That Year in Paris
That year – 1981 – I was a full time teacher and determined to practise my French language skills outside French-courses. In my summer holidays I planned to fly to Paris, live in a friends little flat in Montmatre, go to the nearest church and ask the priest for the address of an old lady.
’Dreamer!’ that’s what friends said, ’In the summer the French are in the country.’
’Right,’ I said, ’the French families but without the old ones. Don’t you read newspapers?’
Paris in August was hot, so the church at the foot of Montmartre had a welcoming chill. I had practiced what to say:
’My name is Elisabeth Scherf, I am from Hamburg in Germany, I am 42 years old, I would like to do some volunteer work for 4 weeks with an older person. Preferably a lady.“
The friendly priest smiled and pointed to a large copybook. It was full of names and addresses of men and women in need for company. Whom should I choose? There: Boulevard de Clichy. My imagination sent vivid pictures: Moulin Rouge, Henry Miller, Anais Nin……
’What about her?’ I asked.
’Francoise Strucsac,’ he answered,’ I do not know her personally, but I do know she would like somebody to listen to her and to talk to. But before I may let you have her address the people from the local administration want to know you.’
This meant I had to be looked at. To prove my sincerety I had to distribute leaflets to the gereatricians of the Quartier . Stomping the stairs of Montmatre up and down, up and down! It’s a hilly place I can tell you! It was August and hot in Paris. But I managed.
’Now you may meet Francoise Strucsac. This is her telephone number and here is her address. I informed her of your visit. She expects you tomorrow afternoon. If there are any problems please let me know. Au revoir.’
Would we be able to communicate? Walking up the stairs I realized this was a rather poor house because a concierge was missing. After I had rung the bell a soft weak voice called to come in. I stepped in eager to know the setting of my next four weeks.
Her big bed was the most prominent feature of the room. She lay in it like a small child in kindergarden wondering why she had to have a lie-down not being tired at all. It were not her eyes which evoked that impression but her face and the tilting of her head. Her eyes had a milky shadow. So much so that I was surprised she could see me.
’Come in’, she says. ’And how nice that you are a young person. I do not like old people, you know? They are bitter. They keep on telling stories they can’t change any more. How stupid is that!’
While she talks I try to get an impression of the room. Behind a huge cupboard I see a bag with golf clubs and on the wall opposite her bed are two exceedingly beautiful photographs in silver frames art nouveau style. One is the picture of a young woman in a bathing costume in the style of Sonia Delaunay – geometrical triangular forms in daring bright colours. Written underneath it says ’First Prize for the Most Beautiful Bathing Costume. Biarritz 1926’. The other photo shows the same young beauty with a matching beach robe over the bathing costume. Underneath written ’First Prize for the Most Beautiful Bath Robe. Biarritz 1926.’ The strikingly pretty slim blonde woman is brimming with joy.
’Yes,’ she notices my astonishment, ‚that is me. Would you believe it? Take the chair and sit closer.’
I had been told she was half blind. Blind? What about the books beside her bed? Thick volumes! To the left I can see the adjoining kitchen. This is a one room flat. Everything is very clean and simple. She herself looks well groomed. Her face has lots of wrinkles, her fingernails have bright red polish. Her night dress is white, her sheets are white and the room smells of apples and roses. I was told her age is 81 years. She does not really look younger but the effect of her appearance conveys youth.
I can understand her spoken language very well. Does she talk for my sake that clear or has she learned the French language later in life. It has always struck me how I can understand strangers speaking a learned language much better than those applying their mother tongue. I sit down, smile at her, she smiles back. I like to be with her. She likes to have me.
’Who made you choose me? You are an angel!’
Then she starts to talk and after four weeks I know the story of her life.
