DRAGGED TO PARIS

 

 

Moving to Paris would be a catastrophe. The city was foreign and far away and IÕd have no friends.  Fourteen years old, I dreaded being yanked away from my jock buddies. But in 1954 my Dad got a one-year Marshall Plan job introducing quality control to European industry, so we left suburban New Jersey—Dad, Mom, seven months pregnant, and six kids, ranging from me to a one-year old. We traveled second class on the French ocean-liner, the LibertŽ. The State Department would have paid for first class, but frugal Mom applied her money-saving principals to federal spending too, so she would not squander government money on luxury.

In Paris, we all stayed in two rooms in a modest hotel in the 16th. Mom, I later learned, was coping with one of the most difficult times of her life, looking for a new home in addition to all her other tasks while Dad was away working. I timidly poked into the whirl of this big city—people, unintelligible language, traffic, noise. Numb as much as stunned, I worried about the school IÕd attend, the English-speaking American Community School of Paris (ACS). Happily, I discovered one redeeming feature of Paris, the International Herald Tribune, where I followed my heroes, the N.Y. Giants, as they marched to winning the Pennant and then, astoundingly, swept the World Series against the favored Indians. But even victory was bittersweet. I wasnÕt at home to watch it on black and white TV, nor able to exalt over Yankee fans.

Two weeks after arrival we moved to our new home, a large house with a clay tennis court in Croissy-sur-Seine, several miles northwest of Paris. My sister Joanne, brother Steve and I began attending ACS, housed in a small, run-down mansion near the Bois de Bolounge, with about 25 students per grade. Within days, IÕd identified the cool guys in my class—a gang of four, surprisingly not athletes but Parisian sophisticates. Each was witty and owned a motorcycle. They spoke French, went to billiard halls and cafŽs, apparently drank wine and beer, and talked knowingly about St. Germaine de Prs and Sidney BechetÕs jazz. IÕd always been popular with guys, but this group did not welcome me, early confirmation that IÕd be miserable in Paris.

IÕd been at school less than a month when one of the cool guys, Bobby, small, stocky and loud, accosted me and declared that we would fight. He didnÕt announce a reason. Terrified, I knew IÕd have to fight. Though athletic, I was tall and skinny and had never been in a fight, but I couldnÕt be branded a Ņchicken.Ó  

A few days later, we fought in a large school-hallway coat closet, surrounded by a group of guys, certainly not invited by me. Bobby and I eyed each other, then he moved towards me. Leaping at him, I grabbed his head in a headlock as we fell. Wrestling on the floor, he fought to free his head from my arms. I held on with far more force I than I knew I possessed. Struggling, he screamed for me to let him go and fight fair, but he couldnÕt escape. Suddenly, he announced that the fight was over, a tie. I instantly agreed. He never challenged me again.

To get to school, I walked a mile to Chatou, then took a train to ParisÕ Gare St. Lazare. Occasionally, IÕd walk the other way, to Bougival, crossing a bridge over the Seine. Mom told me that it was the same bridge that Monet and Renior, painters I vaguely knew of, had painted. From Bougival, IÕd take a bus to Paris. By either route, once arriving in Paris, IÕd then take the metro to school. Rush-hour metros were jammed with French workers, weathered, rough men, dressed in worn blue shirts and blue pants. Often they smelled strongly, from the garlic many chewed, or from the hand-rolled unlit cigarettes dangling from their mouths. The men seemed strange but also appealing, somehow radiating a ŅDonÕt Tread on MeÓ attitude IÕd never sensed from the commuter men in my hometown.

Paris was gray, with soot-coated buildings and shabby streets. Astonishingly, many suit-wearing men were so poor they rode bicycles or motor scooters to work. Cars were scarce, and often old, cranky, or, like the bizarre Deux Cheveaux Citroen, sounded like a dying sewing machine. Clothes of French boys were dull, sometimes near shabby. Nobody had cool button-down shirts or decent sneakers or, what I somehow learned French kids yearned for, Levis.

