MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA(Revised)
All the English girls admired the French girls for their chic and sense of style. A pencil slim black skirt and tailored white blouse seemed ‘de rigueur’, but when we tried to emulate them we never achieved the same effect. We were built on a larger scale than the small boned French girls, whose dress sense went back for generations.
With an expatriation allowance, an allowance for my mother and a much higher salary than I had in London, we were now much better off. I started buying my own clothes, rather than my mother making them for me, and I began to develop a sense of my own style and what suited me.
One morning, as I was walking along the corridor, wearing a black and white pleated skirt, white blouse, Chanel style loosely woven black jacket, and a pair of sling back, open toed green sandals which had caught my fancy, I passed M. Woirin.
“Le deuil sied å Electre” he murmured as he passed me.
It was a moment or two before his words sank in. “Mourning becomes Electra.” He had paid me a compliment! I smiled broadly to myself.
I wanted above all to meet French people, they were very hard to get to know socially, so I joined a club which was ostensibly for foreigners to meet the French. The nearest I got to this was a Rumanian girl called Arlette. Her parents had emigrated to Paris and she had been born there. She was about my age, and very friendly. She was dark, with curly black hair, vivacious, exotic and dramatic. Although brought up in France, she seemed never to have become fully integrated in French society. We began to go out together. We were very different, but we both needed a friend, someone to be with.
Arlette was full of enthusiasms which came and went. Her work, vaguely connected with the arts, was never very well paid and she knew all the cheap places to go to and where one could go for free. She had lots of casual acquaintances and so in this way I began to meet people. I remember one occasion when we were having a drink in a café with several others, probably on the Boulevard St Germain. It was possible to sit for hours in the cafés. Two women were giving us a psychological test: we were given a piece of paper with various symbols which we were asked to complete. One was just a dot, representing the self. I added lines raying out from the dot and then drew a line round the rays, making a wheel.
“Ah”, said one, “that means self development. We haven’t seen that one for a long time,” turning to the other woman. I thought nothing of it, I had no idea what that might mean. But I did not forget it.
At one time Arlette was working in the Musée du Petit Palais, a fine arts museum just off the Champs Elysées. She asked me if I would record for her an English translation of La Fontaine’s famous fable of The Raven and the Fox. This was to go into a machine in the museum, on which, at the touch of a button, one could hear a version of this fable in several different languages. I did so, though I did not like the sound of my own voice, it made me think of the Queen, but I was tickled to think that my voice would be heard by people from all over the world.
Another time I was having a coffee with Arlette in the Pub Renault on the Champs Elysées, a very French version of an English pub, with two of her male acquaintances. One of them was a palm reader and he offered to read our palms. This was always an interesting diversion. He looked at my hand and said:
“You are either a genius or you are mad.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because your head line is criss-crossed with tiny lines, denoting intense
This certainly gave me food for thought, and often, later on, I did wonder if I could be mad.
My mother and I explored the area where we lived. From our flat we were soon on the Champs Elysees. From there we would walk down to the Place de la Concorde, cross its huge expanse and go into the Tuileries Gardens, formally laid out with gravel paths and classic flower beds. We visited the Orangerie to the left of the gardens, where paintings by the French artist Monet were displayed. Done in later life when his eyesight was going, these four huge paintings of the water liles in his gardens were shown, one on each wall, a blaze of colour and light.
Running alongside the Tuileries Gardens was the rue de Rivoli, with plenty of smart little shops where my mother and I loved to window shop. There was an English bookshop, WH Smith, with a tearoom on the first floor, which was very popular with the French. We often went there and had toasted teacakes, but the tea was always disappointing, much too weak. The French never could make tea.
Although my mother and I loved the area where we were living, we were beginning to find living in the flat increasingly uncomfortable. The cooking facilities were inadequate, and my mother loved to cook. There was nowhere for us to wash up the dishes and we ended up by washing them in the bathroom. I often went to bed with an upturned pile of dishes, pots and pans in the bath. My mother was also finding walking up two flights of stairs, laden with shopping bags, too strenuous for her. We were living in what had basically been a long corridor, with two rooms running off it, one with no window at all. At first it had seemed like an adventure but the novelty of it was now beginning to wear off.
I reluctantly began to look around for another place to live. Flats in Paris were very expensive and hard to find. I eventually found a ground floor flat with all the proper facilities not far from the Arc de Triomphe, so it was still central and easy for me to get to NATO. It was not entirely satisfactory, as it was dark and gloomy, and it was surrounded by dismal little streets, but it seemed we had no choice. We gave in our notice to the Comtesse, who was surprised and upset, and moved to our new flat.
It was to be the first of several moves during our time in Paris.