- Paris saved my life. Late that summer I sat with the acceptance letter in my hand, worrying about what my father would say. Somehow I´d managed to fill out all the application papers for my junior year abroad with no certainty of what would happen next. My family was in a haze of mourning; my mother had died in the previous autumn after a five year of cancer. We´d watched the pain and steady decline until she spent the last four months of her life in a state of unconsciousness.
My father nodded as he read; “Go”, he said, “see as much of Europe as you can.” I had his blessing and with it the possibility to leave behind some of the pain. Here was a chance to go interrupt it or trick it out of existance.
It was the first time I ever took a plane. I flew from Buffalo to Kennedy with endless hours to wait in the airport. I felt very adult, having lunch at the TWA terminal which looked like a place the Jetsons inhabited. Then somehow I made my way to a bar, met up with a group on their way to Germany and proceeded to drink beer with them. So much that how I got on the plane remains a blur. I slept through the meals and woke refreshed as the plane taxied into Gatwick. Then there were more trains and a boat until I arrived at Gare du Nord in the evening. From the taxi to the hotel I remember seeing the prostitutes in their spike heeled boots near Strasbourg St. Denis.
The hotel I stayed in was a pleasure with its patterned wallpaper, bidet in the closet, and breakfast brought to the door, hot coffee, croissants, and tartines. In those days even inexepensive hotels had room service and in the morning there was a knock on the door with a tray.
Different, Paris was different but also familiar. My parents were from Latvia and there were certain indelible habits that marked Europeans. One was the cloth shopping bag my father always carried and his penchant for unusual juices and sweets. In Europe everyone seemed to carry their own string market bag and shops were filled with just the same impractical delicacies that my father always sought out.
What can a person say about a city like Paris that doesn´t sound cliche? It belongs to everyone who has visited it. Its momuments are almost too familiar. The stereotypes border on absurd. Before I arrived, I imagined the city would resound with syrupy accordian music or the voice of Yves Montand, hoarse with cigarette smoke. A French friend looking at my French textbook with its requisite photos of a man on a motorcycle with a huge baguette tied to the back or a pig on the street, exclaimed, “A pig in Paris. Impossible!”
But this was how we believed the city would be. An American friend coming to Europe had searched everywhere for a beret before coming, wore it, and was truely disappointed that no one else was wearing one. When I first arrived and walked around the city I had the idea that everyone was paired off. It certainly looked that way.
So then how is it possible to make sense of a place inside all of that fantasy? Since this was the first large city I ever inhabited, Paris became the measure of all cities. Even New York years later, fell short. Nothing else would do. The impressions it left on a twenty year old would last forever.
Finding myself in a place where there were actually things to see and do, I sytematically set about doing them. I visited every place I could, but not in the manner of a tourist who spends two days and crams everything into a visit, but slowly, carefully. Of course I avoided the more obvious tourist destinations like the Eiffel Tower. I only saw it from the distance of a friend´s apartment or from the job board that was located nearby and was where all the aspiring au pairs went to check job listings.
I prided myself on never visiting the Eiffel Tower until the 90´s when I was with a Brazilian friend who insisted on seeing it. By that time I was free of any prejudices of trying to be cool. Her visit to Europe was an attempt at recovery. Not only had her fiance died in a car crash but was dressed in drag when it happened. I don´t know how Paris was supposed to help her get over that.
There was never a shortage of places to see. On Sundays the Louvre was free. Saturdays I took long walks from my neighborhood, crossing the busy traffic of the Place de la Concorde eventually making it to Odeon and St. Mich where a girlfriend lived. There I often took a bath since I lived in a maid´s room without a shower. She would make me a cup of tea to drink ; it still brings back a sense of wellbeing, lying in a bath sipping hot tea.
Her apartment was her boyfriend´s; it made her seem daring. He took her to places like the Tour D´Argent which in those days was the height of chic, and was convienently away on business travel. Often enough so this very centrally located apartment could be used for parties. At one, I lost my contact lens on the fur rug and we all got down on our hands and knees to search for it. I was lucky, like in most things in Paris and I found it intact though people had been walking around the apartment all night.