Croissy too was poor, though it had some large houses, as well as many potato fields. The townÕs one mangy shopping street of impoverished little stores was named rue General Leclerc. I never asked why they would name a street after General Electric. Nor did I express my horror after learning that the wooden horse head above a store meant the store sold horsemeat that French people ate. Oddly, stores closed from noon to three, or maybe even four. Most all houses had high walls around them, not suburban lawns. There were people in town, Mom reported, who didnÕt speak to others because of bitter feelings from the War.

Mom, in one of her letters to friends, wrote: ŅAs usual, DenisÕ chief concerns are his friends, sports, his standing in school and his social life.Ó  But except for sports, I remained unhappy and left out, hiding my secret crush on a beautiful popular girl, Linda. Still, I had made friends with a couple of new kids in my class, and developed a modest after-school social life of trips to the American Embassy cafeteria. Open to all (at least, all Americans) the cafeteria provided tables where kids could gather, chat and consume milkshakes, sodas, or hamburgers, briefly feeling back home.

My sister Catherine was born in November. With a new baby, six other children, and a frequently-absent husband, Mom reluctantly concluded that she could use help, especially as help was inexpensive. Two sisters in their twenties, recently arrived from the countryside, moved into our house. Mom found them invaluable—cheerful, competent, child-loving. They accompanied Mom shopping, where she frugally continued to buy cheap, if not the cheapest, meats, vegetables, fruits.

After a few weeks, the sisters announced that they would leave. Mom, shocked, asked them what was wrong. One replied that Mom could feed her family as she wished, but the sisters were French, and could not continue to eat bad meals. Mom reluctantly agreed to buy them food adequate to their tastes. So Mom shopped for food on two levels: continued frugality for her family, and French for her bonnes. After a few weeks Mom realized: This is nuts—I feed my family worse than my help. So family food was upgraded, and Mom began to learn French cooking.

Confirming French culinary values was the family with two young kids who lived in the cramped apartment over our carriage-house garage. The wife told Mom that they spent over 50% of their income on food. Astonished, Mom asked how they could possibly choose to spend so much. ŅYou have to eat!Ó the wife replied.

So my youngest siblings grew up with fine meals, often French, and good wine, and never knew the food-as-fuel meals of MomÕs Irish-American heritage. Over future decades, whenever I returned home, IÕd delight in the gourmet meals Mom prepared.

French cooking or not, Steve and I yearned for peanut butter—real, old-fashioned, with-nuts peanut butter. We couldnÕt find it anywhere in Paris.  For some bureaucratic reason my father didnÕt qualify for privileges at the huge army PX, with its rows of peanut butter jars. Then, somehow, in February, we learned that a fancy store on the Right Bank (FouchonÕs?) carried American peanut butter. Spending from our savings, we bought out the supply, perhaps twenty-four jars. Drawing on my earnings from past summers of caddying, I understood for the first time that saving might be desirable, not a duty thrust upon me.

Mom and I drove past the cafŽ Deux Magots (meaning either Ņa hoard of moneyÓ or ŅChinese porcelain figureÓ). I liked the name—calling a cafŽ after maggots was outrageous. Instinctively, I loved Paris cafŽs. My suburban hometown didnÕt have a real restaurant, let alone a cafŽ. Paris cafŽs exuded a mystically inviting spirit—full of adults at ease, talking, laughing, reading, or just sitting outside, relaxing, observing. Learning that many painters and writers hung out in left-bank cafŽs, I spun vague, romantic visions of the freedom and fun these bohemians lived—surely a better life than having to wear a suit and tie and go to an office. I never imagined what these artists actually did when not at cafŽs. Except I was sure they had fun.

ACS basketball tryouts were held in October. IÕd long loved basketball, but in grade school had been permanently branded as not first rank. But here, no one knew. Not only did I make the team, I became one of the two stars. Learning to play and move as part of a team was pure joy—and I made more friends.

Our school didnÕt have a gym, so we practiced and played our games in various LycŽes. (French high schools). During basketball season, I often walked through different sections of Paris.  Meanwhile, I absorbed sights of Paris from other travels, from peanut butter hunts to museum explorations led by Mom. By winter, I knew the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs ElysŽes and the ƒtoile. I could manage the metro system, though I couldnÕt fathom why they had first and second class cars. Providing better cars for the wealthy couldnÕt be right. That wasnÕt how the New York City subways worked.

