Jacques’ little question to John changed the world. We saw the blue sky and the birds were singing again.
I had a problem with my divorce from Allan, but now time was running out for our living in the United States. It had dragged out for various reasons and when it was supposed to be all done and finished, the papers were mysteriously lost at White Plains court house. Finally, in desperation – we were supposed to get married in two days – we went to White Plains to find the blooming papers. The man who was in charge of my case said ‘No, they hadn’t turned up.’ As we were leaving, very distraught, he called over to a colleague down the hall ‘Have you by any chance seen the divorce papers for Mrs Siv Phillips?’ The man said ‘I see, those are the papers I had no idea where they belonged.’ Oh, bureaucratic efficiency! We left White Plains with light hearts. We already had reserved a time with the mayor of New Rochelle. John had told his parents that we were coming down on such and such a day, but he wasn’t absolutely sure we would be married.
The morning of our wedding arrived. It so happened that I had sold my dear sailboat, Kijé, at the price I had asked for, which was fair in my case. I had bought a new tarpaulin after a violent storm tore the original one apart. A lot of the boats in the harbor were more or less damaged after that wicked storm. I had bought a cradle for the wintertime, which was a must, and I had also bought my little dinghy. I had convinced the man that my price was perfectly sound. He had finally accepted my price. So I now wanted my little Rhodes 19, to be clean and I knew the deck wasn’t. Early in the morning I put on work clothes and rowed my dinghy out to my boat which was anchored in the middle of the little bay of the marina. As I was rowing all alone in the harbor, the world around me seeming deserted and bewitched, I was in great spirits and I sang loudly all over the marina.
I’m getting married in the morning,
Ding-dong the bells are going to chime,
Pull out the stopper, Let’s have a whopper,
But get me to the church on time.’
I have always loved ‘My Fair Lady’ and Eliza’s father, Doolittle, is one of the most fun characters both in Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, and in the musical. Even though the lyrics didn’t fit in too well with the situation, I had the time of my life, rowing out to my little Kijé, belting out Doolittle’s song for all the world to hear. I climbed on-board, cleaned off the deck, put the tarpaulin back on and got back to Harbour House as it was called, with British spelling, if you please!
When I arrived, John was a bit panicky but I knew what I was going to wear and there was no problem. In no time I was wearing my Yves Saint-Laurent suit, not even new for the occasion, skirt, not pants, nice shoes, and we arrived at the City Hall in good time. We had no witnesses, so two secretaries were called in to certify our marriage, our signatures, or whatever. But the most lasting memory of the ceremony was looking over the head of the Mayor at a photo where he was shaking hands with President Nixon. We managed to keep straight faces anyway.
As we arrived in Orlando that same evening, my parents-in-law were at the airport to meet us, as usual. John pushed me up front a bit and said to his parents ‘Meet my wife.’ Everybody laughed. I’d known them for almost two years. But they were not sure that my divorce papers had finally been found and that we were actually married.
This was in the spring of 1973 and the move would take place as soon as the spring term was over. There was a bit of a problem for me, having to give up a secure tenured job, and well paid at that, having no idea what I might be able to find in Paris. My dear friend Janet tried to tell me I should stay one tenth year in the U.S. so I wouldn’t have to give up my retirement pension — ten years work was a minimum — but there was no way I was going to stay on alone and let John move to Paris without me. Money be damned.
Exit with a bang and much laughter
My young friends Nora and Rita had offered to help us with the packing. We thought it would be great if they would help us with our several hundreds of books. Their eager and smiling faces helped us a lot through the drab job of preparing for the move.
What most stands out in my mind after that was the very last day. The apartment was practically empty and we were packing our trunks and suitcases. John had the bright idea that we were going to celebrate our move back to France with a glass of Aalborg, that is, in Swedish, snaps. It’s Danish snaps. But we were busy and in different rooms of the apartment, so we yelled Skål from a distance to each other and merrily went on with the very last part of our packing. Maybe the one glass got to be two glasses, since I remember getting quite giggly.
However, we got the last trunk closed after picking Mélisande out of it. Actually, that was while there was still some room left in it. She had gotten ensconced in a trunk to make perfectly sure she was not going to be left behind. Cats do have a strange sixth sense about packing. They know perfectly well that something drastic is happening and that it’s a matter of getting in on the trip.
