By James G. Wills
Spending her junior year of college in Paris was a seminal event for Phyllis. The Paris experience drew Phyllis to New York, where the trajectories of our lives came together and she became a maritime lawyer. Turns out it was equally important in the lives of her classmates.
A year or so ago one of them was inspired by an idea — what about bringing as many as possible together for a reunion in Paris? Michael, who’d had an eventful career in the State Department, enlisted Cliff, who’d gone on to a career in international banking. They started hunting for the fifty young men and women who came from colleges around the U.S. in the fall of 1966 for a year in Paris with the Institute of European Studies.
This past October, 15 members of the class of 1966-1967 pulled their chairs into a circle at Columbia University’s Reid Hall in Paris and began to tell their stories.
Several talked about how their French was minimal when they arrived and how difficult it was, but after months of struggle they realized with joy they were dreaming in French.
Studying abroad was different in a time without cell phones and Skype. Home was far away. They were on their own and suddenly independent as they immersed themselves in a different culture.
This was a time of transition for a country still recovering from World War II. It was a time of shortages. Phyllis recalled that cut-up newspaper was used as toilet paper in some places and they were restricted to once-a-week baths.
It was a time of political and economic reform — Charles de Gaulle was president under a new constitution and the French economy was being restructured. It was also a time of literary giants, intellectual ferment and “New Wave” cinema. The student riots of 1968 were only a year away. Phyllis shared a photograph of Andre Maurois autographing his book Climats and recalled the thrill of seeing Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance at the Palais Garnier. Several recalled the haunting melody from A Man and a Woman, which came out in 1966.
Memories flew. Notre Dame Cathedral, black with soot, looked like it did in the film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Wooden metro cars. Skiing in the Alps. A trip behind the Iron Curtain to Poland and Russia.
What a year it was. “Like living a movie,” one of them said; it had been “the most wonderful year of his life.”
The stories that first night set the tone for a week of camaraderie. On the next night we had dinner at Le Grand Bistro Breteuil in the 7th arrondissement, where there was more reminiscing. In the days and evenings that followed, members of the group and their spouses got together in groups large and small, choosing from a potpourri of excursions and events depending on interests.
Visiting the present offices and classrooms of the Institute of European Studies. Seeing Paris from the Seine. A tour of the Musee d’Orsay. A walking tour of French Revolutionary sites. A gourmet tour of Les Halles with cheese, wine, foie gras and eclair samplings. Seeing a Francois Truffaut exhibition at La Cinematheque Francaise. After-dinner drinks listening to jazz at Laurent Cafe on rue Dauphine.
A highlight for the group was the tour of Hotel de Talleyrand and the George C. Marshall Center. Few houses have been at the center of so much history. Overlooking the Place de la Concorde, it was built before the French Revolution for King Louis XV’s state secretary. In 1814 it was purchased by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, a man who served kings, revolutionaries and an emperor and survived them all. Until Talleyrand’s death in 1838 it was the place where, as Victor Hugo said, all the “glittering flies” of the times buzzed.
After Talleyrand came the Rothschilds and after them the American State Department, which bought the house in 1950 and owns it still. This is where one of history’s great success story’s played out — the reconstruction of Europe following the devastation of World War II. We saw the office where Averell Harriman spearheaded the Marshall Plan and rooms where meetings produced the earliest stages of European cooperation, the precursor for today’s EU.
Talleyrand’s old house is rarely open to the public. Thanks to one of the classmates and his connections we spent an inspiring two hours learning its 240-year history. Our tour guide was a State Department employee deeply involved in a recent renovation that took some of the rooms back to the way they looked in Louis XV’s time.
The week came together in an emotional finale at Lilane Restauant in the 5th arrondissement, a short distance from Hemingway’s old apartment. There’d been more to this reunion than nostalgia. The group had spent the week making new discoveries — not just about the city and country they loved; about themselves and the ties that bound them.
Going around the table with wrap-up comments, it was evident there would be an encore.
Jim Wills is a retired corporate and international lawyer living on Kiawah who has e-published three books in Amazon’s Kindle program. They are available through Jim’s blog, http://jwillsbooks.wordpress.com/.