It was late February, or early March, after practice. Ambling in the glow of post-athletics I was heading to the nearest metro station. Halting near the Seine, I raised my head, and looked, suddenly in awe at the city around me: beautiful, majestic buildings, all in harmony; golden late afternoon light glowed on windows and sparkled on the river. Paris was glorious, elegant magic, a vast open-air museum. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I became an instant, total convert.

I began to learn.  Society: The black-clad, sour old women taking tickets in the metro or fiercely collecting some pittance when you occupied a chair in the Tuileries were World War I widows, meagerly supported in their old age by the French government. Politics: a Prime Minister named Mendes-France ended a war in some remote place called Vietnam. But heÕd made himself a laughingstock in France by urging the French to drink more milk and reduce their consumption of wine. IÕd yet to have my first alcoholic drink and loved milk, but I approved of adults dedicated to wine drinking, again instinctively voting for bohemian living against puritan sobriety. I even began to learn French. We had a required French class daily, with a fine teacher. Though I couldnÕt understand Parisian conversations, I managed to communicate with storekeepers or subway ticket sellers. Without awareness, I fell in love with the sounds of the French language.

Not that I was precocious. Mom described us two in the Jeu de Paume, her looking at her favorite Impressionist painters, while I, Ņdressed in sneakers, Levis, and a red and blue basketball jacket, read a copy of Time.Ó  Mom continued, ŅAs we said all along, it will be a wonderful thing for our children to be exposed to all the advantages of French culture.Ó

Some Parisians were gruff or haughty to me, an American. Stupid Frogs, IÕd mutter, having learned that insult at school. But I also became increasingly aware of boorish American tourists. Once on a Paris bus, I mentally cringed as some Americans shouted louder and louder in English at a bus driver, who placidly shrugged. Finally, one of the Americans approached me and barked, ŅYouÕre American arenÕt you. Tell this guy what we want.Ó I looked puzzled at the man and replied, ŅPardon, je ne parle pas anglais

Trips in the city became adventures. Basketball season ended and I had was free after school. Sporadically, IÕd take a metro to some part of the city I didnÕt know, then get on a bus with an open standing area in the back. Maneuvering myself to a railing—IÕd learned some useful skills on those rush-hour metros—IÕd watch portions of Paris go by. Enthralled, IÕd get off, wander, and eventually ask someone where the nearest metro station was (always not too far away) and head towards the Gare. Timidly, I began to sample Parisian treats. I sat in a cafŽ, ordered a soda, and no one pointed or laughed at me. Patisseries offered sumptuous Žclairs. With Spring, Paris became more beautiful: stately trees budded leaves; graceful buildings rose on a human scale, not domineering like ManhattanÕs ferocious skyscrapers; the Seine, the soul of the city, flowed gently.

Much of Parisian life remained puzzling. Why, to play basketball in an official LycŽe league, did I have to obtain an identity card, which required submitting six photos, as well as a statement of my grandfathersÕ birthplaces, to some Parisian bureaucrat? Why was the date always included when ŅDefense dÕ Afficher, loi du 29 Juillet, 1881,Ó was painted on building walls to warn against posting advertisements? Why were Arabs often treated with contempt, worse than Negroes had been back in New Jersey?

Still, much broke through. Passion! Couples, mostly young but not always, kissed intensely, on streets, in parks, on benches. Even students at my school sometimes hugged and kissed. Sights IÕd surely never seen in my suburb. I was in puberty; romantic passion—not that I knew anything about it except it involved kissing—was thrilling. Amazingly, public passion was also acceptable.  ŅFrench priests certainly donÕt seem concerned with sins of the flesh,Ó Dad chuckled. Raised American-Irish-Catholic, IÕd attended Sunday school, where IÕd been warned by nuns against Ņnear occasions of sinÓ (anything that could possibly lead to sex). Priests and nuns had assured me that Catholicism was universal and identical everywhere. Though not at all religious, IÕd believed that. Paris became my first dose of religious relativism, an awakening that Catholics could believe very different notions about God and GodÕs rules.

