It turned out that we were sailing before the wind. As soon as we arrived in Paris, John learned that a friend of his, Howard, who was married to a French woman, was leaving Paris. He had been a teacher at l’Ecole Centrale de Paris for some years, and was now going to leave his poste contractuel and move to the South with his family. His wife, Marie-France, had adopted John as her favorite second man during his first year at Collège de France. Marie-France was an extraordinary chef and John had many succulent meals at their home, as I did too later. Her father owned a few apartment buildings in the 15th arrondissement, and they had now decided to buy a château close to the Pyrenees in the south. Howard was to become a gentleman farmer.
John had known Howard very slightly in the U.S. before coming over to Paris himself in 1969. Howard was already married to Marie-France and he told John to get in touch with them when he got to Paris. Howard didn’t know me at all, but he talked about me to the director of the language center at this engineering school as if he knew me well. These Institutes of Technology are very prestigious schools called Grandes Ecoles. There are many of them in France, most of them high-level engineering schools, and l’Ecole Centrale de Paris is one of the top ones. After an interview with the director of languages, M. Goulot, the interview giving me the impression of being a mere formality, I had the job. That is, I had a probationary one-year contract to begin with. But if I didn’t goof up completely, I was relatively sure of getting a 5-year contract after that and then again after that, etc., and so it turned out. I was going to work at l’Ecole Centrale for 13 years until the CNRS 1 transferred John’s computing center to Lyon and we had to move. Unfortunately for me, in terms of job security.
What I later found out was that Howard had been well known in the role of a kind of spy for M Goulot who had mostly enemies in the language teaching staff. My new colleagues now assumed that I was going to follow in the footsteps of Howard and the first year I didn’t really get any real friends among the fairly large group of English, German, Spanish and Russian teachers. Little by little they discovered that I was in no way beholden to Goulot. I hadn’t even been aware of Howard’s role as a spy for the boss, whatever that might have amounted to.
The interaction between my colleagues was by no means drab, mostly due to the sneaky maneuvering of an Austrian German teacher, Gertrude, a woman who had it in her head to become the super boss since M. Goulot was a tippler. John’s nickname for him was M. Glugelug. He had even installed a refrigerator in his office, and this was of course the big joke in the language department. All the teachers were supposed to be native speakers and after hearing my American English, M. Goulot immediately accepted me as one.
Later, on one occasion, when he was trying to intimidate me, put his claws into me for some reason that I can only interpret as meanness, he said that the big director of the school, M. Baron, wouldn’t be pleased to know that a Swede was teaching English at the school. M. Baron obviously couldn’t have cared less, but Glugelug obviously wanted me to feel that I was under his benevolent protection. He was indeed the epitome of what I learned in those days is in French called un pauvre type. There was certainly no law written down that all the language teachers had to be native speakers. However, fluent speakers with a perfectly good accent were what was needed at this level, since that was what was sorely lacking in the secondary schools our students had graduated from.
Gertrude, the flamboyant German teacher, had M. Baron, an elderly and very distinguished gentleman, at the tip of her fingers. Or so she thought. She had charmed him and they used to go horseback riding together. Gertrude was a singer of opera class and when she realized that I was an opera lover, she tried to make me believe that the one reason why she had not been allotted the part of Carmen on a certain occasion was because her voice was too high. Well…, be that as it may, she did have some sort of lively charm and she spoke French with the speed of lightning, and also very correctly. Be she ever so scheming and untrustworthy, what I disliked the most about her was her unlimited ambition and need to dominate.
However, she did indeed add color, of sorts, to the set-up of the language department, and since she never did me any personal harm, I stayed on superficial good terms with her. Whatever she was, she was not a bore, as she trilled and danced her way through the corridors of our building.
A few other teachers were to become my very special friends, however. They were also to remain my friends for life. There are Andy and Jürgen, the American and the Austrian. And there was red-haired Annie who is now married to a Frenchman, Louis-Henri. Annie was another American who spoke with a beautiful American accent – nothing vulgar or high-pitched, which is the case for so many American women. Annie and Louis-Henri live in New Jersey where their two sons are now grown-up and married. I went to see them once when John was at his old Brookhaven National Lab for a meeting. They have a beautiful house in a town called Appleton, and Louis-Henri seems to be happy with the engineering consultant job he is doing and generally happy living in the U.S. – which isn’t always the case with French citizens who immigrate to the U.S. We are still in touch, and I really treasure that friendship as well as with Andy and Jürgen.
