A story about a naïve traveller in a strange land
I open my eyes wide onto a strange world into which I’ve stumbled as if by accident. All is new and filled with an alien glow, muted colours, greys yet beautiful. Hippies are twanging their guitars along the Seine. Flower sellers and precious bookstall owners hawk their wares along the promenades above. The ancient cobblestones conceal the holographs of those trapped forever in bloodstained revolutions. Seduced at every turn. I think that this must be my spiritual home, on the opposite side of the earth to my birth place.
The Frenchman I met while travelling across the Channel offered me the use of his apartment for two weeks. Why not? I thought. My tourist’s trip through the Mediterranean countries can wait. Generous and eccentric to a fault, these French — opposite story to what I’d been told! I find his street in a Michelin Guide book I bought at the Gare du Nord: rue Servandoni, in the sixth arrondissement. One change and out at the metro station near the Seine.
It’s a steep climb up a creaking staircase to the small flat overlooking a courtyard at the back of the building.
Once in the flat, I’m a child released in a magic castle, running to each window and feasting on the Mary Poppins-like scene of rooftop spires and quaint street-scapes at all cardinal points. I’m inside a foreign country in miniature: its smells and furnishings reflect an exotic old-world charm.
Alain has said to use what I want from the kitchen. The cans of food in the pantry, all are new to me. Chestnut jam, a thick, sweet, strange-tasting substance. Something called cassoulet in a tin. Brands that I’ve never heard of nor seen in the shops back home. I’m touching, prodding at everything. I’m swooning from the newness of it all. I’m a child in a toy shop, like the children in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory.
Jam has coated my mouth that feels like the bottom of a bird cage. I want to brush my teeth, but discover too late that the white-tubed stuff is shaving cream. Yuck!
I can’t wait to get downstairs once again and wander around the maze of streets and districts, as I once did around the farm as a small child. On the southern side of the street is the immense Luxembourg Gardens. Walking through them I’m still marvelling at the feeling of being in a dream from which I might awake at any moment. Further on I come to the Boulevard Saint Michel. Crowds of fine-featured French walk or sit in bars and in cafés; African and Arabic-looking student types mingle, laughing and talking gaily. Moroccan restaurants are everywhere.
I’m in the bustle of the Latin Quarter. This place of learning in the classical style. Now taken over by students. I sit in a Moroccan restaurant and order a couscous dish. Sumptuous, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. I’m free as a bird and wash the food down with cheap red wine. I look out at the sophisticated, fashionably dressed women. I compare their slight frames and neat coiffures to my ample curves and unschooled locks of long brown hair.
Following the rim of the Jardin back the way I’ve come, I’m able to make my way home to the flat without too much trouble.
For many days I wander, love-struck by difference and by beauty along the streets with their ancient, graceful buildings and perfectly manicured gardens in the classic style. As if in a dream I float up and down the escaliers, past the concierge, and out
To improve my French I recount over and over the story of my life, where I come from, where I’ve lived, and about my family. They always ask what my father does. How to translate ‘grazier’? Fermier? Propriétaire de ranche? Nothing works.
Through a chance encounter, I find a cheap room that once was servants’ quarters at the back of a doctor’s gracious residence. I live here for a while and sense the ghosts from a thousand years around me as I lie in the dark before sleep overtakes me each night. There’s a shared ‘water cabinet’ that I squat over as I used to do when nature called while mustering cattle in the bush. My savings begin to dwindle, I grow tense with anxiety and find a part-time job cleaning rooms in a hotel not far from my lodgings. I wonder about the lives of the single men whose rooms I clean, but whom I never see; only their musk-like scents I inhale.
One night I feel a dark presence invading my tiny room at the top of the fire escape stairs. It’s time, once again, to move on.
Walking back from Irma La Douce early one evening, as twilight caresses me in its dreamlike tones, I find myself taking on the character from the film. Swaying hips, I become Irma and sway along the boulevard, green stockings highlighting shapely legs underneath a tight-fitting woollen dress. Then I am being followed, and feel a rush of fear mixed with elation that makes me quicken my pace.
He starts to quicken his pace too. The man will catch up with me and know where I live. I imagine allowing him to follow me upstairs to my tiny room. He kisses me on the lips. Undresses me. ‘Vous-êtes la vedette américaine, Shirley Maclaine?’ he asks. An Anglo-Saxon body attracts attention here if you allow it to, contrasting with the delicate, petite lines of the French women all around me.
Fate intervenes and takes the decision out of my hands. There’s a fracas going on up ahead on the boulevard Saint Michel that throws me into history, like Stendhal’s Fabrice caught up in the Battle of Waterloo: La Chartreuse de Parme. Not so romantic sounding in English as The Charterhouse of Parma. I read it at uni.
I find myself in the midst of a revolution, young people, students, tearing up paving stones and setting cars alight.
Tear gas is thick in the air and some of the students are crying uncontrollably. There’s talk of the military being brought in by De Gaulle and blood in the streets.
The police move towards the Sorbonne, on the opposite side of the street. Pictures of Marx, Lenin, and Mao decorate the old pillars surrounding the front square. Red and black flags hang alongside the Vietcong flag. Trotsky, Castro and Che Guevara pictures are plastered on walls alongside slogans such as ‘Everything is Possible’ and ‘It is Forbidden to Forbid.’
I’m afraid I’ll be arrested and deported. I slink back towards the apartment blocks and stand inside a doorway. Residents are hanging out of windows. They shower debris on the police and spray soothing water over the students to minimise the effect of the chlorine gas grenades.
A young man with scraggy red hair jumps up on a wall in front of the Sorbonne and cried out to the students to carry on.
‘Qui est-ce?’ I ask a young woman standing smoking Gitanes next to me. ‘Who is it?’
‘On l’appelle Danny le Rouge; c’est l’un des leaders.’ (It’s Danny the Red, one of the leaders.)
I understand immediately, even with my school-girl French—the leader of the student rebellion. And this is how I met Ellie, who’s unafraid of being sent back to Germany. She’s handing out lemon-soaked handkerchiefs smeared with bicarbonate of soda for around the eyes, as well as leaflets on how to protect oneself against tear gas. Ellie is the antithesis of every stereotype I’ve heard about Germans: short with thick dark hair, cerulean blue eyes and pure white skin. She’s a student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and works part-time as an artist’s model.
At that moment the police move into the Sorbonne and arrest the red-haired man. Students start pulling up paving stones from the streets and hurling them at the police. Then others join in. The police are flailing their batons, demonstrators fall to the ground, police clubbing them, blood streaming from their faces as they lie on the pavement. The youths throw stones, and kick gas grenades at the police, who protect their faces with masks that look like fencing ones.
‘What we are afraid of: le Géneral de Gaulle will set the army on to us,’ whispers Ellie who is pale yet determined.
The students have made bonfires like the cracker night ones back home on Empire Day, only from cars and anything they can lay their hands on, and set them alight. I start to join in, already in too deep, terror and elation mixing in equal measure. I’ve met a sort of soul mate in Ellie, and a potential flat mate. ‘Meet me tomorrow in the Père Lachaise Cemetery,’ she says in between her revolutionary duties. ‘We will talk then.’
I feel like I’ve come home. The strangeness embraces me, and the oddity and aptness of it will follow me and my life in Paris for many days, weeks and months to come. It’s as if I’ve stepped through a veil into a parallel universe of contrasts that has opened my eyes on a reality that was shielded by distance from me before.
But for now…it’s the night of the barricades.