A Student in Paris

I longed to see Paris again. What is so seductive about Paris to just about everybody? Who can say. It’s a mystery. Like so many other American young men and women,  I had heard idealized memories and stories from my mother and her friends about gay Paree as it was before the war since my childhood. As an aspiring young American writer, intending to become a famous writer, it was de rigeur to spend some time living in Paris. In fact I was naive enough to think that just sitting and writing in a famous intellectual hang out in Paris, such as the Cafe Flore, frequented by Sartre and other famous French writers and intellectuals, would make me a great writer, as if genius was as contagious as the flu in winter.


Becoming a great writer was my real motive for going to Paris, but of course I could not admit that to anyone—at least not until I had become famous,  so I developed a good cover story. I would be a student in Paris, studying French language and litrature. 

In my senior year at Georgetown I had become fascinated with French literature and philosophy, particularly in phenomenology and existentialism. Therefore, after graduation, before going on to graduate school, I decided to take a year off to study French literature, history, and civilization at the Sorbonne. Of course I had spoken French at home with my mother as a boy, and had taken a couple of advanced French courses in college, and I had read some French novels and plays, but I did not really know the language well enough to read it with real enjoyment, as my mother did. So  in July, 1958, off I went to Paris!

We sailed on student ships in those days and mine was called the Arosa Star. Built by the Germans as a troop ship in World War Two, it had been refurbished for civilian transport. It was comfortable, but lacked the amenities of luxury liners, like the French Line’s flagships, the Liberté, and theIlle de France, which I had sailed on with my parents on my first European junket several years before. It took us more than a week to make the Atlantic crossing; and we were tossed about in a frightening squall for several days at sea, which sent most of us to our bunks or to the rails heaving our guts out. 

The simple plain food and accommodations didn’t bother me; they were quite adequate for students who, like myself, were more interested in getting to know each other than living it up in style. Actually for many of my shipmates who had not grown up with the good fortune to have had all the the advantages I had, the simple fact of sailing on an ocean liner to Europe was already living it up in style, as far as they were concerned.  We had a lot of fun during the trip, flirting and dancing to a lively band all night and swimming laps, playing paddle tennis or shuffleboard, or even mock horse racing in the afternoons, after sleeping off our drinking  orgies from the night before.

When I arrived in Paris, a young Frenchman, Gerard, who  I had met on board our ship suggested that we find a small hotel together and share the cost of a room. He did not have much money, he said, but he offered to show me around Paris, if I would just agree to pay for his meals. 

He knew just the place where we could bunk cheaply, he assured me. It was on the Left Bank, right near the Place St. Michel. The hotel wasn’t so bad. It was small and clean and our room was nice, though pretty small, but the I found I couldn’t sleep in the bed! The bedsprings actually sagged to the floor when I lay on the bed–as French beds in cheap hotels so often do. Well, we made the best of it and went out to cafes and clubs Gerard introduced me to at night and together we explored the sights of Paris such as the Louvre, Montmartre, and the Tour Eiffel by day. 

Things seemed to be going very well, I wrote home to my mother, always eager to hear from me. But then one morning my happy feelings of joy and satisfaction with myself were suddenly transformed into despair and anxiety, which was only too familiar to me. (That was in the days before anti-depressants). 

When I went downstairs and spoke to the clerk at the registration desk, I learned that Gerard had departed a few hours before, without paying a penny of the bill. That’s right. He had ditched me, leaving me foolishly holding the bag. Yes. I couldn’t believe it. My so-called new “friend” Gerard, my drinking buddy, had flown the coop.

So what had caused this emotional shift from joy to despair?

This was the morning after I had told him that I was getting worried about how much money we were spending on our activities. He left me with the entire hotel bill to pay all by myself. I felt angry abut I didn’t realize how I had set myself up to be abandoned once again. That was my old playbook, which became anchored in my soul when my father seduced and abandon me when I was ten. 

