13. A Language Adventure. Paris in 1960
While I enjoyed travel, my main purpose was to study. Paris in the early 1960s was a magic place. I lived in a small unheated and uncomfortable flat on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré in a building that was built in 1789. I was on the sixth floor and the toilet was on the third floor. I always knew if my neighbor below me on the fifth floor was home because I took a bath by pouring hot water into a small tub in my kitchen. It was just impossible not to spill some water, a few drops of which found their way down to my neighbor, who then banged on his ceiling with a broom-handle.
It is remarkable that a building with such poor standards of accommodation was located in a uniquely fashionable area of Paris. The world headquarters of some of the leading fashion and perfume companies of the world are on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honoré. Estée Lauder was in my building, for example. The Elysée Palace, home of the
French President, was just down the street. The Place de la Concorde, la plus belle place du monde, was the next block over. And I lived in an unheated room that had not changed much since the French Revolution!
Within walking distance were the shops and eating places of the wealthy: Fauchon, the great caterer and food store on the Place de la Madeleine, the shops on the Grands Boulevards and Maxim’s restaurant. This was the world of La Belle Époque, symbolizing to me the height of France’s cultural influence preceding the tragic events of twentieth century Europe.
The Champs Elysées was just around the corner. I would often end my evenings strolling down this most beautiful boulevard. I would start in the Middle Ages at Notre Dame Cathedral, pass by the Renaissance at the Louvre, experience l’Ancien Régime as I walked through the Jardins des Tuileries designed by Louis XIV’s gardener and then cross the Place de la Concorde where influences of the 18th and 19th century come together in balance and harmony. Continuing from there, it is hard not to fix one’s attention on Napoleon Bonaparte’s heroic Arc du Triomphe which overlooks the surrounding districts from the heights of the Place de L’Étoile. Despite the intent of Napoleon in building this monument to his victories, the lasting power of any civilization is not its force of arms, but its contribution to world civilization.
My bicycle took me everywhere I needed to go: to school, to my part time jobs, and out on the town in the Quartier Latin. Negotiating the traffic on the Place de la Concorde or Place de L’Étoile with my bicycle was a daily challenge. On the other hand, there was no better way to really experience the feeling of living in Paris. It was also the easiest and fastest way to get from point to point without worrying about parking.
I had several part time jobs. One involved taking lunch with French families while offering English conversation in return. As a poor student used to the simpler university restaurant fare, I always took advantage of these lunches to eat plenty of good food and have a few glasses of wine, finishing with a strong espresso coffee so I would not fall asleep. My second job had me running an English language lab at the French Agricultural Institute. Every Thursday, a plentiful lunch with a “bourgeois family” was followed by a bicycle ride halfway across Paris to the Agricultural Institute, on a full stomach. I arrived sweating profusely just in time to turn on the central controls for the language lab.