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“What do you miss most about London?” they asked me, when I went to live in Chicago in 1979.
“Paris,” I said. In answer to the blank stares, I explained. “If you travel 300 miles south of here, you’re still in Illinois. 300 miles from London, and you’re in Paris.”
I was probably making the mileage up, but they got it.
I first traveled to the French capital when I was 15, to stay with the de Beaumonts, an elegant Parisian family with a sixteen-year-old son, known to us only as friends of friends. The idea was that he and I would converse, using the other one’s language, in order to improve my French and his English. And of course, there was always the chance of romance, I thought.
My mother drove me to Southampton, where I took the ferry to Cherbourg on the north coast of France. The utilitarian ship that carried cars and tourists was dwarfed by a transatlantic liner on its way to pick up passengers before heading to New York, but I didn’t care. This was an adventure – my first trip on my own. I would be met on the dock by my hosts and taken to their beach house at Deauville for the weekend, before going on to Paris for the rest of my stay.
Seeing the men in blue overalls and matching peaked caps standing on the wharf was a surprise. The only Frenchman I’d ever seen was the onion seller from Brittany who turned up every year on his bicycle with strings of onions over the handlebars. He wore a striped matelot top and a beret, and I expected most of his countrymen would do the same.
There was a pervasive fragrance of smoke in the air, since many of the men, who, I realized, were standing by porters’ trolleys waiting for customers, had a cigarette seemingly stuck to their lower lip. The tobacco smelled different from that at home – more scented, exotic. I’d be disappointed years later when smoking was banned in public places in France, and the aroma of Gitanes and Gauloises disappeared from airports and the Gare du Nord. Until then, that aroma had represented my freedom and independence, my escape from home across the English Channel, to a country whose language I spoke well.
When I moved to Chicago, I took a packet of Gitanes cigarettes with me and would light one occasionally, letting it burn down in the ashtray, just to get that smell in my nostrils. But it wasn’t the same. Perhaps I needed the hubbub, the sound of French being spoken and shouted around me, and the jostle of foreigners to reproduce the experience.
The de Beaumonts met me at Cherbourg. After stuffing me into the Citroën with their son and two daughters, we drove to their house.
I was very surprised, though much too polite to say so, that, as a mature, not to say sophisticated person – one who had just crossed the Channel by herself – I was being treated like a child of ten. So was their spiritless son, Hubert, although he didn’t seem to notice. He was a lanky young man, who bore a startling, and unfortunate, resemblance to the president of France. He and Charles de Gaulle both had a long face, bloodhound eyes and a large nose. These may have been the attributes of the French aristocracy, but they did nothing to raise a flutter in my heart. Still, I’d just been asked whether I’d like wine with my meal, so decided being regarded as a ten-year-old wasn’t bad, only to find that this would be heavily diluted with water.
The weather was too cold to spend much time outside, so I was happy to arrive at their huge apartment in the 16th arondissement. I’d never seen one like it. Every wall was oak- paneled and crowded with paintings of genuine ancestors, while oriental rugs covered the floors. From the third-floor you could see the Trocadéro, that colossal monument to some glorious victory.
Dinner was served on the polished dining room table by the cook, who’d presumably laid it with all the proper china and silverware. At last I’d be enjoying the real haute cuisine I’d only heard about.
Supper, for us children, was spaghetti with tomato sauce and black olives. There was bread, too, but no butter, which I would discover was the custom in France. I’d never eaten an olive of any kind before, and hot dried black ones wasn’t the best way to start. I left most of them on the side of my plate, and my French failed me suddenly when they asked if I liked them.
A maid showed me to the place where I would sleep. It was an oak-paneled closet without windows, and I was appalled. I felt like a very poor relation who’d been forced on my much richer relatives. I read a lot of Dickens and Brontë at that age and began to have some sympathy for the French Revolution.
The following morning, the chic but distant mother asked me politely what I planned to do that day. I told her I’d be happy to see some of the sights.
“Très bien,” she said. “The Métro is at the end of that street.” She pointed out of the window.
Apparently, I had suddenly become an adult.
To be continued…