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Fiction at 13

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960’s.

Desireeis_paris_burning  I was a reader in transition when I landed in Paris. As a young middle school student, I had been introduced to American authors like O’Henry, Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Esther Forbes. My library card was well-worn from weekly forays into the fictional world of the Young Adult section. When we moved to Paris, there was no longer a willing librarian to recommend new authors or the proper reading material for a young girl. I was on my own, reading newspapers, American magazines and anything I could find written in English. (My French never did allow me to visit the “bibliotheque.”)  During that first summer, I was limited to the books my father brought home from the office, the books circulating among the wives of his colleagues. Since cereal boxes were boring and I needed something more than solitaire to entertain me, I shared the books with my parents. I found more than entertainment, I discovered fascinating history, romance, intrigue and a little known genre called historical fiction. I was addicted.

A recent reference to the Bernadotte family reminded me of those first lonely months in Paris and the book that introduced me to European history. The book, Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, is the story of a young woman in love with Napolean, her adventures in Paris and her later transformation to become Queen of Sweden. Desiree became Queen of Sweden when her husband, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, became King Charles XIV John. They founded the Bernadotte dynasty that produced the modern love story of Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian. A love story for the 21st century. No wonder I was so intrigued. Thirteen years old, a French love story that was “real” for the reader. I was hooked.

The second book that influenced my present and my future was Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Real history set in the city where I lived. The very buildings I walked past in my Sunday visits to Paris were described in the book, brought to life in details by historical authors. The pockmarks I saw, the landmarks I visited were each described in detail from the days of the Nazi occupation. I lived in the history of the city, ready for the bursts of bombs over Paris, the American troops riding in tanks to liberate the French and the various intertwining histories of the people I met walking along the Seine. How exciting to pass under the very bridge where the Resistance officers traded secrets with the Allies. The book was so descriptive of the moments leading to the liberation, I almost expected to meet Charles De Gaulle en route to a meeting when I turned the corner in the 5th Arrondissement. Living amidst the historical sites, I learned that history and the present intersect on every street corner.

I wasn’t lonely anymore. I was in the middle of history, meeting with Resistance officers, reading telegrams from Berlin. I was living in Paris but each page of the book placed me in the 1940’s rather than the turbulent 1960’s of my present.  I had found a new path, a new way to look into the past and find the present. While my friends at home in the States were talking of “Grotto dances” and “The Rock” I was living amidst the pages of a book, living the history of the ancient city, verifying facts and visiting the buildings with their war plaques and pockmarked facades.

My view of history was forever changed by the realism of my present connected with the living proof of the past. These two book made history come alive, transported me to an age unknown previously and introduced me to a living history I would pursue throughout my life. The authors wrote, described, and set a scene so real that I was allowed to live among the pages of history, right before my teenaged eyes. A history so real that years later, I wondered if I had lived the dream of Desiree, young, in Paris and eager to experience the excitement of a future filled with mystery and romance.

I learned that Paris was not burning nor did young Desiree marry Napoleon but in those months before I started high school, I learned that history is made in each day we live and can be found within the pages of a book. Two books can change a life.

 

 

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Even Young Girls Get The Blues

Shells 6

The familiar sights and sounds of my neighborhood were far away, 3637 miles to be more exact. The games of SPUD and Kick the Can played after dark in the deadend circle of my street were only memories. My new apartment building fronted a busy roadway and there was no neighborhood gang to whistle up for a game of Flashlight Tag. I began to feel the pangs of homesickness, the ailment of the ex-pat tired of being alone.

Relocation is commonplace in 21st century America. Companies transfer employees from East to West, retirees leave hometowns for warmer climes and college students settle in their chosen cities after graduation. Americans love to move.  The agents find houses, locate schools and transportation and with minimal disruption, children enter a new school, parents commute via new routes and the families settle in. Now there is the internet for Skype conversations, cell phones send pictures and messages and email zips a letter across the ocean in less time than it takes to tie a shoe.

I moved before all that. I moved from New Jersey to Paris in 1966, when a letter written on onion skin paper was sent via Airmail and still took a week to get to my friends. I was a new teenager, alone with my family 3637 miles from my friends, school, church and community. I learned about homesickness. I learned about loneliness and I learned about making a fresh start. I later learned the relocation process can be habit-forming but that’s in retrospect.

