For my spring semester abroad I arrived at the big old-fashioned apartment of Pauline’s grandmother on the Avenue Mozart (she’d taught me to say “Moh-Zar,” not “Moht-zart” as we pronounce it—correctly, I might add) with 17 pieces of luggage and an extra taxi. For the door on the ground floor Pauline had given me the “code,” whatever that was. I saw a panel with some numbers and punched them and wedged my hat box in the heavy wood door, lacquered teal blue and adorned with a heavy round brass knocker. Though I’d tipped them extravagantly the drivers had just dumped my bags on the sidewalk. I moved them all into the big entrance hall to the building of rather dirty black and white tiles and smelling of fish (cod, as I later learned, since the concierge was Portuguese and ate nothing but bacalao). She looked suspiciously out through her lace-curtained window and disappeared. Wasn’t it her job to help me?
The elevator was big enough for only two people. I decided to haul everything up in three trips to the fifth floor and the entrance to Mme de Castiglione’s apartment (in French with two ps, appartement). When I got everything up there I sat on my suitcase for three minutes till I stopped perspiring, then rang her bell. I didn’t expect her to hug me exactly, but I did expect her to greet me in slow but precise French with a formality and a certain warmth.
Instead she looked at my mountain of matching Vuitton luggage, put her hands on her hips, and snarled, “Mais non! C’est impossible! Vous exaggerez, ma chère. You have rented only a chambre de bonne, a maid’s room one floor up, and you can never fit all that—” She made a wide, despairing gesture and tilted back her head, lips downturned.
“This is not the Ritz. Oh, non, full of American clothes, no doubt.”
Still clucking like a broody hen, she gave me a key to my room and said, “I’ll see you at eight for dinner,” then slammed the door. I sat down on my biggest suitcase and sobbed. But I decided to be peppy and happy, like a true Tri-Delt, and within three minutes had pulled myself together, carried all my bags up in three elevator trips, found the right door, and let myself into a maid’s room with a sink, no toilet, one window, a room no bigger than my closet in Dallas, the narrowest bed I’d ever seen with the thinnest mattress and just one coffee-stained blanket and a pillow, which, if you peeked under its crisp white pillowcase, you saw had turned tobacco-yellow with years of sweat. Other people’s sweat. There was no closet and no armoire, just three wire hangers stuck into cracks in the wall. Everything smelled of old copper wire—or was that roach spray?
I discovered the toilet behind a curved door halfway down the stairs. It had a bare bulb, nothing to sit on, just two scored ceramic tiles on the floor, where you were supposed to place your feet, squat, and let fly into a stinking hole in the floor. The whole thing was no bigger than a phone booth. I couldn’t see any trace of toilet paper, though some scraps of a newspaper—Le Figaro—were probably intended for mopping up, which might have been okay if you had a bidet, which I didn’t. I assumed the shower was in Mme de Castiglione’s apartment.
No, the whole thing was impossible! I would rent a proper hotel room nearby where I could leak in comfort and hang my clothes and bathe but I would pretend to live here so I could still have my total immersion in French (if not in soapy water) and eat French food and participate in the life of impoverished aristocrats. Tomorrow I’d get my hotel room while Madame was out and tip two bellboys to move my luggage. And get myself some great croissants (I’d researched a patisserie across the street called La Flûte Enchantée). Next door there was supposed to be an art nouveau hotel with green glazed tiles and the inevitable dragonflies (libellules).
Something built by Hector Guimard, the man who did those wonderful old noodle metro entrances under the fanning pebbled glass awnings.
It was only six o’clock, so I decided to go out for a walk. I was in a very tight skirt and bright colors and high, high heels. It took me a moment to realize I had to push a button to release the front door.
Everyone looked at me oddly, the men with interest and the women with disapproval, or was I just being paranoid? Although it was January, the air was surprisingly warm and pregnant with moisture, as if it might rain at any moment, stop the moment after—and it wouldn’t really matter except to my hair. I looked around for the Flûte Enchantée—and spied it! And it was open. I walked in and queued up behind four rather dowdy older women and rehearsed what I would say, but the other customers looked at me and one even clucked, whereas a saucy teen behind the counter pretended he’d just touched something hot with his hand, hissed, and shook his fingers in the air as if to cool them off. In my best French I said, “A crescent, s’il vous plait,” and the cheeky teen scrunched up his face in confusion and the man behind me said, “Elle veut un croissant,” and tipped his hat. I smiled. The boy said,“C’est trop tard, y’a plus.” The man translated (very loudly), “NOT MORE.” I smiled my thanks. When I finally chose a coffee-cream pyramid called a “nun,” une religieuse, the clerk waved his hand impatiently, as if I were a fly, and then pointed to the cashier. “PAY NOW,” the nice man said.
