In the past ten years, Women’s Voices has posted scores of stories about romantic love—adolescent love, fraught love, long-lasting love, love betrayed. For our Valentine’s Day coverage this year, we cast a wider net: We looked for stories about love in the broadest sense of the word—romantic love, sibling love, love for one’s community, love for a friend, the love between parent and child . . . Here’s the sixth story in the Valentine’s Day series we’re calling LOVE IN ALL CONTEXTS. —Ed.
“Il n’y en a plus, ma belle” – “There are no more, Beautiful”— said the red-faced newsstand proprietor, the wheat straw cigarette firmly glued to her lower lip. I was too late to get a copy of the International Herald Tribune before boarding the Metro at Place de la Republique in the 11th arrondissement and heading to my job in the Latin Quarter. It was 1977 and I was working in Paris while my French husband completed his military service. I had a working permit, a bank account, a studio apartment on the Right Bank, and now, with the newsstand lady’s recognition and casual greeting, I at last felt like a real Parisienne. It heralded a love affair that continues to this day.
If you are a romantic, you can’t help but fall in love with France. And if you are lucky enough to spend some time there and learn to love it properly, then France will always welcome and forgive you no matter how long your absences. It’s been too long since I’ve visited, and I think of France more and more, like a wife in an unhappy marriage dreaming of escape with her lover.
This is not to say France is easy. In the beginning, the struggle to acquire fluency in my adopted language left me drooling at the end of the day, my facial muscles aching with the effort to pout my lips and slacken my jaw to form unfamiliar diphthongs. I was terribly lonely much of the time, with few friends, my husband away at boot camp. But the ups and downs of those two formative years in Paris locked the city and the country into my heart like diamonds in a safe deposit box.
Paris is achingly beautiful, and I walked everywhere. I haunted English language bookstores like Shakespeare and Company, where I got to know the curmudgeonly owner. I bought secondhand books and he would buy them back after I had finished reading them. My little neighborhood was like a small village, and the shop owners were invariably kind to me, like the pharmacist who dramatically pantomimed inhaling a cold medicine over a bowl of steaming water, and the drugstore lady who gave me a box of Tampax on credit when she couldn’t change a 500-franc bill. Even the guy who delivered wood for my small fireplace would let me drop by with a check after payday. And I still remember the taxi driver who, after dropping me and my friends at Harry’s New York Bar on rue Daunou, came back a half hour later to return the book and umbrella I had forgotten on his back seat.
When you are older, you are lucky to have friends who knew you when you were young. Twice in my life I have encountered friends from my youth after decades of absence, and we picked up the conversation as if we had parted only yesterday. And although it has been more than 20 years since my last visit to France, I would be delighted to pick up the conversation again, right where we left off. For me, France is a lifelong soulmate who has been my mirror since I first went there as a college student. France knew me when my heart was young and gay, welcomed me as a bride, forgave me my trespasses and shared the keys to knowing what is good in life. Now older, if not wiser, I still look to France as the beacon of all that is civilized.
I was so lucky to study in France in the late ‘60s, and to return married to a Frenchman in the late ‘70s. America’s stock was high in those pre-9/11 years, despite the Vietnam War. Almost everything American was universally admired, especially cars, movies, and music, at least by my generation. America was still the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, the only superpower worth emulating, with a huge, rich middle class. Yet France had so much to teach me.