The French have given many artistic, aesthetic and sensual gifts to the world but arguably, their greatest contribution is their perspective on sex. Sex, to the French, is not something to be ashamed of; it is something to be celebrated. Unlike the conservative United States, where the societal norm only allows you to be sexual until you’ve blown out the candles on your fortieth birthday cake (especially if you’re female), the French grant the right of sexuality to all humankind at all stages of life. For example, a few months ago I was walking to the taxi stand from my ex-husband’s bar on the Rue de Lappe in Paris, during the wee hours. On the way, I ran into one of the servers from his bar, a 29-year-old girl who looks like a teenager. A young man approached us and said to me, “Is this your granddaughter?”
It was a horrible moment. I’m in my fifties, but hopefully I don’t look so old that I could be the grandmother of a 30-year-old! Now here’s the best part: after I corrected him, saying we were not related, simply friends, he asked me out on a date! I may look like a grandmother, but that doesn’t mean I’m not datable!
Today, the air in Paris pulses with sexual energy, just as it always has. I should know – I’ve spent a lot of time in this city in the last 30-some years of my life. I arrived by hovercraft in Calais, on the northern coast of France, shortly after my 24th birthday. I don’t even know if those things exist any more. Hovercrafts were boats that sort of hovered over the water supported by air, hence the name. It was November 6th, 1979 and the weather was damp, foggy, and raw. Once on land, I was met with hostility and had plenty of my own to match it, although mine was of the more passive variety. The border official said to me, in heavily accented English, “You stay een Frrrance longerr zan sree munss and zee Frrrance, she eez feeneesh forr you forrreverr!”
Discouraged, I went from the border to the bathroom and was startled to find myself being pushed into a stall by a French sailor, dressed entirely in midnight blue, complete with cap and amorous intentions. I tried negotiating with him but couldn’t remember any of my high school French. Then suddenly, I got it: “Vous perdez votre temps!” Even if it was incorrect, it might get my point across. And it did – it worked like a charm. (As it turned out, that’s exactly the right way to say, “You’re wasting your time.”) He let me go immediately, and left the stall, cinching up his trousers, and looking nervously to the right and left of him.
Somehow, I had arrived in Calais past the hour of the final train to Paris, there were no hotels and, with no concept of the distance, I jumped into a taxi and said, “I’d like to go to Paris.” When the driver explained that we were talking about a more than 3-hour drive, and hundreds of francs in fare, I was stumped. “There is no problem, Mademoiselle,” he said in perfect English. “You will spend the night at my house, with my wife and baby daughter.”
Sounded like a solution, so off we went. However, one look at the expression on his wife’s face, seeing me on her doorstep, showed me the flaw in the plan. We ate a supper of bread, cold meats and cheeses in icy silence, except for the cab driver, who made polite conversation now and then. His name was Pascal Ovacel and he was Tunisian. I don’t remember the name of the wife or baby. After dinner, Madame gave me a quilt and a pillow and about six inches of space on the floor of the dining room, in front of a grandfather clock. In the morning, Pascal gave me a ride to the train station, put my bags on the train and drove out of my life. He refused to take any money.
Like a lot of love affairs, my relationship with France got off to something of a rocky start. I went to stay with my friend, Colin, who had been my closest friend at UCLA film school. He had been getting his Master’s Degree while I was working on my Bachelor’s. When his visa expired at the end of the school year, instead of returning to England, he decided to give life in Paris a whirl. Over a period of weeks, he sent me dozens of letters on those thin, blue, airmail papers that fold up into their own envelope. In an effort to coax me overseas, he wrote colorful descriptions of Paris in small, aesthetic printing, describing the paint peeling off the ancient building across the courtyard, the late day sunlight glinting off the Seine and the ripe Camembert and crisp bread he was enjoying with a fine Bordeaux.
After two or three months of Colin’s propaganda, I purchased a copy of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” When I got to the last page of the book, I took everything I owned and put it on the street in front of my apartment building, with a sign that said “For Sale!” I liquidated everything, including the antiques and rare books I’d inherited from my father who had recently died. I made a bundle of cash and bought a ticket on Freddie Laker’s airline to London, which was the cheapest way to get to France in those days. That’s how I ended up in Calais that November night.
