"Just meet us there," the chaperone told me. Those words started one of the more memorable nights of my life.
Seventeen and in June of 1998 I was running around the streets of Paris. Three years of Spanish, so of course I went with the French club to France.
Nine days in the City of Lights. By the end I could successfully argue the price of a discount t-shirt and find my way around the city alone. That last bit inspired the night.
In 1998, if you follow world events, The World Cup was held in France. This means that the entire world came to Paris at the same time my little class of fifteen high schoolers made their trip plans.
On the second night in the country, two of my friends went down to the bodega for some wine. They came back six hours later, roaring drunk, telling us the wonders of the Scottish football fans.
My friend Lunchbox, name changed to protect the not-so-innocent, looked at me with one eye cocked sideways and said, "They took us to bars. Plural. If there were ten of us, they would order eleven beers. Whoever finished their beer had to finish the extra before we left. We went to every bar in Paris."
If you are counting, Paris has all the bars. The French, in the words of comedian Dylan Moran, practice "proper pleasure." Every night we went out and found a new place to dance, laugh, and talk. Every morning a mean old lady would serve us buttered croissants across her counter. I never suffered one hangover in France and saw what the city had to offer.
Three days before the World Cup was to start, two days before people rioted on the Champs-Élysées, the night before we were to fly out, someone got the idea to go and picnic and watch the lights on the Eiffel Tower go out. So my story really gets going.
We met in the lobby of the hotel and started toward the Metro station. We were staying in an Americanized hotel, which meant it had a bathroom in the rooms as far as I could tell, around Montmartre. The ride to the Eiffel Tower on the subway was about twenty minutes, give or take.
I forgot my backpack in the hotel. It had my Metro Pass, my passport, and my cigarettes. I had to go back.
I caught up with the chaperone and asked if the group could wait on me while I ran back. She uttered those famous words, "Just meet us there."
Still no idea why a rather shy and timid guy from south Mississippi, seventeen-years-old and fairly well traveled but still stupid, got the arrogance and to believe he could traverse one of the largest cities in the world at the height of its capacity with citizens of said world. But I said "okay" without a thought and turned around.
The trip back to the hotel and to the tower was uneventful. Just a lanky kid making his way down the street and then back to the subway.
I arrived at the tower just as the sun was going down. The lights had come on, that iconic shape shining like a lightning rod. At the base, lightning seemed to have struck as a large crowd had gathered.
That has to be where my group ended up, right?
Turns out, my group of Americans got hungry and took a detour. Did they stop at a small cafe for tapas or a restaurant for baked chicken, roasted vegetables, and couscous? Did they find a bakery, cheese shop, and butcher for a mix of thick fresh bread, creamy camembert, and spicy sausages for the picnic? Did they stop at a street vendor for croque monsieurs or a hunk of lamb from a fly-covered spit?
Nope. They went to McDonald's.
So not knowing my group had been sidetracked by the lure of a Royale with Cheese, I headed down to the party at the base of the Eiffel Tower. And had the night of my life.
I saw the Scottish flags just as I heard the bagpipes. I smiled and kept walking. A small stage area had been set up, but nobody was paying attention. Kegs were stacked on one side and people mingled.
I stopped one man and said, "Have you seen any Americans around?"
"Are you American?" he said in a Scottish accent so thick it coated me with warm threats.
His face broke into a smile. "Get this mahn a beer," he roared into the night. He threw an arm around my shoulders and we went forward. He introduced me to many men in uniform who I was to later learn were the national team for Scotland itself, set to play high-ranked Brazil in days.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. I danced, I drank, and I laughed as men flashed me from under kilts. The speech about "going home to your beds" from Braveheart that ended with a cry of "freedom" was screamed. The best I can say is the next sentence, a defining statement of my life:
I have done the hokey pokey with the Scottish National Soccer team underneath the Eiffel Tower to bagpipes.
Not much left to say about that except for a little fun fact. I am not sure if this is always the case, but on that night, the lights of the tower did not go out.
Image by Chadica