I was so confused after that that when con artists like Gerard took advantage of me, instead o going after them I turned my anger back upon myself and blamed myself for having been so “stupid” that I had trusted them. I had not been psychoanalyzed yet, and knew nothing really about the power of the unconscious.

Aside from that momentary disappointment, I was delighted to be in Paris. There were many distractions, but I was determined to be a diligent student and learn French properly. I began by attending lectures at the Sorbonne, but found they were too difficult for me to follow, so after a few weeks, upon hearing about a pilgrimage going to Brittany which appealed to my unfulfilled spiritual aspirations, I decided to take a couple of weeks off from my studies and go explore Brittany and Northern France. 

Pax Christi, the organizers of the trip, was an international Catholic group that grew up after World WarTwo to help young persons in Germany and France, primarily, overcome the stereotypes left from war propaganda and heal the emotional and spiritual wounds seething in their souls after the war. I was the first American to apply to join Pax Christi, so I was welcomed with open arms and was actually elected to become the leader of the small marching group to which I was assigned. My responsibility being  the mouthpiece or “spokesperson” for our group meant that each day before the entire assembly of pilgrims I must report on the spirit of our group. This inspired me to improve my ability to think and speak French rapidly. I am an oral learner and still can recall the words of the songs and prayers we learned to sing in several languages as we marched along through Brittany, with our backpacks on our backs, on our way to Mt.St. Michel.

When we all met for the first time at the Gard du Nord I was surprised to discover that there were over five hundred young people like myself making this trip. This excited me a lot, and I was thrilled at the prospect of making new friends from all over Europe. We took a night train from Paris to Brest, and then set out in the morning on foot marching about fifteen miles per day arriving at Mt. San Michel, the terminus of our pilgrimage, in less than two weeks. 

I was struck by the poverty of the  inhabitants of Brittany, who seemed to be mostly farmers, people who worked the soli or raised sheep or chickens. I noted the simplicity of the homes we stayed in. I will never forget one peasant family who loved their cow so much that they let her sleep piss and shit right in their living room as the flies circulated around the kitchen and joined us for breakfast. Don’t get me wrong. It was not always like that. We stayed in some very comfortable homes, and even occasionally in temporary dormitories set up in church halls, but sleeping and eating with the cow as our dinner companion was my most memorable experience.

After the Pax Christi pilgrimage, on returning to Paris, I decided that I wasn’t really ready to absorb the content of the  lectures at the Sorbonne yet. On the advice of one of my French tutors, I moved to a smaller university in the provinces, where there would be fewer distractions and I could get more personal direction for my studies. Taking an overnight train from Paris, to avoid the cost of a night in a hotel, I was soon bien installe in a pension high in the French Alps and enrolled in a course for foreigners at the University of  Grenoble. I stayed there for a couple of months learning French and getting acclimated to European university life, which was so much freer than the life I had known as a student at the Catholic university where I had done my BA in the United States. 

In European universities you are treated like an adult. That is to say, you are much more on your own, free to pursue your own scholarly interests, attending the lectures or not as you choose, without being harassed by nosy teachers taking attendance, and calling on you in class to demonstrate your knowledge of the material, holding you accountable to perform well in surprise tests and grueling examinations.

While I was studying in Grenoble, my parents came to Europe for a short vacation. My mother invited me to meet them in Düsseldorf. Lacking self-discipline and not having any external control on my activities, I was free to come and go as I choose; so I accepted their invitation quite impulsively without really thinking through the all the  consequences, especially  for my French language studies in Grenoble. 

So I hopped on an overnight rapid train to Düsseldorf,  and the next morning was speeding  down the Rhine together with my parents on a luxury train, riding first class and in blazing summer sunshine. I was impressed with the castles we saw as we passed them on both sides of the Rhine. I have always been particularly charmed by the little Mausturm that sits on an island right in the middle of the Rhine not far from Koblenz.

