Like most foreigners, I was required to take classes at the Sorbonne, a short walk from the Foyer. I was incredibly excited, as I took my seat in the huge amphitheatre for my assigned course on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the celebrated 18th –century novel in letters about seduction and betrayal.
Given the pedigree of the Sorbonne (founded in the 13th century), I expected to be instantly transported to sublime spheres of erudition.
That part was true, but sadly, the famous professor stood at the podium and read his lectures, never looking up to notice that most of the students were nodding off. Despite the boredom, I didn’t give up on the novel itself, which I took to heart, occasionally imagining myself as an 18th-century marquise. That never quite worked out.
Returning on this trip to take a snapshot of the famous courtyard, the scene of the student riots in May ’68, I was disappointed to find it closed to the public because of travaux. But standing on La Place de la Sorbonne, the thrill of crossing the threshold came back unbidden.
Paris in January is not anyone’s dream vacation: skies are permanently gray and you have to carry an umbrella. It seems particularly ill timed unless you are there for les soldes, the fabulous sales (which I managed to miss). So why did I go to Paris right after New Year’s? As I embarked on the penultimate revision of the memoir, I wanted to see whether I could still feel what it was about the city that made me live there for six years when I was young—and then, with the passage of time, write about it. Did the place still resonate with me? Or had I made it all up?
I decided to make a pilgrimage to Le Foyer International des Etudiantes at 93 Boulevard St-Michel, where I lived during my first year in Paris. The Foyer was my belated introduction to dormitory life since I had lived (miserably) at home during my college years. Despite the fact that we had a 1 a.m. curfew, which meant you’d be locked out for the night if you missed it, the Foyer turned out to be a scene of freedom.
I was assigned a roommate, whom I call Monique in the memoir, and with whom I maintained a transatlantic friendship over the years. I often stayed in her apartment when I traveled back and forth to Paris after I had become a mere tourist and not a dug-in expat.
This January, I also stayed in the apartment, on a bed made up in the studio where she had written several books of art history. But it was not a reunion. My friend died of pancreatic cancer last year, and I slept in the room surrounded by her library, whose shelves were dotted with family photographs. The two rooms—our dorm room and her study—fused in my mind, as past filtered the present. Oddly, despite the decades that had passed, I felt reconnected to what we always called “l’année du foyer,” the year we lived together on Boulevard St-Michel, room 203, and never imagined being old.
I’ve always been attracted to the margins of the main story, anecdotes, sidebars, and especially footnotes. Now that my books appear without footnotes, I miss them. I’ve been looking for a way to recreate them, and I may have found it, here in this online diary.
I thought I’d begin with incidents related to Breathless: An American Girl in Paris to be published by Seal this Fall. The memoir chronicles my life in Paris in the early 1960s when girls were not Lena Dunham’s adorable HBO Girls, but just girls in our twenties, nice girls from good schools with conflicting desires. These nice girls (in my case, Nice Jewish Girl) wanted freedom from convention—usually sexual—and made many bad choices with bad boyfriends along the way.
Besides a few stories, I plan to share some images of the book re-imagined as a graphic memoir—a side project that is close to my heart—as well as photos of some of my Paris haunts from the 60s taken on a recent trip.
And then, I’ll take it from there.
Please join me as I try to find my way through this virtual labyrinth.