’I knew I was pretty and I could speak French and English. I had no more than that. Two years before that photo was taken I was convinced that my whole future had to be built around these facts. The dream of another life made me survive my first and only husband. He was an alcoholic, a merry alcoholic as long as he had drinks, but alone with him at home he would beat me up. I had one good friend. She was my only solace. We planned together to put away some money to buy a train ticket to Paris. My plan was to arrive in Paris at noon so I could take the five o’clock tea at the George V. This is what we did. We left our small bags at the Gare du Nord and went to the hotel George V – and? – two hours later a nice rich man had asked me to accompany him on his ship passage to New York. I was delighted! He was not handsome and rather small, but very rich and I felt he had a good heart. I never fetched my bag from the station. The next day we went shopping and after that I had the look of a woman who had never worn anything less stylish, precious and expensive. I felt just right for everything to come. He was so proud of the woman at his side. And for me it was such an unusual feeling to be cherished. I really liked him and he was head over heals in love with me. Did you know that you become more beautiful when you are being loved? But this only goes for women.’
Francoise likes to drink tea and her China is fine. I can imagine her at the time she is reminiscing. The aura of wealth is still with her today, like a younger sister who is determined to stay in the tradition of the family: glamour is the promise and this is what she is raised for and will get.
’It was a full-time job to be the mistress of a well-to-do man. Invite and receive guests, place them successfully so that the sound of the dinner party becomes more and more cheerful, relaxed, hilarious and at the same time serious and promising – for further business. Because that is what it is all about. The mistress is the embodiment of his financial and social capabilities. I had to look after myself – figure, fashion, style, read books and meet the other ladies individually. Our seemingly light hearted conversations meant to name the structure of my standard of education and so we women could convince our partners that they were mixing with the right business partners. Money, education, style, sociability were the four horses to pull you nearer the all agreed one target of a worthy wealthy society. Compared to my life in Poland it was a jolly pastime with a highly strenuous activity, sugared with the grateful loving smiles and generous presents of my man.
But then I met Henri Strucsac. He had a stable and a stud farm. He was extremly handsome. I fell in love with him at first sight! My man was heartbroken, but like a gentleman who knows when to count his blessings he was just grateful and a good sport and let me free for him – Henri Strucsac. My next appartment was at the Champs Elysées. Monsieur Strucsac was so much wealthier than my saviour from the George V. No need to tell you my life with him. It was exactly the same as with my man before just everything on a bigger scale. But there was one big difference: I loved him – I really loved him – I was deeply in Love with him.“
I can physically feel that she still nurtures this love. Precious memories flood her face, her whole being, even the room. Unwished for I feel I take part in her adoration for this man.
Up to now her narration was like a film or a play. I could leisurely watch her tale. I saw a life in the style of the roaring twenties. But now her whole attitude has changed. Like a bullet which goes straight for the target she gives me the facts. She avoids any comprehensible description of situations. It is just her and him and fate and full stop.
’We had nine gorgeous years with the most luxurious presents for me: fur-coats, jewellery, horses, travels, silk and … But then Hitler arrived in Paris and as Henri was a Jew all his money and possesions were confiscated and he had to find a way to get away from France. I was heart-broken. I loved him so much! Love is the biggest and finest, most genereous and noble feeling in the world. I loved to love him!“
Now she radiates colours: peach, yellow, bright white and gentle gold. Would she trust herself, I am convinced she would be able to fly.
’We were desperate to find for him a way to leave France and one day he had found somebody to take him to Mexico.
’But I have no money,’ he said, ’I need a lot of money to flee.’
’But I had all the presents gathered in all those years of my past. Starting back from the days of my Five-o’clock-Tea! You can have all my money and we will sell all my presents from my first man and from you. Without you it means nothing to me.’
So we sold everything on the black market and got the necessary money.
’Francoise,’ he said, ’once all this is over I will immediatly come back. You are the love of my life.’
You see, he loved me just as much as I loved him.’
Now all the colours around her have gone. I see just a plain old lady looking angrily at me.
’Don’t you ever love anybody more than yourself or more than he loves you! Promise! And never plan for the future. Love, yes and now, yes and get on with your life.’
’During the occupation I managed not too bad. I cleaned houses, I looked after children. Life had changed, but I had learned a lot. Anyway for me everything was just an interim. Nothing more. One day he would come back and then life would continue, different but still I would be together with him… Then the war was over. I changed my name to his name: Strucsac! Because I wanted him to find me! For five years I went to all the places where they gave information. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. But I lived on the hope to find him. You see, I could not mix with the rich crowd of former friends. Most of them had somehow managed to stay well off. It is an unwritten law to show you still belong to them in applying their unwritten rule number one: once there is no money left you do not seek their presence. Accept your social death.’