With his well-trimmed beard Andy, the American in Paris, looked a bit like Hemingway even though he hated to be told so.
Andy was a book in the writing. He right away became my friend, as soon as it became clear that I was not a spy for anyone. We rarely saw anything of him though, since he avoided the boss’s office by leaving and arriving by the back stairs of the big building we were in. I drove our car to school since John traveled by metro to Jussieu in the 5th arrondissement where the Centre de Calcul 2 was located. Or he walked, a 40-minute walk that he enjoyed. Both Andy and my other great friend, Jürgen, the Austrian-Parisian, and of course a German teacher, took the long walk every morning from the end metro station of la ligne de Sceaux through le Parc de Sceaux in the morning. Jürgen often came back to Paris with me or with Annie who drove one of those funny little Citroën cars that the French call a deux-chevaux, which is tax horses, not engine. We worked only three days a week and even though we started early, at 8, we got off at 1 p.m. It made for 12 hours a week. If we worked Monday – Wednesday, it was really a soft job. Some of us had to work on Fridays though instead of one of the other days. This was a bit problematic for us since it deprived us of the long week-end to go to La Fontaine. I do think I only did that one year though. We sold La Fontaine, our little farm house, in 1978 anyway. More about that later.
I had a pretty bad ski accident in February ’81 at Alpe d’Huez and I had to spend a month or so with my leg in a cast after having been masterfully operated on at the Grenoble Sud Hospital. When Professor Bèze heard that I taught English at Ecole Centrale de Paris, where a niece of his was a student at the time, everything got to be very easy. I never spent a single franc, not even for the crutches. And I was treated like a princess in a big room he had on the top floor of the building.
The hospital was pretty far away from Alpe d’Huez and instead of getting visits from John, it was my friend Annie from l’Ecole Centrale who came and chatted with me every day. Little slim Annie was highly pregnant with Stephan, as they spell it. Annie and Louis-Henri lived in Grenoble at the time. I will always remember her for that adorable attention she paid me that winter.
Since I now had my right leg in a cast after my tendon and ligament rupture, which is what it was, I obviously couldn’t teach for quite a long period and our wonderful German shepherd, Puppy, had to be taken out. I asked Andy if he could possibly help us out and since he didn’t have a second job at the time, he said “Sure”.
So he would walk Puppy and tell me Puppy had one of the world’s great bladders. Then he came back and sat down in the armchair by the window in our little guest room and we would talk and talk and talk. He talked about his mother and about his nanny whom he had always loved dearly. He said that now after the death of his father, which was a hard blow for him, he mainly went to Athens to see his nanny.
I was lying on the sofa that had replaced the American double bed that was there in the days of our Swedish girls – and one American, Christine, who is coming in later in my story. The sofa is still with us and it’s right behind me here in my study in Genas – close to Lyon. I wasn’t sick, just lying down because my leg was in a cast. Andy sat down in the only armchair in this little room which was my study as well as our guest room. My electric typewriter was on the big desk that John and I fixed up from various parts we bought separately during our one year together in New Rochelle, two sets of drawers and a huge board for table top. We stained and sanded the three modules, and the result was a big and very solid meuble that is the most wonderful desk I’ve ever known. The desk too is with us today and I still love it.
One day I asked Andy about a book by Saul Bellow that I was interested in, but couldn’t really get into – ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’. I asked him “Was it worth it, should I give it another try?” Andy said “Oh yes” with the utmost conviction and that was it. I picked it up again, and I loved it. That one, however, is not my very favorite Saul Bellow book. I was not too crazy about ‘Henderson the Rain King’, but then I read ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ and I was ecstatic. I still today feel that it’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It makes you fly. That’s the best way I can decribe it.
