Does Life Start At Sixty?
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
“You look dismayed,” said Brigitte, my better half, with a malicious expression on her face, “Don’t be disheartened. Remember, life starts at sixty.”
There I was, on that Monday of July 10th, 1995 – the very first day of my retirement – sitting at my desk with eyes glazed with boredom. It was weird to be home on a Monday. I felt lost, out of place and on a downward slope. I did not really know what to do with myself.
At my recent farewell party at the Unesco Headquarters, in Paris, the Assistant Director-General had said in his speech, “After thirty years of service, our friend Jacques Dupont is retiring. Lucky man ! He will be free at last. He will rest. He will rediscover the joys of life. He will do exactly what he always dreamt to do. Jacques Dupont will finally be his own master.”
Encouraging words. I had yet to see how to organize my new freedom and become my own master. My nostrils twitched at the scent of a good espresso, as Brigitte handed me a cup saying, “Have some coffee, Darling, and stop thinking of Unesco!”
“I am sorry, Brigitte, to be such a bore,” I said, “Only a couple of days ago I was still sitting at my Unesco desk writing, calling, planning, discussing, deciding, ordering… and now, all of a sudden, here I am, powerless and useless with nothing to do.”
“With nothing to do?” asked Brigitte in disbelief. “My dear Jacques, here is a whole list of things which I have been patiently waiting for you to do in your retirement!”
I was quite happy for the time-being with the idea of wasting a few hours daydreaming. But Madame my wife had different thoughts. With Teutonic flair, she had developed a detailed program which could occupy an army of slaves until doom’s day.
“First of all,” she said, “you should have a critical look at our apartment. With fresh eyes.” I had always thought that our Parisian apartment, Avenue Mozart, was comfortable, spacious and elegant. But I must have looked at it with not-so-fresh eyes. Suddenly, I was told that it needed to be renovated, redecorated and refurbished.
The most urgent task concerned our daughter’s room. My wife reminded me that Françoise was almost twenty-four and that her room was still pink. Françoise, who had a steady boyfriend, would soon finish University and probably get married in a year or two. How on earth could we still keep her in a pink room !
As to our own bedroom, it was thirty-two years old. The same age as our marriage. Couldn’t we change it for a less depressing style? Something more modern, like that chosen by our friends the Lombards?
By the time Brigitte informed me of how the living room had to be freshened, how the dining room could be rejuvenated… by the time she shared her vision of our new kitchen and regenerated bathroom I was worn out. I tried a couple of maneuvers to postpone this discussion until later. To no avail.
Pretending to be angry she said, “I am unable to detect in you a modicum of enthusiasm for my proposals!”
“Brigitte,” I said, “Be reasonable. You are putting severe demands on my stamina, my time and my wallet! Let me first recover from the trauma of being retired.”
She giggled. “Come on, Jacques. I have been reasonable for years!” and with typical Gallic exaggeration she added, “ I have patiently waited, like Penelope, for you to come back from your meetings, missions and cocktails. Now you have time for your household. You have to be active, otherwise you will soon be fossilized !”
From that moment I knew that I would no longer report to the Assistant Director-General of Unesco. A new boss was born.
As Brigitte kept outlining the chores that would prevent me from becoming fossilized, my power of concentration weakened. My mind wandered and, all of a sudden, I felt a new, sweet nostalgia for my days at Unesco.
“Jacques, you look haggard,” she said, “You are not listening. Come on, Darling. Do you want to turn into a contented vegetable like our friend Julien ?”
“I am listening. I am.” I answered. “But you know, my dear Brigitte, the transition from being an International Civil Servant, Diplomat and Director to a house slave involves the sort of alchemy which demands time. Give me time. You will also agree that life during retirement is supposed to be a considerable improvement over the old days of sweat and toil.”
But reasoning and Aristotelian logic did not work. Cartesian logic did not work either. Nothing worked. Brigitte had given a lot of thought to the question of my retirement and she had to outline the whole program right there and then.
In spite of the authoritative aspects of her character and her magisterial facade, Brigitte had managed, at fifty-five, to remain feminine and deeply sensuous. She knew how to use her charm with great maestria. She cared about the most pleasant pursuits in life: good eating, classy entertainment and vacation, being elegant, good books, witty conversation and, of course being French.
In spite of a fair amount of international exposure through friends, Unesco colleagues and traveling, Brigitte had remained essentially French in her outlook on life. She was attracted by all things alive, vibrant, stylish and chic. To be boring was inexcusable. She could be outspoken and sometimes abrupt. But even when she behaved improperly, she did it with class.