Another Paris cliche was cinema. I took a course in film which entailed going to an endless number of movies and talking about them. The professor had made a documentary about May 68 which we saw several times to learn a sense of the political and a disdain for what was American.
Usually I went to tiny cinemas which weren´t heated sufficiently in winter so I shivered through the first showing before the building had warmed up. On one ocassion I went to see a Tati film, Mr. Hulot´s Vacation. Next to it, Cries and Whispers was playing. Somehow I walked into the wrong theater. The clock ticking on the screen and all the red on the screen should have been a warning, but thinking I was seeing a preview I sank into the seat to watch and before I knew it I was watching the slow agonizing death of one of the sisters. At one point I could no longer contain myself and just began to cry, which turned into a kind of gasping for air weeping. When the film ended, the person next to me asked me if I was all right. What could I say? I had gone in expecting a comedy and walked right straight into my own mother´s death.
I became a fan of Godard with his bloody Weekend and futuristic Alphaville. Truffault was even more entertaining. I loved the Bride who Wore Black since most of the young women I knew, myself included, had to spend time fending off advances from men we weren´t interested in. This even happened on the metro. One night an Italian man simply asked if he could go home with me and followed me until I had to scream at him. With some men I used my Latvian, by the time they could assimilate this was a language they didn´t understand, I had time to make my escape. So this film was the perfect revenge, Jeanne Moreau systematically killing off the men who were present in a nearby apartment and by accident had shot her husband on their wedding day.
And what would be Paris without Jules and Jim? I saw it with an American man I met on the boat train from London. I was settling into my seat on the train, he moved across from me so he could look at me he said. He was my temporary reward for having lost my mother. We also saw Women in Love together on one of our many outings during the two weeks he was in Paris; we ate trout with grapes and almonds, went to the Place des Voges, stayed up and talked endlessly.
We travelled out to Versailles by mistake on a Monday when everything was closed. The gardeners were burning brush and we stood with them and drank brandy from a flask they passed around. He was on his way to Greece and was looking for a typewriter to buy. Everyone had literary aspirations in those days. Our encounters were fairly limited since he was sharing a hotel room with a friend, and I was staying at a friend´s apartment. There were hooves on the wall of his hotel which he assured me came from a kosher animal.
His mother had died of cancer when he was thirteen. Mostly he remembered the screams. But he had to move on; it was his European trip. I was much younger than his usual girlfriends he said surprised to see I wore no make-up and was amost always dressed in jeans. Actually I had no idea of such things though eventually I would find out. Paris was the perfect place to do so.
Then I went out with a postal clerk I met at the showing of The Last Tango in Paris. We had absolutely nothing in common but we sat next to each other in the cinema and we laughed at the same parts of the film. It never occured to me that the subject matter of the film could have played a role in his asking me out.
His life was structured and rigid with his own rules. Fifteen days was the maximum to spend on a bus; evening meals were to be light. He was shocked when he discovered I hitch-hiked. But there was a hopefulness to him that made me sad; he showed me books he was reading, he tried redecorating his apartment. When we went out I always borrowed clothes from a friend from New York. She had the largest collection of cashmere sweaters I´d ever seen. I´d come to Paris with just one suitcase and had never owned such a thing.
Then there was the all night movie theater. I often ended up there with my closest friend after the metro stopped running and we found ourselves stranded downtown. There were double features that went on until about six in the morning. Generally we watched the first, napped through the second, and woke up in time to catch the first metro in the morning. One night we took our friends, one of whom entered the theater with Miko, his black cat. That gave a new twist to the evening, Miko was on a leash but didn´t stop jumping over the seats in front of us.
Our French friends were stunned we would go to a place like this. It looked like most of the viewers chose this cinema rather than pay for a cheap hotel room. The owner periodically walked around to give someone a poke to wake them up. He had shoulder length hair which looked like it had never been washed. Here, we saw films like Ziebreski Point, Car Wash, Texas Chainsaw Massacres, and any number of usually bad films I only saw half of before I nodded off. There must be a tenacity to our friendship since these French friends are still friends, after so many years.