When I finally returned to my room, I devoured my creamy nun, hoping it would spoil my appetite, since the food was bound to be as austere as my room. I made sure in the cracked mirror that my mouth showed no signs of pastry. I opened my one window and lay down on my sagging bed and stared at my ceiling, which was low and had beams buried in the plaster, rough-hewn supports that looked surprisingly primitive in prissy ol’ Paris. The bells were ringing in several neighborhood churches and the breeze had turned cold. It was January 20.I would rent a proper hotel room nearby where I could leak in comfort and hang my clothes and bathe but I would pretend to live here so I could still have my total immersion in French.
When I went down to dinner after taking a maid’s bath at the sink (washing under my arms and my neck, my heine and my cooze) and applying fresh makeup and lots of perfume, Mme de Castiglione greeted me at the door, invited me into the shabby salon, indicated where I should sit on the couch, introduced me to her other boarder, Justine Goldwasser, a name she pronounced with an obvious emphasis on the last name, as if to indicate I must avoid saying anything anti-Semitic, which she was implying might be my first impulse in polite conversation.
Justine, I learned after I posed a few questions (Mme de Castiglione later taught me that questions were considered rude in France), had grown up in Zurich. Her first language was Swiss-German though she assured us she was also fluent in “real” German. She was a sullen girl with dirty hair and a dirty face, dressed in an almost laughably anonymous way. She said she wanted to learn French and English, since she was obliged someday to take over the management of the family “palace,” which I learned must mean a luxury hotel in the Alps.
Mme de Castiglione, holding herself erect on the edge of her chair, said, “This is the last occasion we speak English—to welcome Madamoiselle Cravfjord.”
“Crawford,” I corrected.
“Yes,” she repeated, “Cravfjord. This is the elegant French pronunciation. Would you like an aperitif?”
“Don’t go to any bother.”
“I wouldn’t. Elegant French people drinks an aperitif before their souper.”
She stood, poured me a thimbleful of sweet vermouth, and handed it to me. I smiled but her face was blank, or rather composed, like a salad of cooked vegetables pressed and shaped into a dome. “Thank you,” I said. “Merci.”
She said nothing back and I assumed it was inelegant to answer, “You’re welcome,” though I learned later the tacky French-Canadians say, “Vous etes bienvenu,” a horrible Americanism. The real French might ironically mime doffing a plumed hat and mutter, “Pas de quoi,” making their compatriots smile at the antique foolishness of it all.
“And you?” she said, turning to Justine. “As the Italians say, ‘What beautiful thing have you did today?’”
Justine ran a hand through her bushy hair and shrugged. Was she rude or shy? I wondered.
“Eh bien, I have been busy searching the black fabric. See!” Madame de Castiglione pointed to a pile of bunting. “I will put it in the window tomorrow. January 21st is when his majesty Louis the Sixteenth was beheaded. For us it is a national day of deuil.”
“Mourning?” I asked. “But I thought France was a republic with a president.”
“I looked you up in the encyclopedia,” I said brightly. “They suggested you weren’t ancient regime at all but that the countess of Castiglione was Napoleon the Third’s mistress.”
“My poor Yvonne,” she said. “I never thought I would be discussing my own genealogy—which goes back to the Crusades—with a Texane—oh! How amusing!” And she laughed mirthlessly. “We’re having pas mal of work to make you a lady. Now our aperitif is finish we go in to dinner.” She smiled, showing her bad teeth. “First lesson. Do not talk so loud. Here in Paree we say there are two bad accents—the American and the Cantonese. Mademoiselle, you must lower your voice. Also no loud clothes—but that is tomorrow’s lesson.” Wearing her dirty old sweater (sa petite laine), a blouse yellowed with age, a straight black skirt, and worn-down spool heels, she led the way into the dining room, which was brightly lit (“So we can see our food”), the table outfitted with a patched white damask cloth, matching napkins and an array of forks (the tines turned upside down), two knives—one big, one small, the blades facing out—a soup spoon, and, above the plates, lying horizontally, another soup spoon, all describing, it seemed, some obscure Masonic symbol. The utensils looked from another century, with heavy Baroque handles. Three glasses of different sizes, faintly etched with worn gold swirls. The tableware was the only sign of a now-vanished wealth.
