Chapter 15 (Part 1) – My new country

Long Island Sound from the park close to where I lived.

After my few months of tutoring at Mount Vernon High School in the spring of ’65, two French teachers left and I was hired as a regular teacher for the next year. But the luckiest part of staying on at this school was how I got two new friends who were going to become just about the best friends I have ever had – Bella and Norma.

Bella had an extremely dramatic background, having been born in a work camp in Siberia, Stalin’s USSR. Her extended family moved later to France, where she still today has some family. Bella’s family lived in France for a long period and so Bella became a native French speaker. After many years in France her close family moved to New Jersey. They were still there when I knew Bella and I met her mother once when I spent a night with them during a language convention in the City.when I was the chauffeur. Bella doesn’t like to talk about where she was born and I don’t blame her. But I learned about it from her daughter Laura who was staying with us here for a couple of days in our Lyon suburb with her boyfriend Paul many years ago. it was not the Gulag,  Laura stressed when we were sitting at our breakfast table one morning some time in the 90s. I don’t know where the line goes, and clearly Bella’s family were in this work camp because they were Jews. What is important is how they somehow managed to leave and get to France. Laura and Paul later got married and the third generation is now growing up.

Bleecker Street is a myth. Off Broadway theaters, such as ‘The Circle in the Square’ (center of picture) on the right, and Bleecker Street Cinema that ran old classics.

Norma was born in New York City, and she was married to Ted. Her father had a second-hand bookstore down-town in Manhattan. I was once there with Norma and, glancing at the shelves, I happened to find a Swedish book by an excellent contemporary writer and journalist, Jan-Olof Olsson, whose pen name was Jolo. The book was Chicago. In Swedish!

Jolo was a wonderful writer and historian. I had read a couple of books by him; 1914 about World War I, a superb account of how it developed and ended, and Drottningens England (The Queen’s England). He was enormously productive and even though he died prematurely in 1974, at the age of 54, he had written a huge number of books – popular history, travel books and novels. His death caused a very genuine period of national mourning.

I honestly thought her father was going to either give me the book or offer it to me at a low price. There wasn’t much of a chance that another Swede was going to come across it.  However, he didn’t do either. Maybe he was hard of hearing and did not realize that I was Swedish. He was sitting quietly at his desk, and I at the time was silly enough not to ask him how much the book was. I guess I didn’t feel particularly interested in Chicago at the time. Silly of me, since everything Jolo ever wrote was outstanding.

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Norma had been a student at Hunter High School and then at Hunter College and had majored in Greek and Latin. I believe she got her Master’s at the age of 21. Her husband Ted was a chemist and well on his way to a Ph.D. I have rarely met a person I felt as close to as Norma. She was smart without any need to show off her knowledge or intellect, seemed to have no obnoxious prejudices, and made sound judgments exclusively on the basis of personal reflection. She saw Jewish holidays, or rather they both did, as boring and unnecessary family gatherings. Once when the Rosh Hashanah holiday was coming up, she heard that Allan and I were planning on going hiking on the Appalachian Trail, which goes all the way from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south. Ted and Norma said “Oh could we come with you and get away from all the bother of the family holiday.” In the New York area schools always took off for Jewish holidays, since in many cases over half the faculty and students were Jewish.

So we all drove up to the hiking trail in the Catskills in New York State. We were first greeted by a horde of deer who were not the least bit shy of people. After we had admired and talked to the deer, two people came down from the trail – stark naked. Norma turned away and chuckled. It turned out that the young man in his birthday suit was a former boyfriend of hers and she didn’t care to be recognized and talk to him in his present attire. This would have been in 1966 and the flower-power movement was in full swing, even though the Woodstock festival was a few years off. ‘Make love, not war’ was going strong in 1966.

We slept in lean-tos on these hikes – three walls, a floor and a ceiling – and I will never forget on our very first over-night hike, just Allan and I that time, how I was shivering in the cold night air. I had been too stingy when I bought my new sleeping bag. Finally Allan and I had to switch our bags and his was a bit warmer so I got some sleep that night. For our next hike I had a warm down sleeping bag. Wonderful. We brought our food along of course, made a fire and heated up the baked beans and sausages or whatever we had in our backpacks.

It was not like when my family and I hiked in northern Lapland, in the forties, and we went on one-week or two-week treks on Kungsleden or around Sarek. For that, we had to pack light-weight, vacuum-packed food since we nevertheless had to carry 22 kilo backpacks at the outset. I remember when you took off the backpacks to sit down for a major break, it felt as if you were going to fall backwards. We would walk over 20 km a day, so a couple of good breaks were needed.