At the beginning of classes in the fall, we first interviewed the students to see what their level would be, 1, 2, 3 or 4. After a few initial years when nothing was clear about what we would do with the highest-level students, even M. Goulot had a brilliant idea. We were going to have thematic classes, teaching English, American or even Irish literature and civilization, history, one class only, which Andy taught, and American cinema, which I did. (I had a crib sheet, which I didn’t hide from the students, who knew much more about American movies and directors than I did.)
Those were the days of Altman, Spielberg, Coppola, Cassavetes (one of my absolute favorites), and of course Woody Allen. I loved American movies of that day and there was always a good one that we could settle on for class discussion the following week. However I have never been very good at remembering who made what movie, so it was probably a bit foolish of me to volunteer teaching American cinema. However, I took the bull by the horns and decided to be perfectly open about my far from specialist status. My crib sheet served me well, and John helped me a lot. Since there was no Internet in those days there existed inexpensive small books where you could easily look up such-and-such a movie and find out who made it, who acted in it, etc. You could also start out by a person’s name and find out what he/she had performed in, or created.
At an English teachers’ meeting Goulot one year asked if someone would volunteer to do American literature, I said ‘Yes, I would’, daredevil the way I had become in the U.S. where my friends had begun to talk about how well educated and knowledgeable I was. That was a new thing to me. Nobody had ever mentioned any such thing to me in Sweden. I had after all taken American Literature in college, even if it was a junior college. It was the reading that counted I thought, and I had done two semesters of the required reading, even though I didn’t finish the second semester because I got a job teaching French to small groups of students whose parents were complaining. Their permanent teacher was sick too often and they felt that they were not learning anything.
One rentrée, as it’s called in France when classes begin in the fall, Andy mentioned to me, with a gleam in his eyes, “Guess what I’ve been doing this summer! I read the Snopes trilogy” (Faulkner). I had once started the first of the Snopes books on John’s recommendation, but I didn’t manage to get into it. In fact, I thought it was about a lot of unlikable characters. It was set in – where else? In the Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, like all his other books. I love everything I’ve read by Faulkner, and it’s a lot, but I had the feeling that this one wasn’t for me. Now, I got a new kind of motivation, and as it turned out I absolutely loved the book. It is quite different from all the other books I’ve read by Faulkner, but I was fascinated. It’s his wonderful imaginative writing that makes you get completely caught up by his tales. One day I will start book 2 over again. I dropped it after a very unfortunate visit to my family in Sweden which ended up with a great bout of depression (Here we go again…). It is definitely not easy reading, but it’s worth the little effort to get into the minds of all those odd people, greedy and repulsive, some of them.
But let’s go back to Andy’s past. Before landing in Paris with his then wife Sharon, a ballet dancer, they had both, I believe, worked at the Metropolitan Opera. Andy grew up in Athens, Georgia, and even though he never had the least bit of a southern accent, there was something about him that spoke of the South. Those days were of course the 70s and 80s and there was not the totally disrupted social and political Götterdämmerung of today. We had gone through the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations during Nixon’s era and there was some sanity left in our lives and in the world. And our demonstrations did lead to something. We felt that it meant something to take to the streets in huge masses – or to the Mall next to the White House with the three famous monuments – and let the government know what the people were feeling.
Andy majored in music at the University of Georgia in Athens where his father was a professor of English literature. He was a very good tuba player, but when he arrived in New York City, he said he discovered that being a tuba player in Athens Georgia was not quite the same thing as being one in NY City. He gave up on the tuba, but got a job at the Metropolitan Opera which took him to the position of assistant producer. Those were the days of Rudolph Bing, the feared dictator of the Met and, as Andy said, everyone was an assistant something-or-other under Bing. He did indeed ‘assist’ in producing operas and it was amazing to hear him talk about, for instance, Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson as ‘my production’. 3 A very funny anecdote told by Andy about my countrywoman was when in one performance of Turandot the conductor Zubin Mehta got lost in his conducting since he insisted on conducting without a score. Birgit noticed right away and sang louder than ever before to get the music back on track. With her powerful soprano, I can well believe that she could come to the rescue of the lost conductor.
