Among all the cities of Europe that fell under the Nazi boot in the Second World War, the loss of Paris touched a raw nerve among those who fought the German war machine.
Paris was no Stalingrad, fought over from house to house, nor was it the victim, like London, of merciless aerial attack. It stood as a symbol of culture and freedom — of what had been lost to the Nazis and what must be regained for the world.
When Paris fell to the Germans on June 10, 1940, it truly seemed as if, in the words of an earlier British foreign minister, the lights had gone out all over Europe.
By August, 1944, the Allied armies including a sizable Fighting French force under General Jacques Leclerc, was fighting its way across France. As town after town was liberated, Free French leader Charles de Gaulle met with General Eisenhower.
Allied forces were at the River Seine, yet no effort was being made to go into Paris. “I don’t see why you cross the Seine everywhere, yet at Paris and Paris alone you do not cross,’ de Gaulle told the Allied commander.
The truth was that the Allies preferred to by pass Paris, only taking the city later, after the Nazi armies had been finally smashed. It would take the divergence of four thousand tons of supplies a day to feed the hungry five million of the French capital.
In Paris, a Communist-led Paris Liberation committee saw things differently. Its leaders wanted to present de Gaulle with a fait accompli: a new Paris Commune, a capital that would be forced to accept Communist rule.
When the Resistance began its uprising in Paris, no one knew how the Germans would react. German commander, General Deitrich von Choltitz, had orders from Hitler to leave the city “a field of rubble.”
It took a secret mission by a Gaullist sympathizer who carried word to U.S. General George Patton that Paris was descending into civil war to force the issue. Eisenhower finally gave the go-ahead, and Leclerc’s Free French began the march on Paris.
At dawn on Friday, August 25, 1944, Simone de Boivoir was up at dawn to see Leclerc’s soldiers march down the avenue d’Orléans. “Along the sidewalks, an immense crowd applauded … From time to time a shot was fired; a sniper on the roofs, someone fell, was carried off, but no one seemed upset, enthusiasm stamped out fear.”
That night, General de Gaulle addressed France from the l’Hotel de Ville, the city hall of Paris:
“Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people, with the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the eternal France!”
There would be no Paris Commune. De Gaulle and the Allies had arrived in time
Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?
A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.
I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.
Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?
Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.
And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.
Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.
How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!
When I visited Paris with Deborah last year we had a very pleasant dinner at La Ferme Saint-Simon, on a little street just off blvd. St-Germain, of course on the Left bank. So naturally, I went back there Saturday night, having first reserved online. La Ferme is one of those stand-by French restaurant, not great, not horribly expensive, but a place that very much gives you the feel of the country. I chose Souris d’agneau brisee. What can one say? braised lamb is braised lamb. The glass of Chablis was a reward for being there. (I happen to think that dish for dish, Lyon and Brussels serve better food than Paris.)
When one dines alone, one must try to compensate by closing observing the neighboring diners. Two men at nearby tables with their ladies intrigued me. One, a balding, bespectacled fellow wearing a jacket, sweater, shirt and tie, stood out from the rest of the men in the room, most of them dressed ultra-casually. This man did something I’ve not seen in years. He drew from his pocket a cloth handkerchief and dabbed at his face. I didn’t know they made those things anymore! I put him down for a retired insurance company adjuster, perhaps a throwback to the ancien bourgeoisie. The other gentlemen looked precisely like a Quebec politician, now dead, who I once knew. Genes do tell.
Forgive me if I sound touristy, but all travelers have to walk, eat, sleep and see the sights. I did my gawking in the morning when, true to my research needs, I wandered along Quai d’Orsay to a stark five-story sandstone building on rue Saint-Dominique that now houses the Ministry of Defense. It is where Gen. Charles de Gaulle had his office before the German occupation, and to which he returned on Liberation Day to find not a thing out of place. On the way, I encountered one of those delights for which Paris is so famous – a tiny square called Place Samuel Rousseau (I think this Rousseau was a composer), behind which stands the Basilica of Saint Clotilde. Enjoy the picture!
Two touristy encounters: A new dodge is for street people (Algerians, apparently) to bend over a few feet from you and feign picking up a gold ring. It happened twice to me. The first time, the woman pretended it would not fit her, then offered it to me. Next, she asked for coffee money. I gave her a few coins but declined the ring, which she quickly pocketed. A little later, a young man tried the same thing.
Alliance Francaise handled my registration with dispatch, and I soon possessed a “student” card which will give me entry to a month of French classes starting Monday (Oct. 1). This is the real reason for my trip to Paris – to fulfill a long denied ambition to better speak and read French as an aid to my tesearch for various projects.
Also on Monday, I’ll be buying my month’s pass on the Metro for 62 Euros ($80), compared to the $115 the TTC charges Toronto commuters. Before that, I’ll find my way to the 12th Arrondisement where I’ll be staying with a French couple, the Lefis, for the extent of my visit. More later.