By Jacques Tocatlian.
Gay Paris with Nancy and Aunt Lily.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
On D-Day, Nancy arrived. I took the day off from work and went to the airport with Brigitte and Françoise to fetch her. There was a lot of excitement in the air before the plane arrived. The three of us spoke at the same time. Nobody listened.
Once the plane landed and we met Nancy – after she had gone through the passport control and luggage claim – all ideas of conversation vanished. Dead silence. Then, all of a sudden and at the very same instance Brigitte, Françoise and I asked in a chorus, “Did you have a nice trip?” After that long silence you would think that we could have come up with something more original!
Nancy, like Françoise, was about seventeen – eighteen years old at the time of her visit, but acted and looked more mature than our daughter. She was loquacious, open-minded, intelligent and seemed to feel totally at ease. She was well behaved and composed. A young lady from Boston. A pretty young lady, I should say, for Nancy was endowed with eye-filling beauty. Tall and athletic, she had the type of lavish hair you see only on TV commercials and a pair of beaming green eyes. If one had to find some fault with her beautiful face, it would wish her mouth and teeth were smaller.
While I was talking with Nancy, I overheard Brigitte asking our daughter in French when she had last washed her hair. “You told me not to wash my hair more than once a week,” replied Françoise. When we later found out that Nancy washed hers several times a week, our shampooing regime was radically altered. Any time of the day you could see someone around the house with a towel wrapped around her head. We had just entered a season of intensive shampooing.
At the airport, Brigitte and Françoise felt uncomfortable with their English and, at the beginning, did not talk much. But Nancy, with her engaging personality and inquisitive mind, had many questions for everyone. Little by little my wife and daughter gained confidence and, by the time we reached home, you could not stop them.
As we entered our apartment building, Mrs. Alvarez, our Portuguese Concierge, helped with the luggage. She was wide-eyed and looked startled to hear my wife speaking in English. “Oh. là, là, Madame parle bien l’anglais,” she said. How could she know it was ‘bien’ since Mrs. Alvarez did not know a word of English herself ?
By dinner time everyone was bubbling over with high spirits. Nancy had studied French in school and wanted to practice it with us. Françoise wanted to practice her English. After a lively discussion in ‘Franglais’, we agreed to speak English at home and French when we went out. But the rules were never respected and the system never worked out. I sometimes even found myself addressing Brigitte in English in the privacy of our bedroom!
Nancy had done a fair amount of research on France and was writing a summer paper comparing the French and American ways of life. In addition, she wanted to know more about the Eiffel Tower, Jeanne d’Arc, ‘le tour de France’, wine and vineyards, what had changed since we were under a Socialist government, and how come the French ate so much and remained slim.
Françoise was delighted. She did not know all the answers but was willing to look for them. Brigitte was delighted to discover that a young girl from Boston could have such a stimulating effect on the family. She later admitted to me that Nancy was living proof that prevailing clichés about Americans were wrong. I, myself, was delighted to realize that summer would be a creative season this year. Delight was all over the place.
Before going to bed, our young guest wanted to know what I did at Unesco in general and what I would be doing, as an example, the coming week. I briefly talked about the Organization and promised to invite her for a visit of the Palais de l’Unesco and explain things on the spot.
“As far as next week is concerned,” I added, “it will be an unusual week since I will be on mission in Paris itself.” Brigitte seemed the most surprised. I continued, ”I will represent Unesco at a meeting organized at the ‘Bibliothèque Nationale’ – the National Library. Heads of national libraries from the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and many other countries will attend. We have been invited to discuss the new design for a new national library to be known as the Bibliothèque de France. ”
But Brigitte asked why I called it a mission since the meeting was in Paris. “Yes, it may sound strange,” I said, “but since I will not go to the office that week, I need the Assistant Director-General’s signature on an official ‘travel order’. I must designate who will be Acting Director of my division during my absence, and at the end of the meeting I am expected to write a regular mission report. France is one of Unesco’s Member States. When I attend an official meeting in France, I am on mission.”
“Do you get a daily subsistence allowance?” asked Françoise. “Only half of a ‘per diem,’ since I have no hotel expenses,” I replied.
