Part One: Piece in major
I was 19 and I had just graduated from Gymnasium. As is the habit in Sweden, my family had an open-house party where friends and friends’ parents and friends of my parents came and celebrate. If we were lucky and our parents were willing to pay for it, we got transported to our homes from the collective celebration area at the equestrian statue of King Carl X Gustav in the center of Stortorget, the central square in Malmö. A horse and a cart were rented and they were decked with birch branches and balloons. Friends, many of them in the little white caps that indicate that they too have passed the not so easy exam that we call studentexamen, were with you on the flatbed cart. Outside our apartment building, kids were assembled and more family friends were waiting for us. It’s a dizzying non-stop festivity with singing of student songs in Swedish and Latin.
Gaudemus igitur, iuvenes dum su-umus,
Gaudemus igitur, iuvenes dum su-umus,
post iucundam iuventutem
post molestam senectutem,
nos habe-ebi-it hu-umus,
nos habe-ebi-it hu-umus.
Never was the world so glorious, never were we so sure that the brightest future was ours, as it says in the standard Swedish student song. Even though the song in Latin is essentially saying ‘Let’s rejoice while we are young, for tomorrow we’ll be dead’, the second part was not on our minds that day.
In our apartment, there was lots of buffet food and lots of champagne and a cook was busy in the kitchen. We didn’t have the cheap Swedish sparkling wine that was called Knutstorps Sparkling. Oh no, we had the real thing, Veuve Cliquot, my stepfather Arne’s favorite champagne. A neighbor and friend, Anna-Lisa, walked around filling up our glasses in the crowded living room and in Mother’s little salon. When she came to me she said “Have you drunk a toast with mamma and pappa?” Anna-Lisa was the only one who ever referred to Arne as my father. I realized I’d completely forgotten. I was so much swimming in the clouds that day that I forgot the most basic duties and politeness. I went to Mother’s room where the grownups were and toasted. On my way back, my head started spinning and I had to go to my room and lie down to get back my equilibrium.
After I got back into the party room, my boyfriend had just arrived, since he’d been working, and we danced and danced. Oh blissful carefree joy, but oh so different from what was coming.
After the hoopla was over in Malmö, I and two friends from my all-girls’ school went to Stockholm to go on celebrating with a friend of ours whose family had moved to Stockholm. I was staying at the place of my uncle, Arne’s brother. It was a whirlwind of parties and sightseeing and we were all giddy with the feeling of freedom that comes to Swedish graduates after they have passed the difficult Gymnasium exams, first the written tests in March and then four oral exams on the BIG DAY. You step out on the front steps of your school and sing the Swedish student song and you wear your white student cap for the first time. You get covered in bunches of flowers thrown around your neck by friends and family and you even wear a protective transparent plastic apron to protect your dress. One friend of my sister’s gave me a bottle of wine as a good joke. The papers thought that was funny and I was in the local paper the next day.
At the party of our friend who lived in an idyllic suburb of Stockholm, I had never had a happier time. At some time in the evening, quite late probably since it stays light practically all night even in late May, we went to a huge outdoor dance floor and continued dancing to a hired band. It was a dream. I may have felt a bit guilty because I’d taken the boyfriend away from our friend who was the hostess, but he was a wonderful dancer and I had never danced so well before or after in my life. He taught me a folkloric dance that I’d never dreamed of being able to dance. And of course there were waltzes and polka and god-knows-what, other than the pretty boring foxtrot. We were still wearing our white graduation dresses at this party.
Part Two: The clouds are closing in
Most of my friends went on to the university or to whatever special Institute or högskola (Hochschule) they had chosen, to get prepared for their professional careers. I wanted to be a social worker, socialkurator. However, to get admitted to that special Institute (Socialinstitutet at the time, later: Socialhögskolan, integrated into Lund University), I had to be 20 years old at least and have had a minimum of a few months’ work experience, preferably from working in a family or with children. I had never in my life had a job at all. Those were the conditions at the time, but they have most likely changed some since then.
In the semi-private school where I had spent seven years in what would be called a lycée in French, we were usually 20 years old at our graduation (19 in other lycées). I was, however, 19, since Mother had prepared me for skipping first grade, as ambitious for me as she was for herself. So, I had one year free to do my practice training (praktik or, in French, un stage). In consequence, I had not applied for a student loan, as almost all university students do in Sweden.
However, I wasn’t truly worried. I did have a home, a mother, a wonderful stepfather, a sister and a boyfriend. Well, as it turned out, I had none of that.
My very dear stepfather, Arne, had little by little come to realize that he was not as gifted a theater director as he might have hoped for. He was an erudite man, a man who knew everything about theater, who was steeped in the world of theater ever since his days at the Stockholm University, a wonderful stepfather whom we called our encyclopedia, for everything we thought was worth knowing.
