Hank on Petit-Pont
(Photo: Bonnie Ferron)

Paris 1974, Paris 2002

August 8, 2022

This is the man who introduced me to Paris, France. The year was 1974. My husband had been offered a postdoctoral position with Professor Martin Karplus of Harvard University. Hank really wanted to work for Dr. Karplus. The thin letter of reply came while I happened to be at his Chemistry Department office at the University of California, Irvine. He looked at it and handed it to me.

"I can't open it," he said.

I had no problem tearing the envelope. We'd been waiting to hear if we would be moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts for weeks. I started reading. It was on Harvard letterhead stationary. "Dear Dr. Suzukawa . . . ." I read, skipping down to the important part of the page, "pleased to offer you a position for two years," (hey, that was good!), " however" (oh, no, a problem?), "I will be at the University of Paris." As in, Paris, France.

Wait, what?

It took me about ten seconds to digest this bit of information. I lifted my eyes to my waiting spouse.

"Well, what's it say?" Hank's eyebrows were sky high.

"We're going to Paris!"

He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. "What?!"

Thus began our biggest adventure of our married life. So far, we'd had four years of university together, he getting his Ph.D., me getting my bachelor's degree. Marriage was an adjustment for both of us. Hank had spent four years as an undergraduate at Caltech in Pasadena as well as three years in the Army. He was used to being on his own. We married when I was eighteen, still living with parents, with half a year of community college under my belt and less than a year employed as a car hop at an A&W Root Beer stand. (Contrary to the movie American Graffiti, our carhops did not wear roller skates.) Hank taught me how to drive a stick shift on his new Fiat 850 and we moved from the Bay Area to Costa Mesa in southern California.

Now, with our newly printed diplomas, we were ready for the next chapter of our life. Paris was a dream destination. Hank had been there briefly as a junior high student when his Air Force father was transferred and the family moved from Morocco to England. He told a funny story about his dad, not used to French traffic, getting stuck in the inner lane of the Arc de Trioumph and gendarmes having to stop traffic to let the seven Americans in their huge station wagon exit the circle. He could read the chalk menus of daily specials outside restaurants, but, with five children, the family couldn't afford to eat there. Instead they ate at the American bases that were still in France at the time.

We'd both studied French in school, but that didn't mean we were ready for daily use of the language. First, we had to get a visa. We visited the French Consulate in Los Angeles and showed them the letter Hank had gotten from Professor Karplus.

In retrospect, we probably would have had better luck had we first tried our fractured French. Instead, we plowed ahead in English and ran into what France is often best known for (and where the word comes from): Bureaucracy.

"There's no proof this is real," the woman behind the counter said in her heavily accented English. "You could have made it up."

"But we didn't," Hank objected. "You can check with the professor."

She scowled, took the paperwork and said we would get a notification later. As it turned out, much later.

Apparently, no one in Cambridge was having trouble getting a visa. The professor's group arrived in France at the beginning of September. We stayed at Hank's parents' house in the Bay Area, sweating out an extra month before our visas came through in October.

With Professor Karplus' help, we found a loft apartment right across the street from the Faculte des Sciences. It was tiny, with the kitchen tucked inside a closet next to the living room and the bedroom and bathroom upstairs. The kitchen had a four burner range. The sink and refrigerator were the size you'd find in a wet bar in the United States. We had missed the electrician from the power company by one day, which meant our all-electric apartment would be dark until he could come by in November. We made do. The waiters at the Restaurant des Grandes Ecoles (which was recommended by Europe on $5 A Day) got used to us showing up in the evenings. I never got used to snails or the pin feathers that were left on duck skins, but the food was cheap, filling and relatively tasty.

It took us three months to develop an ear to the language, when sentences started to make sense and multiply-syllabled jumbles became separate words. My favorite was at the open-air market where "jettayuncoodoy" lengthened into "jettez un coup de oeuil" "look at this!" Linguists were not kidding when they wrote that written French and spoken French are different animals.

