La Belle France I. Sea Change
At five-forty-five in the morning, Paul and I rousted ourselves from our warm bunk and peered out of the small porthole in our cabin aboard the SS America. Neither of us had slept very well that night, partially due to the weather and partially due to our rising excitement. We rubbed our eyes and squinted through the glass, and could see it was foggy out. But through the deep-blue dawn and swirling murk we spied rows of twinkling lights along the shore. It was Wednesday, November 3, 1948, and we had finally arrived at Le Havre, France.
I had never been to Europe before and didn't know what to expect. We had been at sea for a week, although it seemed a lot longer, and I was more than ready to step onto terra firma. As soon as our family had seen us off in fall-colored New York, the America had sailed straight into the teeth of a North Atlantic gale. As the big ship heeled and bucked in waves as tall as buildings, there was a constant sound of bashing, clashing, clicking, shuddering, swaying, and groaning. Lifelines were strung along the corridors. Up...up...up...the enormous liner would rise, and at the peak she'd teeter for a moment, then down...down...down...she'd slide until her bow plunged into the trough with a great shuddering spray. Our muscles ached, our minds were weary, and smashed crockery was strewn about the floor. Most of the ship's passengers, and some of her crew, were green around the gills. Paul and I were lucky to be good sailors, with cast-iron stomachs: one morning we counted as two of the five passengers who made it to breakfast.
I had spent only a little time at sea, on my way to and from Asia during the Second World War, and had never experienced a storm like this before. Paul, on the other hand, had seen every kind of weather imaginable. In the early 1920s, unable to afford college, he had sailed from the United States to Panama on an oil tanker, hitched a ride on a little ferry from Marseille to Africa, crossed the Mediterranean and Atlantic from Trieste to New York, crewed aboard a schooner that sailed from Nova Scotia to South America, and served briefly aboard a command ship in the China Sea during World War II. He'd experienced waterspouts, lightning storms, and plenty of the "primordial violence of nature," as he put it. Paul was a sometimes macho, sometimes quiet, willful, bookish man. He suffered terrible vertigo, yet was the kind to push himself up to the top of a ship's rigging in a fierce gale. It was typical that aboard the tossing SS America he did most of the worrying for the two of us.
Paul had been offered the job of running the exhibits office for the United States Information Service (USIS), at the American embassy in Paris. His assignment was to help promote French-American relations through the visual arts. It was a sort of cultural/propaganda job, and he was well suited for it. Paul had lived and worked in France in the 1920s, spoke the language beautifully, and adored French food and wine. Paris was his favorite city in the world. So, when the U.S. government offered him a job there, he jumped at the chance. I just tagged along as his extra baggage.
Travel, we agreed, was a litmus test: if we could make the best of the chaos and serendipity that we'd inevitably meet in transit, then we'd surely be able to sail through the rest of life together just fine. So far, we'd done pretty well.
We had met in Ceylon in the summer of 1944, when we'd both been posted there by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Paul was an artist, and he'd been recruited to create war rooms where General Mountbatten could review the intelligence that our agents had sent in from the field. I was head of the Registry, where, among other things, I processed agents' reports from the field and other top-secret papers. Late in the war, Paul and I were transferred to Kunming, China, where we worked for General Wedemeyer and continued our courtship over delicious Chinese food.
Although we had met abroad, we didn't count our wartime in Asia as real living-time abroad: we were working seven days a week, sleeping in group quarters, and constantly at the beck and call of the military.
But now the war was over. We had been married in 1946, lived for two years in Washington, D.C., and were moving to Paris. We'd been so busy since our wedding day, September 1, 1946, that we'd never taken a proper honeymoon. Perhaps a few years in Paris would make up for that sorry state of affairs and give us a sort of working honeymoon. Well, it sounded like a good plan.
As I gazed through the porthole at the twinkling lights of Le Havre, I realized I had no idea what I was looking at. France was a misty abstraction for me, a land I had long imagined but had no real sense of. And while I couldn't wait to step ashore, I had my reasons to be suspicious of it.
In Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation. My tall and taciturn father, "Big John" McWilliams, liked to say that all Europeans, especially the French, were "dark" and "dirty," although he'd never actually been to Europe and didn't know any Frenchmen. I had met some French people, but they were a couple of cranky spinster schoolteachers. Despite years of "learning" French, by rote, I could neither speak nor understand a word of the language. Furthermore, thanks to articles in Vogue and Hollywood spectaculars, I suspected that France was a nation of icky-picky people where the women were all dainty, exquisitely coiffed, nasty little creatures, the men all Adolphe Menjou-like dandies who twirled their mustaches, pinched girls, and schemed against American rubes.
I was a six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian. The sight of France in my porthole was like a giant question mark.
The America entered Le Havre Harbor slowly. We could see giant cranes, piles of brick, bombed-out empty spaces, and rusting half- sunk hulks left over from the war. As tugs pushed us toward the quay, I peered down from the rail at the crowd on the dock. My gaze stopped on a burly, gruff man with a weathered face and a battered, smoldering cigarette jutting from the corner of his mouth. His giant hands waved about in the air around his head as he shouted something to someone. He was a porter, and he was laughing and heaving luggage around like a happy bear, completely oblivious to me. His swollen belly and thick shoulders were encased in overalls of a distinctive deep blue, a very attractive color, and he had an earthy, amusing quality that began to ease my anxiety.
So THAT'S what a real Frenchman looks like, I said to myself. He's hardly Adolphe Menjou. Thank goodness, there are actual blood-and- guts people in this country!
By 7:00 a.m., Paul and I were ashore and our bags had passed through customs. For the next two hours, we sat there smoking and yawning, with our collars turned up against the drizzle. Finally, a crane pulled our large sky-blue Buick station wagon-which we'd nicknamed "the Blue Flash"-out of the ship's hold. The Buick swung overhead in a sling and then dropped down to the dock, where it landed with a bounce. It was immediately set upon by a gang of mécaniciens, men dressed in black berets, white butcher's aprons, and big rubber boots. They filled the Flash with essence, oil, and water, affixed our diplomatic license plates, and stowed our fourteen pieces of luggage and half a dozen trunks and blankets away all wrong. Paul tipped them, and restowed the bags so that he could see out the back window. He was very particular about his car-packing, and very good at it, too, like a master jigsaw-puzzler.
As he finished stowing, the rain eased and streaks of blue emerged from the gray scud overhead. We wedged ourselves into the front seat and pointed our wide, rumbling nose southeast, toward Paris. II. Sole Meunière
The Norman countryside struck me as quintessentially French, in an indefinable way. The real sights and sounds and smells of this place were so much more particular and interesting than a movie montage or a magazine spread about "France" could ever be. Each little town had a distinct character, though some of them, like Yvetot, were still scarred by gaping bomb holes and knots of barbed wire. We saw hardly any other cars, but there were hundreds of bicyclists, old men driving horses-and-buggies, ladies dressed in black, and little boys in wooden shoes. The telephone poles were of a different size and shape from those in America. The fields were intensely cultivated. There were no billboards. And the occasional pink-and-white stucco villa set at the end of a formal allée of trees was both silly and charming. Quite unexpectedly, something about the earthy-smoky smells, the curve of the landscape, and the bright greenness of the cabbage fields reminded us both of China.
Oh, la belle France-without knowing it, I was already falling in love!
At twelve-thirty we Flashed into Rouen. We passed the city's ancient and beautiful clock tower, and then its famous cathedral, still pockmarked from battle but magnificent with its stained-glass windows. We rolled to a stop in la Place du Vieux Marché, the square where Joan of Arc had met her fiery fate. There the Guide Michelin directed us to Restaurant La Couronne ("The Crown"), which had been built in 1345 in a medieval quarter-timbered house. Paul strode ahead, full of anticipation, but I hung back, concerned that I didn't look chic enough, that I wouldn't be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.
It was warm inside, and the dining room was a comfortably old- fashioned brown-and-white space, neither humble nor luxurious. At the far end was an enormous fireplace with a rotary spit, on which something was cooking that sent out heavenly aromas. We were greeted by the maître d'h...