We left New Jersey after a whirlwind month of dance recitals, house renovations and bon voyage parties. Although  we were dizzy from the anticipation and excitement of leaving a small suburban town for the ancient city of Paris, France, our new life was a blank slate, a grand adventure and a flat-out mystery. “Keep a journal” one friend advised. “Write a letter home every week and tell us all about it” said another. We were determined to stay connected and never thought of the effect time and distance would have on our friendships.

There were daily letters to and from several friends during those first two months. Exciting descriptions of our new city, life in an apartment and the daily challenge of learning a new language filled page after page as I tried to describe my new life. I eagerly awaited my father’s arrival each day with the bundle of mail he brought home from the NATO base where he worked. At first, there were long detailed letters filled with details about parties and boys, summer romances and vacation plans.  I saved them all for that lifeline to my home and friends, my antidote to loneliness. My education about homesickness, loneliness and living abroad had begun.

Homesickness

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Young Girl in the Big City

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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.

Metro Map

 

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A Young American in Paris

St. Germain En Laye

I was awake at dawn, ready to explore my new territory. I dressed in cut-off Bermuda shorts, a sweatshirt and my moccasins, the all American outfit of a thirteen year old. Through the hall, down in the elevator and out through the wrought iron gate to the wide sidewalk. To avoid getting lost, I decided to go around the block. Setting out, I noticed the high fences and walls surrounding the properties along Blvd. Victor Hugo. The streets were cobblestone and the sidewalks wide expanses of slate. Each building was right to the edge of the sidewalk with shutters closed against the morning light. My footsteps echoed as a sauntered past.

I arrived at the top of the hill and saw a small alley with a street sign indicating it was a real street. Narrow, with room for one car, the alley had a red sign with a big white dash in the middle. I had found the first of many international traffic signs. I later learned the red sign meant “one way, do not enter” but at the time it was merely a fascinating change from my former small suburban town. I walked around the block, past walled homes, peeking in the gates at century old buildings with cobblestone courtyards, past wrought iron gates painted black with gold leaf. I saw terra-cotta roofs, sagging forest green shutters and not one person. As I rounded the corner to return home, I met a woman carrying string bags filled with produce and long loaves of bread sticking out the top. Suddenly the sidewalk came alive with people, women sweeping their stone steps, men riding mopeds up the hill and a few girls watching from upstairs windows. Nobody smiled, nodded or acknowledged me in any way as I walked past but there were rapid exchanges in French after I moved along. My ears heard “American” and “fille”, “the American girl,” thanks to my 7th grade French teacher for that little bit of understanding.

I learned from my short walk around the block. The Bermuda shorts and sweatshirts were once again packed away, only to be worn in the comfort of our apartment. Never again would I venture forth without careful attention to my wardrobe. Shorts were not worn by anybody at any time. Sweatshirts were for sports players and not acceptable for young girls, American or not. During the following months, I walked along those same sidewalks on my way to the bus bound for Paris. I met many of those same people I had seen that first morning and after giving a long look at my outfit, I would receive a nod or a smile of greeting. I had been initiated into the world of French appropriateness and had learned a valuable lesson. Clothes were important and first impressions were lasting.

The French dress impeccably when going out and about. Tailored suits, caps and jewelry are seen on young and old, regardless of employment. It is later, when entering a shop and the same woman who was dressed in tailored cashmere now assists from behind the counter, covered by a royal blue smock, the attire of every working Frenchman. I learned that day to be aware of different cultures and traditions. I was no longer a small town American girl, I was now a young American in Paris and I wanted to blend with the nationals. It was an eye-opening experience.

The hanging gardens of St. Germain en Laye

 

 

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DP Challenge – Steps Along the Past

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.

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Pay It Forward 2013

2013 Creative Pay-It-Forward:

The first five people to comment on this post will receive from me, sometime in the next calendar year, a gift.

Perhaps a book, or handmade item, or a candle, music – a surprise! There will likely be no warning and it will happen whenever the mood strikes me.

The catch? Those five people must make the same offer in their FB status, their blog or to their email friends.

Be sure to let me know your address or contact info.

Pay It Forward

Pay It Forward

Thank you to my lovely friend, Rachel Dickenson for suggesting this inspiring idea.

 

 

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