Paris. February 7th, 1960. (Continuing my letters home from Europe .1958-61 Chapter 9.)
Well, here I am, in beautiful Paris – for a while to come, I hope, And I have really fallen on my feet again.
I remember that my last note ended with my early morning arrival in the big city, after a really crazy journey from Northern Italy.
I went straight away to the Alliance Francaise College where I will be attending a French language course for the next couple of months. I hoped to find a message waiting for me from a Belgian lass, a friend of friends in Perugia, who had promised to help me find a room, but with no luck!
Feeling at a bit of a loss, I phoned Mr. McCluskey, an American here in charge of the French Catholic Relief Service headquarters who is one of Uncle George’s colleagues who work to assist migrants. I introduced myself and explained my problems, and he expressed a warm welcome and, very practically, suggested that I have lunch with him at his hotel.
In the meantime, I went to high mass at the beautiful Church of the Madeline in the Latin Quarter, which I had already seen on my earlier trip.
Mr. McCluskey then treated me to probably the best meal I will be having while in Paris.
He is a very nice old fellow, very American with a good mixture of Irish as well.
He speaks dreadful French even after 15 years here.
He directed me to his office, which is in the same building as the Good Samaritan sisters, who care for the shrine of the Miraculous Medal there. Once there, I was able to ask an English nun about accommodation and she gave me the address of a hotel just across the way, to stay until I found something permanent.
The name of the hotel is l’ Etoile d’Or – in English it’s Star of Gold.
The name of the last hotel that I stayed at in Genoa was Ring Of gold!
I’m not too sure what to make of all of that – a promising omen, I thought!
My bedroom was rather box -like and rather too near the toilets for my liking, but at least it was clean and cheap.
I spent the next couple of days pulling every string I could to find accommodation.
I am rapidly learning that the housing situation in Paris is impossible and the cost of living terribly high. Most students search for a room with a family, which they get in exchange for a couple of hours work a day, but many of the rooms are attic- like servants’ rooms with no water, heating and so on, or else the daily working hours quickly increase to four or more.
Finally, however, I was very lucky to be put in touch with the niece of another wonderful woman at the head Office of Catholic Relief Services.
She has given me a room in exchange for four hours work three times a week, and it also includes my breakfast each morning, so my expenses will be just the other two meals a day and travelling costs.
Her name is Charlotte. She is a delightful person about my age with two little girls, and she is expecting another little one in a few weeks time. The only disadvantage, and it’s hardly a worry, is that it is in the suburbs, a good half-hours travelling time by train from the college. As long as my work doesn’t turn out to be too much scrubbing and nappy washing, I couldn’t be happier!
Another alternative that I was offered was an attic room, six flights up a dirty dark back staircase with no bathing facilities and only a cold water tap in the corridor, and this was no exception to many other similar rooms where a number of the students live. We are called ”au pairs”- I must find out what it means!
I shall be looking forward to news of you all at my new address, which, I am delighted to tell you, is C/- Madame de Castelbajac, 34 rue Paul Deroulede, Bois-Colombes, Seine, France.
Till then – Much love to all
Paris. 16th of February, 1960.
Dear Mum and Dad,
Two letters from you in the one week, mummy — what a treat!
The first had been to England, then Italy and then France – the next one arriving in record time today. There must be jet planes on the run now!
Well, I have slipped very quickly into yet another routine in another city. Perhaps that doesn’t make me the ideal tourist who is always on the move!
I certainly love observing the differences between one place and the next, but they never seemed to surprise me, so that any sense of novelty or excitement I feel being in a new city tends to wear off very quickly — and just now I’m feeling quite at home in Paris with the days slipping by at speed.
My new family is delightful, and everything is going very smoothly in that direction.
My 12 hours work a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (3 PM to 7 PM) consists of good solid house work, but it’s not too much of a chore, especially as Charlotte has generously decided to include dinner with the family on those three evenings.
Charlotte, who is 27 years old, is very sweet, laughs a lot and is very patient with my struggling French. She says I not only have the dis-advantage of an English accent but of an Italian one on top of it! Pierre, her husband who would be about 30, is a short boyish looking fellow with a shock of unruly hair like a 10-year-old.
I had heard that Castelbajac was a fine old French name, so I wasn’t really surprised to see one of their letters addressed to Monsieur le Baron, though anything less Baron like you just couldn’t imagine.
Then there are the two beautiful little girls- dark haired Isabelle and fair-haired Aimee, who were shy of me at first but are gradually getting used to me.
The simple wooden house that we live in is in a bourgeois type suburb, and the most important room in it, apart from the kitchen is next to their bedroom and is full of lots of tools and radio equipment. I have discovered that Pierre is a lecturer at an electronics school and he has made most of the equipment and quite a bit of the furniture in the house.