“I don’t know where to begin,” I confessed in what I hoped were more moderate tones.
“Yes, we’re a long way from Dallas,” Mme de Castiglione said primly. I wanted to knock her in the puss. “Start from the outside in. And sit up straight, your back not touching the chair, both hands on the table.”
“In Dallas—” I started to explain.
“We’re not in Dallas, heureusement.” She spooned out a watery soup with a ladle from a tureen. She poured a minuscule glass of white wine, which tasted like turpentine.
“What heavenly celery soup,” I lied.
“It’s a classic soupe de legumes. But we don’t comment on the food. It’s assumed that the cooker made it; of course it’s good. If you are offered seconds you may say, ‘Merci,’ which means no. You may add here, ‘But it is delicious,’ or better, simply, ‘It is very good.’ In aristocratic families the way you hold yourself at table is extremely important; it say everything about how you were elevated. I know in America you eat soup from the side of the spoon, but in Paree from the tip.” And she demonstrated the proper method, like swallowing a liquid medicine. I wanted to ask why, but I knew it was as senseless as challenging the rules of grammar.
“Where were you brought up, Madame?” I asked, wanting to show a Tri-Delt interest in the other and shift the subject away from table manners. “You must never ask that of a Parisian. It suggests they might have a provincial accent. And you must not ask them what they do for work. What if they don’t work? Many of our best families have never worked.”
“What do you talk about?”
“The movies. That’s safe. Your upcoming holiday in Thailand or Granville, a seaside resort at Normandy, two hours from Paris. Or other people’s sex scandals.”
“You can talk about sex?”
“Of course! Histoires de cul, ass stories, sex stories, considered very gay and osées and amusing. Sex but never money.” I eventually learned that if Americans talk about money to avoid talking about sex, the French discuss sex instead of money. I was thoroughly confused. I had never been at a loss for words before, but now there was a long silence, which I broke by asking, “Are there any good movies playing at the moment?”
Madame said complacently, “I wouldn’t know. Since I am widow I do not go out except to play bezique with my friend la princesse de la Tour du Pin.”
Justine roused herself and said, “It’s what you call peaknuckle—is that how you say pinochle?”
“That’s just how you say it!” I exclaimed agreeably. On a roll, I asked of Madame, “Do you play with a group of senior citizens at a community center?”
“I go to the hôtel of the princess. It’s a game for two people.”
“Oh, she has a hotel? Here in the neighborhood?”
“Now we will eat delicious topinambour.”
Justine said, “Ugh. Jerusalem artichokes.”
Madame stood. “Or rather you will eat them. I repose me. Bonne nuit, Madamoiselle Goldwasser, bonne nuit, Madamoiselle Cravfjord.”
“Bonne nuit, Madame de Castiglione,” we said in chorus, half-rising from our chairs.
After she glided out of the room, Justine said, “This shit is not eatable. This is the third night she’s served this scheiss. It’s what people ate during the war. My father pays for real food. Meat!”
“So,” I said, “what’s the deal with Madame?”
“That was her nickname in le monde before the war.”
“She was known as Spanky?”
“They were all Anglophiles. She was very Mer-Mer. That’s what they call the upper-crust, named after the Merovingian dynasty, one of the earliest.”
“They claimed to be descendants of Jesus Christ—but did Christ have children?”
“Search me. Maybe a brother or cousin. So she was very snazzy, our Spanky?”
“Lord, yes. Dressed by Jacques Fath. Her grandmother was a favorite of the Bourbon pretender to the throne, Henry the Fifth. Now they all make a fuss over the Orléans pretender, the Comte de Paris, who lives in Morocco because he’s forbidden to live in France. Forgive me, I’m studying French history, so I’m up on all this crap. As recently as 1870 his grandfather was offered the throne, but he refused to wear the cockade because that was a symbol of the Revolution, so they withdrew the offer.”
“Are there many of these royalists over here?”