Unfortunately, he felt that he didn’t really have a future as a theater director after all, and that the best solution for him would be to change professions and become a Gymnasium teacher in Swedish and history. This made for quite a bit of change in our home, but the big change came when he had to do his student teaching semester in Stockholm. The sudden change of my life was brutal, right after the delirious dizziness and seemingly cloudless happiness of my graduation.
We had to sublet our apartment. I had no home any more. Arne wasn’t going to be paid during his student teaching semester, a barbaric practice that has luckily changed since then. Mother and Arne never had even the smallest savings account. We were broke.
Mother had always been extremely unstable, on top of the world at times, and at other times spending long periods in a psychiatric hospital. Ever since the divorce she had had attacks of fury and violence that made us cower in fear.
She now gave up on her photographer’s career. In fact she gave up on life. All her equipment was put in storage. After their vacation in Austria, she went to her parents’ home. She had a home to go to. Arne went to Stockholm to stay with his brother’s family. My grandparents then sent Mother to Italy where she was going to spend a semester as a paying guest with a family in Turino that they had become acquainted with in Austria.
The ground was trembling under my feet. But I had my boyfriend. I wasn’t alone.
One day we were walking in the street alongside the Botanical Gardens in Lund, after my maidenly visit to his student room. We were walking hand in hand on the warm summer’s day, when the WOMAN was coming towards us. She opened her arms to him and her bright eyes were shining with love. He ran into her arms that swallowed him. I was but a young girl and here was the WOMAN of his life.
The woman was my sister.
I was drowning in the furious storm. The sea spit me up from my shipwreck onto the shore where I was lying inert, just wanting my life to end. I had been cast around by the stormy sea for what seemed forever. Now it was all over. I was nothing.
But – wait! Was everything really lost? Could I still walk? Could I walk to my own father? My father’s loving face took shape through the fog of despair. He was still there, he still loved me, even though I didn’t really know him too well at this point.
I want to write an ode to my wonderful dad. He dropped out of secondary school in the town close to where his dad’s farm was, Landskrona in the southernmost province of Skåne. His parents wanted him to get a good education since he was clearly a highly intelligent boy. The city boys teased him , probably because of his clothes made my the small town tailor and not bought in a store as theirs were. In those days it was actually just well-off youngsters who went to to secondary school. The called him farmer’s boy, the way children love to have someone to tease. He was always tops in math and I can also well imagine that he had stood out in math class and the city boys hated him for that too. Be that as it may, knowing my dad well now and how very sensitive he was to criticism, he couldn’t take it for very long. I don’t exactly know at what point he dropped out, but he continued getting his education by other means. Instead of becoming a accountant of a high level, he became an accountant all the same. His father had started out as a farmer, but during World War II he became a grain dealer and got to be very rich. His nine children each one inherited a sum big enough for my dad to get an education. I believe he studied accounting in Stockholm, since it I seem to recall the coincidence that both my parents got their education, or part of it, in Stockholm. Mother studied photography with the Swedish top photographer, Ervin Welinder who for one thing taught her his own idea of light backgrounds and lots of light. She had first studied with her own uncle in Borås in Västergötland after she too dropped out of school because she wanted to leave home. Mother had lamps in her studio that heated it up and that bothered my eyes enormously. Mother said you should be able to count the hairs on the head of the person in the photo.
Oh, but I remembered the secure hand I used to hold on to when I was 5 or 6, before the war, before the catastrophe in my family. Before my anorexia. Mother and my teacher deliberated and decided that I could go to school if I felt up to it. There was a war outside and there was a war inside. Where was now that secure hand I felt so proud of holding on to? I would stretch out my steps, trying to keep up with his as we were walking in front of the park next to our very modern apartment building. Yes, there was my own father who used to laugh so happily when I said something funny. My father who pinched my nose and I laughed, looking up at him. My father who was so proud because I could read the newspaper at that tender age. My father who was so proud of me.
My father had remarried and I had a little sister, Lisbet, who was much younger than I. I was welcomed by him and by his very generous wife, Elsa, as well. Mother had not wanted Gun and me to visit our dad, but of course we managed to do so anyway. We knew his second family well of course. They were in no way strangers to us. His wife would always cook a scrumptious dinner when we came to visit on a Sunday.
This was a peaceful haven, free from over-emotional outbursts and the kind of frequently recurrent crises that had marred my youth.
With my dad’s wonderful help I was putting back together the broken pieces of my existence, of my future. During the summer I worked at the Institute of Genetics in Lund, called Geneticum, with one of my sister’s friends who was a researcher. He went on to become a professor and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – no less.
