Monday, April 18, 2011

My Year At The Sorbonne


By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
May 2011

Actually, my year at the Sorbonne was a year in Paris without the Sorbonne. You see, although I was registered for a Doctorat d'Universite I never attended any classes for the simple reason
they were all in French!

The year was 1951. In order to qualify for my G.I. Bill monthly check of one hundred and five dollars as a married man, I had to establish a subject for my thesis. I met with my advisor, who fortunately agreed to conduct the interview in English.

"Blake," I said.

"You Americans," he said. "All you know is Blake. Why don't you do Washington Irving in Spain. He's American, a wonderful writer. You could go to Spain and do your research there."

Although I had been an English major in New York, and had a Master's degree, I was woefully ignorant of Irving's experience in Spain. I vaguely knew he was the author of Tales of the Alhambra and later learned he was the American Minister to Spain. At another time, when I eventually got to the Alhambra, I was sorry I had not done any work on that thesis idea.

Never mind all that. I liked all his other work, which included The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, A History of New York, Rip Van Winkle and a host of other writings collected in The Sketch Book.

My wife Roz and I were overjoyed to devote the year to experiencing the food, wine and culture of Paris. Hotel living was far from pleasant, however. But fortunately the student services of the Sorbonne got us a small apartment in the fourteenth arondissement near Montparnesse where we thrived as happy residents despite the lack of hot water. The public baths and heating up enough water on our two burner stove for a bath kept us fit.

We did not have a refrigerator, but I loved shopping every day in the neighborhood food and wine stores and learned enough French to get by. One day in a butcher shop it occurred to me to ask the patron, "How long would it take to eat a cow?" I don't know what came over me to ask such a question.

"What did he say?" asked one of the local customers who was there that day. When he relayed my question to them an intense discussion on the fringe of an argument ensued until one asked, "How many in the family?" I don't recall the final result, but most of the group was satisfied with the response.

The cafe night life with the gang that we got to know was ideal, just hanging out, having drinks and engaging in hours of discussion on just about every thing. We were living the free life of expatriates soaking up all that Paris had to offer us in our twenties. The parks, the neighborhoods, the sites. You cannot describe how beautiful it all was. Late nights and sleeping in the next morning was a fragrant routine, listening to the French radio with some tantalizing comprehension. Reading so many books. Trying to write.

How we managed to find a beat up VW Beetle we could afford in a newspaper ad was a miracle of sorts, which gave us runs through France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Holland, often breaking down but finding people who could keep it going for very little. Each trip a story, documented in four notebooks we kept religiously. So many memories. Always wishing, wishing the dream would never end until we ran out of money enough to supplement our G.I. checks and had to return home to the U.S. to find work and our changed lives.

To this day, so many years later, we have applied the rich lessons we learned during those glorious days in the City of Light. Paris, we will never forget you.

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5 comments:

Don Merwin said...

Delightful, as usual!

Chris and Irwin said...

I so enjoyed this! It helped me imagine Irwin's early experiences in Paris.

jules said...

Elliott, moi aussi...in my twenties, a. year abroad...knowing that those opportunities are meant to be taken.

goldenduv said...

But did you crack the code of how the French eat so well and remain so slender (as you and Roz do)? Did you bring the secret home with you? And the answer is...

marilyn said...

I HAD NO IDEA YOU WERE IN PARIS FOR A YEAR. JOE AND I HAD OUR SECOND CHILD (MY SECOND, HIS THIRD) NICOLE, IN PARIS IN 1964 AND WE WERE THERE FOR A YEAR.

WE WENT TO THE ALLIANCE FRANCAIS EVERY DAY (I ALREADY KNEW SOME FRENCH). AARON WAS 4 AND WENT TO A BILINGUAL NURSERY SCHOOL. WE HAD A GORGEOUS APT. IN THE 6TH NEAR THE WALKING BRIDGE. THINGS WERE CHEAP, THE FOOD WAS WONDERFUL. JOE WOULD SAY IT WAS THE HAPPIEST TIME OF OUR LIFE.