We kissed on the cheek good night and tried to explain to Nancy that in France you kiss, hug, embrace or give an accolade on different occasions. Always when you meet and part. And sometimes in between. Usually barely touching the cheeks. You do it two, three or four times, depending on the part of France you come from. No rules exist and you never know how many times to offer you cheek. Most often, it is triple kissing: left-right-left.
Unlike Anglo-Saxons, Latin men also kiss one another, especially members of the same family or very close friends. If they do not kiss they slap backs or shake hands. There has to be physical contact. If the hands are full they usually offer the little finger.
Coming back to the unwritten rules of what the French call ‘faire la bise,’ Brigitte said, “It is just like eating cheese and salad . Always before dessert, but in some regions of France, you eat cheese before salad, in others, the other way around and yet in other parts you eat them at the same time.” To conclude the evening, Brigitte quoted Charles de Gaulle who once said that a country like France that produced more than 340 different kinds of cheese was impossible to govern !
The next morning everyone was up, shampooed and ready quite early. No one wanted to waste time in bed. We were chatting at the table, sampling croissants, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins, baguettes, ficelles and what have you. Brigitte must have burgled the corner bakery for the occasion. For once, I did not have to rush since the meeting at the Bibliothèque Nationale would not start before 10:30. Nancy declared that she had already become a French bakery addict.
All of a sudden, the doorbell rang and there entered my sister-in-law, Liliane, in glowing flamboyance, looking as fit as a fiddle. She had an appointment at 9:30 with the dentist across the street and could not resist the temptation to come by for a minute or two to meet Nancy. “I decided on the spur of the moment,” she said, striding in the dinning room with a well-rehearsed, airy elegance. Knowing her, she must have planned that particular stage-effect in all its minute details. As far as I can remember everyone always called Brigitte’s lively sister: “Aunt Lily.”
I liked Aunt Lily. I liked her and I think I understood what was of value in her under, the glittering window dressing. As a result, I kept explaining Aunt Lily to everyone – her husband, Albert, included. Liliane may have seemed superficial to an undiscerning eye. But in fact she was not. She was quite sensitive, receptive, devoted, conscientious and full of drive. She loved planning, sharing, organizing, traveling. She was enthusiastic and loved life.
Her problem was that, sometime back in her youth she had expressed the desire to spend her life on stage. When her father threatened to strangle her if she did, she pretended to give up the idea but continued her theatrical career on an informal daily basis, throughout her life. It became second nature. Every place became a stage, every event a play, every reply a theatrical repartee.
Aunt Lily was not superficial but she liked to glamorize. Elegance, appearance, effect, brilliance, harmony of colors and charm were devastatingly important to her. In reply to any criticism in this respect she often said that she preferred fireworks to funerals.
In many respects Aunt Lily was typically French. More so that anyone of us. She carried in her a lingering notion of grandeur. Like Brigitte, she placed great emphasis on good taste, elegance, sophistication. Some thought of her as snobbish. Her husband, Albert, who enjoyed teasing her, often said after listening to her, “I see why the rooster was chosen as the French symbol. It is a beautiful bird which makes a lot of noise !”
No, Aunt Lily was not superficial. Unfortunately, people could not always take time to scratch the surface to discover the richness of its substratum and invariably considered her light-headed and frivolous. Someone had once said of her, “Aunt Lily is elegance gazing at itself in a mirror.”
That morning she talked for some twenty minutes, asked many questions but did not bother to listen to the answers, and finally decided she had to go to submit to the dentist’s torture. She said that Nancy was absolutely charming and offered to show her Paris anytime. “Dear Nancy,” she said “ do not let these people make you spend your summer at the Musée d’Orsay or Château de Fontainebleau. Paris has many sparkling places to discover. Paris is alive. Paris is not so much a city as a stage setting for a Broadway musical. The sidewalk cafes are exactly as depicted in movies. Every street is alive with the charm and freedom of life lived as a magic holiday.”
Aunt Lily decided that, as in the film ‘Sabrina,’ Nancy would return to the States after her Parisian visit transformed, super-sophisticated and totally Frenchified! Aunt Lily would take her to Antoine’s for a stunning haircut. She knew a good place to buy a special eye-shadow and very exceptional bracelets and necklaces.