On the ground floor are the living rooms and kitchen, and on the first floor the family bedrooms and the bathroom (with continual hot water — marvelous after Italy!) My room is on the second floor, the rest of which is rented to a married couple who both work out during the day, and fight during the evenings. I used to listen to it a bit just to exercise my French, but I soon tired of that, especially as I wasn’t able to understand much.
The Parisians on a whole have a reputation for not being a very friendly lot particularly on
one’s first brush with them, and so far that has been my experience when trying to get around the city. They can be incredibly discourteous and surly, markedly so in comparison with the Italians, and as a rule will rarely put themselves out to help a stranger, or when they do there can be a catch to it.
These first impressions can be a little misleading as one meets with plenty of exceptions, and there are those who say the war has had quite a bit to do with the way they relate to foreigners.
It is very interesting to see the influence the war seems to have had on the various countries — often an ‘every man for himself’ result but in different ways.
In West Germany the fantastic revival is due to an admirable industriousness, but there seems to be a very strong attitude of materialism – understandable when you realize that so many of them had to start again from nothing from the late forties onwards
The French seem to be less interested in amassing riches, but it is hard to judge from the outside whether this is because of a sound philosophy or just laissez–faire.
The war, poverty and overpopulation has made the Italian into a rather dishonest opportunist, but he can be so busy pulling the right strings and getting to know the right people that he often misses out for lack of good sound endeavour.
The Neapolitans have the worst reputation and one hears wonderful stories about the exploits. They say there is more petty theft per square yard in Naples than in any other city in Europe, but they are far too soft-hearted to be really good criminals.
They start when they are young, – friends have recounted stories of little urchins following funeral processions to the cemetery. The processions are full of people carrying great garlands of flowers and often weeping as they go. The little boys will weep too — and often quite genuinely, but that doesn’t stop them from waiting till everyone has left the cemetery, stealing the flowers and returning to the city to sell them to the tourists.
If one of them pickpockets your purse and then comes across one of his own worse off than himself, he is just as likely as not to hand over the lot, and then has to go to the trouble of going out and pilfering again.
There can be some degree of compromise in practically everything the Italian do, especially in politics which never turns out to be completely good or completely bad – just human. I guess there is a little of that in all of us!
Which reminds me, talking of politics – what are people saying at home about Doc. Evatt’s appointment to the United Nations?
Is it a ruse to get him out of politics to give the Labour Party a chance to get back on its feet?
I have just looked at the time and I’m running late as usual after rambling on with all my theories which probably wont stand the test of time. I’ll supply a little more information about the study side of things next time.
Lots of love to all
Paris. 1st of March, 1960.
I was happy and relieved to have your letter today Mummy — I ‘ve been looking out for it. The Massey Harris programme certainly sounded very hectic, and I was glad that it was so successful, Dad, considering some of the setbacks that you have had with the General Motors car industry lately. Where would you be without our Holden?
It was good that you were also able to get to the theatre to see ‘My Fair Lady’, though I find it hard to imagine that someone was playing the part of Professor Higgins better than Rex Harrison . The fact that you say that the first half dragged a bit is a fair indication that at least that part wasn’t up to London standards.
Well, my first month in Paris has certainly been a very full one. I have just started a new course today with a teacher who is a little more difficult to understand, but thankfully a lot more interesting. The last one had all the mannerisms of a kindergarten teacher! The hardest part about learning French is the pronunciation, which is absolutely nothing like how it is written.
When I think of all the man-hours wasted in our schools teaching languages in an incompetent way, especially when it is not taught orally, it makes me furious!
I had always thought that the French rolled their ‘r’ s like the Italians and Scots, but, in fact, they gargle them, which is even harder for us.
Quite a lot has been happening since my last letter. As well as the studies, I do fit in a little exploring.
I had a wonderful stroll up through Montmatre the other day, wandering through the cathedral and around the square, watching all the artists, checking out the little stalls and the nightclubs, then sitting on a bench chewing a delicious cheese and crispy roll while taking in the whole colourful scene.
It was also fun to look down over much of the city below and try to make out the different land-marks in the city centre,
The biggest event so far has been the arrival of baby Marie, the third daughter of Monsieur et Madame de Castelbajac, who was born the morning after her mother ventured out to a cocktail party — she came a week early — a beautiful baby! Imagine the excitement!
The family cat is also expecting, and on the same morning she frightened us by running out under a car, so we thought it would probably have the same result as the cocktail party, but she survived unscathed, and still no little kittens!
The morning the baby arrived I was at lectures, and when I arrived home Charlotte was already in the hospital, so I had to take over, mind the little girls and start organising meals.
Since I have been here, Pierre, who doesn’t speak English, hasn’t bothered to try and talk to me, apart from the usual greetings and so on. Now the tables have turned and he needs my cooperation, he is a lot friendlier and that is a very good thing.
Charlotte’s parents, who live in a small château in the south of France, had planned to be at the birth, but it took them a few days to arrive and in the meantime I was quite enjoy being housekeeper and child-carer, and it didn’t matter that I missed a few lectures.
