MOVE TO PARIS IN 1959
I am on my own – in Paris! I can hardly believe that I am here. My mother is going to follow me in a week’s time. I walk about as though in a dream. It is July when the mass of Parisians take their annual monthly holiday. The streets are silent and empty. Most of the shops are shut, the bakeries, the dairies, even some of the smaller cafés. I walk for miles along the sunlit streets, relishing the symmetry of the long avenues lined with plane trees, the architecture, the tall buildings with their uniform limestone façades and shuttered windows. I walk along by the river Seine exploring the secondhand bookstalls, the ‘bouquinistes’ as they are called, and cross the bridge over to the Left Bank. Here the streets are narrower and the buildings older. I peer through the windows of the many little antique shops, with interiors like theatre sets. I find the Boulevards St Germain and St Michel and well known cafés like the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, which I have read about, where famous artists and writers used to congregate and drink and talk.
I sit in the sun with a café crème and watch the Parisians go by. Everything is fresh and new and exciting. I feel totally, deliriously happy.
* * * * *
I had replied to the Daily Telegraph advertisement and taken a shorthand and typing test. I had passed the typing test, but not the shorthand and that seemed to be the end of the matter.
However, a few weeks later a letter came from the Personnel Officer at NATO offering me a job as a shorthand typist. 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 had to give three months’ notice to ICI. Peggy, of course, was delighted by my news and wished me well, as did my friends. We gave our notice to our Jewish landlady. Formerly pleasant, she had for some reason turned against us. On our last morning in the flat, I had taken 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.
NATO had booked a room for us at a small hotel in the Place du Trocadéro. This was a large circular area leading off in several directions in the 16th ‘arrondissement’, one of the smarter residential districts in Paris, not far from the Place de l’Etoile, and it was situated right behind the temporary headquarters of NATO, or North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, to give it its official name. The hotel was a narrow building with several floors and no lift. Our room was on the fourth floor. Every morning the ‘femme de chambre’ brought me my breakfast in bed, a delicious hot croissant and a bowl of milky coffee, a ritual which I loved.
Then my mother arrived. I had found a ‘pension’ where we could stay for a while, in a leafy suburb in the 16th arrondissement, 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. We would get our breakfast and an evening meal.
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 presented myself nervously at the NATO headquarters, at that time housed in a temporary building annexed to the Palais de Chaillot, which had been rebuilt for the World Fair of 1937. It was beautifully situated overlooking the river Seine and facing the Eiffel Tower, with the Trocadero Gardens down below. NATO at that time was composed of fifteen nations.
I met the Personnel Officer, a Canadian woman, pleasant enough, who seemed somewhat vague and abstracted. I learnt that I would not be going into the Typing Pool but straight into an office in the Aircraft Section. I also learnt the terms of my engagement: I would receive an expatriation allowance, as well as an allowance for my mother, since she was a dependent, and the salary was way above anything I could earn in England.
I met my new bosses, a Frenchman and an Italian, 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 quirky and manic, often jumping through the windows into our ground floor office, which made me laugh. He had many amusing stories of his time in London, especially the time when he met Mrs. So and so 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 still in a state of euphoria and happily spent hours typing up the work given to me by M. Woirin. It was only later on that I learnt that none of the girls wanted to work for him, and that his previous secretary had left in tears. Luckily I was mostly amused by his eccentricities and I was 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 pieces of straw sticking 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 could have lunch, and here I became initiated into the French way of life. There were starters, small delicious salads, hors d’oeuvres or crudités, then a meat or fish dish, often a grilled steak with ‘frites’ and a tossed green salad, and a sweet, crème caramel, or a pastry or fruit. 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 in France. So unlike a quick 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.
A little time had elapsed when I was asked to go and see the Personnel Officer again. 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 shattered. What was I to do? My world came crashing down around me, as all my hopes and dreams were dashed to the ground. It seemed that my mother and I would have to return to England.