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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
21: ... in which the Old Boy Network Finally Pays Off -- with a Paris Gal Pal
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak
Old Nassau on the Right Bank
Something I think about even now, as I struggle to get back to France: The qualities I get, or would like to get, from my three cats, particularly in their manners of dealing with their final days and months: From Mesha, my black and white European male, grace. From Hopey, my tortoise-shell calico, determination; we had just moved to the country, living outside a tiny burg in the southwest Dordogne department of France, she must have thought the river we lived on the largest bowl of water she'd ever seen -- inveterate faucet licker that she was -- and came back from a coma to march three times to the Vezere river, panting and pausing along the way (except when the black horse ran towards her, she thought chasing her, the electrified fencing invisible to her eye). From Sonia, resilience; if a cat has nine lives, I counted 14 for her, the number of times Sonia defied death, particularly in her last year before her battery finally ran out at 20-something. For me, determination has often meant failing at something when I no longer had a clear reason to want to succeed at it, then trying again when one became apparent. Inevitably the failure -- when a situation no longer worked -- came when the bottom fell out of my social life. So it was that I left Princeton -- once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to study with people like Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Fagles, Stephen F. Cohen, and Ellen Chances not being enough to keep a lonely 19-year-old in school (today I would go back just to have time to read; education is wasted on the young) -- then came back not so much to study but because I wanted to be a journalist, and already as a freshman I'd risen to managing editor of the campus weekly and exposed a case of collusion between the student government and the daily newspaper involving a future governor and eventual eminent jurist. In my second go-round, I'd tried out for a student group called the University Press Club whose members acted as correspondents for local and national papers and wires, and promptly written a front-page story for the daily Trentonian when Princeton's nuclear fusion reactor started up for the first time (only just accepted to the club, I'd been monitoring events over Christmas vacation; "nothing ever happens"), then written about the Princeton gargoyles for the New York Times as a summer replacement stringer before the press club kicked me out because I refused to stop writing for the paper when the regular stringer returned in the fall. My social circle falling apart again, I'd left Princeton for a second time. The student affairs vice president (a.k.a. "the Kraut" for her German accent and severe manner) was unsympathetic, when I pleaded personal problems; "Other students are able to have personal problems and not let it affect their school work."
I'd come to peace with my ambivalent feelings about Princeton -- about my failure to finish my studies, as I viewed it (in fact, a sponge for learning even if I didn't graduate I'd absorbed some valuable lessons, notably a looped-out lecture by Chances, a Russian professor, about how we all live in boxes, and Professor Oates's theory that the Suicide ((she used it as a noun)) is not really expressing a wish to die, because you can't wish for a negative, but another wish, e.g. "I want you to listen to me"; all this in a pamphlet she'd given me after I'd written a first-person story in which I spoke of committing "small suicides"; only Joyce Carol Oates could critique a Suicide!) -- when I lived in New York before moving to Paris. (Another student in the class, J.D. Salinger's son, had written about his elusive father vanishing in the rain after exiting from the back-door of a car.) (Indeed, my first creative writing teacher at Princeton, Reginald Gibbons, an arrogant poet, had not wanted to pass me on to the next level. He'd been annoyed by a story I'd written in which I'd sliced up each typed page to one-inch wide ribbons each of which had only one word, my way of dealing with a ruptured friendship with an Italian girl, Sonia, who had been my best friend in high school. So I'd appealed to Joyce, submitting another story I'd written hatched by closing my eyes and typing five letters which more or less approximated "ELYSIUM"; I was aping a novella by Joyce in which she claimed to be channeling a dead Portuguese poet ((she even sub-titled it, "Tales from the Portuguese.")) When she over-rid the poet Gibbons and accepted me, I made the story my first submission for the class. Every one hated it but Joyce, who liked my expression "the mysterious phlegm." ((It was only when she savored the expression out loud that I realized it wasn't pronounced PHLEGEM.)) Distressed by my classmates' rejection, I sought Joyce's advice. "I never read my reviews," she solemnly told me, an oath I recalled years later when a critic for the Saturday Review, writing about a novel in which Joyce had aped Fagles's translation of the Oresteia by opening her story with a flock of winged black birds a.k.a. furies, compared her to Snoopy hacking out "It was a dark and stormy night," provoking an angry letter to the magazine from Joyce.)
My best friend at Princeton -- my precept teacher for the Russian Literature course -- now a dean at the college, and in whose eyes I'd thought myself a failure -- did not even remember when we RDV'd years later that I hadn't graduated. Sometimes our failures loom larger in our own eyes than in the eyes of those whom we think we've failed. So -- getting back to 2004 and Paris -- when I found myself once again struggling socially in the midst of a foreign culture (because the prep school culture of Princeton was as much, if not more, foreign to me, a graduate of San Francisco's Mission High School, the most cosmopolitan high school in the country, than France), willing to try anything I looked up the Princeton Alumni of France (they'd nixed calling it simply the Princeton Club of France because the acronym was the same as the Parti Communist Francaise, and ((Protestant)) G-d forbid that an alumni association of the school of Dulles should share an acronym with the Communists). As it turned out, the first gathering was a reception at a tony private club on the rue faubourg St.-Honore for Shirley Tilghman, Princeton's first female president. (As it happened, visiting Princeton on my 40th birthday in 2001 shortly before I left for France to be treated to lunch by my best friend at the faculty dining club, and stopping by the Communications Office, where I'd cut my chops as a reporter for the in-house campus weekly, I'd been handed a press release announcing Tilghman's appointment.) At the Q & A in Paris, I raised my hand.
"Princeton has not always been great about helping students with problems; when I had problems I was told, 'You're a Princeton student, you should be able to cope.' And having not gone to a prep school, arriving as a freshman I thought I was dumb, just because I did not understand the terms like other kids who had gone to prep school did. Have you done anything to change this?" Shirley -- as she's often referred to -- explained that Princeton now realized that one can be at Princeton and still have learning problems, and has a program set up to help such challenged students.
Afterwards, Pamela W., the president of the club, with whom I'd exchanged e-mails (it turned out she lived in my first Paris neighborhood, Sabine's, in a compact sixth-floor apartment in a banal sienna brick elevator building above the Franprix super-market off the rue des Martyrs, which she shared with an older Siamese cat, Boris, who could have been Sonia's twin), invited me to join a group of club officers being taken out for dinner at an expensive restaurant in the 1st arrondissement by the Princeton Alumni Association. Pam was seven years older than me but, despite my general later life predilection for younger women (having dated older women in my twenties), and that I generally wasn't turned on by women who wore their hair short (Pam's was a neat brownish-red) (perhaps as a Princetonian I should use the term 'bobbed,' in deference to my fellow non-graduate alumnus Fitzgerald) I was drawn by her lithe arms, bare in a sleeveless top. She'd been among the first group of women to enter Princeton (another story I'd written about for the Times), and had lived in Paris for about 17 years. It's a tired cliche I know, but Pam had a gleam in her eye and a slight up-turn to her thin lips that said you and she were the only ones in the room in on a joke, or rather who saw the situation as amusing. (What was amusing here was that to get me invited to the dinner, she'd told the visiting alumni association official that I was the club's vice president, a title which stuck.) So that even though Pam was the classiest woman I met in my 10 years in France, it was not a class that excluded hapless Harrigans like me. During the evening I must have made at least one faux pas, besides the jacket-less way I was dressed. I remember only that the waiter sniffed when I automatically asked for a noisette, the poor man's cafe creme, forgetting that I was not paying. "Oh, splurge a little and have a cafe creme!" said Pam. "Remember it's on Old Nassau." 20 years later, I'd finally been admitted to the club.
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