I couldn’t afford my own place in Paris until I found work, so I moved in with Colin, who was supporting himself by teaching English. On my first night, we hung out in a tiny, Irish bar and he introduced me to a whole group of ex-Patriot Americans, as well as Irishmen, Englishmen and a few Australians. It was comforting to be among English-speaking people and there was a feeling of fellowship in the group; it was Us against the language, the culture, the city itself. We drank Irish coffee with ice-cold crème fraiche floating on top, instead of whipped cream, and I fell in love with the bartender, who didn’t even see me because he was a one-man show and the bar was packed.
Colin and I had fun during our time together. We stayed up late at night, having deep, philosophical conversations. Often, we would go out. Once, he asked me to get up on our restaurant table and dance. Of course I refused. After all, I come from a good family and must do my parents honor at all times. Then he said, “Tiela, if you don’t get up on this table and dance for me immediately, I will write you out of my memoirs!”
Aside from the limited space and the chandelier that kept whacking me in the back of the head, I did all right, although the dancing would have been easier without the tablecloth. The owner of the restaurant was tending bar and talking to a customer. He glanced at me briefly as I jigged on his linen, but seeing nothing out of the ordinary, simply continued his conversation.
Colin rented his apartment from a shady character who owned a Franco-American school that doubled as a rental agency. Allegedly, this was a service offered to the students and teachers, but they ended up paying far more than the apartments were actually worth. Of course neither the students nor their families were aware of that and happily forked over the money. One must remember that this was before the days of the Internet, when researching educational institutions or housing prospects in foreign countries was a laborious task. Students were recruited from America and Australia by means of clever advertising, and mailings that bulged with romantic fantasies and false promises. The students arrived on little more than blind faith, fueled by their own or their parents’ passion for faraway lands. The vast majority of these students were from wealthy homes.
Describing his landlord to me, Colin introduced me to the concept of Rachmanism. Peter Rachman had been a London landlord, so notorious for his exploitation of tenants that a word coined from his name actually found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary! Colin had been in Paris long enough to have learned the going rate for studio apartments in the city, and realized that he was paying at least double what he should have been. On top of that, if there were a minor problem that needed tending to, he found himself waiting days or weeks for the repair. However, renting apartments in Paris then as now was a major headache, particularly for foreigners with limited conversational skills, and so he stayed.
Colin enjoyed Paris for a while, but began to get angrier and angrier at his exploitive landlord, the exorbitant rent, his boring job, the “fucking Parisians” and their incredible rudeness, and also his roommate who couldn’t manage to hold up her end of the financial stick. I participated to an extent but it wasn’t enough, and I was sufficiently selfish and immature to make plenty of poor, financial decisions. One day, for example, despite paying less than half the rent, I couldn’t resist a fetching pair of purple, high-heeled shoes in suede, with a matching handbag. Needless to say, Colin was not happy with me and said, “Tiela, you need to learn to be poor!”
I silenced him by cockily saying, “I’d rather learn to be rich.”
Eventually, it was all too much for poor Colin and he went back to England. I’d been in Paris five months by that time, and I was unhappy. Not only had I just lost my closest friend in the city but I was broke, not to mention sick with bronchitis and walking pneumonia. In an effort to save money, Colin had been stingy with the heat, so the apartment was always cold. There was only one, thin blanket on the foldout couch that was my bed and even though I slept under that as well as my coat, I was always freezing. Rivulets of condensation trickled down our living-room walls, and our water heater was so small that there wasn’t enough hot water for a decent morning shower, so I was never able to completely thaw out from the night before.
It was a cold and humid winter, and the dampness seeped into my bones. I was so homesick and miserable that I came close to going back to Los Angeles, but when I sent a letter to a friend there saying I was returning, she gave me such a tongue-lashing for my cowardice that I decided to stay. She, herself, had spent a year in London as a young woman and loved the experience. While her letter was not kind, I was grateful to her in the end, because I hung in, learned the language, found a place to live and settled into the life of the country to such an extent that, after about nine months, I never wanted to leave.
Partly, this was due to the fact that I’ve always had a gift for suffering. Put me in the same, difficult circumstances as several other people, and I will be the one who suffers most. It’s an Irish thing. Either that, or it comes from the Lithuanian side. Whatever the genetic explanation, suffering in Paris created a deep addiction to the city for me.