Andy adored Birgit Nilsson and so does John. They are both Wagner lovers and I don’t quite follow them in either of these two passions. Of course I think Birgit is fabulously skilled as a soprano, but I am not sold on her timbre. My favorites are not Wagnerian sopranos. I go back in time here when I say that my favorite ever is Renata Tebaldi. It’s strange that I never saw her at the Met where she was the greatest star ever through the fifties and sixties. Audiences at the Met had nicknamed her “Miss Sold Out”. Her last performance was a as Desdemona in Otello in 1973. So I missed out on something really precious. However, recordings today are so perfect that I can easily appreciate her in our living room.
It is a well-known fact that just about nobody could get along with Rudolph Bing. And that must have been the reason why Andy and Sharon one day decided to leave NY City for Paris. I don’t know any of the details behind their move to Paris, since at least Andy didn’t even speak French. Andy got a job right away at l’Ecole Centrale and Sharon performed for some time in a French TV ballet program. The program was however withdrawn and from then on, Sharon too became an English teacher.
Andy’s other passion, along with literature and music, was baseball. He played with an American team somewhere on the western outskirts of Paris. I have no idea who they played against, but Andy was a true baseball fan. After New York City, the couple probably went through some difficult periods and their marriage ended in divorce some time in the 70s. Sharon was a highly sensitive woman and Andy could have a very short fuse. I was told that she had gotten remarried to, as I remember, a New York Times theater critic and I do hope she lived a good life in spite of the interruption of her ballet career. She was, and probably is, a very lovable woman.
After a few years of bachelorhood when we saw quite a lot of him, Andy found a delightful and forever positive young English woman, Trudy, who always called him Andrew. Pretty, charming Trudy was, besides also being an English teacher, a tour guide and she was extremely appreciated by her American tourists. She usually guided them to one specific country and even to one specific event. She got tips at the end of each tour that might have supported her comfortably even if she hadn’t had another job. Always happy smiling and confident, she became the perfect wife for Andy, even though he was one year older than her aunt, as he said at their discreet wedding, when her mother and this aunt had come down from Liverpool in the Midlands. They were happy young lovers and the difference in age had no importance.
However, U.S. tourists dried up with the bad times and the low dollar value and Trudy guided less and less. It wasn’t very important for them though, since they both taught English, Andy at this time taught in two Grandes Ecoles, (the second one being a very prestigious commercial grande école, INSEEC). Trudy has a beautiful British accent which her sister calls ‘posh’ but I find it to be just the kind of British accent that I prefer, not the Queen’s snobbish accent and not the somewhat Cockney-sounding accent that you hear a lot all over England, h-dropping and distorted vowel sounds. Calling it Cockney is obviously misleading, but there are similarities between the generally uneducated British accents and Cockney speak. 4
Andy and Trudy came to visit us in Genas, outside of Lyon, in ’88 when our house was still so small that our friend Lennart liked to call it a cottage. It has grown since then (and it had, in fact, when Lennart called it a cottage too) in different directions and we love our little house which is not all that little. And so do our animals.
One time as we were visiting with them in their old-time apartment in a building which was almost at the top of ‘la butte de Montmartre’, we were told that they now owned a gîte in Cantal, a province in Le Centre. They loved the region and every summer since they knew each other they had gone camping in the region. Trudy loved to sleep in a tent and that camping vacation was a must for her and for them.
I concluded that since Andy’s mother had recently died too, he must have inherited quite a bit of money from his parents. A gîte is a fully furnished holiday home equipped for self-catering. So they now rented a small house or two to tourists and of course had one house for themselves. They were both delighted. Right in the heart of their beloved Cantal.
Andy had for years been going to work on digs in Israel during the summers. Without being Jewish (but Scottish) and certainly not a Zionist, he just loved the work on the digs. It was probably after he met Trudy that he gave up on that hobby.
He had once tried to trace his ancestry back to a particular place in Scotland. He may not have been absolutely sure of its being the right place. However, he went there and knocked on the door that was opened by an irascible old Scotsman. The old man immediately said in a highly irritated voice “Oh you’re another one of those American Davidsons, are you!” The door was slammed shut and that was it.
Andy’s mother was another story. Once when Andy was over in Georgia, she told Andy that her dream had long been to have a house constructed in the back of their property where only she and Andy would live. Oh mothers who want to own their sons, the harm they have brought onto their sons can never be exaggerated.