On one of Allan’s and my earliest hikes in New York State, there wasn’t even a lean-to and we closed up the food safely, or so we thought, in the backpacks and went to sleep on the forest floor. In the morning we had a big surprise. There was barely any food left. The leftovers of all we’d brought for our breakfast were strewn all around us. We thought we had cleverly secured our food in the backpacks, but everything had been ravaged by raccoons who had had a feast on eggs, bacon, bread, milk and everything that could possibly be eaten from our packs. Allyn was the old hand for this kind of adventure, or so I thought, but he clearly didn’t know that raccoons hesitate at nothing to get through to your food unless you store it in things as solid as metal containers. The raccoons won. We did not get much for breakfast that morning.

There were many memorable hikes in the Catskills, if we didn’t care to drive far or, for more of a big undertaking, Mount Bromley or Mount Stratton in Vermont, where we also went skiing.

On one of our lean-to sleep-overs, I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a big hare who looked straight at me with his wonderful eyes. I wasn’t used to nights outdoors and to me it was a wonderful experience, seeing this gorgeous hare. Allan called him a jackrabbit, but it was a hare so I insisted on my way of naming this beautiful beast.

Once in a while we would hear a loud noise in the middle of the night and Allan would say ‘It’s a deer knocking over the garbage can’. In the morning we could see the traces of it. But only once did I see the deer staring at me standing absolutely still, a beautiful spirit in the forest, lit by the almost full moon.

The most fun thing though that ever happened on one of these hikes was the night we slept with a porcupine in Vermont, probably on Mount Bromley. We don’t have porcupines in Sweden and I never expected to see one ever. To me they are totally exotic animals and I had no idea that they go all over the American continent. As we arrived and were about to take off our backpacks, I said, “Hey, there’s an animal in the corner.” It was a porcupine who was fast asleep clinging to the left corner of the lean-to. So we decided to put our sleeping bags down at the opposite end and just leave it alone. We had our light dinner and lay down to get some sleep, but it felt a bit weird knowing that there was an animal with long quills on his back that we were sharing the lean-to with. The hotel was fully booked that night. How was this funny beast going to behave during the night? In the middle of the night, however, I heard a tap tap tap on the wooden floor and in the morning he was gone.

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Ted and Norma had a party in their apartment in the east 90s. They just had a window air conditioner and the living room was chock full of people rubbing shoulders and chatting with glasses in hand. All of a sudden the air conditioner gave up the ghost. It was just too much for a poor window apparatus like that. It was the hottest party I have ever been to, but it went on. We were all young and we did what my friend Christine did, who moved to Cameroon with her very bourgeois World Bank tree-planting husband, Pierre-Yves. She once said, in reply to a silly question of mine;”We sweated”, and that was that. This was my first initiation to the American kind of party where you strike up conversations with people you  have never met before. Very un-Swedish. Also very un-French, unless you are at an art exhibit opening event. I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to this kind of party though. I prefer to meet people I already know and like.

Avenue T– where Ted and Norma had their new home. The family is there, hard to see. — 1979

Ted and Norma later moved to Foster Avenue, a stone’s throw from Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn and we would often get together to play bridge. But this was not the usual kind of bridge. It was very unserious. Ted had a scientific approach to the game, but he was the only one. Allyn had played a lot of bridge since college days and he taught me. But his game was totally haphazard and I often just stared at him in amazement when he did his bidding. Along with the game we drank Aalborg, Danish snaps (spelled Schnapps in German) or aquavit, which was a thing serious bridge players would no doubt have frowned upon. But we had fun.

Later on they bought a house farther south in Brooklyn on Avenue T. Allyn and I had separated, and it was now after my one-year stint in Paris. John had joined me in New Rochelle and we were at Ted’s and Norma’s house in ‘73. They now had two very young daughters and we had a good laugh at their parental methods. We grown-ups were watching something on television in the basement and when we got back upstairs late in the evening, we found the little girls glued to the basement door after they had banged on it and cried to be let in. Ted and Norma had totally ignored them and now they were happily asleep curled up on the floor and leaning on the door. As I remember, they fell over when we opened the door.

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Back to Mount Vernon High School. The one outstanding memory from my first high school was a junior class where I taught French level 4. Usually, students got to level 4 in their senior year, but this was an experiment. This group had started French in middle school in grade 8 and were all more or less handpicked and certainly very highly motivated kids. The department head, Mrs Redka, told me she had given me the junior level 4 class and I could not be more delighted.