She also promised to take Nancy to Giverny – Claude Monet’s home – to the boutiques of Faubourg Saint Honoré, and to Bagatelle Rose Garden. She invited everyone for dinner the following week. “Since my dentist will certainly torture me, I will have to eat mashed potatoes for a couple of days ! See you next week! Do come with a huge appetite !”
She walked out like a triumphant Diva who had just killed her unfaithful lover at the end of the third act, leaving behind a touch of Chanel N°5.
Brigitte who had not been able to say a word during the conversation, said to her sister, “Au revoir, Liliane. I won’t show you the way, you know the ‘stage-door,’ or as we call it in France: la sortie des Artistes .”
So Hurricane Lily was gone. Nancy was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Brigitte looked defeated. Françoise, in the meanwhile, had eaten all the croissants. I began to recollect my thoughts regarding the future of national libraries and left as Brigitte was mumbling, ‘I love my sister, but I was not ready for her. I had not yet done my yoga !’
The following week, as agreed, we went to dinner at Aunt Lily’s. My meeting at the Bibliothèque Nationale had been difficult. My brother-in-law, Albert, wanted to know more because he had read in the papers that the plan for François Mitterrand’s new Bibliothèque de France was very controversial. As I explained, there were numerous political, conceptual and architectural problems. Even though the family dirty linen should not be washed in public, the internal disagreements among the various French parties involved were brought to an embarrassing light during the meeting.
Nancy wanted to know what was Unesco’s competence in this area. I explained that Unesco had had a wealth of experience in building, restoring and modernizing libraries. Over the years we had contributed to the automation of library services in many developing countries. We had recently started jointly with the Egyptian authorities, a fascinating project for ‘The Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria,’ the so-called Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The magic word stirred up general interest. Everyone wanted to know about the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Who had destroyed it ? Did we know where it was situated exactly ? Would Unesco organize a campaign to raise the necessary funds ? Would I go to Egypt ? In no time, the François Mitterrand’s new library project was forgotten and buried under the ashes of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina which had burnt down at the time of Julius Caesar!
Albert had put on the table an impressive number of bottles. It was cocktail time or, as we say in France, l’heure de l’apéritif . By the looks of it, the evening would be dedicated to mass intoxication. Aunt Lily brought three assortments of olives: the tasty Calamata , the huge Volos and, since France had to be represented in order to maintain its grandeur, olives from Nyons.
Then we spoke of another library-related activity that I was probably going to get personally involved in. Albert was always interested in these culturally-related activities of mine. My brother-in-law was a wealthy man who had come into a fortune by selling champagne. He thought that in his job he missed all the cultural glamour that is associated with Unesco. In a way, we were complementary. Albert had the money and the champagne. I was supposed to have the glamour. Many a day I would have willingly exchanged positions !
Albert and Lily were rich, but as many moneyed French, they liked to keep a low profile. Aunt Lily made certain that Albert did not display fat cigars and luxurious limousines. She always preached for a modest approach to affluence, which did not prevent her from spending a fortune on clothes.
In any case, coming back to the library world, I explained that on 14-15 February 1988 the Library of the Leningrad Academy of Science was partly destroyed by a serious fire. An estimated 188,000 titles in foreign languages were destroyed by fire and 220,000 titles were water-damaged. Unesco had offered its assistance to the Soviet Union and I was probably going to head a fact-finding mission.
Meanwhile, Aunt Lily had taken care of a thousand and one little details. Dinner was now ready. Ready, exotic, luscious and delectable. My brother-in-law was particularly happy. Of all the parts his wife staged in life he preferred her in the role of the cook. She protested saying, ‘Albert, you very well know that in the kitchen, I am miscast !’
Speaking of plays, Nancy asked if Aunt Lily had ever seen Rosalind Russell in ‘Auntie Mame’. The question was obviously not innocent. You could tell that Nancy was visualizing Liliane in a French version of the colorful comedy. The grande dame, Rosalind Russell, had won an Oscar for this part. Nancy added that in the comedy Auntie Mame used to say, ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!’ Aunt Lily fully agreed to that and declared that Nancy, as opposed to her Albert, had quickly understood her style. After a short pause, she added, ‘After thirty-two years of marriage, Albert is still trying to figure out whom he has married!’ That night we certainly did not starve to death at life’s banquet.
