...she helped me pay for my Passports trip,
and said she may have known you when you were a student in Paris. Her maiden
name was Danielle Berthon. |
This is a flashback in time, to another place. It's
Paris, in January of 1962. That's fifty-two years ago.
It's me, Gil Markle, recently graduated from college in
the U.S., and more recently still arrived here in France, where I am studying
philosophy at the University of Paris as a Fulbright scholar.
Easier said than done. They speak French here, and I
don't speak it so well. And the people are French here entirely
different sorts of creatures who I don't understand all that well, and who don't
seem to understand the person I am, either. They seem rude to me sometimes. It's
sometimes very lonely here in Paris.
But I've got a tough skin, and am determined to succeed
with this mission. I've registered with the Institut Henri Poincaré here
on the left bank of Paris, saying that I have some ideas about the philosophy of
time which, if found interesting enough, and if I could write a short book about
them (in French!) would make me eligible
to receive the degree of Doctorat d'Université.
I scribble away on this project during the daylight hours.
Perhaps more ambitiously still, I have announced myself
in a loud voice within this social community as a young man about town to be
reckoned with. I dress carefully, almost always trailing a rakish foulard
around my neck, wear sunglasses when I really don't have to, and drive the right
kind of motorbike. I show up at all the right parties (embassy gatherings are my
cup of tea), pick out what I think is the prettiest girl, and tell her about my
life and my comfortable chambre de bonne back in the Latin Quartier.
Sometimes this works for me.
Like with the beautiful Danielle. Sometimes. Sometimes
she's nice to me, and I get to call her by her nickname, which is Dani-B.
The "B" for her last name, I suppose. Other times she walks right by me
on the Boulevard de Michel with those French friends of hers who talk too
fast, and in an argot slang I'm meant not to understand, and she doesn't
say a word to me. Like I said, Paris can be a very lonely place sometimes.
But not tonight. Tonight I'm going to forget about the
University of Paris and the embassy parties and the pretty girls and concentrate
instead on the real people of Paris the common folk, the workers taking a
night off the salt of the earth. A populist pressing of the flesh is what I
need, and I know how to do it. I take my guitar, put it in its canvas case, and
walk down the five flights of stairs, and out into a driving rainstorm. A few
minutes later, now dripping water, I arrive at my tiny restaurant on the Rue
du Pot de Fer, in the very heart of the 5ème arrondissement. It's called
Chez Paul, and it's Paul himself who welcomes me at the door, wearing his
apron. Paul is the chef, too.
"Jeel-berr," he says. "Bienvenue! Attention à la
The restaurant is only one room big, and it's packed
tonight, rain pounding against the windows, and the wind now blowing outside.
Inside it's smoky half cigarette smoke from the Gitannes and the other
half delicious vapor from the kitchen, smelling of Steak Frites and
Haricots Verts. Paul will give me one of these meals tonight, before I
But all that comes later. In the meanwhile, I have to
sing for my supper. Paul threads his way through the tables, slapping the
occasional client on the shoulder, leading me back to the bar by the kitchen
where there sits a wooden stool, illuminated by a makeshift spotlight hanging on
the ceiling. He points to the stool, waves to the bartender for my ritual
Pernod, and takes it upon himself to extricate my guitar from its soaking
wet canvas case. He shoves it into my arms, wheels about, and faces his
restaurant clients, some of them only faintly visible through the eatery fog,
which now hangs halfway down from the ceiling. One of these clients rings a fork
twice against a wine glass, and then does so again, three times, this time more
insistently. The crowd quiets. Paul seizes the moment, arms outstretched:
"Mes-Madames, je vous donne, Monsieur Jeel-berr!"
That's my cue, of course. My cue to take the guitar, to
tune it up a little whether it needs it or not, to say a few words in halting
French, and then to perform for these people in the restaurant, singing in
English. No, perform is the wrong word. I'm not a performer a serious
musician bristling with riffs and pre-arranged flourishes and drama. I'm just a
young man from a foreign country who's apparently a bit out of place, a bit lost
here in the city of Paris. Nice to look at, I suppose. Sympatique, as
they would say, but not a performer by any means. For the people here in this
restaurant, I'm more like a non-threatening, yet intriguing, household pet.
Yes, it is this sense of intrigue that makes it
work for me. I'm something a bit different, something at odds with their
day-to-day expectations. Something which, for a few short moments on a Friday
night, changes and challenges their usual view of the world.
Consciousness-raising, we would later call this sort of thing.
Accordingly, there is no need for these people to nudge
their neighbor and to comment on the guitar playing, which is just a notch this
side of amateurish; no need to opine on the song stylistics, which are absent.
No need to decide whether or not this young man is a poet. He's not. You can
tell that from the back of the room. Yet it's intriguing for them. Mildly
unsettling perhaps, but different.
I understood all that, even then. After all, that was
why I had separated myself from a comfortable academic career in the United
States, opting instead to be inconvenienced by a foreign language, to be
interrogated and challenged by stern, unsympathetic university mentors who had
little reason to have much patience with me, and to be ignored on the
Boulevard St. Michel by Dani-B whenever she felt like doing so. I was
on a mild, self-imposed consciousness-raising mission of my own, also unsettling
at times, and I knew the moves.
In any case, I launch into my little litany of innocent
Americana ditties things like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "500 Miles,"
"Scotch and Soda," "North to Alaska," and the like. No hyper-serious Edith
Piaf. Nothing from the popular Johnny Hallyday. Simple American folklore
I even take requests.