“Better say ‘monarchists,’ or else they want to shit. No, not so many. Some are not aristos at all. They worship Joan of Arc, all of them. And that moron Louis the Sixteenth and that silly dyke Marie Antoinette. There are some Bourbons in Spain, friends of Franco, no doubt. Some monarchists favor them over the comte de Paris.”
“And Spanky?” I asked. “Did she collaborate with the Nazis?”
“Not at all. She’s a war hero. She and her husband were both in la Résistance and sent off to concentration camps. Her husband died there but she survived. Two of her uncles were killed in the camps as well.”
“What does she do with herself all day?” I said, not wanting to admire her. “Drink tea with other old bats?”
“No, she works as a volunteer nurse at the local hospital.”
“Why on earth?”
“It’s part of her whole Catholic bit. The hospital is Catholic, of course, and she empties bedpans and pushes wheelchairs—six hours a day. And she’s in her 80s.”
“I declare,” I said—I don’t think Justine knew what that meant; she scrunched up her face as if she were a car in a car wash. “She must be very pious.”
“Oh, she is. She has a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary next to her bed, smiling down at her as she sleeps. And a prie-dieu in the corner. And she goes to Mass every morning on her way to the hospital.”
I thought she’d like my sister more than me.
Justine added with a conspiratorial smile, “In French they call these ladies ‘frogs in the holy water.’”
“That’s rich. How do you say that in French?”
“Des grenouilles dans l’eau bénitier, I think. I’m not sure. My English is much better than my French.”
The next day I managed to move into a suite in the hotel next door. I tipped the bellboys handsomely. I took a long shower until the hot water ran out. I waited for the cistern to heat up again and I washed my hair. Then I decided to stop by American Express to cash another check; I got the hotel switchboard to connect me and I asked for directions. Rue Scribe behind the opera house. I tried to hail a taxi and a nice older woman, very neatly dressed in a suit, cape, and gloves, explained in English that I had to walk a block to a taxi stand and wait my turn. Why did everything have to be different?
With my money from American Express in hand I entered a grandiose café and was shown to a little round pink marble table surrounded by bad florid paintings of blowsy women with pink tits framed by acres of carved gilded wood. The second half of the menu, to my surprise, was in English; then I realized that the only other customers at 11 in the morning were other Americans. As I heard their flat, boring voices I thought I’d never escape the curse of being born on the wrong side of the Atlantic. Why wasn’t I created as a French countess? I asked God, as if he were a master of heraldry or the editor of the Bottin (as the French called their high-society Blue Book). It seemed so unfair to be a big-boned, big-toothed American bimbo, head empty of thought, heart full of banality, with sloping shoulders, pockets heavy with lucre, and a ready smile (too ready). A stylish French couple, perfectly turned out and heavily perfumed, elegantly unsmiling, came in with a little girl of five or six, who chattered gaily until her mother shushed her. The child lowered her head and shut down. When she became voluble a moment later, the mother said, “People are looking at you!” as if that were the worst fate imaginable. People—at least me—were looking; I returned my eyes to my café crème. Using an exaggerated theatrical whisper, the child chattered on and I thought, How unfair she can speak French and I can’t!
I was morose for a full six minutes and then decided, in the best Theta tradition, to pick myself up and become practical. I gave myself three assignments: (1) learn fluent French; (2) become a French aristocrat; (3) turn haughty. Tomorrow I would figure out how to do all three. I knew I was smart enough—I had only to look at my identical twin, who was brilliant! I was young, rich, beautiful—and a Texan, which Pauline had told me the French thought of as “fun,” except she made the same mistake most French speakers make and said “funny.” Anyway, more amusing than a dour Bostonian or a transactional New Yorker. Texas had an air of fantasy about it, of cow-punchers, barbecue, and unimaginable riches. It was gushing with oil; Texans were loud, proud, and exhilarating, eager to buy the best, whether it was a jewel, an Old Master, or a titled husband.
As I glanced out at the opera house, which looked to me like a Victorian inkwell, I thought of that ambitious, social-climbing young man at the end of Balzac’s Père Goriot, which we read in Miss Smithers’s French 301, the guy who looks at Paris lying at his feet and says, “It’s up to you and me now”—“à nous deux, maintenant.”
Excerpted from A Saint from Texas by Edmund White. Copyright Edmund White © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.