And yes, they turned out to be the most memorable class I have ever had. I do believe I remember most of their names still today. Sometimes even their last names. Almost all were Jewish. Some stand out, Andy (André) and Marc, the charmer who would say ‘Check’ when I had explained something to him. Eleanor became Hélène and she said I couldn’t pronounce her name quite in the American way, so she wanted me to go on calling her Hélène. This was the only one time I did what many French teachers do – I gave them all French names. Of course Marc didn’t change. Eleanor’s close friend was Andrea so she had to remain Andrea (with the stress on the last a), since there was already one André (Andrée would be the feminine spelling.). There was Anna, Anne of course, one of the very few who might not have been Jewish. She was a bit timid, but I remember her well. They were all very good students.

And there was Paul Blank. Oh yes, there was Paul Blank. Unassuming, a bit timid even, but always ready with the right answer, sitting at the back of the class. He was a tall young man and he would probably not have stood out in a group of young kids, unless you knew him.

One day when he must have realized that I liked music, he came up to me at the end of the class and asked me if I knew Aaron Copland. I said No. I had a lot to learn yet in terms of music that Arne had not initiated me to or that I hadn’t come across on my own, such as Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”. Goodness, I barely knew Sibelius in those days. Paul Blank said “Oh, you must get to know him. He is wonderful”. I did get to know Copland and Allyn in fact did know him already. Still today I like his music better than Leonard Bernstein’s, with the possible exception of West Side Story.

Matisse, The Egyptian curtain

On another occasion Paul came up to me after a class and asked me if I knew the wonderful Matisse painting ‘The Egyptian curtain‘. I didn’t, but I did know Matisse, and I liked him a lot. That painting has now, 50 years later or so, been with me ever since. I had it on the wall in my study on rue Jean de Beauvais in Paris in 1970, along with ‘Interior with black fern‘. My studio was in the 5ème arrondissement and that was the year I met John who lived in the 6ème, a good walk from my place which was close to Place Maubert.

The Egyptian curtain‘ used to hang on the wall  above the round dinner table here in Genas, suburb of Lyon. It had to be taken down from that wall to make room for  the beautiful textile wall-hanging we brought back from Rajasthan in India. ‘The Egyptian curtain‘ is now back to another place in the sun, literally and figuratively.

I didn’t know Paul was half Jewish until later when Bella told me. It didn’t make any difference to me. Norma knew him well too from her Latin classes. When we see each other today we still talk about Paul. I believe we had all emotionally adopted this brilliant young man.

A very Jewish mother gave us a good laugh though. She suggested to Norma that she get a little group of nice Jewish kids together to teach them Greek. I mainly remember the ‘little group of nice Jewish kids’. Norma heartily made fun of the mother.

Bella took over this class for their senior year, which was  AP French (Advanced Placement), when I left for Mamaroneck High School, which was a far better school, especially since Mount Vernon was going downhill.

She had a party for all of us, i.e. for this very special class, when she lived on the Upper West Side, in one of the classic brownstones. Allyn and I were both there and we were now married. Eleanor Epstein kidded me about the change of my last name. She said “Here’s a Swedish teacher coming all the way from Europe to teach us French and her name is Mrs Thulin (they managed to pronounce it almost correctly). Then she gets married and she is just Mrs Phillips. Now, what kind of manners is that?” Funny and sweet Hélène. That’s when she told me she still wanted to be Hélène to me.

That year I had an accident, running downstairs from the balcony in the auditorium after an assembly. I fell on the stairs and knew I’d hurt myself, but I didn’t think much of it. Someone said I should at least go and see the nurse, which I did. She pushed my elbow into a bowl of ice cubes but it didn’t do anything for me. For some strange reason I didn’t have much pain. I went to my class, which was exactly this junior class and I went through the class, writing on the board with my left hand, I remember vividly.

Some colleagues said I should still get an x-ray at the hospital. I couldn’t drive myself so a colleague took me there. It turned out that I had a very complicated elbow fracture and during the operation the same day, the surgeon picked out innumerable little pieces of bone. I still don’t have the upper piece of my right radius, but it hasn’t changed anything in my mobility.

The get-well card from my beloved junior class

The get-well card from my beloved junior class

The best part of my stay in the hospital was a get-better card I received from my wonderful class. It was a couple of tree branches with 12 birds (actually one was a worm, but a pretty one) sitting close together on the branches. It was the exact number of students in my class. Next to each bird was the French name of one of the students, and their signatures were below. Marc had signed Chief. Typical for that likable clown. Paul Blank must have been sick that day, since his signature is not among them. I bet it was Hélène and Andrea who had found that wonderful card. It was absolutely adorable and I still have the card. I’ll keep it forever.