My dad and I put one piece next to the other in the puzzle, trying to fit things together. We decided that I could go to France to do my practical work in a family (un ‘stage’ in French) and improve my French-speaking ability at the same time. After five years of French in lycée and in spite of a good grade in my final exam, I could barely make a sentence orally or understand spoken French. I spoke English fluently, already after a few years in the lower grades, thanks to the most extraordinary teacher that ever was..
My dad looked through advertisements in the papers and one day he found it. There it was.
I went to see a Swedish woman in a province next to Skåne. She was young and she was the second wife of a French businessman in a town called Luxeuil-les-Bains in Haute Saône, not too far from Basel in Switzerland. It seemed all right. I was broke, but I was going to get some pocket money and that’s all I needed. My dad paid for the trip down, which I made with the Swedish woman and her youngest stepson. There were four children in the family but it was unsure how many of them were going to be at home that year. The young boy who traveled with us after their vacation in Sweden was Thierry who has now become a great friend.
Part Three: I am starting my second life – an ode to my dearest friend Gaëtane
The father of the family, Monsieur S, came to Basel to pick us up in his car and I’ll never forget the honking in every curve on the small road going west to Luxeuil and Thierry’s non-stop chatting. He had to tell his dad about everything that he’d seen and done in Sweden with his stepmother, Ulla and her younger sister. All I understood was the replies from his dad, almost unchangingly: Oh là là!!! My first French lesson in the country. I didn’t understand a thing of Thierry’s chatting.
We arrived at a stately big house in a little street that curved off from the main street. There used to be two factories down a little hill behind the house, but only one was now in use. Shoelaces were produced and, unfortunately, the market for such things was very slow.
The little town had one main street only. One hundred meters from our house was the most extraordinary invention I didn’t even know existed anywhere in the world – les lavoirs, in a street appropriately named la rue des Lavoirs. Coming down our street, rue Henry Guy, to the main street, we passed les lavoirs where women in black – always dressed in black – were kneeling, scrubbing and rinsing their laundry in the water from the little stream that ran by the wooden construction that was les lavoirs. It was to me an unknown world. It seemed as if I was going back a century in time.
Marie, la bonne, lived in that street in a very modest old building and I was once invited to come in and see her home. There was not one single armchair. A big table in the middle of the room, which clearly was an all-purpose room, and straight-backed chairs. But the thought passed through my head that even if you had given her and her husband an armchair or two, they wouldn’t have felt comfortable in them.
My seven months in Luxeuil with the S family turned out to be for better and for worse. The young Swedish wife did not like to cook, so she left it all to me, which was a lot of responsibility for a 19-year-old who had never done anything but study and give a helping hand in the kitchen. I had very rudimentary notions of what cooking was all about.
There was the funniest old cookbook I’ve ever seen and it was my only guide to what I prepared. The young wife, Ulla, showed me this well-used, yellowed book that was titled La nouvelle cuisine française by Blanche Caramel. And for the rest it was simply ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ (Just do it!) The name of the cookbook, and in particular of its author, was hilarious, but it taught me how to make a very tasty blanquette de veau, among other things.
I cooked two meals a day, but breakfast, le petit déjeuner, was fortunately prepared by Marie who came in half days and did the rough work. I have never liked to ‘rise bright and early’ and it was a great relief not to have to worry about breakfast. It’s clear though that I was made to work far more than it had been agreed on. Ulla did not want to be the housekeeper, so I became the one who had to take care of all the things Marie didn’t do. Ulla was in fact her husband’s secretary in his office that took up a large part of our house on the ground floor.
I took the work in my stride, even though I didn’t like the way Ulla treated me. I liked to do the shopping though, le marché, which was something all new to me. The salespeople would wrap up what they sold in newspaper, or most often they just poured the vegetables or whatever straight into your bags.
I thoroughly enjoyed my long walks in the neighborhood, to the next village, Saint-Sauveur and into the forest and its Roman road. This was a thrill for a young Swede, who had never seen anything like it, even though there wasn’t much to be seen. Just knowing that this was a road with big flat stone slabs where the Romans had driven their chariots was amazing to me.
What struck me the most though on my walks on a sunny day was the way elderly ladies, all dressed in black, would move a chair out in front of their little house and were just sitting looking happily on whatever went by – which was not very much. A different world.
Even in Paris, a couple of decades later, I remember seeing a little old lady moving a chair out on the sidewalk. The quartier was an old one, la Butte aux Cailles, in the 13th arrondissement, and she had probably known this quartier when there were chickens running around in the backyards, when it was still a village in the big city. There must have been many of those little islands in the big city back before World War II at least, since you still saw traces of them in the seventies.
Or we would often see a woman taking her salad basket out to the sidewalk to shake off the water with violent movements back and forth. Paris, like New York City, is not one world. It’s a mixture of widely different worlds.