"Play ze song about ze
smoke," someone shouts from the back of the room. "About ze
That's fine by me. It's the simplest of songs. Three chords
only, in waltz time. I know the words by heart, having sung this song for the
grammar school assembly,
when I was in the fifth grade. I usually end the set by playing this tune, and
then eat my Steak Frites.
I dive into it.
On top of old
Smokey, all covered with snow,
I lost my true
lover, for courtin' too slow.
The crowd loves it.
This is the kind of thing they wanted to hear. The chairs shuffle, with people
moving closer. There's a very pretty girl at my feet, staring up at me. I wonder
who she is.
She'll hug you
and kiss you, and tell you more lies,
crossties on a railroad, or stars in the sky.
The pretty girl seems
to lose her cool, and starts shouting at me. Something about my hat. But I'm
not wearing a hat, or am I? I forget I'm playing a guitar, and slap the top of
my head with my right hand. There's no hat. But she keeps on.
"Chapeau," she says. "Chapeau!"
And then I understand. First, I understand that the
pretty girl is none other than my Dani-B, somehow made present here in the restaurant
called Chez Paul. Second, I understand that, unusual as I might be, she
very much approves of me. Third, that I have just learned a new use for a very
old and familiar French word. Danielle would teach me other such French words,
some that very night.
* * *
That's the end
of the flashback. Back to the present. It's now half a century later, and you
find me sitting in my home here in central Massachusetts, in the middle of a New
England winter snowstorm. I'm in my living room, which is really an office.
There's a large fireplace, and over it hangs a wide-screen TV. I'm surrounded by
computers, one of which causing lines of data to skitter every so often across
the large TV. Each of these lines of data records a telephone call being made
by salespersons at the travel company to high school and college teachers. We
reach out to these teachers on the telephone, identifying the mind and
career-altering benefits of overseas travel for young people travel to cities
like Paris, yes, and to other European capital cities, and to other places in
the world more far-flung still.
I have been doing this ever since I left Paris in the
mid-nineteen-sixties. The fledging travel company, started when I was still a
graduate student in New Haven, was almost immediately successful, widely
emulated, and I have since been credited, by some, with having created a large
part of the outbound American student travel industry. I take these compliments
with a grain of salt, but with a grain or two of satisfaction at the same time.
These overseas trips may have changed the lives of hundreds and thousands of
American young people, and for the better. This is a very sweet thought.
"A Young Look at Europe" is what we used to call it,
when this sort of thing was still very new.
We made movies about it, as well.
But I knew more about it still, that I wasn't saying.
These overseas adventures, designed to nudge and raise the consciousness of
travelers, young and old, were in fact the echoes and reverberations of my own
first days in Paris, singing for French people in a tiny restaurant.
Tonight, I'm writing. In fact, I've been writing the
words you've just read, wondering now how I might best end these reflections on
my early years in Paris, and on the years which have since intervened. I may be
running out of ideas, seized by writers' cramp.
Not for long. I hear the sliding doors groan open, and
see the velvet curtains pulled aside, and there stands my friend Kent, who comes
by several times a day to see how the
fire is burning, and to throw on an occasional log if required. This time,
however, his mission is different.
He's carrying a silver plate, and on it is a letter a real letter bearing a
postage stamp, and my name and address written in cursive longhand.
"Pour vous, Monsieur," Kent says. "Pour vous."
Kent backs out through
the curtains, and the sliding doors groan shut again, and I find myself
scrambling to open this unusual, thin package. Most of my letters are emails
I should have a knife a letter opener but I don't,
so I rip the envelope open, tearing the flap, and pull out the one sheet of
paper inside. It's a real letter, written with what looks to have been a
fountain pen. Let me tell you what it says.
It's from a young man, who a year ago took a travel
tour with Passports, the travel company. It starts a lot like other letters I
get from such people. The hotels were great all of them in the center of the
city. The food was ample, and authentic. The guides were all terrific. Loved
those direct airline flights. I hear this sort of thing often. It's a very good
travel company we have.
Next, and a bit closer to my heart, he says that the
trip changed his life. He did not realize that the world was such a big place,
he explains, and that the people in it are so very different. This discovery
came as something of a shock for him, and was not an altogether pleasant
experience. But it did him a lot of good, he says, and had implications for
him, personally. For example, he is now writing to me from a university which he
might not otherwise have chosen to attend. His present course of study, which he
hopes will prepare him for service in the diplomatic corps, had never been
envisioned prior to his own overseas trip.
Ringing in my ears is the tag line of the
16mm films, delivered by the NBC radio announcer Fred Collins. "...for in
learning about Europe, they have learned something more about themselves."
The letter concludes on a congratulatory note: keep on
doing what you're doing. Keep up the good work. And other such exhortations
which I have heard before.
But this young man was not entirely done with me. He
had a couple of more things to say. He apparently thought that a "PS" would do
Startled by it, I read the postscript twice, and then,
still not believing my eyes, I read it a third time. Here it is, verbatim:
My grandmother, who died last year, was French. She came to the United States as
a young woman, and has always had things to say about travel being a part of
education. She helped me pay for my Passports trip, and said she may have known
you when you were a student in Paris. Her maiden name was Danielle Berthon.
I am going to write back to this young man. It's going to
be a real letter too, on paper, with a real postage stamp on the envelope. I
already know what it's going to say. It's going to be only one word long.