We also sneaked out of paying the extra month’s rent that the landlady had requested. I had apparently given notice a bit too late and she claimed I owed her the next month’s rent. Ha ha! I had even paid a month in advance when I first rented the apartment. So forget it! Somehow, I’ll never understand how she caught up with us in Paris and threatened legal action. I replied “Good, lady, go ahead and sue me”. I never heard from her again. She would have the apartment repainted and rent out before the end of the month of July, so I had no guilt feelings for the poor landlady and her shenanigans. We were burning our bridges.
The taxi that was going to take us to Kennedy Airport had arrived. We put Mélisande in her cage on a bunch of newspapers, the cage on John’s lap, and off we went. It’s a long way from New Rochelle to Kennedy. We traveled through Co-op City, the newly built-up areas before you get to cross over to Queens and Long Island on Throgs Neck Bridge. Co-op City didn’t even exist when Allan and I first arrived north of that area. It’s now like a city in itself, ugly high-rises, but hopefully it won’t become a slum in no time since there are no greedy landlords.
That’s when it happened. We had just crossed the bridge when a powerful odor was spreading through the back of the car. This was a first. Mélisande had always been an excellent traveler but this time it had been too much for her. Worrying about possibly being left behind, which had actually happened when we went down to Orlando for our brief honeymoon in Sarasota on the west coast of Florida. But that was the only place where we didn’t bring her along. When we traveled by car to our friends Jim and Sandy, then living in a suburb of Philadelphia, Mélisande was always with us.
Be that as it may, something had gotten to be too much for poor Mélisande and we smelled the effect of it. John looked at me for agreement in what he was about to do. I knew and I nodded in silent understanding of the weight of the act. Okay, John lifted her majesty, folded up the newspapers and put her majesty back down. He opened the window with a questioning look at me again. I nodded once more. We were then driving through some fairly uninhabited areas and, to our great relief and eternal shame, we polluted the environment with our precious kitty’s left-overs. And we chuckled happily. The trip back to Paris had started well.
The rest of the moving went smoothly and we were suddenly settled in a nice apartment building in one of the most charming old quartiers in Paris, la Butte aux Cailles in the 13ème arrondissement.
Our wonderful friends Jacques and his wife, Mimi, generously lent us their apartment in the 13th arrondissement, close to where we were going to find our first home. All went well, except for a little shock we had a couple of days before we were about to give the apartment back to our friends. We found that one of the mustard yellow plush armchairs in the living room was fairly hopping with fleas. How on earth Mélisande had managed to get infested with fleas, we’ll never know, but there we were. John bought a disinfectant spray (une bombe as they call it here) and we did a thorough job killing fleas both on Mélisande and on the chair. We seem to have managed. Anyway, we never heard anything about it and Mimi was the most perfectionist housewife we’ve ever known.
We found an apartment that was just what we wanted, but our furniture took a long time arriving from New York. So in the meantime we bought new beds and a couple of deckchairs for the living room. It looked funny but with our 3 month old German shepherd puppy it looked adorable to us. I insisted on a German shepherd since I still had Sappo, the wonder dog from my youth, in my mind.
I admit that it was a bit loony to have a big dog in an apartment in Paris, but that’s what I wanted. I always took good care of him, walked him daily and threw sticks for
him in the few places that were available for that sort of romping around. But there would be La Fontaine a year later and Puppy had the time of his life there, with Mélisande of course.
La Butte aux Cailles is anything but a chic area, but so much the better. It had the ambiance of an old French little town and our five-story apartment building really stood out among the old buildings around us as the only modern one, even though of the same height as the surrounding buildings. Little neighborhood stores were all around us. We had our fish market, our butcher, our triperie1 and our little grocery store, a family business, where they even sold excellent wines.
Our fish monger is a story in itself. She will be history, or probably already is, at least in the 13ème arrondissement. Her store was in rue Bobillot just as it splits into rue de la Butte aux Cailles and goes on down to rue de Tolbiac. The display of fish was on tables set up every day on the sidewalk, as is the custom in food shopping quartiers. Jeannette was a character. With her husky voice and her no-nonsense behavior, a friendly smile on her lined face and a pretty dirty plastic apron over her white fishmonger smock, she charmed her customers from near and far. She was always chatty and smiling even though she must have been in pain from a hip problem that gave her a pretty bad limp. She rattled off simple and good recipes, a French habit, and from her we learned a basic recipe for oven baking several kinds of fish: olive oil, white wine, salt and pepper, slices of onions and tomatoes.Half an hour in medium hot oven.