I got along very well with everybody in the family, except with the lady of the house, who to me was not Ulla, but Madame. My very good relations with the three children, of whom Gaëtane was hardly a child any more at the age of 17, might not have done much for her to see me with kinder eyes. Ulla knew for sure that Gaëtane wouldn’t have anything good to tell me about her stepmother, who was just 26 at the time.
Gaëtane was actually supposed to have left home to go to her very high-class boarding school, Chambord, from previous years, but her father realized that it would be too costly and plans were changed. Fortunately for me.
Gaëtane was two years my junior, but if anything she was more of a woman than I was. It was Gaëtane who did the most to improve my French. I still remember today words and phrases that she taught me. ‘Muguet ’ I said once with a question mark. And Gaëtane quickly answered ‘Oh you know,
the flower your mother likes so much.’ She remembered too. She would say when telling me about a surprising thing ‘Tu te rends compte!’ And Monsieur S would say ‘Vous vous rendez compte’ in similar contexts. So soon it occurred to me that they were saying THE SAME THING. Se rendre compte – of course!!!
Thierry was a clown and he got along with everybody. In fact, he still today has very good relations with Ulla and her two children whom he considers his brother and sister. But he does say that Ulla is very difficult to get along with. Dominique, the girl, was born when I was there. She was a chubby little child when I came back a year later to visit, and I remember Gaëtane holding her in her arms. Thierry tells me that she has remained chubby.
Marie, the daily maid, was a sturdy woman always dressed in black too, who was far from stupid and did a good job. Once when I was washing a salad for lunch in the basement kitchen (there was a small kitchen next to the dining room as well), Thierry was standing next to me and he caught me about to throw away the small center of the salad. He said ‘Mais vous ne jetez pas le cœur!’ – ‘Si’, I said, ‘pourquoi pas?’ – ‘Mais je mange le cœur moi’, he said. Marie had overheard us and she said very fast: ‘Pas le cœur de Mademoiselle, j’espère’. I have told Thierry about this little episode and how I thought Marie was quite smart. But he doesn’t vouvoie me any more.
However, I was still like a member of the family, liked or not liked by Ulla, and very soon Gaëtane and I became close friends. The two younger children were Marie-France, 13, and Thierry, 12. The second son, Alain, 15, was staying with his mother at the time. Marie-France was a quiet girl with beautiful dark eyes. When I asked Thierry how she was doing now, he said ‘She still has her beautiful eyes.’
It got to be seven months of work but also lots of fun and partying, “surprise-parties” (a term that has been long gone), most often at our house, but also at the homes of the other girls. Our boyfriends were barely allowed to leave their houses for the Saturday evening parties.
Once when we had planned with our boyfriends on going to the movies together, Gaëtane and I were a bit put off when they arrived with their fathers. That was the small town in old France!
We were often at the home of the twins W, the most different twins I’ve ever known, one tall and slim, the other one short and chubby. Their father was the Directeur de l’établissement thermal, which served us well in the early spring when he had the pool heated for us alone, before the season started. We went swimming in March when it suddenly got warm after a very cold winter.
There was still a pile of icy snow outside the wall of our house, but next to the swimming-pool the violets were blooming. I was lying on the sloping lawn by the pool next to my boyfriend Michel, looking at the violets and feeling that life was good.
Gaëtane’s father was very liberal and he let us buy a few bottles of Vouvray mousseux for our parties. He said champagne, non, but we could have the best mousseux wine there is. We would bake a cake to go with the wine and that was enough for a good evening.
After our parties, when people were asleep in the town, we would walk through the town, arm-in-arm (bras dessus, bras dessous) across the whole street down the center of Luxeuil, singing à tue-tête silly songs such as :
Et Joséphine elle est malade, elle est malade, malade d’amour
Pour la guérir il faut de la tisane, de la tisane, carottes épinard et poirots poirots poirots
Viva les pommes de terre, viva les pommes de terre, carottes, carottes, carottes, épinards et poirots poirots poirots
The people asleep in their beds, or trying to sleep, were not happy and they did let us know it, but we couldn’t be toned down.
Monsieur S’s mother was une grande dame with a big heart. It was obvious that the family had seen days when they were in a way the aristocracy of the town. When I was very sick in the Asiatic flue that fall, Grand-mère was the one who came over and took care of me. With very simple means, but it worked. Gaëtane and Thierry came and chatted with me every day.
Also, when Monsieur S was upset and banned parties for some time because he’d seen Gaëtane sitting on her boyfriend’s lap at one of our parties, Grand-mère lent us her apartment. We had to take down her velvet curtains so they wouldn’t smell of smoke afterwards, but that was all right. People smoked in those days. But we were young and strong and everything like that was just fun for us.
