If I had to describe Paris in one word, it would be “grand.” If I had to describe Paris in five words it would be “a cafe on every corner.”
It’s taken me a few days to get oriented because there is a lot of ground to cover here. Also, I had friends in town, so we wound up having some long, leisurely lunches in cafes. Now that I know my way around and I’ve had a few days to rest, I can begin to recount my discoveries. I’ll start with today, since it was by far the crème de la crème in terms of fact-finding.
When my grandfather was assigned to his new role as the Monuments Man for the Seine Section, he began staying in his sister and brother-in-law’s apartment in Paris. (In other words, my great aunt and great uncle’s apartment). Aunt Louise and Uncle Dush had lived there before the war, but they had to vacate in a hurry, leaving most of their belongings behind. Today’s mission was to find their apartment.
My relatives had given me information about the address, so I knew it was located on the 7th floor of a building on the rue de l’Université. In the very least, I wanted to locate where my grandfather had stayed. I also hoped that I might be able to meet the current tenant and perhaps have a look inside. Since my French language skills are still in the very beginning stages, I used Google Translate, as well as the all-important phrases from my French tutor to put together a note the night before. Then, I wrote the message onto the back of a post card bearing the image of my grandfather standing on the steps of Neuschwanstein (top of this blog page).
Around 11am, my friend and I located the building. Next, we took photos and counted the floors. There were 7 in all. We could see the top apartment from the sidewalk level. After that, we inspected the entrance. The outside door was closed and it required a key code to get in. I could see the individual apartment buzzers inside through the window. There was a medical lab on the first floor with two open windows. We discussed the idea of calling out “Excusez-moi!” and handing the postcard through the window, but decided that would be a last-ditch effort. Instead, we crossed to the other side of the street and waited, surveying the scene.
After just a minute or so, we spotted a lady exiting the building. I ran across the street and showed her the post card explaining, “Mon grand-père a vécu dans cet apartement.” Without any hesitation, she smiled and held the door open for us. We were in! We looked at each other and squealed with excitement. “Now what?” We began to study the apartment buzzers. They all had names, but only two of them had numbers. How could we figure out which apartment was on the 7th floor? Just then, a repairman entered the building. We held the door open for him and again I pulled out my post card. After about 3 sentences, he asked me if I spoke English. (I felt like Matt Damon’s character in “The Monuments Men” film – embarrassed, but extremely relieved). He opened the second door for us and invited us into a very small, cage-like elevator. There was just enough room for the three of us and his toolbox. He was going to the 4th floor, so he wished us luck as we continued on to the 7th. When we reached the door, we could hear voices inside. I composed myself, got my post card ready, and rang the doorbell. A woman answered the door, so I began to read her my post card.
Mon grand-père a vécu dans cet appartement pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale. (Il est le deuxième à gauche sur cette photo). Je suis venu en France pour retracer les par de mon grand-père. Si possible, je voudrais vous rencontrer et voir l’appartement.
She went away and quickly came back holding the arm of an older lady, Madame L. I handed the post card to Madame L. and she began to read. She asked where we were from, then invited us to come in. We sat in her parlor and she began to speak in English. I got out my grandfather’s book and told the story of how he had stayed in the apartment 70 years ago.
Madame L. gave us the grand tour. There were three bathrooms, a kitchen, dining room, study, parlor, living room, and multiple bedrooms. Artwork decorated the walls as well as many black and white photos from past generations. The caretaker led us to the balcony where the view looked out over the Eiffel Tower. I imagined my grandfather enjoying the view.
We learned that Madame L. was 97 years old. She had lived in the apartment for 10 years, and she did not know the former tenants. She was very proud of her family, especially her husband who had lived to age 99, but had died two years ago. When I told her that I was retracing my grandfather’s footsteps through Europe, she thumped her cane on the floor and her face lit up. “You’re going to the places where your grandfather was,” she said in English. With a sparkle in her eye, she asked me how I liked my life in New York, and I said it was very good. Again, she thumped the floor and grinned. “How long are you in Paris?” she asked. “Just today and tomorrow,” I said. “That’s too little!” she exclaimed, and I knew she was right. After a photo together, we parted warmly with kisses on the cheek. I wondered what the walls knew.
It’s incredible to think about the ways that lives intersect. Thanks to my grandfather’s letters and books, I connected with Madame L. We had come as strangers, but we left as friends.
I love how my grandfather jokes with my great uncle about winding up at the apartment in the letter below. “You took my sister, I’m taking your apartmet.”
p.s. For the premier of The Monuments Men film in February, I wore a dress that belonged to my Great Aunt Louise, my grandfather’s sister (see the photo of me on the ABOUT page)!