We got off the train in Stuttgart, and took a taxi to the Mercedes factory on the outskirts of the town, where we picked up a Mercedes my father had ordered in America. Picking up the Mercedes was quite an impressive ritual; you were treated like royalty. I resolved then and there that someday I would get a Mercedes of my own at that plant. And I did just that twenty visit my brother, Pierre who had become a very successful graphic artist. 

The part of Munich I particularly enjoyed was Schwabing, the bohemian quarter, where one could roam from shop to shop down one delightful street after another. The university was located nearby, and I immediately felt drawn to the student life in Munich which appeared to provide endless fun, and I resolved to live in Munich and to study there one day. And I did. In 1969/1970. We’ll get back to that later.

Over the next two days Pierre and I talked endlessly about our plans and prospects.  He had just finished studying design with the great Swiss designer Hoffman in Basel and had just opened his office in Munich with his friend and business partner Klaus Oberer. I told him that I was going to write the great American novel in Paris.

From Munich we drove south to Salzburg, capital of the Salzkammergut, “Sound of Music Land” in Austria, which was just delightful.  We only stayed there for one night, however, because we had tickets to the opera in Vienna for the next night, and that was the goal of my father’s trip. I do not recall the name of the opera we saw, but I do remember very well the delightful young Viennese beauty who sat next to me in the theatre. When we talked during the intermission, I found that she spoke perfect English. I felt so strongly attracted to her that holding my breath anxiously awaiting her reply, I took the bit in my teeth, and asked her for a DATE after the performance!

To my complete astonishment she said, “Yes.” Wow! I had never been out with a Viennese woman before. I felt thrilled and hardly noticed the rest of the performance, being caught up as I was in voluptuous fantasies of making love to this blonde beauty. As it turned out, my parents invited us to join them for an elegant after theatre dinner and I foolishly agreed. This was my downfall, because things my parents said provoked me to argue with them and my behavior revealed to my new lady friend how young and immature I was. So after dinner she excused herself, ordered a taxi and went home alone. I was crushed, and after my bird had flown, it took me some time to figure out what I had done wrong. But what can you do about being too young? Get older and grow up and that takes time.

At this point my father and mother planned to fly back to the US, and I was scheduled to return to my studies in Grenoble. However, fate intervened. My dad did fly back to the states as planned, but not my mother. She had been troubled with digestive difficulties for many years, and while we were in Vienna she learned of a physician who she thought could help her, a Doctor Werner. She consulted him and decided to make the month long dietary cure he recommended which she must do in a hospital there. What was peculiar about her cure was that instead of following the hospital regime, she secretly had a hot plate under her bed with which she cooked her own supplementary meals.

Once her new plan was in place, she and her doctor decided that it would be good for me to make the same cure as well.  So we both became patients at his hospital. I had been eating too many pastries and pomes frites in France and Germany and had become constipated. The doctor had a solution for my problem. He created a culture from my stool and injected this culture back into my rectum thereby creating  new bacilli to move along the stool through my intestines. I have seldom suffered from constipation since. My bowels have worked like clockwork ever since, as he promised they would. 

While we were in Vienna, I learned a  little German and began to read some German literature in translation. In the long run this was even more important than my bowel transplant. Thus began my lifelong love affair with Germany and Central European history, literature, and culture. 

By the time I was ready to return to Paris my course in Grenoble was over, so I collected my belongings there and returned to Paris determined this time to avoid distractions and to really learn to speak and read French like a native. To avoid the temptations of distractions I first tried staying in a Benedictine monastery, as I had one at Mt. Savior in new York. But I was soon asked to leave, when I came home late (after 8:00 PM) several nights in a row. 

I then moved into the dormitory of a Catholic boys college on the Rue de Vaugirard. However, after a short time I was thrown out of there, too, because I did not mix well with the other boys, and I refused to adhere to the early curfew imposed on residents of the college. It reminded me too much of my life under the control of the Jesuits at Georgetown. Finally I realized that it was foolish to pay others to enforce discipline upon me, and then rebel against the rules which I had agreed to observe.  I concluded that somehow I had to find the discipline I wanted inside myself rather than trying to get it from institutions. 

