Through a glass darkly – 87 

A day out in Paris

The day started well. A brisk walk of twenty minutes to the station with a glorious red sun coming up over the racecourse. There are roughly two trains an hour, and it a gentle twenty five minutes on the train down into the Gare du Nord. This is where Paul and I arrived on our first visit to France in the summer of 1961. Innocents abroad ! After four years of learning French at school, mainly grammar exercises, and comprehension, and dictées, we were quite unable to communicate with a policeman in order to ask our way to the hostel. [He might not have known anyway as we were staying in a temporary UNESCO hostel in the 13ème down by the Porte d’Ivry. Where we paid 1,60NF for bed and breakfast. It was a long time ago !]

Alésia and Notre Dame du Bon Secours

I knew that a 38 bus would take me across Paris from the Gare du Nord to Alésia. But in the complex of one-way streets, Magenta and LaFayette and Valenciennes, around the station I was completely unable to find the bus-stop. In the end I gave up and took the line 4 metro. Which was quick and easy. But offered less of a view. I came up out of the metro at the junction by the big church of St Pierre du Petit Montrouge, and across the road from the Brasserie Zeyer where Susie and I used to go for Sunday lunch occasionally back in the far-off 1970s.

Joanna had commissioned me to visit the hospital Notre Dame du Bon Secours. To see if there was a blue plaque saying ‘Joanna McDonald est née içi le 10 mars, 1977’.  Not only is there no plaque, but the block in which she was born has been demolished. The chapel remains, but there was no sign of any of the sisters. The maternity unit has been moved elsewhere, and it now seems to be a psycho-geriatric hospital. I made my way down long corridors to the chapel, where a friendly couple invited to join them in reciting the chapelet, a litany of prayer to Mary.

From the hospital it is only a ten minute walk to rue Bénard, and the flat where Susie and I began our married life in 1975. The proprietor was a retired doctor, Dr Adam, who had built this seven-floor block of apartments in 1968. He lived on the top floor, was usually seen in the foyer in a smoking jacket and a hair-net; and his three daughters each had an apartment. The eldest, Danielle, was in the States, in New Orleans, and it was her apartment that we rented on the first floor.

With some trepidation I rang the bell and was invited in by Yveline, whom I hadn’t seen since 1978. She was our neighbour on the first floor, the youngest of the three daughters of Dr Adam. We caught up in an abbreviated way with four decades. Dr Adam was long dead. Danielle died a few years ago of cancer. The middle sister Marie-Jo was still living on the fourth floor. Yveline was a psychologue, now retired who had worked out of a cabinet on the ground floor. The flat was moderately chaotic. She offered me coffee and whisky and lunch, all of which I unthinkingly declined. Her own daughter is unwell too.

Walking the streets

From rue Bénard I walked up towards Montparnasse and then down rue Gaité. It was now a bright, cold day. In the boulevard Montparnasse I paused outside La Coupole, an extraordinary 1920s-style brasserie. I first ate there with my school-friend Clive back in the very early 1970s. He was teaching at Vincennes at the time, at the experimental university later bulldozed to the ground; and brought with him a secretary from the faculty, Marie-Louise Azzoug. I fell in love with over the extended meal, – and never saw her again. [Clive lived in Paris all his life,  teaching at various bits of the decentralised Sorbonne. We saw a lot of him in the mid-1970s and often watched rugby internationals together. He died some fifteen years ago, and his God-less funeral at Père Lachaise on a very wet day, which was also Good Friday, is a grim memory.]

I was too mean to eat at the Coupole, and ate instead at one of the numerous Breton crêperies. And then walked on through Notre Dame des Champs to the Jardin de Luxembourg. This is where Susie and I used to walk in the winter of 1976-77, admiring the beautifully turned out French little children. And trying to pick names for our own not-yet-arrived but on-the-way first child.

After that I walked up rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon. Passing rue Cujas reminded me of the days when OUP was building a relationship with the Library Marcel Didier, who had been pioneers of the audio-visual method of language learning. While we were in Paris Marcel Didier, formerly based in the Quartier Latin, over-extended into a big warehouse down at Palaiseau, which may have contributed to their subsequent demise. Henri Didier, the second-generation head of the firm, offered me a job in 1977. But I was just about wise enough not to take it.

From the Pantheon I made my way down the Montagne Saint-Geneviève to the river for a glimpse of the building site that is Notre Dame. Easily my favourite church in Paris. Joanna brought Amelia to Paris when she was very small and, after lunch at Chez Janou, we walked across here to the Ile de la Cité and took the obligatory photos.

By now I had walked almost enough. But I made my way along the river, round the back of the Palais de Justice [cue images of Rupert Davies as Maigret], over the Pont Neuf and up towards what was once Les Halles. Where Paul and I spent two fruitless nights in 1961 under the mistaken impression that we might make contact with a lorry-driver returning to Marseilles. I photographed the bistro on Place des Victoires for Joanna’s benefit and made my way back to the Gare du Nord.

A city of memories and might-have-beens. And a few ghosts too.

December 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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