December 28, 2014 5 Comments
In my past few posts, I’ve been describing my first experiences living in Paris in 1977. (See longer post below.) Since my first weeks in Paris seemed like a chaotic carnival, I’ve chosen the Saint-Saens piece today, simply for the title. The work really has nothing to do with chaos, and in fact, Saint-Saens was clearly a traditional composer who at the end of his life was horrified by the impressionism of Debussy and dissonance of Stravinsky. In fact, because he did not embrace the new composers, he became a bit reviled, but he actually was one of the greatest French composers of the 19th century. Because he had been a prodigy and then composed rapidly and prolifically, he has been dubbed the “French Mendelssohn.”
It is ironic that Saint-Saens is best known for Carnival of the Animals and especially the movement for cello entitled “The Swan.” Saint-Saëns himself was worried that it would not be taken seriously by the critics of his day so he forbade its publication. It did not see the light of day until after his death and it instantly entered into the repertory. His fear was justified—most people don’t regard him as a “heavy-weight.” That is too bad. I know it kept me from approaching his work seriously and I was blown away a couple of weeks ago when I heard a movement from one of his violin concertos, which I would rank among the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.
My Carnival in Paris
My last few entries have focused on my arrival in Paris in January of 1977. Looking back over my journal entries from those first days there has proven difficult for me. When writing this post, I discovered a cache of letters that I had written at the time to my friend, Thom Klem, who remained in Bloomington, Indiana and shared an apartment with another acquaintance, David T**. At one point in our friendship, he thought it important to sent me back all my letters, for which I am eternally grateful. Otherwise, my memories of that time period might have metamorphosed into more rosy ones. Truth be told, it’s interesting to see the patterns of the depression that eventually overtook me. It also makes me marvel at how my friends remained friends despite all my wild mood swings.
During those first weeks in Paris, I went from elation and fascination to abject misery. As I mentioned, I fell right into a ready-made community of Americans who were on their junior year abroad. They were nice enough—they gave me leads on places to stay, escorted me around Paris, invited me to dinners, went to movies with me, and over all acted quite civilly toward me. Unfortunately, I had little in common with them. The all went to a private university, which meant they came from fairly well to do families. Their careers were charted for them—doctors, lawyers, MBAs. Coming from a working class background and wanting to be an artist, I felt somewhat out of place among them.
Everyone seemed paired up as well, which fed into my depression and made me feel profoundly lonely. There was a rather raw-boned, opinionated girl in the clique who took a fancy to me, but I could not find it in me to reciprocate and ended up hurting her feelings. There was one guy, who I became closer to, a Vietnamese immigrant who had been adopted by a car dealer and his wife in somewhere like Kentucky. His name was Thai H**, and I think we hit it off because we both felt like outsiders.
Thai’s mother and father had been active in the government in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Fearing for their children, they pulled some diplomatic strings and managed to send their child off to the US to some nice Christian couple. Thai quickly mastered English and was something of a mathematical and engineering whiz kid and was enrolled at Rice College in Texas. After Vietnam fell in 1975, his mother and father were captured by the communists and rehabilitated. When I met him in Paris, he was anguished—his mother had gotten in touch with him and was putting pressure on him to return to Vietnam and give up his posh, bourgeois life-style in the States. He had started tapping into the sizeable Vietnamese community in Paris and had even started reading some Marxist literature.
On my good days, he and I would go exploring Paris—visiting St. Etienne Du Mont church in the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon and Sorbonne, or Sacre Coeur, Saint Chapelle, or other little gems in Paris. On bad days, I would find myself riding around on the subway for hours, as I went investigating pitiful rooms for rent at exorbitant prices. Any time things didn’t go the way I wanted, I took it personally and used it as an excuse for vilifying the city or its inhabitants. I had come with the intention of learning to speak French, but when I opened my mouth Parisians would instantly detect my accent and start speaking to me in English—sometimes English that was worse than my French. What else did I find to hate—oh yes: the weather in Paris. It seemed to rain every day and I ended up caching a horrible cold.
Originally I had intended to study French, but it that fell through. The crowd suggested going to the Alliance Francaise, but then others counseled against it. I might get stuck in a class of people from non-Indo-European language families, they warned. After become a language teacher years later, I realized that might not have been such a bad thing. We would have only been able to use French as our lingua franca, and we might have become friends. (And I might have gotten invited to some neat parties with interesting food.)
The last straw came when I thought I had finally found a room only to have it fall through. A friend of a friend had shared a flat and his roommate had moved out. I was a shoe-in. But then for some reason, he changed his mind. I figured hanging out with this group of ex-pats wasn’t doing anything for my French, so I decided to leave Paris. My plan was to head to points south—Marseilles, Cannes, or Nice—find a small cheap hotel and spend my time writing and hanging out with the locals. My grandmother had given me the address of distant cousins who reportedly lived in Grenoble. Another fallback plan was to go visit them if things didn’t work out in the south.
After that, I started feeling better emotionally. My cold, however, worsened and as I boarded the train headed for Marseilles, I began to worry about my cold. I had developed an intense sore throat and hacking cough. What if I got sick and died in a squalid little hovel on the côte d’azur?
As you’ve guessed by now, that didn’t happen and though I pity the poor tortured soul I was back then, that trip to the south of France turned out to be just what I needed.