There is again this childlike look on her face. As if she was looking for the moment, where she herself got something utterly wrong. Where she herself did the wrong move. Sun is streaming into her room. A lot of light and heat is around us. I can not help her. I just wait.
‚And then one day by chance I met a friend of his. On the Champs Elysees right in front of our house! He was pleased to see me, suggested we have a coffee. He seemed do be quite well off. Was married now.
’We all do not get younger, do we? But you are still so beautiful, Francoise. So, where do you live now?’ he asks merrily.
He does not wait for an answer but indicates my former appartment on the other side of the Champs Ellysée.
’Well, everything has changed. But it is very nice to remember, isn’t it? And of course you know all about Henri? In Mexico City he met a nice woman. They married and have four kids. Can you imagine him as a father?’
He laughs much too noisily. I could not respond. Oh, if he knew! I can not utter a word. He paid and left smiling after having given me his business card. I was left for words.‘
I sit opposite her, the sun is still shining. She looks all matter of fact, but I am deeply shocked. A long time there is just nothing in the room.
’I was struck dumb. My eyesight left me. I could not see, I just felt that my eyesight went wrong. In a split second a milky veil seemed to cover Paris.’
She looks at me as if I had the answer and I can see that in a peculiar way my shock has relieved her pain.
I want to go home. It is around six and if I hurry I can manage to see two new films and later meet friends for dinner. It is still August and hot in Paris and the people who could not leave for the country are extremly friendly trying to give each other a good time.
The films are cool, no drama – or is it that they can hardly match the last story I listened to? For dinner I have a lot of really nice French food and compared to my normal ways an unusual great quantity of French wine.
While I am going to sleep I trustfully adress my guardian angel: ’Is helplessness the last word to Francoise’s life? Isn’t there a way to let her happily go on. Is there no reconciliation possible? Could she still change her past? Please give me an answer to Francoise’s woes.’
The last thing I feel before going to sleep is the absolute urge to make her life lighter. And when I wake up the next morning my spiritual companions have worked well.
So how will my story end? Dear reader, I have to confess that I did not say these last transforming lines to her. Why not? Because at that time I did not yet know that you can bend time. Yes. You can turn time into a spiral and let the past be shaped in another way; you can transform feelings from times long gone by through another attitude, knowledge, interpretation. Now I know that. I am deeply convinced that thoughts and their energy are the strongest power-tool in the whole universe.
When I arrive the next day at her bedside she is in fresh bed linen and she wears a white nightgown with lace over her hands. She smiles and has again this childlike expression. She does not need to say: ’What do you say now?’ I just start.
’Do you remember, Francoise, when I came here for the first time, you said that I was an angel for you. You were right and now I know my mission. You are so sad and shocked because you feel betrayed by Henri Strucsac. But has it ever occurred to you that his love has never wavered, not for a moment? He knew you loved him like he did. You see: when he arrived in Mexico City all his money had gone and there were a lot of refugies looking for a living. Your deep love which was like a shining dress and made him appear different, more promising than the other men, and that was why one of the helping volunteer ladies chose him when work was offered.
She had to take him in her car and so they eventually started to talk about Paris, his old life and about you. How you had given for him all that you had possesed. She was deeply impressed by your love and dedication. And so they started to know each other better and better and their friendship grew into love. Henri did not know what to do because he had given a promise to you. But eventually he had to realize that his new life would be in Mexico. In his heart he had a long talk with you in which you finally said:
’I want you to live. I will always love you!’ And he had replied:
’Francoise, you will for ever and ever be the love of my life.’
Here I stop. The room has changed its fragrance. Paris seems to have turned pink. Rays of pure gold stream into the room. Francoise looks at me, her eyes are very clear now – an unveiled blue. Content, full of vigour she says smilingly:
’You see, how much we loved each other? I knew he would always love me.’