Apartment life is vastly different from suburban living, all the rooms on one floor, an elevator outside your front door and a balcony overlooking the street. Our new home in St. Germain en Laye was a two bedroom apartment on the third floor, no built-in closets, a large bathroom with endless hot water and hand-held shower and a balcony overlooking the charming home of a tennis star. Cars were parked underneath the building and tall iron fences surrounded the property. I had left the US and discovered a new life.
I had lived in a small house in the US. Built in the early 1950’s it was a young family’s dream of three bedrooms, one bath and a small one car garage. We had the benefits of living on a dead-end street, near meadows and woods in a small group of houses. We walked the three blocks to and from school twice a day, in all kinds of weather. Lawns were mowed weekly, houses were similar in color and size and neighborhood children played outdoors with little adult supervision. It was the beginning of the “one bedroom per child” era with a formal living room and rumpus rooms in the basement. There was a front and back door, stairs to stomp up or down and plenty of room for additions. That house would soon fade from memory as I adapted to apartment dwelling, school buses and daily shopping excursions.
The French apartment was older by American standards, built-in the early years before the second world war. Parquet floors, an ornately carved marble fireplace and long double windows were immediate differences. I discovered the separation of water closet and “le bain” with its deep claw foot tub and bidet in the corner. The endless hot water heater was a teenager’s dream, the hottest water poured from the brass tap to fill the tub to my chin. The ceramic black and white tile checkerboard floor in the kitchen, entrance and bath was cold under foot every day of the year. ut The wood parquet of the living room was inlaid with multiple colors and patterns of wood and surrounded the thick persian carpet. The apartment was furnished with a blend of elegant French and sturdy Army issue furniture. Our family heirlooms packed away in storage in the US. There were massive armoires for storage and clothes, tall and ornate, the American beds and dressers square and durable. We learned that heavy velvet window drapes and thick Persian carpets were necessary to keep the damp cold at bay.
I shared a bedroom with my brother, until he left for college, our twin beds separated by solid Army dressers and desks. We took turns closing the door for private time alone. Another brother slept on a day bed in the living room, stowing bed linens in the armoire each morning. My parents claimed the second bedroom, moving carefully around the king sized bed set in the middle of the longest wall. There were armoires for each of us, smaller than the littlest closet in the US. Although we had brought along every item of clothing possible, the armoires remained half filled. Carefully the five of us began to live in France, learning the silence of old stone buildings, learning to cook in a doll sized kitchen and learning to use the public transportation like the locals. Every day offered a new experience, a new adventure in language, culture and life. We adapted to a smaller space by leaving each day as the French often do. We explored the town, the city of Paris and later, the French countryside. We were seldom in that small apartment during the early months of our stay except for meals and sleep. Extended tourists, the French called us, never really at home but living among them.
Throughout that first summer we gladly escaped each morning armed with centimes, francs and our thick Michelin guidebook. First an Army bus drove us to Paris, depositing us in front of the American embassy. From there, Paris was ours to explore. The rubber-tired Metro trains snaked underground through blue and white tiled tunnels, the cobblestone streets with wide sidewalks wound through the hills to Sacre Cour and we tried every path. Through the alleys of Montmartre to the parks by the Seine we walked to each site in the green guide. We followed each suggested route, saw every cathedral and small little church, inspected the Louvre exhibits and attended mass at Notre Dame, ending each adventure with “jambon et fromage” or a cafe au lait in a small sidewalk cafe. We were the endless tourists absorbing the flavors and scents of a city renowned for its food and perfumes. At day’s end we reversed our steps, returning to the American sense of security, boarding a bus at the embassy bound for the environs of Paris, our own little French village of St. Germain en Laye.
I learned early that I love the culture of a place and to live among the people while touring is my favorite way to travel. After forty years, a picture of a street market, or the smell of fresh bread instantly transports me to that first trip away from the familiar. Although I lived in France for only eight months, the memory of that apartment, the city of Paris with its Metro and sidewalk cafes remains as fresh in my mind as the palm trees in my back yard today. A young girl in a big city, I learned to go places I had seen only in dreams. Today’s dream is to return and ride the Metro all the way home.