1967 - THE SUMMER OF LOVE - PARIS HERE I COME
CITY OF DREAMS
The train ferrying me from Brittany to Paris was quite
crowded, much more like the train journeys through my home town of London. I
was quite excited at the prospect of seeing Gay Paree, never having been there
before. The powers-that-be in the
Greater London Council Travel Awards department had decreed that award holders
could choose to go to Paris as part of their trip, but the maximum stay must be
two weeks. Whether this was because it was such a wicked city that us young
Londoners could only stand a fortnight of such indulgence and excess, or
whether it was because of the expense of boarding in Paris, I don’t know; but
nevertheless I booked my two weeks at the end of my personal Grand Tour, and
looked forward to comparing life in the two great cities.
I was met at one of the impressive main stations by my final
host of the trip, Mademoiselle Robert. We shook hands formally before she led
me to her smart new Citroen for the short drive to her apartment at number 85
rue Mirabeau, in the suburb of Antony, which largely consisted of colourful new
blocks of flats.
During the drive, Mademoiselle explained that my booking had
been made by her mother, Madame Robert, but sadly she had recently passed away.
‘Not a very good start to my Paris adventure, she must hate me’, I thought, as
I expressed my sympathy in my best Touraine French. Thankfully, she actually
seemed happy to have me there, and we got on very well during my stay.
The apartment was on one of the higher floors, and I was
glad to see a lift, as my luggage seemed to be increasing unilaterally with
every change of address. I was shown to a nice sized room, with a single bed
and the usual wardrobe and chest of drawers – and a sewing machine. Mademoiselle explained that this was usually
used as a sewing room cum guest room, and I was quite glad that she had not
decided to put me in her recently deceased Mother’s now vacant quarters.
Over a truly delightful dinner, during which I was
instructed to call her Gisele, my host explained that she was a cookery demonstrator
by profession, going round schools, department stores and other establishments
to give demonstrations and talks. Well, I thought I had really fallen on my
feet here; living with a professional cook in the city famed for its cuisine!
And so it proved. Fabulous meals and
snacks were presented to me every day, and if Gisele had to be out, she left me
something deliciousl in the fridge. She didn’t work every day, and sometimes on
days off she would take me for a drive, either a tour of the city or a day trip
to a park or place of interest. One
memorable excursion was to the Dunkerque beaches.
Some of my family had been involved in the landings in 1940,
and Gisele talked about her memories of that time, when she had been just a
teenager. Her father had perished in that war, and her Grandfather in the First
World War. I listened quietly, as we sat on the almost deserted beach looking out
across the English Channel, or I should in this context call it La Manche, both
lost in our personal thoughts, and ate our banquet from the huge picnic Gisele
had prepared, washed down with a small glass of wine.
One evening she took me to visit the newly refurbished Orly
Airport. It was the most modern airport I had seen (which as I had never
actually been in an airport up to then is not saying much). I remember it being
completely white, new and gleaming inside and out – the cleanest place I had
ever seen! We walked all round, looked in the smart shops and went on the
viewing balconies, before going for a meal at one of the small restaurants on
the upper balcony overlooking the entrance hall one side and the runway the
other. Gisele was rather scathing about
the menu, and I can’t remember much about the meal except that we chose sauerkraut.
Can you believe that – brand new restaurant in the middle of Paris and we eat
sauerkraut! It was not very enjoyable, shall we say, and I do remember having a
large pudding involving fruit ice-cream after to take the taste away. I only
tried that dish once more, in Germany many years later, thinking maybe the
French didn’t do it properly: but no, even there it was horrible, and again
resulted in an upset stomach, so I have never to this day tried it again. Apart from that, the visit to Orly was a real
eye-opener, and a proper 60s place to be. Once or twice Mademoiselle took me
with her to schools to deliver a talk and do demonstrations, the result of
which was an extra special dinner that evening.
Another evening, we went for my first proper Chinese meal,
in what was meant to be the best Chinese restaurant in Paris. That was in the
old Bastille area, a very interesting quarter, especially at night. I think it
was called the Almond Blossom, or suchlike. Anyway I still have somewhere at
home a book of matches with almond blossom on the front. Even though I never
smoked. Not really, though a certain respect for French tobacco stayed with me
all my life; the mere whiff of a Gauloise (especially if mingled with the
delicious aroma of strong French coffee) can even now evoke those heady days in
Paris. Ah, the advantages of living with a well-known cuisine pro! The
proprietor, greeted us warmly, with a kiss on both cheeks. He was dressed in
full Chinese emperor garb, showed us to a window table and whispered to Gisele
what he suggested to be the best dishes to introduce me to. And the Jasmine
tea! And the ices! I’ve loved Chinese food ever since.