I did what I could to earn money – cleaning apartments for the school that was also a rental agency, stuffing envelopes, and handing out leaflets on street corners. One January day stands out because, even though it was freezing cold, it was also stunningly beautiful. In those years, January was one of the most beautiful months in Paris because it tended to be clear and dry.
This particular day was windy and the sky was spectacular. Standing on that street corner with my leaflets, I had an epiphany. I had never been much of a fan of Impressionist painting because it always looked artificial to me. On that billowing, winter day, I looked up and, in a single instant, understood that school of painting. There was nothing artificial about it at all – those painters were actually painting what they saw! There it was in that January sky – Monet clouds in Renoir colors, an Impressionist painting floating over the city of Paris.
I had never before seen such a sky – certainly not in Los Angeles! Don’t get me wrong – Los Angeles skies can be beautiful, especially during sunrise, sunset, and on clear nights, but their beauty is in the stark contrasts, the bright, almost garish colors – drama, drama, drama. It’s not surprising that the Motion Picture Industry started there, but that’s a conversation for another time… Paris skies are soft and muted – impressionistic.
In an instant, I was slain by the magnificence before me and by my own awakening. It was a peak experience – one of those rare, evanescent flashes of complete beauty and bliss. Standing on that windy street corner, my cheeks flushed with the cold, I could feel a slow smile, spreading across my face. I was in a perfect ecstasy. It must have shown because a man walked up to me, took a leaflet from my hand and said, “You are very beautiful.” He was right. In that moment, I was.
And here’s another aspect of Paris that’s unique – the human contact on the streets. It’s more intimate than what we have in the States, and sometimes it’s a bit too intimate. There was the day the chubby, little guy in a jogging suit approached me as I sat, sunning on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg, and asked if I wanted to see his “sex.” No thank you, I said politely, and that was the end of it. Then there was the night an old man grabbed me in the street and started dragging me toward an alley. “I just want you to watch me piss!” I pulled away from him as he tugged on my arm, and the stack of books I had been carrying fell all over the place. Suddenly, the relationship was transformed, and he bent to the task of picking up my books before disappearing down the cobbled street.
The North Africans were always annoying and I vowed never to get involved with one. Walking down the Boulevard St. Michel toward the river, there was always a Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian who would fall into step with me, as if we were friends having a nice stroll together. “Ca va?” was the invariable, boring pick-up line. How am I? Who gives a shit – you’re annoying; leave me alone! That was exhausting because it was a daily occurrence. The black Africans – primarily Nigerians, Ivoirians, and Senegalese – had a smoother technique, more courteous and respectful, and I accepted a few invitations.
I’m not proud to say that after about six months of daily hassles with North African men on the streets, I was developing a racist streak. Most of those men were shifty-eyed and obsequious, to say nothing of malodorous. If a young, American woman made the mistake of speaking so much as a syllable to one of them, it was a quarter of an hour at hard labor to get rid of them. Only once did I relent – he was a handsome Tunisian and I spent a couple of hours with him, but no more.
The majority of my social life consisted of going out with the people I worked with, all of whom were either American or Australian. After a day of stuffing envelopes, cleaning apartments, or answering telephones, a group of us would go out on the town. When it was my turn to select the watering hole, I chose cafés and restaurants at random. At random, that is, as long as they had the Hemingway stamp of approval.
Aux Deux Magots, La Coupole and La Closerie des Lilas were my three favorites (also three of the reasons my fair share of rent did not find its way into Colin’s pocket.) None of my group was wealthy enough to eat in those places, but we would linger for hours over a drink or two. My French was better than the other American girls’, so I was always the one to order. Sitting in those historic cafés was heaven to me. I could feel the presence of Sartre and de Beauvoir in the Deux Magots. Listening to the piano player at La Closerie des Lilas, playing romantic tunes from the 30’s and 40’s, I could imagine Zelda and Scott, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and of course, Hemingway.
When I realized that my French was suffering from too much exposure to English, I tried to distance myself from my English-speaking friends. “But, Tiela,” one of the American girls said, “There are always men wherever you are! They flock around you like flies around honey! When we go without you, we don’t meet them!”
