Three months after combat ended I was transferred to Paris to study cinema at Les Hautes Etudes Cinematographique. I spoke little French and had no interest in making motion pictures. I had read the literature prevalent between two wars: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, dos Passos; the whole Grand Tour of disillusionment. Paris was the center of my heroes’ wounded world, and I was to live there for a few months.
In 1945 I would see what my gods had seen in 1925.
I arrived in Paris by rail from Karlsruhe, a ruined German town.
The city had been destroyed by Allied area bombardment. Because it was just over the French border it had no anti-aircraft defenses. Those of our bombers who could not reach their assigned targets would unload on Karlsruhe before returning to England. It reeked because so many humans had decomposed under the wreckage.
Karlsruhe-Paris was an overnight train ride. We arrived at the Gare du Nord (North Station) in a cloud of steam and confusion and were loaded into small Army trucks.
The first time I saw Paris it was a city like none I had seen in a year. Intact. The roofs were on the buildings. No wreckage in the streets. Windows, shops — and best of all, out of an avenue, a girl on a bicycle suddenly swung behind our truck. Her skirt billowed to her shoulders, her undergarments were visible, and her good bare legs cycled away. As quickly as she arrived, she turned into a side street.
We arrived at our hotel. The non-com in charge of quarters said “You‘re three days early. Here are the keys to your rooms. Check in every now and then.”
I walked the streets of Paris. These were the cafes and avenues I had read about. The clichéd landmarks were fresh for a man in his early twenties. The stereotypes came from two dimensional photographs. Paris was three dimensions plus smells, shadows, sound, and living people. I went into the Cathedral of Notre Dame and was awed. I stood under the Eiffel Tower and was bewildered. I crossed the Seine at three different bridges, right bank to left bank and back twice more.
Sometimes trite is right.
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world for strolling on foot.
On the Boulevard Haussman I saw a girl who looked lovelier at each approaching step. I stared. The sight of her injected me with an overdose of testosterone, a heave of macho, a surge of Type A manliness. My lust must have had a vocal grunt element, or more probably my ogling and body language menaced her. She disappeared into a large door at the back of a large building.
It was the Opéra. I went to the front and bought a ticket. I saw my first ballet in July of 1945. My seat was way up, in Paradise. Since I knew so little French I became a three-a-week balletomane. Coincidentally, the captain in charge of our billet had been a dancer, although it took him time to admit it. In that era all male dancers were presumed homosexual. Captain Charles Pinckney was not.
He was an elegant Bostonian with a graceful redheaded French mistress, an older lady probably in her thirties. Ani worked for Guerlain, and one day the captain took our cinema class to learn about the superiority of French fragrances. It was a promotion of course, but there was Pinckney’s girl demonstrating the perfume Chypre. She taught us how ladies put it behind their ears, and then demonstrated that drops should be put on the upper thigh, so that when a seated woman’s legs were crossed the perfume would be warmed and the scent would arise from her skirt when she rose. The skirts weren’t short in 1945.
We saw the riches of Paris. The trouble was, we couldn’t afford the city. Soldiers were paid in Army coupons, rather than French francs. The coupons were worth two francs each. On the black market the dollar was worth many times more. So we ate in the mess halls instead of the restaurants and bought next to nothing.
One day near the end of a month, the American military decided to pay us in dollars. We were asked to turn in the coupons, and we’d receive our pay translated into French francs. We were all broke and had little scrip, so somehow, a swindle took place. The finance clerk paid us at two francs to the dollar as if we had deposited our full pay. He pocketed the rest. On the same day the clerk got orders to go back to the States. He was stuck with two bags filled with ten thousand franc notes in numerical order. Home was more important than Frog francs. He had to get rid of the pay sacks.
He gave one to me. He asked me not to buy anything that could be traced to him. I was to take the large bills and spend them out of numerical order. I was not to buy property, nor use them for large black market purposes, and I was never to mention his name.
I was probably the richest corporal in Paris. I bought a whole box for myself at the ballet. I could have bought a building and stayed in France for years.
One of the translators in the class was Andrée Zaigue. Her English was excellent. She lived near the top of the hill of Montmarte. I asked her to dinner several times at a restaurant near her home. The last meeting went very late. The lights of the City of Light were about to go out.
Electricity was rationed during the winter of 1945. The subway closed down at midnight. It was a long way from the restaurant to my hotel, and I finally had the courage to ask her if I could stay at her home. I knew she liked me. Courtship must be culminated.
She agreed. I was a wonderful man. But I had to understand that while she was a disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre and an existentialist, she was also a fervent Catholic. It was the contradiction in herself that she was trying to work out, with much joy and some pain. She was sorry, cher Perry. Perhaps after she had applied logic to her emotions? Not tonight, mon ami.
I left hurriedly. The blackout was to begin and the metro was about to stop.
I started down the hill. I was lost. I met an older woman and asked her in French where I could find the subway station.
“Madame, je suis perdu. S’il vous plait, dans quel rue est le metro?”
Her response, very slowly, “Messieur, est-ce-que vous parlez francais?”
It was my American accent.
The hardest word in French for an American is rue. That “r” is in the back of the throat where English never visits. In Yiddish there is Chaim, in Spanish Xavier, In American there is no such sound, unless the throat is cleared.
But bad as the “R” is, the ue in rue is worse. From the back of the throat to forward of the lips was too long a journey for me.
Worse– perdu had that r and that French u again. It came out as in Bloomington Indiana’s University of Purdue.
All i’s in French are pronounced as eel, the fish, not ill, the sickness. And all those American flat A’s should have been Ah’s as in “Ah-hah, villain!”
No wonder she asked me if I spoke French.
She also said something I heard only phonetically.
“Et quand est-ce que les Américains vont rentrer chez eux?”
She was politely asking when we would leave. But later on the walls: “Yankee go home.”
The electricity was out, but there was a full moon. I walked all the way downhill in moonlight. Here and there, gas lamps, lanterns, and candles.
I was in a time warp. The city was no longer 1925. It was Paris before electricity. Not the Paris of the between-the-wars gods I knew — Hemingway and dos Passos — but of the immortals sixty years before them. La Belle Époque about 1880.
In art, the early impressionists, Renoir and Manet; and van Gogh who hated electric lights. In music, Ravel, Gounod, Chabrier, Saint-Saens. In literature, Zola, Proust, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert.
When I finally got to the bottom of the hill I had pledged myself to this exasperating, civilizing country.