Since the accident happened in school during work hours, I saw the Workmen’s Compensation Board a year later, to establish if I had permanent damage. Maybe I should feel a bit ashamed of how this went, but I don’t really. During the summer of 1967, right after this accident, I was in the horse riding camp in New Hampshire with Allyn and his sons. Allyn could play tennis fairly well, enough to amuse himself. He was an all-around athlete. I tried to play against him once at the camp even though I was actually really nil in tennis or any ball game. I felt directly that I had no power at all in my right arm. I just couldn’t steer it. I could not even try to hit the ball. So when I talked to the MD at the Workmen’s Compensation Board, I told him that I couldn’t play tennis any more. A minor lie, since I’d really never been able to play it. Allyn and I had played around a bit at the tennis court at ‘Harbour House’ in New Rochelle, and I did own a racket. I had played badminton fairly well in Sweden, but my sister Gun always beat me. The doctor did not hesitate though. He thought it would be worth $1000 in damages for an accident at my work place. I wasn’t going to argue about it.

For that money and a bit more I bought myself a new car, a Volvo, the first of the new line of nice-looking models that came out around 1968. The salesman told me that for that money I could get a Pontiac. I said, “But I don’t want a Pontiac”. Partly thanks to Allyn, I had gotten a much better paid job in his school, Mamaroneck (stress on the second syllable) High School, which also served Larchmont, the next-door very affluent  town. I could also expect more motivated students, by and large. I did indeed have pretty good students in my new school, but I never again had a class like my junior French 4 class in Mount Vernon.

During the hiring procedure, in Mamaroneck the assistant superintendent told me he had talked to the people (as he put it) at Mount Vernon High School and they sounded as if they didn’t know how they would manage without me. I remember being interviewed by this gentleman (whose name was Schlick!) holding my arm in a cast. The man was indeed very ‘schlick’. I remember seeing him once at the soft drink stand at Jones Beach, where I was with Allyn, far out on Long Island’s south shore. I hurriedly got behind Allyn since I was only wearing a bikini. It’s a beautiful beach with the kind of dunes that I love. Jones Beach State Park,is a bird and game sanctuary. It’s just a bit too huge for my European taste, with soft drink stands, snacks and all those very American commercial additions to a beach.

Mount Vernon was indeed going downhill. Upper-middle-class families were fleeing to towns with better schools and the entire town of Mount Vernon was beginning to seem more and more like an inner-city area. Except for my wonderful friends, Norma and Bella, Latin and French teachers, the standard of the teaching staff went down with the town of Mount Vernon in general. Latin was no longer taught from the year Norma left the school a couple of years after me. In fact, from this time on, all languages began to take a secondary place even in the very good high schools all over the U.S. Even in the universities, the role of foreign languages was becoming less and less important as a requirement for science Ph.D. students. I remember how Ted, Norma’s husband, was fighting hard to learn German well enough to pass a translation test. Norma who had never studied German tutored her husband and he finally passed after a couple of failed attempts. A Latin teacher certainly knows what a language is and she could help Ted fairly easily with concepts like gender, case, irregular verbs and varying plural forms of nouns.

So I now had a new school, Mamaroneck High School on Boston Post Road, the first road ever that went north to New England, so it is called U.S. Route 1. Once upon a time, it was The King’s Highway. This road of many past names that runs along Long Island Sound now became our daily route to and from the school where Allyn and I were both teaching. Mamaroneck and Larchmont are predominantly upper class communities. Not quite as much so as Scarsdale, but very close.

I was now faced with hyper-motivated parents who bit and scratched if their offspring didn’t get the grades they thought they deserved. I once had a run-in with a mother whose daughter had skipped grade 10 and gone straight into grade 11 and my level 3 French class. In fact, the bitch, the mother, went straight to Joe Downey, our principal. It could have cost me my tenure, but Joe realized, with the help of one of the two women counselors, that the mother was not qualified to decide what grade her daughter should be getting and that I was actually right in my judgment of her level. He gave me a report the following year that was so full of praise that I almost felt embarrassed. I got my tenure.

 Continued:: Chapter 15 (Part 2) — Vietnam war and Peace movements

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"Sketches from the life of a wandering Swede" by Siv O'Neall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.