We'd been told the French didn't like Americans, were snobby and difficult with foreigners. As our language skills improved, we found quite the opposite. We gave the language our best try and realized the Parisians were willing to help when we stumbled. There were gaffes, of course. Once we asked for a "steak au pauvre" (poor steak) instead of a "steak au poivre" (pepper steak). Another time, the waiter smirked as we asked for "glace Napoleon" (Napoleon's ice cream"), instead of "glace Neapolitan" (Neapolitan ice cream with three flavors of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry). Our errors weren't only in restaurants. I wanted to buy a stuffed Teddy bear for a friend's baby, which I had seen in a toy store window the week before, but no longer was there. I inquired of the storekeeper if she perhaps had another that was not on display. She didn't understand my request for an "our," so I described it in as much detail as I could. A man who was waiting for his turn asked me in English, "What do you want?"

"A bear."

He turned to her and said, "Un ours."

Apparently, one bear or two bears, the word ends in an "s" that is always voiced.

I felt like an idiot, but I bought the bear and went away happy. Living in another country and speaking a different language has a way of keeping you humble.

Memory is a strange thing. It can wash away the daily indignities and color our remembrances for lovely times. Paris truly became "la vie en rose" for us. Yes, we learned four different ways to say "broken" in French and at least two for "on strike," and yes, our apartment was a "fifth floor" walk-up, which was really six floors because the "rez de chausee" or bottom floor, didn't count: But walking around the Latin Quarter, our neighborhood, was so charming. In the front of our building was a restaurant. Even if we couldn't afford to eat there, we came home to wafts of delicious food cooked with wine when we entered the courtyard. One morning we saw a dead sanglier (wild boar) carried in the front door. Down the street was the Seine River with it's statue honoring St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, turning back the Huns in the 5th century. Farther down the river, still within walking distance, was Notre Dame Cathedral, where we attended mass occasionally (in spite of being Protestants) and once mounted the spiral staircase to see all of Paris from the magnificent towers. Up the hill was the Pantheon, with it's rotunda honoring famous men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo.

While Hank crossed the street to get to work, I walked up the hill and through the Luxembourg Gardens, past the children sailing little boats in the water basin, to get to my classes at the Alliance Francaise. I also worked as an au pair for the Karplus family, taking care of their two daughters several times a week after school.

In retrospect, it was a magical year, a special time that I know we were lucky to have experienced.

We've enjoyed returning to Paris from time to time. We saw the changes as the city became more globalized (a Starbucks on the Boulevard St. Michel "quel horreur!") and modernized (all the cobblestones on the narrow, winding rue Mouffetard are gone, paved over with ubiquitous asphalt — boring).

Our last visit was this past June for our 50th wedding anniversary (plus two years due to Covid). The restaurant that had been in our old building for years was now a bakery. St. Genevieve is still facing east, holding back the Huns. Sadly, Notre Dame is closed because of the fire in 2019, scheduled to reopen in 2024 in time for the Paris Olympics. The Pantheon added Marie Curie in 1995 and, last year, Josephine Baker, an American-born Black dancer, to their list of famous French patriots. Little children still sail their boats in the Luxembourg Gardens.

I'd forgotten how humid France is and how hot it can be in summertime. We planned our visit in June, which used to be mostly moderate in temperature. This year, our week was hot and sweaty. The week after we left Paris, temperatures hovered around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Still, it's Paris. Sad to admit, we've become old and gray and it's hard to for us walk far, but the Metro is always available and we can still manage in spite of the many stairs and lack of elevators. The food is still wonderful. We don't need fancy; a good meal at a bistrot suits us just fine. Thanks to cable television, we were able to tune our ears to French before we left by watching original language movies and television shows. Best of all, Paris reminds us of our youth, when everything was possible and we could take on the world with courage and optimism.

© Copyright 2021, Bonnie Ferron