Lily and Albert loved to tease each other and had a sense of humor of their own. That night, the show was on for Nancy. Someone had once said that in every French individual lurked a peasant and a revolutionary. According to Aunt Lily, as far as their family was concerned, the peasant lurked in Albert, since he was the one that loved to look for champignons, spent hours discussing with the butcher and knew how to fatten geese for foie gras.
According to Albert, the family revolutionary lurked in Lily. She loved to watch the TV news when there were strikes, riots and stone-throwing at the police. As to her way of driving, you could tell that she considered traffic rules as interesting options. Once Albert found a sticker on the car bumper saying: Vive l’anarchie. To this day he thinks that she put it there, even though she denies it vigorously.
Looking at Nancy and Françoise with tenderness, Aunt Lily became nostalgic and deplored the absence of her two sons. They were in England for the summer with a French group to learn English. This was the third consecutive year they had gone there but no progress could be noticed. Every year, they came back with the same ‘Franglais’ and a new French girlfriend. Liliane suspected that they spent all the time speaking French among themselves and having a good time.
But Albert was in no mood for serious talk. He liked to tease his wife. ‘You all know who Lilith was in the Semitic Myth?’ he asked. ‘Lilith was a female evil spirit roaming in desolate places, attacking children. In Jewish popular belief, she was the first wife of Adam. In the demonology of the Middle Ages, she was a famous witch. But that was Lilith, of course, and not our sweet Lily.’
Aunt Lily, who must have heard the Semitic Myth time and time again, obviously did not like it. She lit a cigarette. She did not care for smoking either, but she loved to hold her twelve-inch long cigarette-holder from Thailand. It put the last touch to her style. She said, ‘Albert, when the Lilith story bubbles its way to the surface it signals that you have had your fair share of Champagne! I do not want to roam in desolate places. Instead, I want to go with Jacques and Brigitte to Alexandria and Leningrad.’
Pandora’s box was now open. I caught my breath and began explaining that missions were not as alluring as they sounded. There was a lot of hard, tedious work to be done. Endless discussions. Boring dinners. Aunt Lily was not listening. I could tell that she was already wrapped up in seven veils, hopping around the Keops Pyramid on a camel. ‘Can you come along Nancy? We’ll invite you,’ she said. ‘We’ll all go. It will be marvelous!’
I raised the tone and said emphatically that Unesco’s administration does not encourage mixing work and family vacation, for obvious reasons. Ce n’est pas serieux! But Aunt Lily was no longer with us. She was in Leningrad on the Neva with Peter the Great. She had traded her veils for an Ermine coat. She was admiring the works of Matisse, Césanne, Rembrandt and Picasso at the Ermitage Museum. She was strolling along the Peter-and-Paul Fortress on the Vassilievsky Island. Now she was on Nevski Avenue. ‘Oh. We shall go to the Kirov! Oh. I want to see the Puchkine theater!’ She was again on stage.
To change the subject, Brigitte skillfully set a new date for dinner at our place to talk it over. She also announced that at our place Nancy and Françoise would be going over some of their research findings. They were studying outstanding differences between the French and American ways of life. But the project was a long range one and would not really be completed until Françoise had spent the next summer in Boston. But they had discovered interesting facts about Paris and wanted to share them with us. It would be a sort of informal debate and everyone would be encouraged to actively participate. I mumbled, jokingly, that if this trend continued I would not be able to tell my office from my home any longer. And Aunt Lily added, ‘Or your missions from your vacations!’
We hugged and kissed everyone twice on both cheeks, which took a good four to five minutes, and we happily descended the staircase. Of course, when we reached the second floor, Brigitte suddenly remembered to discuss a number of urgent matters with her sister who was waving at us from the fourth floor. I said that it was a most convenient thing to do since the neighbors could also participate in the debate.
In France, this is called l’ésprit d’éscalier. It is a special frame of mind that has to come up with last-minute items for discussion when everything has supposedly been settled. Since Aunt Lily did not have her sharp ears any longer – but, of course, would never admit it- it seemed that Brigitte’s suggestions went in one ear and out the other. All she kept replying from the fourth floor was, Oui. Oui. I thought that it was a shrewd way to have Aunt Lilly agree to anything. The problem was that the conversation concerned next week’s dessert that Brigitte wanted Liliane to prepare. A fabulous Charlotte. We all hoped that Albert would make sure that the Oui. Oui. would have an adequate follow-up.
