I went to Paris in 1963, not long before I turned twenty three years old. I had recently read Tropic of Cancer, I was studying art at UT Austin and my father had just given me an old Nash Rambler station wagon because he had just bought a new car. I had never been out of the country and I didn’t know three words of French.
I sold the car and bought tickets on a Norwegian passenger ship for my girlfriend and me. She drank like a fish the whole way to Le Havre and never stopped until she died fifty years later, saying she thought she might be an alcoholic.
Paris in August struck me as dark, dingy and cold. Everyone wore suits and nobody spoke English. The buildings were grey and literally all the cars were black, noisy and coughing black smoke. But the people were kind, indulgent even. They knew we were ignorant American kids. They helped us deal with their world.
Every night the noisy cafe next door, Les Deux Magots, kept us up late. We knew Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were holding court there, but we were more interested in the literary heroes of the thirties, who were long gone.
I was introduced to a world view that seduced me away from my native culture. I adapted to it over the years. I somehow could never readapt to my native culture of Texas when we left France.
I have found it necessary as I evolved to be in a Latin culture. Mexico fits the bill now, and has a mystical side I find enchanting.
Everyone seemed strangely formal in France then. It has changed among the younger generation. But then we could tell we offended their sense of how things were supposed to be just by being ourselves.
It was possible for us to get by on $150 a month, even living in a west bank hotel and eating in restaurants. Incredible to think of it.
We wanted an apartment though. We wanted to live “normally,” shopping and eating at home. I wanted some way to paint, which wasn’t possible to do in a hotel. I was impressed that my girlfriend had studied French in high school. Surely she could call landlords and negotiate an apartment. Once I saw her struggle and fail repeatedly, I called a British agency and rented a tiny place in the 15th arrondissement, which seemed like moving to the moon compared to the part of town we had gotten used to.
The artistic and literary heroes loomed large in our lives then. We read the forbidden Henry Miller books, we were introduced to a thousand things we had never heard of. All the Impressionist originals, the Louvre, the European way of organizing life, the self evident truths they live by, the formality of the French which I have never abandoned even now, the ways they extract pleasure from their days — all that became normal to me.
Those days are gone forever. But I could swim in those waters now like a fish because I ended up living in France almost forty years and learning French so that it became second nature. Looking back at 1963 Paris and France itself, I’m aware that France had just come through the war years and was rebuilding itself. It would be easy to be there now, but then I knew nothing and everything seemed inscrutable.
Also I was so much more American then, on top of being young and ignorant.
I gravitated over the years away from my American, Puritan upbringing to a more humane view of things. I can never go back to the mindspace I occupied before I encountered France.
Nor do I want to.
- Anima Fire is my publication