Early each morning children and housewives visit the Boulangerie to purchase baguettes, the long loaves of bread, we associate with French cuisine. The loaves poke from the string bag used by all to carry purchases from the market. Perhaps other treats are purchased from the Patisserie, the pastry shop, but a necessity in every French town is its Boulangerie. My initiation to the wonders of the bakery began soon after my arrival in St. Germain en Laye.
My father sprinkled centimes in my hand, the coin of the realm before the Euro, and gave me brief directions to the shop. He instructed me to ask for one loaf. His French was limited to the pertinent phrases he needed to navigate outside the NATO base where he worked and he struggled to translate the question for me. I left the apartment (another elevator ride to the street) and walked slowly up the cobblestone street, repeating the words he had spoken as a mantra. Bicyclists passed with loaves spearing like lances from the bags hung on handlebars. Housewives returned from the market weighed down with bags of produce and meat, loaves tucked under their arm. The loaves were long and thin, crusty outside with a soft sweet center.
I entered and stood inside the door of the small shop. The yeasty aroma of fresh bread mingled with the scent of fresh flowers perched on the glass case. Women stood near the case vying for the cashier’s attention. The rapid staccato of French gave the scene an urgent feel as I stepped forward to place my order. Suddenly, I was tongue-tied, the mantra deserted me and I stood, a young American girl surrounded by bustling French women. “Un pain s’il vous plaît,” I stuttered. My accent immediately alerted everybody in the shop and the hushed silence caused me to jingle my coins nervously. I stepped to the register, offered my centimes and grabbed the loaf. My face turned rosy with embarrassment as I made my way out the door clutching the bread to my side. Out on the street, I turned toward home and looked at my purchase. Instead of the long, thin, crusty spear of a baguette, I held a football shaped loaf. Clearly, I had made a mistake. Rather than face the same shoppers again, I raced through the alley, down the cobblestone steps and into the elevator. I had no idea what I had ordered, only that the loaf I brought home looked nothing like those common loaves of all the others in the shop.
Fortunately for me, there was a thick Berlitz guide to the French Language available. I admitted to my father the error I had made and searched the pages for the correct term. “Un pain” was an oval loaf, smaller in size than “un baguette” the more typical long thin loaf of every French household. It was a small yet crucial distinction, one I was careful to learn for my next foray into the Boulangerie of St. Germain en Laye. I also learned the difference between the Boulangerie (the bread bakery) and the Patisserie (the pastry bakery) although it would be some days before I developed the courage to explore the sweet wonders of the Patisserie.
My brother and I were first time flyers when we boarded the Pan Am jet at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. We were fascinated by the little bathrooms, small soaps and the fold down lap tables attached to the seats. Looking out the small porthole windows we watched the Statue of Liberty fade into the skyline as we soared north toward Nova Scotia. The flight was long, six hours aloft, with only a meal and snack to break the tedium. The attendants were kind, offering gum to chew as we climbed to our cruising altitude. My mother had wisely packed books and magazines for us to read during the flight. These were the days before in-flight movies and there was only radio available with expensive ear phones for rent.
I remember wearing a new dress made of lace, a garter belt and stockings with patent leather flats. Those were the days of elegant travel for all passengers and of course, we were en route to Paris, we had to be fashionable. The flight boredom set in and I tried to nap under the miniature blanket provided. Just as today, the meal arrived as I dozed off. Excitement warred with exhaustion as I realized it was a flight to the unknown. Here I sat on an airplane bound for Paris with every possibility before me and yet, I had no idea. My father waited for us at the airport to drive us to our new home but he was the only link to the United States. My mother and brothers were eager to begin a new life, but I had no idea what to expect at the end of that flight. I left a small suburban community in New Jersey, all my friends from childhood and our extended family. I left the sordid and the good. It would be many years after that first flight before I realized the past is carried with you until you let go of the baggage.
Our arrival at Orly airport was a noisy confusion of baggage claims, hugs and tears. Exhaustion began to set in as we gathered belongings, suitcases, purses, briefcases and the myriad souvenirs of the flight. Everyone spoke at once when we greeted my father at the arrivals gate. Clearing customs was a blur of passport stamps, rapid French and a long line to the baggage area. I remember a long walk with a heavy suitcase to the rental car, a crowded seat and a long ride in the twilight to our new home. No house for us, we were now apartment dwellers at Boulevard Victor Hugo.
My mother told me the news at lunch on a cold February day during our mid-winter break. Our family was moving to Paris. Yes, Paris France, the city of Les Mis, the Bastille, Marie Antoinette and an eager American teenager. The plan was for my father to go ahead, establish his place in the workforce, find a home for the family and then send for us to come after our school was finished in June. The plan left the majority of the work to my mother, to prepare our small suburban home for rental, gather our school records, sort through belongings to store or sell, schedule immunizations and maintain our life in New Jersey. There seemed to be so much time between the announcement and the departure. I was on the brink of adolescence and cranky teenaged angst. The February announcement would forever change my life and by June 1966 I would begin to walk a different path than that of the ordinary suburban schoolgirl I had been.
My father left first, in March. I remember taking him to the airport on a cold March afternoon, driving through the dark slushy streets in a car loaded with his entire wardrobe of suits, ties, casual clothes and at least one hat. It was 1966 and dapper men wore hats and overcoats, suits and ties and shiny shoes. My mother was remembering all the details of their last separation during World War II. I hoped this would be shorter. “Do you have your passport, your traveller’s checks and the ticket?” my mother asked over and over. “Yes, dear,” he repeated to her every question. I had never thought he would be gone, not present every night at the dinner table, presiding over the family supper with jokes and job stories. Yet, here he was, leaving on a jet plane with hugs and kisses, tears welling in his eyes as he looked one last time at my mother. In a moment, he was gone with his heavy suitcases and his leather briefcase. We watched as long as we could.
Predictably, my mother accomplished miracles in the next three months. She organized repairs on the house, scheduled my brothers and my immunizations, prepared the paperwork for our passports and turned over her Women’s Club presidency. I remember walking into the house from school to hear an attic floor being hammered into place, the noise reverberating throughout the neighborhood. My brother and uncle were preparing a storage area for our furniture and personal treasures. While they hammered sheets of plywood into place, my mother was supervising the workmen setting new steps and a walkway at the front door. Weeks of endless workdays, hectic schedules and farewell parties almost overwhelmed her but at last, the house was empty, the back steps had fresh paint, the dog had a new home and the four of us were loaded into cars en route to JFK airport for a Pan Am flight to Orly airport in Paris. The family was moving to a two bedroom apartment in Ste. Germain-en-Laye, France. The transformation was underway.