I then moved to a charming modest hotel on the Boulevard St Michel, around the corner from the Place de la Sorbonne.  And I cautiously  enrolled in a course on French literature for French teachers from abroad. The lectures were over my head, however, and I was not able to keep up with the lengthy reading assignments, much less write the textual analytical essays that were required to be turned in at the end of each week, so I finally dropped out of that educational, too, after a month. 

While I was in the course, however,  I met a handsome young American graduate student named Greg who was a graduate of Middlebury, in Vermont, a school that specializes in linguistics and foreign language training. He had a flair for languages and seemed to know not only French but German, Spanish, and Italian as well. Greg played the guitar and knew how to seduce women. I was impressed and admired him and enjoyed our conversations together.             

I also got to know a few other students who were friendly enough to me, but most of the time I felt isolated and alone. This was to be my primary experience during the course of my year in Paris, feeling cold, isolated, and alone. At first I tried to accept it, and tried to convince myself that this loneliness was just part of being an Existentialist

Finally I decided to focus my energies on creative writing. After all, I’d already received recognition for my writing gift we I was insight grade! Now I set my head in gear to write the great American novel while, but sitting alone in my little room before my typewriter I discovered that writing wasn’t all that easy after all! Unlike my hero Ernest Hemingway, I lacked the discipline and the organizational skills of a professional writer.  I ended up spending most of my time eating and drinking in bars and in cafes and walking around the different quartiers exploring the many interesting byways of Paris. 

Eventually I met a haute bourgeoise French girl, Denise, who I felt quite smitten by. Her father was an admiral in the French navy. We enjoyed each other’s company at first. I wanted her to become my girlfriend, but she refused, probably because I was too eager and unsure of myself and frightened her away. We never got beyond holding hands. As a good Catholic boy I felt a lot of ambivalence about having sex of course, and I am sure my body gave her very mixed signals unconsciously.

I was lonely in Paris and felt forlorn as the winter set in. One time an old friend of my mother’s Midu, invited me to visit her in her room at the Crillon hotel. She greeted me in a negligee and lay invitingly before me on a chaise lounge. I was very uncomfortable, felt like Dustin Hofman with Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. I couldn’t respond to her. Though she was very beautiful, she was old enough to be my mother!And she even had a son older than me who I had once played with. I later learned that my brother, Pierre, had been quite attracted to Midu, and had had an affair with her!

“Chacun a so gout,” [To each is own!] as the French say.

In time I got to know a group of German students in Paris, outsiders like me.              I found them much more open and friendly than the French. One of them, Ingrid, a German Fraulein whom I had met during the Pax Christi pilgrimage, wrote me in Paris and invited me to visit her in Westphalia. So I decided to spend my holidays in Germany rather than in Paris. This was to be a white Christmas. 

By now I had acquired a Porsche as a Christmas present from my parents. I decided to try it out on the winter roads of France and Germany, driving Northeast from Paris into Germany via Luxembourg.  I went to visit Ingrid, a slim blonde, but when I found out that she already had another boyfriend I cultivated her plump motherly dark haired girlfriend, Maria. 

Maria was not very pretty, but she was a deeply spiritual Fraulein, and appealed to my spirit. I have always been attracted to spiritual women. Spiritual qualities in a woman turn me on. We became good friends and stayed in touch for some time after I returned to Paris

That spring I tried to write a play based on my relationship with Maria. However, the play did not really work very well, because I did not know how to resolve the protagonist’s emotional problems, (which were really my own). I thought I might be able to find the answers through tuning in to my inner guidance, but as it turned out, I couldn’t find the answer inside. My problem was, I realize now, that I lacked the experience of life, and reflection upon it, which literature alone could not provide me with.

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