The week that followed our dinner at Aunt Lily’s was a busy one, both at the office and at home. At the office I spent long hours drafting a proposal for the biennial program and budget of my division as well as a chapter for the draft six-year medium-term plan. When I came home very late every evening I was tired and usually took a shower and went directly to bed.
However, on Friday evening of that week, when I returned home I found Brigitte, Nancy and Françoise highly animated and euphoric. They were in the middle of discussions to which I was invited to participate right away. My mind could not be detached from the meeting where the Assistant Director-General had said that my proposals looked pretty much the same as those of the previous exercises. He had used an expression which was still hurting: Dejà vu!
Fortunately, after a while, the three enthusiastic ladies managed to drag me to their level of preoccupation. Little by little, I participated in their discussions and enjoyed myself. First of all, they had to tell me a funny story.
Nancy and Françoise had stopped at a cafe in the Latin Quarter, where Nancy needed to go to the powder room – if one could use such an elegant euphemism for the occasion. A few minutes later she came back to the table laughing hysterically and blushing to the roots of her hair.
She had never seen a so-called, Toilette à la Turque – a shallow porcelain tray on the floor with a hole in the middle and foot-rests at each side, commonly called a Turkish toilet. She was trying to figure out how to use the toilet and where to put her feet when the light went out. The light switch in most Parisian cafes are fitted with an automatic timer for energy-saving. All of a sudden, she was plunged into total darkness. As she was trying to reach the light switch, avoiding at the same time the hole in the middle, she inadvertently touched the flushing device which thoroughly washed her feet under intense water pressure, while she screamed in total hysteria.
We all laughed. It was good to be away from Le Palais de l’Unesco! In the meantime, Brigitte had served some Lebanese mezzeh , made up of dozens of small dishes filled with delicious oriental appetizers. I had some ice-cold Pastis to go with it and listened to the girls. They also wanted to share with me a sample of their notes so that I could get an overview of their observations concerning Parisian life.
On the positive side of things, Nancy had been surprised to discover the many services offered by the Minitel – an on-line information service provided by the French Post Office prior to the advent of the Internet – fast TGV trains, a most efficient Parisian transportation system, and very developed social services for children, senior citizens, the poor and the sick.
She was amazed to witness a public transport bus driver about to depart from a bus-stop readily reopening the bus door for you, when he sees you running to catch the bus. She was impressed by the politeness of cashiers, butchers and bakers. Everybody says, Bonjour madame, Merci monsieur, Au revoir madame . Children also seem to acquire basic social courtesy very early in life.
Above all, Nancy felt the French seemed to know how to live and to create delights for the senses and the spirit. They had developed the art of leisure. ‘In the U.S., we are taught how to work hard and make money. In France you are taught how to spend money and enjoy life,’ she said. ‘Paris is so elegant, clean and lively,’ she added, ‘ All you have to do is go for a walk in any street and you feel rejuvenated, in spite of the highly polluted air.’
Nancy had learned that the French pay 20% more taxes than Americans; she found Paris extremely expensive. On the negative side of things, she had a few criticisms to formulate but felt somewhat shy to sound critical in a French home. We encouraged her until she spoke.
She said, ‘In the U.S. people admit errors. It is considered an honest and mature attitude. In France, it seems that no one would ever admit to having made a mistake.’ She also noticed that small lies are perfectly acceptable in France. In addition, she could not understand why, in general, people ignore one another, never talk or even smile to each other in elevators, public transportation or shops. They look distrustful.
As for French driving, she thought it was totally insane. Cars turn left from a right-hand lane. No one seems to care. Is it tolerance or carelessness? The Place de l’Etoile is incredible! You have to see it to believe it, with cars merging from all of its twelve major avenues, bypassing each other and roaring around the various exits, with no traffic lights, no stop signs, no policemen to direct circulation. And yet no accidents! ‘That is miraculous,’ she said. ‘ The French must be quite alert and, all in all, very good drivers.’
Two other things shocked her. French television was never on time. Programs and shows are on occasion several minutes late. Not in the U.S. But she admitted preferring French TV which had few interruptions for commercials.