She eventually got surgery for her hip problem and came back more smiling than ever, and no more limping. Business was good and she opened a fish restaurant one floor up, right above the store. It too became a success. What was the name of the restaurant. ‘Chez Jeannette’, of course. Our friend Jacques who lived nearby was one of her faithful customers. One day when a man offered to serve him, he said, in his own brusque but humorous way: “Qu’est-ce que j’ai à faire à un grand moustachu. Je veux Jeannette moi, et pas n’importe quel gaillard.”
After business became even better with the added restaurant, Jeannette moved her fish-market and restaurant to rue de Tolbiac, a major thoroughfare in the south of Paris and even closer to where Jacques lived. But we were gone. We hated to move, but we were renting at that point, and the owner’s son was going to buy the apartment. There was nothing we could do to buy the apartment ourselves.
And let’s not forget the street itself, la rue de la Butte aux Cailles, which is probably unique in its kind for Paris. It seemed as if it hadn’t changed in the last one hundred years and there were plenty of cheap little restaurants with tables taking up most of the sidewalks. They served food you didn’t even see on the menus in fashionable restaurants. But it was good and cheap and had a homey ambiance that you rarely found even in those days. There were little old apartment buildings and quaint little shops, such as a quincaillerie, hardware store, which is becoming an increasingly rare sight for every year. Elderly people were walking around on the cobble-stoned street since the sidewalks were partly taken up by the restaurants, people who were stubbornly staying in this quartier as if they resented the rest of the big city surrounding it, or very likely they couldn’t afford anything more expensive. There was very little traffic in the street, so we were all safe walking on the cobblestones.
In my school, the students did not seem like anything of the future technocrats they were probably destined to become. They were intelligent, had a good educational basis and the only reason we ‘native’ speakers were wanted was because they are not taught to speak English in French lycées. They could read, they could even write quite well, they understood me without any apparent difficulty, but they didn’t dare open their mouths to speak for fear of making a mistake. I had to let them know that it was all right, they could make their mistakes, as long as they spoke in sentences.
When I completely failed to understand what they were saying because of their horrible pronunciation – everybody in the class understood since they were used to this way of speaking – I once asked them if their teachers had never corrected their pronunciation. The answer was a clear No. The French teachers probably didn’t pronounce any better themselves – or that was at least my conclusion at the time. I have known many good French English teachers since then. In the case in question it was such a horrible mangling of the word ‘her’ that I had no idea what the student was saying. It sounded more like ‘air’ than anything else. But it has to be added here that things are gradually changing for the better.
It’s a bit scary for a whole country to fail so miserably in the teaching of the most widely spoken language in the world (Well, except maybe for Mandarin, which doesn’t serve a fraction of the usefulness that English does.). An awful lot of French people, even educated ones, simply resist learning English properly. THEY DON’T WANT TO LEARN TO SPEAK ENGLISH. Period. Absolutely amazing. Since I grew up in Sweden with very modern Swedish language teaching programs and could speak English quite freely after a couple of years in what would be called junior high school, the French system seemed perfectly unbelievable to me. Granted, I probably had such a unique English teacher that she might well have been the best one in the entire country. And I had her for six years in a row. The last couple of years in Gymnasium, I remember lying in bed before going to sleep and thinking in English. Of course I was highly motivated, but it seems to me that so were we all. It’s mainly the teacher who makes for motivated or non-motivated students, after all. The French won’t admit this. They insist that I must have been especially motivated. Okay, don’t blame your own teachers, don’t blame the educational system. It’s the students’ fault if they are not motivated. Hmm…
And this is where Roberto makes his entrée.
Roberto is Paris and Paris is Roberto. The little dark haired mustachioed Argentinian man who invaded our lives completely. He was us and we were him. Whenever I think of our apartments in Paris, it’s with Roberto. Whenever I think of our primitive fermette dans l’Indre, not far from les châteaux de la Loire, it’s with Roberto. When I think of such and such a piece of music, I often think of how Roberto liked it or didn’t like it. His wit, his total absence of any kind of pretentiousness or ambition, his sensitivity, but above all his sense of humor made him unique. He knew about everything without ever having gotten a university degree of any kind. He started some subject but got bored immediately and dropped out. He had friends who were well-known intellectuals in Buenos Aires but who lived in Paris. One of his friends was the Italian writer Italo Calvino, who lent him his house in northern Italy over a summer vacation, including the chauffeur and the staff of servants.
Roberto tutoyer’ed everybody. I can not ever remember his saying vous to me, even when I barely knew him and, funniest of all, barely understood his heavily accented French. At first I thought I would never get to understand this funny little Argentinian guy. After some time I didn’t even think of it as a foreign accent. It was Roberto, that’s all. He never learned to say comme in French. It was always como in Spanish.