And there was ‘The Day the Cat Ate the Cake’. It was the evening before Monsieur S’s birthday and of course Gaëtane and I were going to make a cake for him. Said and done. We were in the downstairs kitchen where the cat and the cute white little dog, suitably named Blackie, were allowed in. We happily put the cake together and after it was baked in the oven, we put it on the stove to cool off before putting cream on it. Suddenly, turning around from the pantry we saw the cat up on the stove and he had already gobbled up a considerable piece of the cake. We scratched our heads and considered. There was only one thing to do. We baked another small piece of cake and once it was done, we made some glue with gelatin and stuck it on to the main cake. It looked acceptable and wouldn’t show under the cream. We laughed all the way through the event and finally, when the deed was done, we laughed even more and I said ‘On a racommodé un gâteau’ (comme on racommode des chaussettes). Gaëtane added ‘avec de la colle de poisson’. I didn’t know at the time that gelatin was fish glue, but I know now. The next day everyone ate it with a good appetite and we never told anyone that the cat had eaten a good piece of the cake. Oh, there was a candle in the middle of the cake too of course and Monsieur S was very pleased.
Gaëtane was a pretty young woman full of charm and joie de vivre. She had fun ideas, she was smart, she had a ringing, happy laugh and she had many talents. When I think back on what she did with her life it feels like such a waste of charm and possibilities. I lost touch with her early on, but through Thierry I know that her life ended very sadly. I miss her. I would have so much to talk to her about. I miss her very very much.
It was really thanks to Gaëtane that this got to be – as I figured out much much later – my second adolescence, my French adolescence. I was a late bloomer and the fact that my boyfriend, Michel, was a couple of years younger than I didn’t bother me, or him, a bit. I have ever after felt completely at home in France. My Frenchness had been made and it remained with me. I was now at home in two countries. However, it wasn’t until my return to Luxeuil and to France the following year that I got to know Paris too.
At the very end of 1952, Gaëtane and I managed to tune in Swedish radio on New Year’s Eve and I heard Anders de Wahl, one of the most historical Swedish actors ever, read a recorded version of his late 1940 rendition for the Swedish radio:
Ring, klocka, ring i bistra nyårsnatten
mot rymdens norrskenssky och markens snö;
det gamla året lägger sig att dö . . .
Ring själaringning över land och vatten!
(Original Alfred Tennyson – Ring Out Wild Bells, but an excellent translation of a poet I have never thought much of – translation Edvard Fredin)
And then came all the bells ringing from innumerable churches all over Sweden. I didn’t feel completely abandoned by my own country and family when I heard the Swedish language on the radio and the beautiful sound of the church bells. On Christmas Eve, Gaëtane and I went to the church for Midnight Mass just to hear the choir sing. It was exactly what I needed to feel that there had after all been a Christmas.
A rather big sum of money came down like manna from heaven just before Christmas and that’s how we bought a huge can of foie gras – there were six of us – and this first foie gras in my life lasted for many days. I loved it. A goose stuffed with chestnuts (purée de marrons) was cooked instead of a turkey for Christmas Day and that time I was not the cook. When something very special was to be made, it was Monsieur S who did it. I copied a couple of his wonderful dishes later in Sweden and they came out pretty well.
Whenever Monsieur S saw a good reason to have an apéritif, he would get the bottle of Noilly Prat sec out from behind the bar and I believe that it was only he, Ulla and I who were included in this exclusive little ceremony. Gaëtane was still considered too young apparently. That brand is the vermouth that I have always bought ever since then. In the very French way, no hard liquor was ever even thought of.
Gaëtane and I used to play Monsieur S’s good supply of classical records, 78s of course, in the evenings when everyone had moved upstairs. It reminded me very much of home. Gaëtane didn’t take her homework very seriously and in fact she had never gotten used to hard work at all and I rarely saw her work. Maybe that became her downfall. Do I sound like the Protestant I was brought up to be? I do remember though helping her with her German homework on a couple of occasions. She simply expected me to know everything she had to know. I had passed my baccalauréat – le bac – and so I was supposed to know.
Another old world opened up to me that year, all new to me. Gaëtane had in fact been brought up by two old aunts of her mother’s, after her parents’ divorce. There were two aunts, whom Gaëtane explained to me were her great-great-great aunts (arrière arrière grandes tantes), called nothing but Mémé and Tata. They were on her mother’s side – and VERY Catholic. Gaëtane told me I couldn’t let them know I was a Protestant (in fact I was nothing at all – religion: none). I had to tell them I was a Catholic. Tata said suspiciously “But Sweden is a Protestant country.” Yes, I said, but there are Catholics too. (Oh, the horrible lie – It was extremely hard for me to lie!) I had a friend who was a Catholic, so I thought it sounded plausible. I just had to lie in order to be accepted by the old ladies.
Tata who has long been dead by now of course will always remain with me as the old lady who would vouvoyer her cat. When she got annoyed at the cat running around her feet in the kitchen, she would say Allez-vous-en! Allez houste!