It is of a very full house since grandma and grandpa have arrived, and they look like staying a little while.
They are a dear old couple, especially grandpa, who is full of old world courtesy.
He was very hesitant when I suggested that he call me by my first name instead of Mademoiselle.
The French are also great hand shakers- both men and women, just like the Italians and Germans. I quite like it, and I thought I had got used to it, but was surprised to have my hand shaken by them both the morning after they arrived when I came down to breakfast.
Grandpa spends his days at a desk, creating his own copy of the ephemeris, an enormous book containing endless columns of figures showing the exact position of the planets on a day-to-day basis over many years.
He explained that such a record was very expensive to purchase, and so he was creating his own copy.
I hope that he will be allowed plenty of time to enjoy it once it is finished! Being aristocrats and having your own Castle obviously no longer guarantees to bring wealth with the privilege!
I visited Charlotte in the hospital the other day with the little girls and they were both very excited to see their new baby sister.
I enjoyed seeing Charlotte so relaxed and happy and father Pierre beaming with pride, and quite voluble for a change.
Back to my studies – There is a lot to recount about the art excursions, which I go on every weekend.
It is quite like what it was back in Perugia, except that we attend a talk at the college on Saturday mornings, preparing us for whatever it is we are going to see, and then proceed with the outing afterwards.
Naturally, with so many sites nearby, there isn’t as much travelling to get to them as there was in Italy. We are lucky to have a very nice professor — the only Frenchman I have so far encountered who will take the trouble to speak slowly, so as to be understood by foreigners.
Apart from visits to the most obvious places like the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, he likes to take us to study what he calls ‘ the little jewels of art and architecture and history’ which are often passed over on the customary tourist trail ‘.
Our excursions began of course with the Louvre. You remember that I only had the opportunity to see it from the outside when I had the quick trip to Paris last summer.
This was very frustrating at the time as it is the world’s most visited museum and a central landmark in Paris, spreading along the right side of the Seine.
The building began as a fortress in the 12th century, gradually developing into a royal palace, which Louis X1Vth improved. on until he moved the whole court and seat of government to the magnificent palace of Versailles in the 17th century.
The whole of his royal collection, which apparently was already very impressive, remained there at the Louvre and formed the basis of the extraordinarily comprehensive collection that it is today.
After the French Revolution it was declared to be a museum for the people, displaying both the sciences and the arts. It exhibited the best masterpieces confiscated from the church properties and from the Royal families who had had to flee. – Building up the collections continued to go on regardless of whether the country was being ruled by either Republicans or monarchs.
We were taken from room to room, displaying paintings from one period to the next, starting as everyone does with the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. It is difficult to put into words why being in the presence of such a masterpiece is such a different experience than looking at a good copy. It seems to emit a presence that touches you.
There was a vast collection of splendid sculptures from ancient Greece, the most memorable being the Venus De Milo, which had been acquired by Louis XVI. It had had to be taken away like many other precious pieces and hidden in 1939 and returned when the war ended in 1945.
The visit was such an eye opener, and after several hours barely touched the edges!
Yet to be seen is the enormous collection of Egyptian antiquities including the Rosetta Stone, which was the key to understanding the language and history of ancient Egypt. Apart from collections from Greek, Roman and Etruscan times, the Assyrian museum covers the period from the near East before the coming of Islam, including Mesopotamia and Persia.
I will need to get back soon to keep exploring — it is such a stimulating way of understanding history as well as the arts.
One of the excursions that I particularly enjoyed, – being much less overwhelming and a lot more intimate, was our visit to the museum of Antoine Bourdelle, a great French sculptor who died in 1929. The large studio that he worked in is still preserved within the museum at Montparnasse, as well as a beautiful garden, displaying many of his own sculptures and some of those that he himself had collected. There were also original plaster casts of many of his works including 21 wonderful studies of Beethoven – the busts were very alive and emotionally moving!
His second wife Cleopatre who was also his muse is still alive though, of course, now quite elderly.
She is a good friend of our professor and because of that, we were given the special privilege of meeting her and allowed into what had been their private apartments, which were the next best thing to meeting the man himself! There were still plenty of personal objects and furnishings, and hanging on the walls were a number of his favourite paintings including one of his wife and their son Pierre.
There was also his favourite bust of Beethoven, which was so wild and wonderful and alive that I felt as if I was being introduced to him as well.
Bourdelle had started to plan in 1922 to turn his studio and other works into a museum, and his wife gifted it to the State as soon as he died. It was our professor’s opinion that he is France’s greatest sculptor, better indeed than Rodin, and that he has not been sufficiently recognised by the international art community.
Now, a little bit more about future plans. I have been thinking quite a bit about the summer the last few weeks, as I will have to cancel the Arcadia booking if I am to stay on a bit longer.
So, – reasons for and against — those against being naturally that the sooner I see you all again the happier I would be, and I have been worrying a bit about your health too, Mummy.
