Panni’s and Pepi’s Paris

A movie script in the making — some day…

Monday, December 31, 2007

Panni’s and Pepi’s Paris

Ana (Panni) Raab in a medical school class at The University of Paris School of Medicine, ca. 1937. She’s in the second row from the top, scrunched in between a fellow who appears to be looking at her (or at someone in the row below?); and another fellow with whom she appears to be (quite?) chummy. Must have been one of her Romanian friends…

December 31: there are so many anniversaries attached to this date. Here’s the story of the one that’s most fit to print:

PANNI’S AND PEPI’S PARIS

BY GEORGINA MARRERO

For me, Paris is synonymous with the two most important persons in my life: my parents. Anna “Panni” Raab met Federico Efrain “Pepi” Marrero in a medical school class at the University of Paris’ Faculty of Medicine sometime in the mid-1930’s. At the time, people “group” dated, or so my mother told me, so I’m not quite sure when they began to formally date. By 1940, though, they knew each other well enough that my father either sent for or went to pick my mother up in the South of France, they traveled via Orleans to Lyon, and married in the mayor’s office there on December 31, 1940.

My parents’ stories about their years in Paris shaped me. Their stories about forty francs being the equivalent of one American dollar; about a paper cone’s full of French fries costing four to five francs (and that was dinner). About students gathering in the Luxembourg Gardens: I have pictures of them doing just so. About Henri Bergson giving lectures that were so packed that the best my mother could hope for was to strain to hear through the open door. About how he presented himself as a Jew before the Nazis when they occupied Paris.

Those were very difficult times. My mother defended her thesis eight days before the Occupation. And then she fled to Vichy France. As for my father: well, with a middle name like Efrain, his professor, Clovis Vincent, wanted to keep a close eye on him. It just so happened Vincent was a great French patriot, decorated during the First World War. So he ingeniously gathered all his residents together to serve at the Pitie Hospital under the auspices of his “Neurosurgical Wartime Service.”

One of the residents, a man named Rabinowitz, escaped at least several times from detention camps, and eventually made his way to Canada.

For the record, when Princess Diana was rushed to the Pitie and Salpetriere Hospitals after her fatal car crash, my mother’s comment was: “That’s the best place to treat head injuries.” No two ways about it: my mother would have known.

My mother’s strength may have ebbed and flowed, but her stories never wavered. After her death, I had the good fortune to speak with one of her best friends, a fashion designer named Kati Cohn, who filled in many gaps. According to Kati, the Hungarians went to France to study, she said, because they were “freer” there. They were not held back… just because they were Jewish.

Young, carefree, (perhaps?) in love — and she never studied, according to Kati. Panni joined Kati and her crowd at the cafes every afternoon. When did she study, we both mused out loud. She graduated, though, producing a thesis on Nietzsche and Psychiatry. And, oh, yes: she once cooked a veal steak on the back of an iron!

As for Pepi, he studied very hard, yet found time to play ball with his fellow Cuban classmates. He also cooked chicken and rice: hard for me to believe, later on. He had to wash his own clothes, and, at one point, had to do with very little money, for someone had stolen his stipend. I guess that’s when those French fries came in handy.

My father’s passion was neuropathology, so he hit pay dirt when a very eminent Spaniard fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War. This man, Don Pio del Rio Hortega, guided my father’s thesis. My father dedicated it to him.

Did they have fun? They all had fun, according to Kati.

In the midst of all the storm clouds brewing, yes, they did.

They were young, carefree, and — perhaps — falling in love.

If the following is not an example of young love, then I don’t know what is: According to my mother, she once stumbled into Vincent’s operating room, tripping over wires, and whatnot. The Great Man — a big, hulking French peasant — turned, glowered, and asked Panni: “Mademoiselle, what are you doing here?”

“I’m searching for Monsieur Marrero,” my mother responded. She proudly continued, “He’s supposed to be operating.”

Monsieur Vincent tersely replied, “Go to the sub-basement. You’ll find Monsieur Marrero there.” Sure enough, my father was operating… on bedsores.

As a teenager, I went to Paris, where I spent time with my mother’s cousin and his wife, who’d been made to wear the Star of David during the Occupation. Their daughter’s married to a devout Roman Catholic.

A little later on that summer, my mother came to join me. I’d wanted to go running off to Scotland to do who knows what after finishing my language course in Tours. In a panic, my father had sent her over.

Still highly energetic, my mother marched me up and down the streets of Paris, pointing out this, that, everything. She took me to the oldest restaurant (Le Procope), and the cheapest (Le Bouillon Chartier), where a waiter taught me how to eat an artichoke.

A rebellious child of the times, all I did was fuss, fret, protest, and complain… all the way to the Folies Bergere. Even then, however, I sensed the enormous bond my mother had with her lifelong best friend and her Cuban husband, a bon vivant who’d married the peppy little Frenchwoman, never again giving a second thought to the medical career that had brought him to Paris in the first place, as it had my father.

After she passed away, I braved a cold, damp Paris holiday season to visit with our relatives. I also spent many wonderful hours with her best friend’s now widowed husband. He’d known Efrain for even more years than he’d known Anita. I returned once more, four months before 9/11, when I got to see him for the last time.

I’m bound to return to Paris, and to enjoy The City of Lights more and more in my own right. However, for me, this beautiful, carefree, romantic city will always be… Panni’s and Pepi’s Paris.

Copyright, 2005 by Georgina Marrero

How did I mark today? Among other things, I saw “The (Aryan) Couple” for the fourth-fifth time. It (somewhat) juxtaposes “The Sound of Music” — if nothing else, both sets of protagonists end up in Switzerland: the former, from Hungary; and the latter, from Austria. Someday, someday: I — or, rather — Panni and Pepi — have a story of their own…

Caroline Carver; Kenny Doughty; and Martin Landau in “The Aryan Couple.”

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