It was in fact Tata who had been responsible for Gaëtane’s education, in all subjects except math. So she had to take the bus to Vesoul, the closest town, to see a math tutor. No wonder she had a bit of a problem with German, and with school in general. I didn’t know this at the time. She kept this a secret from me, but Thierry told me about it much later. All I knew about Gaëtane’s schooling was Chambord, the very exclusive boarding school in la vallée de la Loire where she spent a couple of years.
We often took the bus to Equevilley from Luxeuil on a Sunday, and the first thing we had to do was go to church, la Grande Messe. We had to take that little piece of bread that was passed around in a bread basket. Mémé who was tall and skinny was too feeble to go to church so Tata, who was shorter and stocky, brought a piece of blessed bread back home to her sister and Mémé crossed herself and ate it devoutly. Oh, religion!
On our way to Equevilley, Gaëtane and I would sit in the back of the bus and sing loudly – à tue-tête – the little pieces of songs we knew. People in the bus would turn around and smile, visibly amused. This was France, not stodgy Sweden.
On a chanté les Parisiennes,
Leurs petits nez et leurs chapeaux
On oublie tou-out
Sous le beau ciel de Mexico
On devient fou,
Au son des rythmes tropicaux
Sous ton soleil qui chante,
Le temps paraît trop court
Yves Montand, Henri Salvador, Charles Trenet, Serge Reggianni – we listened to them all and sang loudly and with great gusto the little we knew of the lyrics of their songs, at home and in the bus or wherever we happened to be. Gaëtane was probably the most fun young girl I’ve ever known.
Oh, les beaux jours, et les jours durs aussi…
J’aime flâner sur les grands boulevards
‘y a tant de choses et tant de choses et tant de choses à voir…
My favorite, Yves Montand, singing ut with his usual bravura.
And, above all maybe, ‘Les feuilles mortes’ de Jacques Prévert.
C’est une chanson
Qui nous ressemble
Toi tu m’aimais
Et je t’aimais
tous deux ensemble
Toi qui m’aimais
Moi qui t’aimais
Mais la vie sépare
Ceux qui s’aiment
Sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis
Toi tu m’aimais
Et je t’aimais
Mais la vie sépare
Ceux qui s’aiment
Sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis
Oh, the crooners. I never liked the American crooners, but I loved the French ones. I can still hear Yves Montand singing ‘Les feuilles mortes’. And the immortal Edith Piaf, the French legend, nicknamed the little sparrow (le petit moineau or Môme Piaf), because of her tiny stature. Yes, her big breakthrough had already come with ‘La vie en rose’ several years before my time in Luxeuil, a song that most people loved so much, but I didn’t.
Much later I did get to like Piaf. I remember Milord which I bought as a 45 rpm. Once in Paris on my way back from le Midi, I went into a record store (Remember the days of small record stores, where you got excellent advice from the owner?) to buy La Foule by Edith Piaf. The store owner handed me the little 45 rpm record and said ‘Mais attention, c’est vieux.’ I said ‘Oui oui, je sais, mais ça ne fait rien.’ For those who don’t like Piaf I can only say that they might find her a bit overly emotional and too loud, somewhat like Liza Minelli. But one thing you can never deny is her passion. Wow, the passion coming out of her voice and her appearance is breathtaking. I don’t think I would like Milord any more. It’s just too much. But La Foule still moves me. Particularly against the background of her tempestuous life. And if you’ve heard her singing ‘Padam… padam… padam…’ once only, you will never forget it again.
She was still around in the late fifties although very sick. I remember well her marrying her third or fourth husband who was twenty years her junior shortly before her death in 1963. She was only 48, but she already looked old, certainly because of her morphine and alcohol problems.
A fond and fun memory was my boyfriend Michel coming by our house, standing below my window, whistling Tango bleu. It was the signal for me to come down and go for a walk and a bit of loving. I heard his whistling and I threw on a coat and ran downstairs. Happy days. Yes, and hard days too, but that is now forgotten. This was indeed my French youth. Oh yes, and Michel looked very much like Serge Reggianni, the actor and singer from those days.
I love tango and have heard and seen a lot of it in Buenos Aires on our visit to unforgettable friend Roberto from our thirteen years in Paris. He moved back to BAires, as he used to write, after the junta’s power was over in 1983. The Dirty War, la Ultima Dictatura was over. If Margaret Thatcher’s insane Falklands War had any good outcome it was its leading up to the fall of the junta in Argentina. Oh yes, if there is no war, one has to be invented. And Maggie did just that.
What a fabulous visit we had with Roberto and his lady friend whose guests we were, lovely Marta, a divorcee, psychotherapist and an adorable woman with two almost grown-up sons, of whom only one spoke some French. That was in 1990 and we saw a lot of the country in a relatively short time.