This was my Paris. The city of the nuit blanche, the café near my maid´s room where I would have a coffee and a tartine on my way home as the sun came up. I was putting on weight with the endless amount of bread and cheese I consumed. I lived right above a chocolate shop that had dark chocolate truffles the size of a dessert plate. They left the dust of cocoa powder all over as you bit into one. And since I had to walk up endless flights of stairs to get to my room, often I treated myself to one as an incentive for that climb.
Part of my studies included theater too. So I saw the ever popular Ionesco´s The Bald Soprano which may even still be playing in the Latin Quatrter and went to the Comedie Francaise where I discovered I simply didn´t fit in the seats designed for bodies a couple of centuries ago. I saw Eden Cinema, written by Marguerite Duras before The Lover made her a household name.
Of course I discovered food in Paris. The first restaurant I went to was Algerian and I developed a love for couscous. It was also the first time I saw it was perfectly acceptable, if not desirable, to have an entire bottle of wine with a meal. I adapted quickly. Of course I had the requisite French food which I loved but found a bit heavy in the days before nouvelle cuisine.
The worst place to eat was in the student cafeterias in the university. And there the worst dish I had was tongue with a layer of fiber covering its sponginess. And sudents were hungry. Often if you left something on your plate someone would pick it up. There was no shame involved; it happened with lightning quickness. It all depended on your budget. I was on student loans and working as an au pair so I was careful but didn´t have to go that far.
My job as an au pair entailed on afternoon and one night a week of childcare. The mother always made me lunches with large quantities of beef which she thought, being American, I would love. There wasn´t much of an age difference between us. It doesn´t sound like much work but at the time I had never even held a baby in my life and had no experience with children whatsoever. There were two, the boy as I described to a friend, just lay there and she informed me he was probably under six months of age and the little girl was three. Their mother had been a former model and tried to brush out her daughter´s curls and make them straight. That brought on screams and tears on a regular basis. The husband knew less about children than I did and didn´t seem particularly interested in learning. When he arrived I could technically go but he always asked me to stay until his wife got home from her shopping. Feminism hadn´t reached this household yet.
Often I would find myself with both children crying and screaming for no apparent reason. There was nothing that could distract them. I soon saw that being a mother or even an au pair required fulltime attention. It wasn´t possible to pick up a book or even do something that required less concentration like watch television. I soon developed a generalized anxiety whenever I had to go to work. Sometimes I practiced deep breathing and would tell myself I could do it and I was lucky it was only two days a week. Probably more than one woman has decided not to have children based on an early experience as an au pair.
My last visit was on my way back to Spain from Buffalo. I spent a couple of days in Paris in August but that didn´t matter at all. I breathed in an element I had been missing - a mixture of baroque architecture and history in the foundations. The jardin du Luxembourg with its hidden enclaves and statues were precisely things you wouldn´t find in an American park. There is a dank mossy smell of age which isn´t unpleasant at all and metal chairs to sit near the palace or the lake. This order of gardens and space is what I find comforting. It´s a public space which is meant to reflect the measure of man and to finely tune nature. Nothing is left to chance which I find reassuring. If I want nature I will go to the countryside.
The gothic cathedrals also left their impact on me. I visited all the great ones in the nearby cities trying to imagine the days when they were brightly painted and the centers of all activity. They were visible from a distance and grew in size as you approached on foot. There were Chartres with its rose window, Rouen´s cathedral painted by Monet, Reims with the stained glass designed by Chagall, and Beauvais that reached so high the vaulting collapsed and all that´s left standing are the transcept and choir.
Perhaps the image of France that stays with me is on a walk in the countryside complete with snacks of boiled eggs and apples organized by our French teacher and her husband, who were spry well into their sixties. We came upon an outdoor wedding celebration, all the guests seated around a long wooden table on a gloriously sunny autumn day. It seemed the very embodiment of happiness. Paris served as a positive image of what humans could construct, of what constituted beauty, of how it could be a measure. It brought to life nineteenth century romanticism which I still hold as an ideal.