He was an ardent music lover and a good pianist, and usually could afford to rent a piano.
One day at the beginning of his many-years stay in Paris, he was at l’Ecole Polytechnique for some reason. Maybe he worked there. I don’t know. He had just met a well-known physicist, Monsieur F at l’X, which is the common nickname of this highly renowned school. Roberto was walking around leisurely whistling to himself. Since he was always a great talker, he felt like striking up a conversation and he asked Monsieur F “Aimez-vous la musique?” F thought for a few seconds and then said “Je suis plutôt contre.” (If anything, he disapproved of music.) Obviously F was far from being serious, but was just searching for a witty answer to a somewhat simplistic question.
John and I will never forget that hilarious answer, and it keeps coming back in our kidding.
But the outstanding physicist Monsieur F and Leprince-Ringuet himself, the most notable professor and the director of the physics department at Collège de France, a pioneering particle physicist as well as a notable intellectual (membre de l’Adadémie française!), were probably about the only people Roberto did not tutoyer. Possibly not Marie-Madeleine either though, who was a wonderful even though religious woman and the personal secretary of Le Prince-Ringuet. Whenever John needed some papers renewed at the Prefecture de Police, Marie-Madeleine went with him and it was Sesame open. She mentioned the name of the most honorable professor and everything was done in a few seconds. Marie-Madeleine was easily the second most prestigious person at the Collège de France. The funniest thing about her, this very religious woman, we discovered once when we were at her very patrician home. She kept her scotch and another bottle or two in a prie-Dieu, as I am told those things are called.
Roberto had found a job as an assistant in something or other at Collège de France via a friend of his. As what I don’t know exactly. Non-physicists as well as physicists worked to verify reactions observed in bubble chambers and maybe Roberto had gotten a job to work with those. Today bubble chambers are gone and immensely more sophisticated and expensive machinery is used to record particle collisions.
Everybody loved Roberto. The physics lab at Collège de France would not have been the same had not Roberto been there to cheer up everybody and everything, whistling a theme from a Brahms symphony or a Beethoven piano concerto and kidding about just anything. I guess you could say that he didn’t take anything seriously. But you can never hold that against him, because he was Roberto.
I remember vividly one time with two common friends of ours, the man a professor of Econometry, his wife our very dear friend Esther, a beautiful Brazilian photographer-artist. Roberto wowed about Sao Paolo, the beauty of it, the marvels of this heavenly city. It so happens that Sao Paolo was exactly Esther’s city, where her father still lived, but that’s beside the point. I was a bit curious about his enthusiasm and asked him “Did it never disturb you seeing all the horrible poverty in this city or the surrounding shantytowns, the beggars, the children who barely had any clothes to wear and were constantly asking for a hand-out?” Roberto said “Siv, tu ne comprends pas.” That was Roberto. I should have expected it. Our friend Alberto said: “Non, Roberto, c’est toi qui ne comprends pas. ” Well, I have loved our friend Alberto ever since that day, and John kids me about it. He calls him the second man in my life.
But Roberto had a perfect right to give his opinion, and he did. Roberto was … Yes, I must now say, my eyes tearing up some, that he died very suddenly of a heart attack about two years ago. No pain, says Marta, his lady friend for many years, whom we also loved, a wonderful woman. He just keeled over at the breakfast table. He will never be dead to me and it’s difficult to remember to use the past tense. So Roberto was passion, he was an intellectual and a great music lover of course, but he was a romantic above all. He enjoyed living. He did what he pleased, as long as he didn’t hurt anyone. He would be totally incapable of hurting anyone. He would never ever have put me down for my very leftist views. He respected me for who I was and there was mutual love and respect – love meaning so much more than sexual love. It’s sad how often people confuse love and sex, since very often they don’t even overlap.
He moved back to Buenos Aires in the early eighties, and we of course had a big party for him and all our common friends. Our living room was crowded.
But he came back. He came to Paris once with a woman friend and he has been to see us here in our suburb of Lyon three times, once with his wonderful and lasting partner, Marta. And we went to see them in BAires, as Roberto always wrote. That was in 1990, an unforgettable trip. But that is another story.
- triperie = innards butcher. There are the ordinary bouchers in France, les charcutiers for prepared foods, pâtés, salades, different kinds of ham, etc and also tripiers for those who like innards, which we do, sweetbreads, calf’s liver, kidneys and John also likes andoulettes, which is tripe sausage – therefore triperie. ↩