Part Four – France, the following year
The following year Gaëtane invited me to come and stay with her old aunt, Tata, that is Mademoiselle d’Equevilley at the château d’Equevilley. I had then completed one year of my French studies at Lund University. I never did get to be a social worker – socialkurator. After my seven months in France, I was in love with the French language and all I wanted to do was study French.
We were invited for dinner one evening in Luxeuil by Gaëtane’s father when we were going to the Casino with her fiancé, whose name I believe was Jean-Luc, and her brother Alain who was now 16. Monsieur S, as I always called him, had indeed invited Gaëtane and me with his wife to the Casino for New Year’s when I spent les fêtes with them as a 19-year-old. I don’t remember how that evening played out but it was a nice gesture of Gaëtane’s father.
So in 1954 I was invited to the château d’Equevilley by Gaëtane. Her fiancé was staying there too. It was never clear to anyone why and how Tata accepted this however. There were lots of rooms but I’m not sure if they shared a bedroom without Tata’s knowing about it or if they kept up appearances. Oh, carefree, flighty and charming Gaëtane!
Monsieur S on our visit, was very interested in what literature we studied in my classes. It was fun talking to him about Daudet and Maupassant, Balzac and Stendhal. He knew a lot about French literature and it made up for having been treated a bit condescendingly by his young Swedish wife during my seven months as a stagiaire, which is the French term for the work I did. You do a stage when you do practical work in preparation for a profession.
That night, after the Casino, Gaëtane and I shared the bed in the big attic room that had been mine the year before. I found it odd to share a bed with Gaëtane, and also to get back to my old room, but it was a big bed and it didn’t disturb my sleep.
From that second visit to the Casino with Gaëtane’s fiancé I merely remember that I danced a lot, not with Alain fortunately, but mostly with a friend of Jean-Luc’s, a very forgettable young man who took me out with friends of his to a lake a couple of days later. We spent all day out, boating and swimming and when I got back for dinner, Tata, the only name the one surviving aunt was ever known by, called me une créature for having spent the whole day out with an unknown young man. I was a little put off by this, but Gaëtane told me absolutely not to worry. That just means that you are now definitely a member of the family, she said.
We would go swimming and sunbathing at a little river with Alain. I was reading Cyrano de Bergerac, an excellent play by Edmond Rostand. I was feeling that I had to go on doing some work even during my vacation (Swedish puritanism!) I asked Gaëtane what a ‘bistouri’ was. She explained: an operating knife. Another time I asked her again what a bistouri was and she said ‘I already told you it’s an operating knife’. I still don’t know what business an operating knife had to be repeatedly mentioned in Cyrano de Bergerac, but I do remember how Gaëtane was my dictionary during those weeks in Equevilley.
And young Alain, 16 years old, called me ‘ma beauté’. ‘Oui, ma beauté’. ‘Bien sûr, ma beauté’. Trying to sound like a grownup, certainly.
Tata had the most wonderful strawberries and a big potager – kitchen garden. Her strawberries were the best I’ve ever had. But usually when we were over there out of her sight munching strawberries to our hearts’ content, we would suddenly hear her cane striking the stone slabs on the terrace ‘Sortez de là. Ne mangez pas mes fraises. Venez ici tout de suite!!!’ She knew well where we’d disappeared to.
I was supposed to go on to a pension de famille after a couple of weeks at the château in Equevilley, and so Tata went through Le Figaro every morning to look for suitable pensions for me. She knew I didn’t have much money so she ruled out the expensive ones. She was sitting there in the entrée outside the huge kitchen reading les petites annonces and saying ‘Ça, c’est pas pour vous’ and ‘Ça c’est pas pour vous’ and one day she said ‘Ça, c’est pour vous’. Hurray! A letter was written, Gaëtane helping. As a polite letter ending, she taught me to write: ‘Veuillez agréer, Chère Mademoiselle, l’expression de mes sentiments les meilleurs.’ – a formula that I have considerably abbreviated since then.
The pension was north of Vichy, in Varenne-sur-Tèche at the château of Mademoiselle des C and it was indeed not expensive. I was there all alone at the beginning and Mademoiselle des C and I shared the big table in the impressive dining room all by ourselves. Her old father was alive but I never saw him. A maid brought me breakfast in my room and a big pitcher of hot water for my morning washing. There was a shower in my room but no hot water, so it wasn’t of much use.
Little by little though, other guests started arriving, not very sophisticated, since it was an inexpensive pension, but it was nice not to have to converse all alone with Mademoiselle during every meal. I remember teaching some of the guests how to play canasta in the evenings.
I could take the bus into Vichy so I wasn’t absolutely isolated out in the countryside. And I loved to take walks in the large and beautiful park and also around the neighborhood.