Reasons for staying are the fact that there are so many significant happenings in Europe this summer.
There are the Olympic games in Rome in September, and the Eucharistic Congress earlier at Munich, and also the famous passion play at Oberammergau in Bavaria, both of which occur only every 10 years. There are also still such a lot of places I have not yet seen in Italy and Spain and regional France and more besides, and I feel I am learning all the time! I hadn’t fully really that by exploring and studying as I have done that the adventure would provide me with the makings of a very rich ,if somewhat informal Arts Degree – and heaps more fun than several years of attending lectures and writing endless essays!
While I am looking forward to coming home, I know that my chances of ever returning here are pretty limited, and that I would be kicking myself a few weeks after getting home for not having stayed a little longer. Still, if for any reason you think it would be better if I returned on the Arcadia, don’t hesitate to say so.
More about my other excursions next time. Till then I send much love to you all
Paris. 16th of March, 1960
Dear family, one and all,
First of all, a very big thank you to everyone for the parcel of gifts, which has been chasing me around Europe and has finally landed. The pyjamas are magnificent; particularly the colours, and the slips are very pretty, especially the pink one, which, I think, was from you Jan? The necklace, which I think you sent me Leonie looks very pretty on me!
The process of actually taking delivery of the parcel was amazing — my first taste of the famous French bureaucracy.
I had to go to a railway station on the outskirts of Paris, and once I arrived, it took me over an hour going from one official to another, till I finally reached the Customs man who knew no English. He did understand the word for pyjamas, and the word slip in Italian and French which happens to mean panties for women and underpants for men.
I was the only woman there, with a group of French and Italians men watching on with growing interest. Somewhat bawdy comments were now flying backwards and forwards about the intimate nature of the contents, which I wasn’t meant to understand.
The Customs official could also read nine pounds value on the declaration, which convinced him that the underwear must be really exotic and promptly wrote me out a bill for 10 shillings extra duty — I had already paid out three shillings. I protested forcibly, so he said that if I didn’t want to pay it, I would have to open up the parcel to show that everything had been used.
I said that I would certainly do so, and that it was a pity that he hadn’t thought to mention this possibility earlier.
The spectators now decided to help things along — one thrust a penknife into my hand and somebody else started pulling at the paper, so I cleared off down to the end of the counter, got it open, and while he wasn’t looking, ripped out the gift wrapping, tickets, and brand labels and the beads and thrust them into my pocket and returned with the remainder of the contents!
Result — no duty — and a victory to me! I was chuckling all the way home.
Now you will understand why I wasn’t too sure who had given me what, and also why it makes sense to undervalue the contents when making the declaration.
Now for the serious stuff! ! I will begin with the magnificent Palace of Versailles. It took two visits by the art group to begin to do it justice.
The professor felt that the real interest in its history could be found by exploring the
gardens, though he admits that the total impact of the superb buildings, set off by the vast, impeccably designed gardens, justifies the claim of it being the most beautiful achievement in French architecture.
It was all down to the Sun King, Louis XIV, who was determined to create a seat of government that would be a symbol of the absolute power of the monarchy and he certainly succeeded!
We had to travel 28 km south west of Paris to get to see Versailles.
The Palace began as his father’s hunting lodge. It took 30,000 workers from all corners of the country to transform it into what we see today, and apparently nearly bled the nation’s coffers dry in the process.
As I mentioned when I wrote about the Louvre, he moved the court and the government from there in the 1680s.
It was built in the very elaborate French baroque style and I found it a joy to look upon, with its long beautiful façade overlooking the formal gardens, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for sheer size of it!
My second visit was yesterday. It was another perfect sunny day, as it has been the last three Sundays in succession!
I went a little earlier than the others so I was able to spend an hour and a half seeing inside the palace, which wasn’t on the programme. The rooms are richly decorated with murals, tapestries and the rest, but all the original furniture had been
confiscated by ‘ The people’ during the French Revolution.
I was able to stroll through the Grand Apartment of the King and the equally Grand Apartment of the Queen and the opulent hall of mirrors, which was just a bit of a let-down, principally because the mirrors were quite dirty — the professor did warn us!
From its windows there is a breathtaking view down through the gardens, along the Grand Canal and out into the distance. It was all intended by Louis to impress all who visited with the majesty of his power and his possessions and artistic treasures, though the professor says he showed very little interest in the paintings themselves, and took much more interest in creating the gardens.
The formal gardens were a vast enterprise taking 40 years to complete. Massive earthworks were needed and thousands of trees and plants were transported from all over France.
The long stretches of geometrically shaped lawns and garden beds were lined with huge vases of cut flowers, which were changed daily. Can you imagine?!
This was typical of the many profligate luxuries required by the court to maintain its superiority, setting a standard of garden design and maintenance, which influenced the whole of aristocratic Europe. I had seen evidence of this ,but to a lesser degree in Scandinavia.
