Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In the Footsteps of My Childhood

As a child I lived in Paris for three years corresponding to the academic years 1953-54, 1962-63, and 1967-68. Of the first year I, understandably, have no memories. I can recall the other two years with great clarity. So with Susie, and our friends John and Sheldon in tow, I set out to revisit some of the places I remember.

In 1962-63 my family and I lived on the Boulevard Saint Germain, just east of the Place Maubert. The building is actually more modern than that in my mind's eye, perhaps because in 1963 it hadn't yet been cleaned. At that time Paris was emerging from a century or more of coal grime. Systematic cleaning of buildings in the Sixties and Seventies transformed the city's color from dark gray or black to the light limestone tan you see today.

Our building had two stores on the ground floor, one of which was--and still is--La Joie Pour Tous, a toy store. The store's sign and display have both changed, the sign from a monochromatic serif font on a dark background to colorful all-caps sans-serif letters on a light background, and the display from a classic range of toys, such as boats for sailing on the pond at the Jardin du Luxembourg to a more crowded collection of boxes and costumes.

Nearby in our neighborhood were a couple of businesses that stand out for me now. One was a Chinese restaurant, called "Au Pays du Sourire," which still exists on the corner of the Rue de Bievre. The other was "Au Vieux Campeur," a outdoor-goods store on the Rue des Ecoles, which seems to be still thriving.

Every school-day morning my dad would accompany my brother Adam and me to catch the commuter train to our school, which was located in a suburb south of Paris. We would walk up the Rue de la Montagne Ste-Genevieve, a narrow, climbing street.

At the top of the montagne, so to speak, we would pass the church of St-Etienne du Mont. I don't recall ever having gone into this building. On this trip, though, we all went inside to find a surprisingly luminous and interesting church.

Across the corner from the church sits the massive bulk of the Pantheon, which we would, of course, also pass each morning.

In 1962-63, the commuter railroad south began at what was then called the Gare de Luxembourg. The RER system wasn't yet in place, and what is now the Luxembourg RER station was the start of the line, which was called the Ligne de Sceaux. The station still looks pretty much like it did in the Sixties.

The Ligne de Sceaux carried my brother and me south to the Parc de Sceaux station. From there, it was about two blocks to our school, the Ecole Nouvelle d'Antony. The school still exists. Indeed, in the 1990s I had colleagues from the Paris area who enrolled their children there.

The school's main building, which in 1962 was the school's only building, seems smaller to me now than it did when I was ten. In the spring there was a sort of history day where students gave presentations for the assembled parents. The performers, including me as a Phoenician, stood on the school's steps, with the audience standing below.

The school now has another, newer building, and a nice playground that I don't really remember.

The recess periods I remember the most involved walking as a class over the to the nearby Parc de Sceaux, a vast formal garden built by Le Notre for Colbert.

The park today is a much livelier, well-kept place than it was in the Sixties. Runners follow clean paths beside robust fountains rising from clear ponds. When I was a kid, the park was much sleepier. There were few visitors, the paths were covered with leaves, the fountains didn't play, and the ponds were full of aquatic plants--so much so that for a while I had the impression that the area was a sewage treatment plant. Since then, park has been beautifully restored, with cascades of fountains coming down to the main pond.

When not at school, my brother and I sometimes played in the Arènes de Lutèce, the arena for Roman Paris.

The Arènes are still there, and looking better than ever. Other kids from the neighborhood would come by on afternoons and weekends for pick-up soccer games on the terrain where gladiators fought wild beasts.

A class of schoolchildren visited the Arènes while Susie and I were there.

A third place for recreation was the Jardin du Luxembourg, which are the formal gardens for the Palais de Luxembourg, built for Marie de Medicis and now the home of the French Senate. The Jardin remains hugely popular--perhaps even more so than in the Sixties because the garden's chairs are now free. When I was a kid, as soon as you sat down a person would come by to collect a franc.

At age ten, the big attraction for me was the chance to sail a model boat on the circular pond in front of the palace. For a modest sum, you could rent a boat (and a stick) for an hour and run from one side of the pond to the other to turn the boat around when it reached an edge. I saved up my allowance for many weeks and bought, at La Joie Pour Tous, my own sailboat.

The rental boats today have colored sails, but the fun is clearly still there for new generations of Parisian kids.

In 1967-68 we still lived in the 5th Arrondissement, but this time on the Rue du Val de Grace--fairly near the Luxembourg RER station, in fact.

At the end of our block, on the other side of the Rue St-Jacques, stood the chapel of the Hopital du Val de Grace, an imposing baroque pile. I never saw the inside of that church, either, and I'm not even sure how you'd get in.

Our building still stands on the north side of the street. From our apartment's balcony you could look left and see the Val de Grace.

In 1967-68 Adam and I attended the Lycee de Sevres, which had an international section. Susie and I have friends in Paris with school-age children; these friends indicated that the Lycee de Sevres was still highly popular with expatriates here. Going to school involve a bus ride to the Gare Montparnasse and then a train ride to Sevres. That year, the year of Mai '68, the strikes, Danny-le-Rouge, tear gas, riot cops, burned cars, occupied buildings, and exhilaration, will have to wait till future post so that I can do it justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment