Summer and the Paris Police

Naughty Krishna holding a piece of candy (photo: Jishnu Das)

Paris. A beautiful summer morning. When? Maybe the late seventies. Can’t quite  remember. Yep. Old age has me in its grip, and yesterday’s names and dates fall through the cracks between its fingers.

I stood on the corner, shielding my eyes from the sun when I saw a woman from the Hare Krishna temple dressed in a blouse and skirt coming down the street. I waved and called out “Haribol!” and she walked over to me. She had spent the night at a police station, she told me, arrested for selling books on the street. She had no money on her.

So I took her to a sidewalk café (you can always find one close by) for a breakfast of hot milk and a sliced-open chunk of that crunchy-crusted French bread sloshed over with butter.

French Butter, English Cream

French butter defeats all competitors, say those in the know, as do Belgian milk and English cream. I can vouch for English cream. Oh yeah! Especially Devon clotted cream. Don’t even bother to whip it. Just slurp it down right out of the container.

Does the taste of cream move you the way it does me? Yes? Then you’ve got to try Devon clotted cream. It has no equal. But France’s fresh cream (crème fraiche) almost gets the prize.  Why they call it fresh cream, I don’t know. It tastes more like a fine-flavored sour cream.

I always made great whipped cream with it  to go on top of my home-baked banana cream pies and lemon tarts. Also good right out of the container.

After our breakfast, I gave the woman money to take a taxi back to the temple.

As I walked down the cobblestone street to somewhere or other, I thought about my own adventures with the Parisian police.

Going Back 800 years in Time

I remembered passing out magazines on the Boulevard Saint Germain, named for the nearby Church of Saint Germain of the Meadows (Saint Germain des prés). I especially  liked this church.  I don’t remember the decor, but I remember the feeling.

When you walked in the door, you walked back in time 800 years to when the church added a touch of holiness to the surrounding meadows (hence the name).

Huh? Meadows? Times have changed. If you want to visit the church today, you have to take a bus or subway to an avant-garde neighborhood in the middle of the city. But the church still offers refuge.

You stand inside looking around, and you forget Paris and the buses and the cars and the cigarette smoke. You have stepped into a living mural from the Middle Ages. You can take time to breathe again.

One Saturday night, the devotees chanted Hare Krishna on the boulevard, singing to the rhythm of hand cymbals as they walked and danced past sidewalk cafés  and stylish boutiques.

The Gentleman Was Really a Cop

I stood in one place and  offered magazines to the passersby. I have a good reason to remember a certain portly gentleman of mixed race who declined my offer. The  gentleman, as I soon found out, belonged to the  group of policemen who came and stopped the devotees. But they left me alone.

The police tolerated the musicians and other entertainers  who stopped in front of the cafés to perform for a short spell. The devotees could do the same. But the cops wouldn’t let us stroll along under the chestnut trees to  the tune of the Hare Krishna Mantra.

Another time, in the afternoon, we were chanting along the Boulevard Saint Michel, a few blocks east of Saint Germain des  Prés.

The neighborhood attracts many tourists, as the boulevard runs past the prestigious Sorbonne University and through the Latin Quarter, so named because in centuries past, the students and teachers there always spoke to each other in Latin.

Today the neighborhood also provides bookstores and hangouts for college students and other intellectuals.

Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of then American President John F. Kennedy, also visited the neighborhoood. She wanted to see again the places she had frequented in her student days.

My Child! My Child!

We chanted Hare Krishna merrily along the sidewalks  of Saint Michel till a large police van pulled up. A few policemen got out and herded us all into the van. As the van sped along the streets toward the nearest police station, a woman devotee, Guna Mayi Devi Dasi, suddenly stood up.

“My child! My child!” she shouted in French.

“Where is your child?” asked the driver.

“At Saint Michel,” said Guna Mayi.

The driver stopped the van and let her out to find her lost child. After all, the last thing the police want is a little child wandering alone and scared on the street. But Guna Mayi didn’t have a child.

No Cops across the Street

Finally, we found a way to chant on the street.

You see, the sixteen districts that make up the city of Paris each have their own police force. We could chant along a street that separated two districts. Whenever we saw the police coming, we would cross the street into the other district.

But I will say this about the Parisian police: They never mistreated us. They would take us to a police station, hold us there for a while, and then let us go.

Let me end with a story about something that happened to me alone. In the fall of 1969, when I had just begun my mission in Paris, I would sometimes wander the streets at night with no place to stay.

Is It Marijuana?

One night, when the autumn weather was turning cold, I stood on a street corner wearing a navy-style coat, made of dark heavy cloth and hanging down to my hips. A few days earlier, I had put a flower—leaves, stem, and all—in one of the pockets and forgotten about it. By this time it had all dried up.

As I stood on the corner, late at night, a  plainclothes policeman walked up to me. He put his hand in the pocket and pulled out a handful of dried crushed green leaves. It looked like marijuana.

“What is this?” asked the policeman.

“It’s not what you think,” I answered. “It’s a flower that I left in my pocket, and it has dried up.”

“What is this?” asked the policeman again.

“It’s a flower,” I said. “You can have it analyzed if you like. I’ll go with you. I have nothing to fear.”

I held out my hands to let him lead me where he wanted. He put the leaves back in my pocket and walked away.

Today, in my  old age, I breathe a happy sigh  when I think of those days and the adventure and fun of bringing Krishna Consciousness to a new place. I would love to do it again and again and again.

Would you come with me?

—Umapati Swami, April 26, 2023

Eternally touching my head to the floor at the lotus feet of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, for showing me all this.

~Umapati Swami, April 25, 2023

(Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organization or any other person.)

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© Umapati Swami 2023

Srila Prabhupada

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the teacher who brought Krishna Consciousness from India to the West and then to the rest of the world. He is the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna Movement as well as the author and compiler of many works of Vedic knowledge. He left this world in 1977.

Umapati Swami

One of the first American devotees of the Hare Krishna Movement, he became Srila Prabhupada’s disciple in 1966. Since then, he has preached Krishna Consciousness in many countries and is the author of “My Days with Prabhupada,” available from Amazon. Now 86 years old, he has started this blog to share what he has learned.

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