Water is used in several different ways to wonderful effect. There are a series of magnificent
fountains, decorated with sculptures of various Greek gods. -Bacchus, Neptune, Flora, Apollo.
Artificial lakes are scattered throughout the vast grounds, and beyond the formal gardens is the Grand Canal, which stretches four miles into the distance. Louis ordered miniature ships to be built to sail on it, as well as rowing boats, and when it froze over in winter, sleighs and skaters appeared.
It was all very exciting for the beautiful people, but it certainly became easy to understand how it sowed the seeds of destruction for royalty in the future!
After I completed wandering through the palace itself, I joined the group and we spent the afternoon strolling through the more informal Trianon Gardens where there were smaller châteaux, which were like royal weekenders — beautiful little buildings where the families could escape for privacy and relaxation.
The Prof. had promised us that this was where the real history lay.
He has quite a French sense of humour, and lots of his details are never likely to appear in
any school text — such as when the cardinal of Rouen had an intimate date with Queen Marie Antoinette in the Orange Grove — and other such stories.
The next excursion which was to the most magnificent Gothic cathedral of them all proved to be the most inspiring.
I am becoming something of an expert, having explored about 10 of them by now,
– All ’’ jewels of Gothic architecture” as the prof. describes them.
It is the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, about 80 km south west of Paris, where it soars above the town in all its grandeur.
It has massive buttresses, created to make the large stained-glass windows possible. These are one of the most famous features of the cathedral, the three Rose windows being the best known, but there are many others, all in brilliant colours, telling stories from the old and new Testament, as do the hundreds of sculptures that figure on the three great façades.
They were put in place when the cathedral, as it stands today, was completed in the 13th century, and have remained virtually intact to the present day.
The windows also have narrative and symbolic themes such as the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the months, and the lower windows even show the workmen and the tools and methods that they used to create the buildings.
All in all, it seems to be a profound book of teaching in stone and glass, which, our professor helped us to understand, has served to
instruct and inspire over the centuries, when transmitting knowledge through reading has only been available to an extremely small minority of the people.
What is extraordinary about it is that there are no ‘big names’ associated with its construction, in which many thousands of people were voluntarily employed. It was built remarkably quickly and enthusiastically in honour and service to the Mother of God — Notre Dame, – Our Lady.
Many thousands of pilgrims have been drawn here over the centuries with the same motivation, and four great festivities are held here annually on Mary’s main feast days — the Presentation, the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Assumption.
As you can hear, I was very moved by being here, and would have loved to stay longer and learn more.
It is something of a miracle that the cathedral has survived till now with remarkable little damage.
There are two very tall contrasting spires — one a very slim pyramid shape and the other much more elaborate, which was built on top of the old tower after it had been destroyed by lightning in 1506. Remarkably, it also survived the revolution.
The revolutionary committee had planned to destroy it with explosives, but a wily architect convinced them that the massive amount of rubble that would be created would completely jam the surrounding streets of the town for years to come.
In World War II the city was bombed by the Allies, but the church survived because an American officer volunteered to go behind the lines to prove that no enemy were sheltering there, and so it was spared.
The window glass was taken out and hidden during the war and later was gradually cleaned and re-leaded and replaced where it belonged.
Somehow the whole of Chartres Cathedral continues to be a mystery in many ways.
People of all faiths and none are attracted to study it for clues to an understanding of cosmic law itself.
it has drawn intellectual scholars and visionaries to it, both during its construction and ever since, and in spite of its focus on the life of Christ and mother Mary, its influence seems to transcend politics and organised religion. Whatever else, it certainly provoked in me a profound sense of wonder like nowhere else I have been so far.
I would love to think that I have wet your curiosity enough to visit the library and find books to help you share some of these special experiences that way!
In the meantime I send you lots of love and always look forward to news from your all.
Paris. 24th of March, 1960.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I was pleased to have your last letter and grateful for your input as to when to return home. I am still wrestling with this one, as the various pros and cons present themselves.
My enthusiasm for the education that I am able to give myself so far, and my desire to make a really good job of it is occasionally weakened by questions of finance, some homesickness, and an awareness of the concerns that you have expressed about the wisdom of staying on much longer.
I have been tossing it around all evening and having difficulty getting to sleep, and realising that I am now feeling quite hungry, I crept downstairs to make myself a pâté de porc sandwich, which is now greasing up my pen and paper! Sorry about that!
I will be sorry to move on from Paris just when I feel that I’m beginning to get the hang of the language and hold my own from the conversational point of view.
It was unfortunate in one way that Charlotte’s parents stayed as long as they did — they left at the beginning of last week. Her mother and the little baby, of course, have commanded all her attention. Fortunately, during the last week, we have had the chance to talk together more than at any time since I have been here.
One day, soon after I first arrived, I was working my way through a large basket of ironing and Charlotte was lying back in bed fanning herself — it was a really hot day and the baby was due at any time — and she asked me rather thoughtfully ‘what do you do back in Australia?’
I replied ‘ je suis pharmaciste ‘. “ I thought so!’ She replied in French and I suspect from her tone that she was alluding more to my inexperience at housekeeping than to my academic qualifications!
However it did seem to break the ice, and we were gradually able to talk about more interesting things together and a friendship began to develop which was helped by the fact that the little girls and I were getting on very well together as they got to know me, especially Aimee, the younger one.
We had some good laughs too. One evening I was setting the table for supper, and I placed the drinking glasses upside down, Australian bush style –(did we do that because of the dust?) She asked me if we always have the glasses upside down, and I managed to quip
‘Pas pour boire ‘ which translates as ‘ Not when we drink!’ — a bit corny, I know, but it did pass as genuine, spontaneous French repartee!
Later we were able to discuss more sensitive things. I was very surprised to find that she had never visited London, since it is such a wonderful city and so close. She confided that she really disliked the English as a whole and had no intention of ever going there, although she had travelled to Germany and other parts of Europe.
I found all of that rather odd, particularly in view of the alliance in the last war between England and France. I wasn’t able to elicit what was behind her antipathy.
I was also very curious about the whole question of aristocracy. How do they see themselves, and what do they see are the differences between themselves and mere ordinary folk? It was a delicate question, and I explained that in Australia there is very little class difference compared to England and Europe, and that we had very little understanding of what being an aristocrat might mean.
She said that they really did see themselves as being different because they had been born into a long tradition of having to provide leadership in society in many different ways.
As she tried to explain it, that seemed to apply to attitudes of education, morality, politics and so on.
That was as far as we got with that one, and I’m not sure that I understood how that plays out in terms of privilege and superiority, but I appreciated being able to talk of such things in a frank and friendly way.
The nobility are able to trace their lineage back for hundreds of years, and because Pierre’s ancestral line can be proven to go back as far as the seventh century, and hers only as far as the 13th century, then that somehow ranks him above her in some way!
I must remember to ask her if she had inherited a title that she used before she was married.
At the moment I am desperate for summer clothes, so I bought a piece of beautiful royal blue linen yesterday and a Vogue pattern, and Charlotte is happy to let me use her old sewing machine to make myself a new dress. She thinks that the machine is possibly an original Singer, and hopefully I will be able to master it when I can find time to spare to sew it.
The more that I am feeling settled in Paris, the mellower I have been feeling about the French. I think that I had been subconsciously making comparisons with life in Italy and I’m now enjoying observing the mores of the Parisians on their own terms.
It has been interesting seeing what a strong influence Bridget Bardot has on the young ones.
They have been wearing their hair, often blonded, in an untidy chignon which hasn’t been combed for a week, or else long and swinging around as they imitate the sexy walk, but that style is changing rapidly now that Bridget has had her hair cut quite short.
In all the women’s magazines, there are graphically illustrated advertisements promoting generous bosoms, and ways to make them larger, more irresistible and less sagging.
Actually, the average Parisian woman is fairly short and is a very neat person, who merits her reputation for being very smartly dressed. One sees very little of the extravagant fashion that the women’s weekly tells us is all the rage in Paris. On the contrary, the women stick to the classical styles — neat little suits and tasteful colours — though the hemlines have certainly been creeping up quite a bit lately.
I believe that all the very fantastic couturier creations that don’t sell here are sent on to America, where they are lapped up.
The men, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as well dressed as the Italian men, who are unbeatable as far as clothes are concerned. Many of them sport a smart little moustache, which seems to go well with their light brown hair and brown eyes. Rimless glasses are the fashion for both men and women.
Entertainment wise, I have just had a great treat. It was a wonderful orchestral concert, and the conductor was Roberto Benzi. He is a fine looking young man, three years younger than me, born in Marseilles of Italian parents.
He has been known as a classic child prodigy, beginning conducting at the age of 10. His father was a solfege teacher — I have discovered that this is a singing technique which is used to develop accurate pitch, and this is apparently where the seven music syllables –‘-doh re me so fa la ti doh ‘ come from.
His father taught him all this from the age of three, and then the piano, and this was when it was discovered that he had perfect pitch. When you come to think of it, this would be a great advantage for any musical conductor, and that is what he became even before leaving primary school!
As well as being a musical genius, he turned out to be a brilliant student in every other way as well. He was featured in two films, one in 1949 and another in 1952, and so became famous at an early age who influenced many young people to take up music.
He conducted his first complete opera at the age of 13 and this year, he is the musical director of the opera Carmen for its first performance at the Paris Opera.
I will probably have more to report about my movements next time. Till then, it is business as usual and I am now off to lectures. Lots of love
3rd April, 1960.
It is April already, and just when I think that I have my plans sorted out, everything changes again, so I thought it was time to have a chat to you too, and tell you what’s happening now.
I had finally decided to stay on here for another month to try and make a decent job of the French studies, and then found that the family was going off on holidays down to Charlotte’s parents little château in southern France from the 2nd to the 20th of the month.
That threw me as it meant that my main source of French conversation would disappear — so what to do next? I expected to feel fairly lonely after they left on Saturday, but on the contrary. I had forgotten what it feels like to have a house to myself and I have been wallowing in the joy of it.
Nothing was said about my not being able to use the kitchen as much as I wanted to, so I have been taking full advantage of that and am really enjoying it, as well as not having to eat any meals out. I can wash, iron and do whatever I want to, when I want to.
I have access to a clothes-line, the telephone, a wireless, and all I have to do for it in exchange is to keep an eye on the cat and the pot plants! What bliss! I haven’t had so many luxuries at once since I left Australia, and I have really been making the most of them.
I have taken up nearly all my hems. The famous charcoal grey pleated skirt bought in 1951 has been turned back the front as well. I have washed practically every article of clothing I own, including winter skirts — dry-cleaning is horrifically expensive here, and doesn’t get things clean anyway. I have put stitches in anything that needs mending and have nearly finished my linen dress!
On top of that, I have just received mummy’s letter, and hear that my birthday gifts will include a beautiful new terylene blouse and three French slips! What luxury!
Last week I was able to brighten up all the domestic activity with some more sight-seeing as well as a couple of special visits to the theatre.
On Thursday I went to see ‘ The Three–penny 0pera ‘ which was presented in Italian.
The German playwright, Berthold Brecht, created it in the 1920s, and the composer was Kurt Weill, It is famous for the wonderful catchy song “ Mack the knife”, which I know you will recognise.
It is adapted from the Beggars Opera and the style comes from Berlin cabaret. Apparently it had a strong influence on the musical world and turned the traditional style of musical on its head.
The dialogue is very sharp and satirical, and at times rather dark and heavy.
It is set in Soho, London, at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign and this upset the Nazis. Its political message was far too undermining, so it was banned – both Brecht and Weill had to flee Germany and finally ended up in America.
It was gradually performed again after the war, and there have been at least 2000 performances around the world since 1954.
I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped, probably because I had an expectation of more songs as catchy as Mack the knife, and there was also a lot of fast paced dialogue, which I had trouble keeping up with, – Altogether though, the acting and singing were very good and they had created very evocative sets.
This was followed on Friday night by my first visit to the famous Paris Opera.
It is one of my most favourite buildings here, and so far it rates as the most famous opera house in
the world and encompasses ballet as well. Its history began back in the 1600s when Louis XIV created the Academe Nationale de Musique -he loved theatre and dancing! The current building is the 13th Opera house built there since then, and this time it was Napoleon the 3rd who had it built in the 19th century.
Officially it is known as Palais Garnier after its designer but it is always referred to simply as l’ Opera – the Opera.
Its style is lavish baroque, very showy inside and out. The handsome facade looks really beautiful when it is floodlit at night-time. At either end of the huge copper dome there are gilt sculptured figures, one group expressing Harmony and the other Poesie.
When you enter, you find yourself in a vast, sumptuous grand foyer, lined on either side with huge bronze and crystal chandeliers, lavish paintings and sculptures, and lots of gold leaf and velvet fittings.
From there you ascend the Grand staircase into the theatre proper.
It has a huge main stage apparently capable of accommodating up to 400 people.
I was treated to a really exceptional concert. It was a reproduction of the original concert given by Chopin on his arrival in Paris. It included the grand Polonaise for six pianos.
The immense stage had a backdrop of arches through which mountains and trees could be seen in the distance, giving an impression of depth to the stage.
The orchestra was in front with six baby- grand pianos! The deep blue tones of the ceiling were reflected in their black shining tops. There were masses of various coloured hydrangeas standing 6 feet high in tall Grecian vases on the stage. The flowers in the auditorium were magnificent too.
The programme wasn’t all piano. in fact there was quite a mixture – violin, operatic arias, even two famous prima-donnas singing a duet — a dangerous combination but it went off splendidly!
The evening was a very heady experience – it captured all the senses — I won’t be forgetting it in a long time.
Generally, my social life has been much quieter than in Italy. There haven’t been many opportunities to meet people as I’m usually rushing home to work after morning lectures.
The Saturday excursions helped a little.
One day, as the group was exploring just one more Gothic church, two men standing next to me were talking and I thought one of them said something to me, so I asked “Were you speaking to me?” — He replied ‘No, but I was looking at you!’ in a way that sounded very sexy in French. — And it worked!
We began a conversation, and after that, he and his friend and I often joined up together on the excursions, and I have had a couple of outings with him.
His name is Tiohmil Beretic, a Yugoslav from Serbia – and a Communist to boot!
He is a very interesting man, about 40, I would say.