Andy hadn’t been in very good health for the last couple of years when, at the end of 2010, Trudy called and told us that he had passed away after a long period of increasingly serious health problems. It was a terrible blow for both of us. It was almost impossible to take in. He had at the time retired from both his grande école jobs, but he was younger than John by one year, I think. It seemed preposterous. The former baseball player and the inspiring friend to both of us suddenly was no more. We hadn’t even known that he was sick. They were in Cantal when he suddenly got seriously sick with a multitude of internal infections. There was going to be a brief non-religious ceremony and his ashes were to be spread over the countryside. Trudy asked us, since we were among his very best friends if we would please write something about him. We both did, separately, and Trudy read it out at the ceremony. So in a way we were present. I will always miss Andy and I will never quite grasp the fact that I will never see him again.
Andy once read a piece I’d written that was the beginning of a novel, based on my family, without being autobiographical. He said ‘I like this old man (my grandfather) who doesn’t believe in organized school and university education. My grandfather was an autodidact in his real life and I had made him pretty true to life. Andy also said “But you should put in commas because this is not stream-of-consciousness writing.” He was right. I was not Faulkner, and I put in the commas and probably quite a few periods as well. But I loved the little praise he gave me anyway.
The novel never got finished. It derailed because of my hesitation to let my nieces and nephew know about the true relationship of hate (well love/hate the way it always is in a family, as any psychotherapist will tell you) and probably jealousy between my sister Gun and me. I tried another ending, more optimistic, and it got to be totally unacceptable. My aunt in Tampa, Florida read it anyway and she said ‘Oh do write more about our family.’ But I never did. It was a failure, even though a few of the chapters weren’t really bad.
Another very close friend who stands out from my thirteen years at Centrale was Jürgen, my Austrian-Parisian friend whom we see quite regularly still today. He lived at the time with my very good friend Ruth who is German and who is also still a very good friend. Ruth and Jürgen were with us a few times at our country house, our fermette, called La Fontaine, which several friends got to know and like. It was very run-down when we bought it and we even had to have the cement at the base of the house redone. We painted walls and ceiling inside, between the beautiful heavy dark brown beams in the living room, and we got rid of mountains of junk from what was going to become the guest room. I sewed brown curtains in heavy cotton cloth, and the windows looked very nice. The windows and doors were about the only things that were in shape when we bought the fermette. But more about La Fontaine in the next chapter.
Jürgen was an erudite man who was way over-qualified for the post he had at l’Ecole Centrale. He was however working on a second doctoral dissertation to finally get a post that was on his level. He became associate professor of German in Le Mans, then full professor in Poitou, and finally at l’Université Paris-12 in Créteil, south-east of Paris. He already had a doctorat de 3ème cycle from the University of Vienna, but in France for a dissertation to be valid, it has to be written in French.
Jürgen is extremely interested in the theater, to the extent that he has even read my chapters here that are about the theater, in Malmö, in Stockholm and in NY City mainly. His dissertation is exactly about political theater between the two wars. Politics and literature are most often the subjects of conversation with Jürgen.
However to talk about Jürgen without mentioning his daughter would be like talking about half a man. Jürgen and Ruth had a daughter in 1987 who was severely handicapped. However Clara is pretty and smart and has a wonderful sense of humor, and whenever Jürgen and she are together they have a wonderful time, kidding and laughing. The problems she has were altogether due to lack of professionalism at the clinic where she was born and they finally, after many years, won a suit in court against the clinic, which was declared altogether responsible for the severe damage that had occurred at Clara’s birth. The midwife was in fact out in the corridor smoking just at the time when she was needed. The result from this break of moral duty and work ethic is so horrible that it is almost unbearable just to think of it.
A couple of years after their separation Ruth got married to a German professor in Grenoble, a very pleasant man, and I am so very happy for Ruth to have found some new stability in her life. She taught at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure for as long as we have known her, but has since the beginning of our friendship gotten her doctorat.
I was present at her defense of that dissertation at the Sorbonne. It was about the marginal character in Heinrich Böll’s writings. She is very bright and her French is excellent, so all went wonderfully well of course. However, none of these germanistes can stop working and they still go on organizing seminars, writing research papers and books and participating in numerous scholarly events, even after their retirement.