LibertŽ surged inside me. On a glorious spring afternoon I sat on the train home and glanced at my (cheap) wristwatch. Suddenly, I loathed the watch; it felt like a chain, imposing a tyranny of precise time. Why chose to be so constricted? Impulsively I took the watch off and threw it out the train window..

On a beautiful May morning, my sister Joanne and I walked to the bus stop in Bougival. I knew that another bus that stopped there went to Versailles, where our family had gone once. ŅLetÕs play hooky and go to Versailles,Ó I spontaneously urged. We did, though neither of us had ever played hooky before. Few people were at Versailles except staff.  We rented a rowboat, and idled on the water for hours, ecstatic in our sunshine-drenched freedom.

During basketball season, Dutch, our coach as well as Latin teacher, had frequently mentioned our most recent game, often complimenting me, in our next class. Surely, Linda, sitting near me, would be impressed and É But she never seemed to notice, even when we reached the quarter-finals of some Parisian championship before losing. Nor did she attend the basketball banquet at the end of the season, where I received the only athletic letter of my life—a big red ŅA.Ó

IÕd dreamed for weeks of taking Linda to the prom. Finally, I dared to linger by the front hedge after school, until she walked out alone. I popped in front of her and asked to go with me. She erupted with laughter, and walked away. Stabbed, I fought back tears, suffering my initial education of love as pain.

We went to Normandy for the summer, where I had an awakening of some costs of LibertŽ. On a family trip to Omaha Beach, I encountered strewn remnants from D Day—ship carcasses in the water, twisted metal and shattered wood on the beach, and shell-pocked, often surprisingly intact, remains of concrete German pillboxes high on the bluffs. Steve and I struggled up a hill to one pillbox. How could any American soldier have made it up here while Germans above were firing machine guns at him? I was awed, even humbled. IÕd seen many World War II movies, but reality was of a different order—frightening, and impressive.

         For all my glimmerings of freedom in Paris, when I return to New Jersey in the fall, I mostly reverted to being the same adolescent IÕd been before Paris—a bit of a rebel, but basically conventional, and repressed. Underneath though, dreams of LibertŽ percolated. I yearned for a life of passion and freedom, which to me meant becoming a bohemian, hanging out in coffeehouses with a sexy girl friend dressed in black and staying up late passionately discussing art. Only much later did I realize that genuine artists spent much time alone, creating.

Slowly, over future years, I came to understand my good fortune in being dragged to Paris. Forced from the cocoon of my suburb, I had begun to awake. I could defend myself if I had to fight. I used that headlock in two other fights and drew on my sense that I could protect myself to avoid some others. And certainly, after Omaha beach, war could never be glamorous. Surprisingly, back in New Jersey, I began to dabble with oil paints. Further, my buddies didnÕt have to define me athletically or any other way. I played some freshman basketball in college, and in my seventies still shoot baskets.

Some awakenings took longer to cohere. I had to live through more heartbreaks before beginning to see I knew nothing about love. And only when I reached law school did I realize that I wanted to be able to speak French adequately, taking my first class in it since ACS. Since then, IÕve continued studying French, sufficiently so that I can now speak Franais with French friends. Cultural understandings also emerged only over years: realizing that the Eisenhower affluence IÕd grown up with was a blessing, not a state of nature; perceiving that French civilization was wise to place food—good meals and wine—at its core. 

Most all of the awakenings I first experienced in Paris have held (though IÕve proved to be weak in the savings department). I love bohemian freedom, and still donÕt wear a watch. I earn my living as a writer. In my thirties, a passion for painting emerged. Taking classes, joining drawing groups, I explored painting. But plagued by one of my demons—I awoke to their existence well after that year in Paris—I struggled for years to accept that I could paint simply because I love to. Now IÕve had an art studio for over three decades. And when my wife and I were buying a home, we agreed that it had to be within walking distance of a cafŽ. It is.

Most magically, my life-long love of Paris has held—the walkerÕs Paris, the cafŽ-sitterÕs Paris, the museum Paris, the loverÕs Paris, the Paris available to all. The Paris IÕve returned to as often as I could, the endlessly fascinating city.

[2001] (2012]