The most memorable event from this several weeks long stay in Varenne-sur-Tèche was a grand dîner I was invited to via Mademoiselle des C’s cousin, Jean de la V, who had a small château near by but who drove the tractor himself. He would often take me to le club de sporting in Vichy to the swimming pool, where you had to be a member or invited by one, and I got to know a friend of his, Roger. I don’t remember his last name, de something or other, but if Jean was a baron this Roger was un comte. Jean and Roger had two lady friends from French Algeria who claimed to be widows after officers who had died in the service of their country in Vietnam. Big joke! The young ladies were school teachers of some kind and had clearly set out on an adventure to have fun in Vichy. They were Annie and Paulette.
The funny thing was that the two young ‘widows’, les veuves joyeuses, never went swimming. They were lying on the tiles around the pool sunbathing, but they would never go into the water. Oh well, I guess we all have different ways of enjoying a pool.
One day as we were all out in Jean’s and Roger’s cars, we stopped at a place in the river Allier where it was deep enough to go swimming. And that’s what I did. Annie and Paulette, however, did not even sample the water to pretend it was too cold or whatever. So the three of us, the two gentlemen and the Swedish freak had a nice and cool swim and the ladies were just watching. Oh well, make-up and coiffure obligent.
We ended up in a café in Vichy with a comte, another one that I didn’t know. There had clearly been some planning going on. We were short of one gentleman so this comte was going to be for me. I listened to him trying to drag me and I decided in two seconds that I was not going to be dragged. Oh, he was playing the charmer and the count, but it just didn’t stick with me. I didn’t have any use for a count who is out for a fling, and so we parted company with a clear notion that this was the end of the affair. Did they really think that I was in a pension de famille looking for a count?
However, there were other events than no-swim Algerian young ‘widows’ and a smug count.
Annie one day invited me to come to Alger to be her guest the following summer. She said ‘Sérieusement, je vous invite.’ I remember our being in their hotel room and Annie doing something to her extraordinarily well manicured and polished nails. Why she invited me I’ll never understand. I barely knew her. To make a good impression maybe? I wondered for a second how I could get out of this invitation, but it occurred to me that there was an easy answer. I said ‘Thanks a lot, Annie, that’s very nice of you, but next year I’ll have finished my French and I’ll have to go to England before taking up English as my second major.’ So that settled that.
The following summer I did go to a little town very close to Cambridge as a non-paying guest in a family and I had a wonderful time. I had just enough money left for pocket money and I traveled by boat from Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark to Harwich at the mouth of the Thames. The whole trip cost me very little. But that’s another episode.
I am not quite sure why I was invited to this fancy dinner and dance with counts and barons, but there I was. The château was a Sleeping Beauty castle south of Moulins, quite a distance from Vichy. Fortunately I had a cocktail dress that Gaëtane had helped me make in Luxeuil the year before (on Grand-mère’s treadle sewing machine). It was green taffeta and it was actually very nice. She even said ‘No, we don’t need a pattern. I’ll help you cut it.’ And wow, she did! I wore it many times in Sweden and elsewhere. There was a large stain in the taffeta that was barely visible and I used to kid about how it was… “champagne from France, so I want to keep it”. The stain really was from the New Year’s visit to the Casino with Gaëtane’s father and it really was champagne. But since it didn’t really show, I didn’t even bother having the dress cleaned.
However, I remember vividly that both Annie and Paulette had bought new dresses, (no treadle machine dresses there!) in suitable black and white, since they were playing merry widows.
After a little apéritif before dinner, the maître d’hôtel opened the doors to the dining room (or should I say dining hall) and announced ‘Mademoiselle est servie’. Mademoiselle was Roger’s cousin Chantal from a nearby château, who was the hostess for the evening, since his parents had left the parages for the younger generation. There were probably about twenty of us and it was all very elegant. I’m sure the food was delicious, but I don’t think I noticed.
Later on in the evening, after a lot of dancing, Roger tried to drag me away into another room that we emerged from with lipstick on his collar (as Paulette had pointed out, said he later), ‘Aha’, thought I, ‘so that’s why I was invited. One woman isn’t enough for him’. Difficult to slap the face of a count and a host, I guess. I suppose I thought he was about to show me his stamp collection!!!
We suddenly got into a great number of cars and went driving all over the neighborhood. We drove around on small roads at high speed for a long while and everybody seemed to think it was the greatest fun. Then as suddenly as it started, we got back to the dancing in the château. Oh, la jeunesse dorée!
How that evening ended I don’t remember, but I never saw Roger again. And that was a good thing. The whole thing had become a little bit embarrassing. Someone must have taken me back home though, and I guess it must have been Jean de la V. Oh, aristocracy, the once beautiful and now wilted flower.