We have visited a couple of times with Ruth and Christian in what was originally Christian’s home in Autrans, west of Grenoble, and we have a very good time with them.
We got to know Ruth’s family in Mittelberg, Austria in 1980, and then later again in Paris. We liked them both very much, her mother a delightful woman and a true lady and her father a definite charmer. He just died this year, 2015, close to 100. I will never forget how he laughed, and they all laughed, when I said “Es hat mich sehr einbedruckt” instead of saying “beeindruckt” (impressed). I took it well and I laughed with the others of course. Ruth told me that “einbedruckt” sounds as if you were squeezed in at the middle. I can hear that now after my useful lesson; but I was totally innocent about that complicated double prefix verb at the time. I do believe I had just that year become used to the verb ‘beeindrucken’ from our German friends Fritz and Renate in Brand, Austria and it’s just the kind of verb I like to use. I can hear Renate saying about a mountain view “Es war eindrucksvoll.” I should have stuck with the adjective instead of getting myself involved in those awful German verbs with prefixes that you never know where they are going to land you.
Since we had to leave Paris and move to the Lyon area because of John’s Computing Center, we have very sadly lost touch with a lot of good friends. However, Jürgen and Clara used to come regularly and spend New Year’s with us. We installed a tiny little room of her own for Clara. There is a little space next to our guest room in Genas that holds several storage shelves, but there is also room for a bed in there for guests who don’t share the double beds in the guest room. We just always have to do a thorough clean-up, storing away and getting rid of all sorts of things that have accumulated on the bed, which is covered by one of my very nice old Swedish bedspreads that seems to be indestructible. We used two of those in the country house for one thing.
Ecole Cetrale, dear Ecole Centrale, where I liked so much to teach, where I had good friends and a secure job. My contract would have been renewed every five years until my retirement. Also the director of SESH (sciences humaines et sociales) who also became the director of the language department, very much appreciated the work I was doing from 1979 on about l’Enseignement Assisté par Ordinateur – EAO – (Computer Assisted Learning or CAL), and without my even knowing about it beforehand, he gave me fewer classes to teach (une décharge) to be able to give more time to writing new learning programs, and also teaching a few colleagues to get into it. In those days, using Arlequin LSE it was actually a kind of programming we were doing; not very complicated, but still programming. I stopped after a few years using the quaint little Logabax computers we had been given by some companies (as taxe d’appentissage). I was now working on a PC in a room where students were working, on the second generation teach-ware now called Arlequin Diane, developed by professionals rather than the first Arlequin LSE, which had been developed by two math teachers at the lycée in the north of Paris, where my two collaborators also taught, my very dear friends Monique and Thérèse. We all cooperated with the math teachers, Nicole and Jean-François. I am still in touch with Monique, who is a bit older than I. But Thérèse, who was younger, very sadly died from cancer after a long and courageous fight where she lost all her beautiful dark long hair. I will never ever forget Thérèse, her vivacity and her intelligence. She and Monique with husband Bernard once came to out apartment in rue Caillaux for dinner, so John knows who I am talking about and Monique he knows even better now after we visited her in Prades in the south, practically in the Pyrenees. Dear Bernard, a wonderful man, died a few years ago and I was afraid Monique would never get over it. But she did and she is now again living a very full life, traveling reading, seeing her children and grandchildren and doing all the things a woman of her caliber wants to do in her life. She is still a dear friend and always will be.
More about this in the Move to Lyon chapter
Continued: Chapter 27
- Centre National de Recherche Scientifique – John worked at l’IN2P3 – l’Institut de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules ↩
- CCPN – Centre de Calcul de Physique Nucléaire ↩
- Birgit Nilsson & James King in “Turandot” (live at the Met in February 1969), conductor Zubin Mehta ↩
- “The most famous instance is the legacy of the Bow Bells; those born within its range are true Cockneys. Today, taller buildings dampen the sound, while noise pollution from traffic has further reduced the area of earshot around St Mary-le-Bow” (The Bells Of London Are Time Machines) – church “in the City of London on the main east–west thoroughfare, Cheapside” – Wikipedia ↩