The second surprising thing was the attitude of the sales people in stores. ‘If they do not have what you are looking for, they will tell you that it does not exist, you will never find it elsewhere, it is out of fashion, or it is not manufactured any longer. And, in any case, it was never any good, to start with. At the end you feel stupid just to have asked for it.’
We all agreed, laughed, added a few other French characteristics, and discussed at great length French and American ways of life. To conclude the evening, Françoise and Nancy sang Josephine Baker’s old song, ‘J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.’ ( I have two loves, my country and Paris.) It was delightful.
On Saturday evening Albert and Aunt Lily bearing the ‘Charlotte’ arrived on time. But before discussing anything else, Aunt Lily wanted to know if any decision had been reached concerning the missions to Egypt and the Soviet Union. I explained that the mission to Egypt was under preparation but would take place much later. I was going to be traveling with high Officials from Unesco and, unfortunately, there was no possibility for any family member to join. That settled that.
What about Leningrad ? ‘As for Leningrad,’ I continued in a quivering voice ‘I’ll have to go for a first exploratory mission in three weeks’ time. I’ll probably return to Leningrad at a later date with a more formal fact-finding delegation.’
C’est magnifique ! said Aunt Lily. She decided that three weeks was all that was needed for visas and preparation. She knew very well Boris Mickhailov at the Soviet Embassy who would facilitate matters in exchange for a couple of champagne bottles. Charming man! Albert was, unfortunately, unable to come at this time of the year, but Brigitte, Nancy, Françoise and she would have a wonderful time while poor Jacques would deal with the aftermath of the fire of the Academy of Science Library! And that settled that.
‘You do not have to worry about anything, Jacques. We shall not bother you in your work. We’ll be totally independent. We shall not be any burden to you. C’est magnifique ! Oh, I want to see the Pushkine Theater ! Nancy, don’t you worry. I’ll call your parents for permission. Now that Mikhail Gorbatchov is pushing perestroika and preaching glasnost , I am sure your parents will agree to the trip. I’ll take care of everything. You will all be my guests !’
I had two or three stiff drinks and eventually relaxed and inwardly gave in. After all everyone was enthusiastic about the idea. Why not ? It could turn out to be an interesting experience. Dinner was served and we left the prospect of Leningrad for Gay Paris !
Brigitte had done wonders with the dinner. ‘You have outdevilled the devil,’ said Aunt Lily. Nancy was the first one to tell a story about Paris. The story of the metro. Because of my Unesco background I was asked to act as a sort of moderator to keep things reasonably under control. Albert, as usual, was in charge of the champagne.
Nancy took us back to 1893. At that time, she informed us, London, New York and Berlin had their subways. Romantic Paris had its horse-cabs and calèches. The politicians had argued against any underground transportation for years to come. Surface transportation projects under consideration included all sorts of crazy suspended trains, ugly viaducts crossing the city over the buildings, and hanging boats. Fortunately, none of these extravagant projects, which would have defaced Paris, were ever implemented.
At that time France, had just offered part of Congo to Leopold II, King of Belgium – some gift ! – and the latter was trying to make a worthwhile gift to France in return. The king asked one of his girlfriends, the Parisian dancer Cleo de Mérode, for an idea. She had heard of a certain Fulgence Bienvenüe who had desperately tried to build a subway in Paris. Cleo suggested that a metro would be a nice gift. Leopold II invited Bienvenüe to Belgium and had him explain his project in front of Baron Empain, the King’s Financier.
The Belgians had then to convince the French to accept such a gift. In spite of a strong resistance in many quarters and numerous political and technical problems, digging started on October 4th, 1898 at the location of the present ‘Franklin Roosevelt Metro Station’. On July 19, 1900 Metro Line N¡1 ‘Vincennes-Neuilly’, thirteen and half kilometers long, was inaugurated. Bienvenüe then worked on other lines and ultimately died poor. The station ‘Montparnasse- Bienvenüe’ is named in his memory.
The huitres chaudes au foie gras had long been tasted and the filets de soles au basilic were getting cold, as everyone was thanking Nancy for her interesting and concise account. No one around the table seemed to have known or remembered the facts relating to the Paris metro. Aunt Lily said in admiration, ‘Nancy, you had to come all the way from Boston to tell some ignorant Parisians about their own metro. Amazing ! Brigitte your soles are outstanding. What is the next story?’
