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Three years delayed, dream trip to Paris worth the wait

Photo caption: Moulin Rouge Cabaret in Paris, France (Gagliardi Photography/Canva)

Part three of three

The original date for the Indiana University Alumni Association excursion, “Paris: The African American Experience” was March 2020. Then came the global pandemic. Like the rest of the world, Paris was shut down from one end of the city to the other. Those who invested in the trip had the option of a refund or waiting it out. My wife and I decided to wait it out.

The year ended with no word on rescheduling the trip. Then 2021 came and left with no update. The outlook was similarly uncertain for most of 2022 until we finally got word that the plan was to travel in September of this year. Our patience was rewarded for the trip of a lifetime. Finally, time for Bon Voyage!

The IU entourage resided in the modest but comfortable Hotel Les Jardins du Marais. It was two or three blocks from the famous Metro subway station, the group’s primary transportation to historic and cultural districts for extensive ‘walking tours’ (roughly 24 miles on foot over six days).

Among 16 travelers in the alumni-sponsored group, Gary native travelers included Mark and Debra Powers, Dr. Arnold Turner and his wife Sharon, as well as myself and my spouse, Joyce Williams. It was an unforgettable trip that left a permanent impression on all involved.

The group experienced the same Paris that welcomed Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and other African-American luminaries. From Sally Hemings to Richard Wright, African Americans have long found an acceptance in Paris that they did not find at home in the United States. The informative tour included the haunts of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, as we rode along the Champs Elysees through the Latin Quarter, and other Paris districts.

We enjoyed strolls through the artsy neighborhoods that were home to Henry Ossawa Tanner, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and other writers and entertainers from the African-American expatriate community. During our stay in Le Marais, where the narrow lanes gave an idea of what the area looked like during the Middle Ages, we browsed art galleries and stylish boutiques through Place des Vosges, Paris’ first square.

We watched the screening of the 2016 documentary, “Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light,” the film that explores the relationship between Paris and African American expatriates in the decades following World War I. A question-and-answer session with the filmmakers followed.

We explored the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and jazz on Paris. The soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment are credited with introducing jazz to Europe during World War I. Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans for their valiant and fearless fighting on the battlefield, the unit had a huge impact on French culture. Before the Hellfighters returned home with medals on their chests, they left the French hungry for American jazz.

The city fell in love with the cultural scene created by African American musicians, entertainers, and club owners. We saw the nightclubs owned by legends Bricktop and Eugene Bullard and learned how African American culture influenced European culture.

We moved down the Champs Élysées, one of the most recognizable boulevards in the world, to the Arc d’Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower for breathtaking views of the city.

Flavors of France was a part of the tour that brought us into the world of French gastronomy in the neighborhood next to the Champs-de- Mars, a park that stretches from the foot of the Eiffel Tower. It was only fitting that this food journey took place in the area that was Paris’ 16th-century market garden. With an expert leading the way, we discovered several of the city’s best artisan-made foods. From cheese to charcuterie, we tasted a path through France’s culinary heritage.

Some travelers opted for an excursion to Versailles, France’s grandest palace, a baroque chateau that was once the kingdom’s political capital and the seat of the royal court, delighting visitors with its ornately painted ceilings, rich tapestries, and lavish galleries. It was a step back in time walking in the footsteps of kings, queens, and courtiers, a palace of manicured, ornamental gardens, the Grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s Estate, a Hall of Mirrors, and the lavishly decorated room where the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

Award-winning writer Jake Lamar, a Bronx transplant in Paris, hosted a private presentation to the IU Alumni Association group, sharing his experiences in Paris where he has lived for several years. A Harvard University graduate and former writer for Time magazine, Lamar has written six novels, a play, a memoir, and many short stories, essays and articles.

The group visited the Left Bank in Paris where the Revue du Monde Noir, “Review of the Black World,” a groundbreaking magazine that grew from a salon hosted by two sisters from Martinique was published. We learned about intellectuals such as Anna Cooper and Carter G. Woodson. Born into slavery in 1858, Cooper earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1924. Woodson, who studied at the Sorbonne in the early 1900s, was a pioneer in the field of Black Studies. In the 1940s many African American veterans, using benefits from the GI Bill also enrolled at the Sorbonne.

We visited the jazz district, learning about the bebop style of jazz and the musicians who flocked to Paris to play their music – where musicians such as Miles Davis and Bud Powell lived and played their music. We dined on French cuisine and enjoyed live entertainment!

In a week replete with Parisian culture and historical enlightenment, we enjoyed a leisurely sun-bathed cruise down the Seine River for a different perspective of the magnificent city. While gliding along this storied waterway, we saw Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre Museum, Île St. Louis, and other renowned sights, and passed beneath Pont Neuf, Paris’ most famous bridge.

It is impossible to see the whole of Paris, France in a week. But organizers of the Indiana University Alumni Association trip “Paris: The African American Experience,” did a masterful job of putting together a. broad representation of this intriguing, one-of-a-kind international metropolis.

Participants felt fulfilled and at the same time thirsty for more, as they departed Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport for return flights home.

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