In comparison, my thirty years of international life had altered a great deal of the Frenchman in me. I had come to find the French outlook on life sometimes conceited, a little self-centered and, let us say, much too French. The international prism through which I now looked at the world tinted every issue with a little more modesty. I had lost a little bit of that vision of grandeur which my history teacher had attempted to instill in me.
Having finished her coffee, Brigitte sat closer to me and moved to another section of my retirement plan. From now on, I had to exercise everyday. I should join the same club as our handsome friend Michel. Apparently he was sixty-five and looked younger than me. I pointed out that Michel had gray hair whereas mine was still naturally black. It did not matter a bit. I had drooping shoulders, a stooping chest and a bulging belly. I was not tall and, if I were not careful, in a few years I would look as old as Methuselah.
“As of today, we’ll start the very effective Scarsdale diet our friend Denise recommended.” she said. It is true that I had always paid more attention to the delights of the table than to my waist measurement. I could advantageously lose several kilos. I was never meant to be a d’Artagnan or a Cyrano de Bergerac. But to go on a diet on that very first day was not exactly how I had visualized my new freedom.
In my thirty years of service with Unesco I had had to resort to all sorts of gambits to convince others. I used in turn authority, psychology, charm, logic, know-how, or humor. But with Brigitte, nothing seemed to work that day.
The guiding principles for my retirement had been outlined and drummed into me. If I did not want to become a moth-eaten, fossilized Patriarch on the decline, I had better fast and get to work.
That was not all. She went on to the third part of the program. From now on, we would invite friends more frequently, we would travel with my sister-in-law, Lily, and her husband, Albert. We would learn to play bridge. We would finally live!
To tell the truth, I had not realized that we had been dead for so long. I was startled. Brigitte left the room to get some more coffee. I remained silent. One could hear the young girl next door playing the clarinet. I did not know that she played clarinet on Mondays. Apparently she played every day of the week for twenty to thirty minutes to keep her fingers nimble. When she stopped playing her mother, supposedly an accomplished soprano, started gargling like mad. The glass window of my room vibrated and everything else vibrated with it. At one point our Maria Callas emitted a piercing shrill that made me jump.
I yelled, as Brigitte entered the room with more coffee, “My God ! She must be undergoing open-heart surgery without anesthetics ! ”
Brigitte laughed and said, “It is so good to have you around. This afternoon we’ll go to the cinema. You love movies.”
It is true that I always loved motion pictures. As a kid I wanted to become an actor but I was quickly made to understand that I was not built for that. I would have liked to be a producer, a movie director, even a cameraman. Instead, I was encouraged to learn languages, I was pushed towards political science, shoved into Library Sciences, and finally, when I was thirty, propelled into Unesco by Brigitte’s influential Uncle, Gérard.
So I had started life by being weak and soft. Others had made what should have been my decisions. But, gradually, life hardened me. I learned to be resistant, when necessary, and to eventually obtain what I wanted. If not by head-on confrontation, at least by diplomacy, patience and applied psychology. That day, I knew that I would eventually come to a reasonable compromise with Brigitte regarding my retirement. However, I had to wait. There was no need to muddy the waters of negotiation by being impatient.
She had already accepted as a broad principle that I would dedicate a couple of hours every day to doing some work around the house but would also spend time at my desk. Since the day I had joined Unesco in 1965 I had spent endless hours at a desk and I could not bear the thought of having the ‘umbilical cord’ cut off so abruptly.
One good thing was that Brigitte had to shop for fresh food every single morning. She would not dream of serving vegetables or meat purchased the previous day and kept in the refrigerator. Like many French housewives, she had to get to grips with the produce in the open market, smelling, squeezing, feeling, sniffing, snapping and fingering everything. That operation kept my wife out of the house every morning from ten to noon.
My greatest pleasure, the fizz in the veins, came from the fact that I could retire to my desk every day for those two hours, read, sort out my papers, write and plunge into the past.
During those daily couple of hours I often remembered my missions to the four corners of the world. In spite of the anxiety attached to each, the jet lags, the fatigue, disappointments and frustrations, each mission had been a rewarding new discovery. A fascinating adventure. An inspiring new page in the book of my life.
I often thought of the numerous men and women I had met – perhaps only once or twice – along the many paths I had traveled. Friendships may have been superficial at times but fascination always deep. I never stopped marveling at the richness of each culture, at the beauty of each horizon, at the enlivening message of each encounter.
I remembered with delight some of the amusing situations I got into. Sometimes I laughed all by myself at the funny circumstances recalled. I remembered them all with a cheerful heart. Oh, yes I remembered…
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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