Next was Françoise’s story of the Eiffel Tower. ‘You will probably be amazed to learn,’ she started by saying, ‘that Gustave Eiffel’s real name was Gustave Bonikausen. If he had not used the pseudonym ‘Eiffel’, we would have had in Paris the Bonikausen Tower !’ Everyone stopped eating in total amazement. Françoise continued her story.
Gustave Eiffel had an extraordinary career. He graduated in chemistry in 1855, but worked as an assistant to a Railroad Engineer. In no time he became known for his famous bridges in Bordeaux, Bayonne, Florac and all over the country. He was the master mind of airy two-hinged arches, such as that over the Douro river in Portugal, which was constructed from the piles without scaffolding. He built bridges in Europe, Indochina and Africa. In general, he used small and light iron beams instead of cast-iron. At fifty-five years old he was known around the world for his dramatic 564 meters long Garabit viaduct in Southern France. In 1885 he designed the inner structure for the Statue of Liberty.
Then, in 1889 France decided to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution with a World Exhibition which would be a sort of glorification, or apotheosis, of metal and machine – two symbols of the victory of the intellect over obscurantism. Gustave Eiffel presented a project of a metal tower, three hundred meters tall. It had never been done. It could not be done. The Organizing Committee laughed at Gustave Eiffel and tried to ridicule him. He insisted. He came back with a design. He explained. Eventually, the Minister of Commerce was fascinated by the idea.
A heated controversy spread over France. Many petitions were signed in order to stop the project by illustrious men of the time such as Gounod, Sully-Prudhomme and Maupassant. The project was thought to be frightfully ugly. Some argued that it was wrong to build something taller than Notre-Dame, which is only 66 meter high. Paris would be in the dark since the huge tower would overshadow the city. If it collapsed it would destroy Paris. In any case it would bring bad luck. Regardless of these objections, on March 31, 1889 the Tower was inaugurated.
‘During the Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower was a real success,’ continued Françoise ‘but many famous personalities of the time, such as the poet Verlaine actively tried to have it dismantled once the Exhibition was over. But the Parisians had adopted it. As a radio set, it could intercept messages from all over the world. In 1914 it intercepted a secret message of the German Army of von Kluck, which allowed Joffre to stop the German invasion. The Eiffel Tower had saved Paris.’
We were all very pleased with Françoise and Nancy’s accounts, but felt slightly embarrassed in realizing that we knew so little about certain basic aspects of our beloved city. ‘The truth of the matter,’ said Aunty Lily, ‘is that we pay too much attention to the Louvre, Napoleon and Louis XIV. But every inch of this city has a fabulous past which deserves to be studied with love. Thank you girls ! Thank you for telling us those simple, but fascinating stories !’
My wife had a problem in reconciling the debate with the meal. Now the fricassée de veau au citron and the gratin de champignons aux épinards demanded undivided attention. In my capacity as a moderator, I diverted all the attention to the food. After the cheese and the salad we finally attacked Liliane’s Charlotte.
We eventually collapsed around some coffee and talked for hours. The girls told us about the Paris sewers, the story of the Moulin Rouge, and that of the Closerie des Lilas , where Hemingway loved to dine. Nancy had compiled a list of some well known Americans who had visited Paris or lived there. The list was endless: Audrey Hepburn, Lena Horn, Orson Welles, Ingrid Bergman, Somerset Maugham, Danny Kay, Art Buchwald… writers, singers, painters, financiers, musicians, politicians, designers and millionaires. The link between America and Paris has always been very close.
‘And to think,’ said Nancy, ‘that some American tourists say that the French are unfriendly to Americans !’ And Françoise added,’ The French are the U.S.’s oldest and only consistently loyal ally throughout history. It is thanks to French funds and military assistance that the American Revolution against the British was crowned with success ! ‘
The moment seemed solemn enough for Aunt Lily to stand up and play a theatrical part. She raised her glass at the Franco-American friendship and drank to all the U.S. Presidents she could remember. She spoke with lyricism and great emotion about America saving France in World War II. She then suggested we sing the French and American national anthems. Brigitte was worried about the neighbors. It was getting out of hand, but the Moderator had lost all power of control. Albert kept pouring champagne when I realized that Françoise and Nancy had also been drinking. I did not say anything. When I was a child my grandmother used to say, ‘ A little champagne is good for you, Jacques. In the countryside they give it to the dying.’