He is a doctor who has specialised in radiology and toxicology — he is the only person in Yugoslavia to have combined those specialities, and because of that has been sent to Paris by the government because of a nuclear accident that occurred in a laboratory at the Vinca Reactor in Croatia in 1958, where, as a result, six men developed severe radiation sickness, and so far one has died.
Tiohmil and his friend were immediately sent to Paris because the nuclear medical research here is recognised as being the most advanced. They were to be part of the research because so far, very little is known about the damaging effects of radiation to the human body, or how to treat it.
They come to the French art excursions to improve their language skills, and see something of Paris at the same time.
Having their company has allowed me to learn more about politics in Yugoslavia, which is now relatively independent of Russia, apparently much to Stalin’s displeasure,
President Tito is apparently a much less fanatical leader.
Tiohmil says that he himself doesn’t have a very strong interest in the political side of things, but it was necessary to become a party member to be able to work with the government, which he was happy to do.
He still occasionally accompanies his elderly mother to mass, and that has never caused any problems for him.
I remember that when I first arrived in Italy, I found it confusing that there didn’t seem to be a problem or a conflict of loyalty to be a member of the Communist Party and also declare yourself on the census as a Catholic, as more than 90% of the men do.
It all makes quite a contrast to how things are in Australia, both in the church’s attitude, where everything is very black and white, and in politics too, as far as that goes!
Just imagine what the Bishop would say if I was seen to be out with a card-carrying Communist! I would certainly be considered to be putting my eternal salvation in jeopardy!
As you can hear, there is much about the easy-going tolerance in this part of the world that I have come to appreciate.
Enough of all my ravings! I do hope to hear from you soon that you are fit and happy, and that, whether you have found work or not, you are at peace with the world.
Do let me know all your news soon – especially the gossipy bits!
Much love to you, stay well!
Paris. 4th of April, 1960.
Mummy tells me that you have been very unlucky – that you have been in hospital for a while to have one of your toes altered a little! I do hope that hasn’t been too grim for you, and that you are feeling much better, and your little toe is more comfortable now than it was before. Write and tell me all about it – though none of the nasty bits!
As you probably know I have been living in Paris for the last couple of months, trying to learn to speak French. I found that I had forgotten almost all that I had learned at school, so I had to start pretty much from the beginning again.
When I arrived here from Italy, it was very difficult to find somewhere to stay in Paris, so I did what most of the students do, and found a French family who wanted someone to help to look after the children and do some housework in exchange for a room and breakfast each morning.
I was very lucky to find a nice family . The parents are about my age and have three little girls. Isabelle is 4, AImee is nearly 2 and Marie only a month old, born after I arrived here.
Isabelle helps me talk French properly. Aimee doesn’t as she can barely talk herself! When she wants something she shakes her little fist towards it and screams till she gets it. This way, she finds it hardly necessary to talk to get along, so she doesn’t bother. Even so, she has become my favourite and often gives me cuddles.
While you are on holidays, you might like to read some of the letters I have written about my time with them. Mummy has been looking after them for me.
Did she tell you that uncle George took me on a special visit to the Vatican where I met Pope John XXIII? That was a wonderful experience.
He is a very gentle and kindly old man and he likes to make lots of jokes.
I know of one true story about him, when he asked a little boy if he thought that God knew everything. The little boy replied very piously ” of course, Holy Father”- he then asked if he thought that God knew everything that had ever happened, and the little boy replied the same way.
Then he asked if he believed that God knew everything that would ever happen. The little boy said that of course he did. So then the Pope said with a twinkle in his eye. ”Then can you explain to me that if God really know everything that is going to happen, and that I would be Pope, why didn’t he make me better looking?”
Italians love telling one another this and other stories about him as they all love him very much.
I find it hard to believe that I have already been away for nearly a year, so I imagine that you have probably grown quite a bit and look prettier than ever.
Please ask Frank to take a photo of you with his camera and send it to me, and I will try to send one to you of me with Pope John.
I imagine that the girls and the nuns at school might like to see it too.
I quite like being in France though I think I like the Italians a bit more than the French — they are inclined to laugh a lot more and are kinder.
By the time I get home, I will have seen many different countries and I’m looking forward to being able to tell you all about them.
Are you going home for the Easter holidays? I am not too sure where I will be yet, probably still here in Paris, so write me a letter here.
Next, I hope to visit a very nice Dutch girl that I knew when I was studying in Italy. She lives in Amsterdam, the capital of Holland, and if I go there at the end of this month I will arrive in time to see the fields of tulips of all different colours and the beautiful yellow daffodils as well, and of course lots of windmills.
I find it hard to believe that I have already been away for nearly a year, so I imagine that you have probably grown quite a bit and look prettier than ever.
Lots of hugs to you from your big sister…
P.S. I have just made a last minute decision to go on a little trip over Easter to see a bit more of France before I leave. The regions of Brittany and Normandy sound interesting and are not to far away to the west and north. I will write a report as soon as I return. xxx.