For some reason, I have always magnetized men. It’s not my looks. As a young woman I was perhaps pretty, but not striking. In my early forties, my looks ripened as they do in women, and looking now at pictures of myself at that age, I’m sad to see that I was beautiful, but had such low self-esteem that I didn’t realize it. At every age, regardless of how I look, men have been drawn to me. I mention these things not out of vanity, but as an explanation for why I felt a certain obligation to the American girls that I knew in Paris.
I had enough French at this point to order in a restaurant, go to the pharmacy, and navigate my way through Parisian life. But I had hit a wall. So, I continued for a while to go on group outings with my American friends, but eventually I made learning the language my priority and told my friends so. I began to venture into the city alone, and often.
One night, I went very late to La Coupole. The huge restaurant was packed, even though it was nearly 1:00 in the morning. In the center of the spacious, airy room, was a middle-aged woman playing the accordion and singing Edith Piaf songs in a loud voice. The lights were too bright for that time of night, but it was Paris and perfect and she sang “La Vie en Rose” so passionately that I cried.
In that hedonistic pre-AIDS era, herpes and pregnancy were the only shadows on an otherwise cloudless sexual horizon. In Paris, I had adventures with a number of French men, as well as an occasional Italian, and enjoyed happy, carefree promiscuity. One night, I slept with a young political candidate whom I later saw on television. I spent only one night with him however, because he was more interested in silk scarf bondage and the creative possibilities of champagne, as well as the bottle it was in, than actual sex. Besides that, he was so bony and awkward and high-strung that it was like trying to sleep with a young horse.
Based on my experiences with him and other politicians I met in France, I began to formulate a theory: the more rigid and restricted the man’s profession, the more sexually deviant the man. I had noticed a similar trend in the United States. In my experience, American bankers were the worst. In France, it was the politicians. As a wholesome, American girl with a hearty sexual appetite, I began to move away from the conservative/deviant Frenchman and lean in the direction of the more sexually balanced manual laborer or Bohemian. In terms of learning the language, nothing works like having lovers who speak the language you’re struggling to master! Thanks to luck, intuition, or simply good Karma, I sailed through that period of wild sexual abandon and emerged disease-free on the other side.
By the time I had been in Paris for six months, I was nearly fluent in the language. Partly, this was due to having studied French in school since the first grade. Also, I have a good ear and can mimic like a chimpanzee. But mainly, it was due to simple stubbornness. I was going to become fluent, or die trying. At around the same time that I was attaining fluency, other aspects of my life began to come together.
In mid-April, I had been sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens with a hole in the sole of my one pair of shoes, as well as a stress related skin eruption, resulting in my body being covered from head to foot with dry, itchy bumps. I had only a part-time job and was desperately looking for a place to live, with next to no money. It was a rainy month and the trunks of the chestnut trees were blackened by moisture. The new, spring leaves were exactly the color that had been called “spring green” in my Crayola Crayons box as a kid. They were so thin and delicate that when the sun shone through them, they would glow like neon. The phosphorescent leaves against the jet-black trunks were a strikingly beautiful sight, but it was hard for me to appreciate because I was in such despair.
By May, the grey and damp of winter had finally dissolved. On May 1st, I was soaking up the sun on a café terrace, attempting to dry out my lungs, when a sweet, old man I’d never seen before handed me a little bunch of lily-of-the-valley, known as a “muguet.” (In France, it is traditional for men to give women “muguets” on May Day.) It seemed like a good omen.
By June, my life had turned around to such an extent that I was working as a bi-lingual secretary for “Mr. Rachman” and teaching conversational English and French in his school three evenings a week. With the arrival of warmer weather, my skin and lungs finally cleared, and the fear and depression I had lived with during the long winter began to subside.
I also met Madame DeGeorges, who offered to rent me her “chambre de bonne” for a reasonable price. The “chambre de bonne” is the young foreigner’s best friend in Paris. It is literally a maid’s room, and is always located several flights above the far more luxurious apartment associated with it. In my case, it was six elevatorless flights above the street. There was a bed, a chair, a sink, and a window looking onto a courtyard. There was a piece of wood attached to the wall on a hinge, covered in a pretty piece of fabric that allowed the sink to double as a table. The toilet was down the hall, but for bathing, Madame DeGeorges was kind enough to allow me to use her bathroom. All that for only 500 francs a week! Things were definitely looking up.
There are so many more stories to tell but for now, suffice it to say that I was happy as a clam because by this time, I had learned that Paris is a state of mind…