument la Revolution Avec De Gaulle” in the curvaceous lettering of an old Fillmore East poster.
I don’t buy the poster; I buy an Art Deco box (because what my apartment needs is another Art Deco box) and get back on the Metro and head to the Sorbonne, where I am searching for Patrick Roger on Boulevard St. Germain, a candy shop that allegedly stocks chocolate paving stones in a special presentation case for around $80.
In Patrick Roger’s window, there is an array of round chocolatey things that could be paving stones but for a sign that says “Balle de Tennis, 30 e.” “Avez-vous le chocolat Mai ’68?” I ask a ready-to-throw-up bakery worker. She talks rapidly for several minutes, putting to rest any delusions I might have that I actually speak French. I wait her out, and since she doesn’t go in the back room and re-emerge with an armload of brown chunks, I’m pretty sure the answer is no.
But that’s OK! Since I’m at the Sorbonne, which holds absolutely no allure for me (as far as I’m concerned, school is school, and you can have it), I amble over to the Place de la Sorbonne, where so much of the action took place 40 years ago, and where there is an outdoor exhibit of Mai ’68 photographs on display.
I walk uphill (the government learned its lesson and smoothly paved these streets; there’s nary a paving stone in sight) until I reach my destination, a large square around which students who look like models playing students are sipping espressos and staring into space. The photos—my favorite shows an incredibly chic young woman, fist in the air, borne aloft on the shoulders of a young man—have been blown up and now decorate a cube whose sponsors, bastions of revolutionary praxis like HSBC and Y&R, have added their names to the bottom of the display. I’m disappointed that there’s no graffiti on any of the photos—what’s wrong with kids today?—until I notice that some anonymous wag added a cartoon bubble to a rabble-rouser with the words “Hare Krishna” inside.
I take a seat at one of the cafés and order an espresso, though what I really want is a delicious American coffee with milk and sugar, something that even fearless me is too intimidated to order in France, where apparently they only drink coffee with milk as a part of a $27 breakfast. I fish my BlackBerry out of my purse and am happy to see its little red light flashing, despite the time difference. News from home! I click on the message, and this is what it says: “Go for the zip, zing, and zest during National Horseradish Month.” (For this I’m paying $95 to T-Mobile?)
How quickly the weekend rolls by! You take one stroll across the Seine, you flip through a couple of fashion books at the Musée de la Mode, and pretty soon, it’s time to disable the smoke detector in the plane on the way home. For some inscrutable reason, all the newsstands at Charles de Gaulle are shut tight (un grève, peut-être?), so I can’t stock up on Tatler and British Vogue, my usual indulgences for the trip back, but am instead reduced to a copy of Le Figaro, which they give out for free in the airport. I flip it open, and here’s what I see: an ad for EasyJet flights from Paris to Biarritz with a picture of a stiletto and the legend “Sous les talons, la plage!“
Under the high heel, the beach! And under the beach, buried deep in our imaginations, maybe the paving stones.