Monday, November 9, 2015

The first time I saw Paris

 I am often asked why Monsieur and I ended up living in France and I by now I have fashioned an answer. 

 This answer includes the fact that Monsieur's father was saved by a Frenchman during WWII and spoke highly of France and its people to Monsieur, then" le petit garçon".  

 It also includes our appreciation of the more relaxed lifestyle and the fact that having been in the wine trade,  we received several invitations to visit some of the famous Chateaux.   We saw then what a beautiful country France is.   

And I think, that Paris is on the radar of every American young person,  from her ideas from films and stories that she has heard from childhood.   Most everyone in America dreams of going to Paris. 

Paris outside the Louvre photo by Mary M Payne

My first trip to Paris occurred when I was 20 years old spending my third university year in Denmark on a scholarship program similar to a "foreign exchange".  

That school term in Copenhagen was formative.  I delighted in the discovery that not everyone on earth thought alike,  lived alike or created alike even if we were descendent Europeans.    

 I stayed with a young couple (in their late 30's) in a beautiful suburb called Birkerold just outside of Copenhagen: Aksel and Hanne.  My Danish "parents" were  curious, well-educated and refined and I got  my own lovely room in their house while attending classes in Opera, Architecture, and Danish language and culture in Copenhagen.

Me , Aksel and Hanne in Copenhagen circa 1967.   Photo courtesy of Mary M Payne

Aksel was the head of a successful rainwear company.  He eventually left that position in his fifties to become a high school teacher which was his real calling.  Hanne ran the whole international student (ISC) program for the University of Whittier.  They each spoke at least four languages and wanted to practice their English (so my Danish did not progress very well).  

    I remember the cold winter ; the walks in the rain (covered in slickers, hats and boots from Aksel's company),  talks together of a late afternoon with tea and cookies after a walk;  an extensive collection of ancient books of engravings which Aksel and I perused while lying on the floor knees bent, feet in the air ;  learning to knit and make Danish "smorrebrod" with Hanne. 

  We visited their two summer houses in Malmo, Sweden and one on a Danish Island (I forget which one of the many) and went on many excursions together.    It was an episode in my life that I treasure. 

 Near the end of the school term in Amsterdam all of our group was  invited on a trip to visit other cities of Europe including Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Florence. 

 My 50 year old memories of Paris include the grandeur of the boulevards,  the view from "Le Tour d'Eiffel",  the majesty of Notre Dame Cathedral,  the magnificent museums and parks and French bakeries (Patisseries).  Paris soon met my expectation of what a great city should be.  

The memory that stands out on this trip, however, was the announcement that we would not be going to Florence.   That was the year ,1966, when the Arno River overflowed its banks ( Nov. 4, 1966),  flooding the city and destroying over 1500 rare manuscripts and paintings. 

 When we were told the news we plunked down on the nearby steps and sobbed.  It seemed grossly unjust that we had waited 20 years to see Florence and its treasures and now they were presumably lost to us and the world.  

As you now know , a host of restoration angels descended on Florence and much of the damage was reversed in years to come, but that first alarming announcement still is recorded in my brain's rolodex.  

 But thinking back on that first trip to Paris,  I was quickly captivated by the beauty, strangeness and harmony of the place and the people... who yes, were brusque, distant... and so distinctly "other".    This combination, the lilt of the language, the pouty chic of the women... was alluring and repellent at once.  That made it seductive to me.   

 I am less fond of big cities now and am glad to be near the warmth of the South,  but I can always get excited about a trip to Paris and have an appreciation for the French and their way of life. 

 And I can still be tempted by an excellent "tarte de citron", enclosed in its little box,  wrapped in traditional parchment paper and tied with ribbon as a little gift to oneself.  So French... so wonderful.

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