MOVE TO PARIS
I replied to the Daily Telegraph advertisement and shortly after I was invited to go for a shorthand and typing test. My shorthand was not much improved, as I rarely used it, so I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that I had failed the shorthand though I had passed the typing test. That seemed to be the end of the matter.
However, a few weeks later I received a letter from the Personnel Officer at NATO offering me a job as a shorthand typist. Overjoyed by this, I wrote back explaining my stateless situation and that I only possessed an Aliens Certificate. I also told her that my mother was dependent on me and so would be accompanying me to Paris. I received a reply confirming the appointment and asking me how soon I would be able to start.
I gave in my three months’ notice to ICI. Peggy, of course, was delighted by my news and wished me well, as well as my other few friends. We only had to give a month’s notice to our Jewish landlady in Hampstead. For some reason, usually very pleasant, she had recently become quite unfriendly, possibly because of a dispute we had had over paying the milkman, and this news did not please her at all. On our last morning in the flat, I had taken all our luggage down to the taxi and was just closing the door when she darted out holding my sunhat, remarking tartly that she hoped “the sun would not go to my head.” It cast a momentary cloud over my mood.
We had decided that I would go first to Paris and that my mother would follow me a week later.
It was July, 1959, and I was on my own in Paris! I stayed in a small hotel on the Place Trocadero which had been booked for us by NATO. The NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Headquarters were not far away at the Palais de Chaillot. I was not due to report to them for a week, the idea being that I would try and find somewhere for us to live during that time.
It was summer and the sun was shining. I walked the streets of Paris, taking in the newness of it all, the tall buildings with their uniform limestone façades and shuttered windows. Most Parisians took their annual holiday ‘en masse’ in July, so very few of the shops were open - the bakers, the dairies, some of the cafés - and the streets were largely empty. I felt carefree and relaxed, as though I were on holiday myself in this beautiful city.
I walked along by the river Seine, exploring the ‘bouquinistes’ which lined the pavements. These were secondhand bookstalls selling used and antiquarian books, postcards and old prints, fascinating for any booklover like myself. (There was no tunnel then running along by the Seine.) I explored the little antique shops on the Left Bank, peering into the dim interiors which looked like theatre sets. I found familiar landmarks which I had read about, the Boulevard St-Germain, the cafés Flore, Les Deux Magots. I sat outside the cafés in the sunshine and indulged in my favourite pursuit of watching the world go by.
The French people were so different: they were sharp and quick, extravert, lively and loquacious, I could hardly understand them. My own spoken French was still halting and slow. I learnt a new word: ‘énervé’, which meant irritable or stressed out. Many French people seemed to be in a constant state of ‘énervement,’ taxi drivers in particular, who would rant and shout, hoot their horns (this had not yet been banned by law), fling up their arms – “que je suis énervé!” they would exclaim. No wonder they all suffered from liver problems, their major health complaint.
I loved it all. I was totally happy.
Then my mother arrived. I had managed to find a ‘pension’ where we could stay, it was in a leafy suburb in the 16th arrondissement, which was a fashionable area of Paris, and not too far from NATO. It was an old house with a large, shady garden, run by a kindly, middle aged woman called Mme Lapérouse, who seemed to be permanently worried. She had a Downs syndrome daughter. She gave us our breakfast and an evening meal, and we settled down into this new environment for a month or so.
I presented myself at the NATO headquarters with some trepidation. NATO at that time was housed in a temporary building annexed to the Palais de Chaillot. It was beautifully situated overlooking the river Seine and facing the Eiffel Tower. I met Katie Goddard, the Personnel Officer, a pleasant Canadian woman who seemed somewhat abstracted. I learnt that I would not be going into the Typing Pool but straight into an office in the Aircraft Section. I felt pleased by this, not realizing that it put me at a disadvantage since I would not meet the other girls who would show me the ropes and become friends.
I was still on cloud nine and everything was a thrill to me. I met my new bosses, Monsieur Woirin and General Tenti. The head of the Section was an Englishman, Mr. Bloss. M. Woirin was a French air force pilot who during the war had fought with the Resistance, and been based in London with General de Gaulle. He was quite manic, often jumping through the windows into our ground floor office, which made me laugh. He told us stories of his time in London, and of how he met Mrs. Jones in the ‘Tub’. He dictated to me for hours on end (fortunately I could get most of it in longhand), until one day General Tenti remarked that we “should be put in a cockpit together.” General Tenti, on the other hand, did very little, and spent most of his time on the phone, chatting up his girl friends.
I was quite happy to spend hours typing up the work given to me by M. Woirin. It was only later I realised that none of the girls wanted to work for him, and learnt that his previous secretary had left in tears. Fortunately I was merely amused by his eccentricities and I was later to find out that he was a very kind man. He was also a devout Catholic.
The temporary headquarters was a ramshackle building, already falling to pieces, with straw coming out of the walls. There was an old tattered carpet in the main entrance hall, and one day I saw M. Woirin, running as usual, go flying as he caught his foot in one of the holes. He called me “a true Christian” as I did not laugh at him. In truth, I felt much too concerned to laugh.
There was a cafetaria where we would have our lunch, and here I was initiated into the French way of life. There were starters, small delicious salads, hors d’oeuvres or crudités, then a meat dish, often a grilled steak with ‘frites’ and a tossed green salad, and a sweet, crème caramel, or a pastry or fruit. These things have become commonplace to us now, but then they were all new and different. There were small bottles of wine, red or white. It was good, simple French cooking and it tasted delicious to me. We always had two hours for lunch, and this was a sacrosanct tradition. It was very different from a half hour lunch and a soggy sandwich in London.
We were due to move into a new building in the Porte Dauphine at the end of the year, but I loved that old building and remember those first few months with great affection.
My mother, too, seemed happy to be in Paris. She had always liked the French and felt at home with them. She had, after all, experienced much kindness from them when I was born.
I had been in NATO for a little while when I was asked to go and see Katie Goddard. She told me that I would need to obtain an ID card so that I could work in France. I duly visited the Town Hall as I was directed and presented the official with my Aliens Certificate. He looked at it and he slowly shook his head. This would not do, he explained to me. I needed an official Passport in order to obtain an ID card.
I was devastated. What was I to do? It seemed that all my hopes and dreams were to be dashed to the ground, and that my mother and I would have to return to England.