Albert thought it was time to go, but Aunt Lily wanted a last story. The evening had been stimulating and she wanted a little prolongation for the pleasure of it. So Nancy and Françoise told us a last story. The story of the Arch of Triumph.
Towards the beginning of the 17th century, Queen Marie of Médicis ordered the creation of an avenue starting from the Royal Palace of the Tuileries and stretching all the way to what was then open countryside – and is today the ‘rond-point des Champs-Elysées.’ A century later, the avenue was prolonged to the top of the Chaillot hill – which the Parisians used to pompously call la montagne de Chaillot – and beyond to Neuilly. At the time the avenue ran through vineyards and vegetable fields.
The Parisians felt an esthetic need to put some sort of monument at the highest spot of the avenue, on top of the Chaillot hill (present location of the Etoile ). Many ideas were put forward. An Obelisk. A fountain. Even a pyramid. But the hill of Chaillot, too uneven and rough, had first to be smoothed and leveled down by more than fifteen meters.
By then Napoleon was looking for an adequate site to elevate a monument to the glory of his soldiers. Many sites were proposed and discarded. When the present location of the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ was first suggested, Napoleon thought that it was much too far out of the city. He did not want his monument ‘out in the desert,’ as he said. Eventually he was given enough convincing arguments to accept it.
The location was retained but the type of monument had not yet been decided. One of the projects was a museum in the shape of a huge elephant to remind the world of Napoleon’s famous expedition to Egypt. Inside the elephant would be a number of rooms. The crazy project seemed to receive a lot of support. Fortunately, Napoleon preferred a triumphal arch along the line of those of the Roman Emperors. We very nearly had a huge elephant at the end of the Champs-Elysées !
In 1806 the first stone of the Arc de Triomphe was laid down. For Napoleon’s wedding with Marie-Louise in 1810 the Arch had not been completed. A sham was put up, at great cost, in twenty days, with dummy bas-reliefs. The sham was destroyed the very next day after the passage of Marie-Louise. Napoleon never saw the Arch completed. By 1814 he was exiled to the island of Ste-Helène and work on the Arch was interrupted.
Eventually Louis-Philippe decided to complete the project. It was inaugurated in 1836 but the top had not yet been completed. In 1840, when Napoleon’s ashes were brought back to Paris, another sham had to be put up to complete the top of the monument for the occasion. Later Haussman opened up the 12 avenues forming the ‘Etoile’ and in 1921 the unknown soldier was buried under the Triumphal Arch.
Napoleon’s ashes had been brought back to Paris and the Triumphal Arch completed, while Albert was sleeping like an angel, gently snoring in his armchair. Good night everyone ! Many thanks and kisses. The girls had been wonderful. Dinner was divine. The Charlotte was exquisite. Bonne nuit!
Between a family dinner and a visit to a museum; between a little research and an excursion to a château time had gone by. We were already in early September. The quality of light had changed. Parisians had come back from vacation, nicely tanned and exhausted. Traffic jams blocked circulation. Summer was over.
By then Brigitte and Françoise were totally at ease with their English to the continued amazement of Madame Alvarez. Nancy had undergone Aunt Lily’s sophistication metamorphosis. Everyone’s hair looked almost as beautiful as on the TV commercials. Normally, Nancy should have gone back home by then. But a special extension had been arranged so that she could participate in the expedition to Leningrad.
Aunt Lily did not show up as often as she used to. She was busily making all sorts of arrangements for the forthcoming trip. She had bought and studied travel guides, made reservations, obtained visas and prepared luggage. She had Mademoiselle Simone, the seamstress, move into her apartment for several days to undertake all sorts of alterations to her clothes. She had told Mademoiselle Simone that the new fashion this year had been strongly influenced by Gorbatchov’s Perestroika . Everything had to have a Russian touch!
In the office, I prepared my files and briefs for Leningrad with a sense of great serenity. Something good had happened. Nancy had brought a breeze of youth and enthusiasm into the family circle. I had sensed and shared a certain amount of happiness. I had not been on mission miles away but right there in the middle of my own family and environment. In fact, I was now happily looking forward to sharing Leningrad with the four ladies. I did not know then how the battle of Leningrad would turn out to be!
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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