I had been given a
key to the flat, and when Gisele was going to be out all day, I followed my own
visiting agenda, with the help of the pile of maps she left me. Oh yes, I was back on familiar townie
territory and was going to make the most of it.
LA VIE EN ROSE
I may have mentioned previously that I have a non-existent
sense of direction and am a nightmare to get from one place to another without
gong astray somewhere, even on my own patch. So Giseles’ maps and guides were
extremely useful as I planned my daily excursions. Needless to say, I
eventually got round to all the usual sightseeing places, which I am sure I
need not enumerate, tho I will say that I am so glad I visited that wonderful Cathedrale
Notre Dame de Paris several times during my stay.
The Tour Eiffel presented a wonderful view from the top, which I shared
with a chap called John who I had met on the course at Boulogne. We exchanged
Paris addresses and managed to meet up. He was staying supposedly with a family
in a flat on the Champs Elysees. This turned out to be a bedsit owned by a
student who was letting it out on the side whilst he was away for the summer.
Anyway we knocked about a bit; the
apartment block itself was an antique, a bit like the apartment in Tours, but
much more ornate masonry, and his room had a low window looking out over a
ledge to a wonderful view of Paris. Tres avant garde! Anyway we did a couple of touristy excursions
together, it was good to have company sometimes, but I was quite happy doing my
Of course I ‘did’ the Louvre; I was walking round the famous Venus de Milo,
which in those days you could actually touch, (as you could the Mona Lisa,
recently recovered from where it had been hidden from the Germans for the duration
of the war); when I bumped into someone I knew walking round same in the
opposite direction! What were the chances? That place is magic. And I was lucky
enough to be in Paris when a large exhibition of Van Gogh paintings was on show
in the Orangerie at the Tuileries as part of the permanent exhibition of
Impressionist artists. Thus began my lifelong love of the Impressionists.
So the days went by, visits to all the usual wonderful
places as well as dozens of coffee shops and bakeries; Napoleon’s tomb at Les
Invalides being a special favourite, so very grand!
Naturally, I couldn’t leave Paris without seeing Versailles.
Ma chere Gisele was unable to accompany me that day, but left me very precise
instructions as to how to get there, including a very useful tip to take my
Lille Universite student card with me, as I should get in at a reduced
price. It was a bright but windy day as
I emerged from Versailles station; it was quite a long walk to the palace, but
basically I just had to follow the crowd.
Like most tourists I guess, my first sighting of the façade
drew an involuntary gasp from me – and nothing I saw from then on in
disappointed me. And Mademoiselle was right – my student card enabled me to get
in ridiculously cheaply, wondrous gardens and everything, and a guided tour
thrown in. As I gazed at all the
splendid treasures installed by the Sun King, little could I guess that fifty
years later my husband was to be at that very spot, being ‘dined out’ at a
banquet at the Versailles garrison, upon his completion of a combined
French-British fighter aircraft project. He was presented with a gold tie pin
in the shape of the aircraft in question, which remains safe in my jewellery
box. But I digress. My day in Versailles was, I think, the high spot of my
Summer, and I returned to Antony that day with my head full of wonders. Though
I returned later in life as a grown-up tourist with said husband, the impact of
that first visit could not be repeated.
A few days later, Gisele drove me to the station with my
piles of self-procreating luggage, and put me on the boat train. We hugged, and
promised to write, which we did for a couple of years, but like most
acquaintances of youth, that petered out.
I somehow managed, with the help of several strong helpful
monsieurs, to get myself and my baggage on the ferry, then on the train to
London, into the welcoming arms of my lovely family, Mum, Dad and young sister
Patricia. The questions flew round, but all I wanted that night was Mum’s good
chicken dinner! I told my tales and distributed gifts over the next couple of
days, then it was back to school. I had already missed the best part of three
weeks of term, and as ‘A’ levels were looming in a few month’s time, I had to
buckle down and work – after giving my Summer lecture (in French,
naturellement) to the school Language Society, and giving my heartfelt thanks
to my French mistress and the Headmistress who had made my trip possible, both
of whom had written to me regularly throughout my sojourn. I must say I did feel fairly confident that
French ‘A’ level would be in the bag; even the literature paper now held no
So it was, and I did gain A Grades for French, and similar
for Italian and Latin. Then it was off
to college and the Institute of Linguists exams, and the rest of my life ahead.
Au revoir the Summer of Love and la Belle France, et Salut
La Vie en Angleterre..