My father shares his Paris with me
To Explain my father, I have to explain Paris. For me, it is a discovered city. Although I was born there, we left when I was 2. So my memories were formed as a visitor: when our family returned to see my grandparents, when I came to study French after high school, when I went for my honeymoon.
But my father's Paris is the experienced city: where he grew up, began his career, fell in love, and started his family. Perhaps that explains why we never fully connected as father and son. Shared spaces don't always lead to common ground.
But last winter, for the first time since I was a teen, we found ourselves in the City of Light at the same time: he to spend a couple months with his mother, I to have his mother (my grandmother) meet my daughter for the first time. And after the initial meeting, where four generations bridged, my father agreed to do something I'd wanted to do for decades: See the city through his eyes.
So on a bright, cool afternoon, we traveled together on the subway to the north side of Paris and walked along the Avenue de Clichy, one of those old-fashioned Parisian thoroughfares where the sidewalks stretch almost as broadly as the street itself. My father and I strolled past several cafes, a Tunisian restaurant, and an African market. He recalled a movie theater he used to attend and pointed out where his school chums lived. Then he stopped to remember the day an American parachuted out of an airplane.
"Now it was on this street or the next one, a pilot landed on one of these buildings. He tried to tell the people to let him get away. But the Germans got him and took him away."
This section of Paris has changed and diversified markedly since my father lived here. But none of that matters right now. We are back to the Occupation, that four-year period of Nazi control that seared itself into my father's memory. I look up at those 19th-century mansard rooftops, trying to imagine the scene. He was 9 when the Germans rolled in.
"The biggest thing was the food," he recalls. "We were hungry." Everything was rationed - except rutabagas. (To this day, my grandmother won't touch one.) My grandfather exhausted his savings buying food on the black market and still lost 45 pounds.
In one of the cafes that line the Avenue de Clichy, my father tasted his first cocoa after the war. "Do you know, I can still taste that chocolate to this day?" he says. Even though it was made with water and probably not very good, it remains the best he ever tasted.
Suddenly, on the right, opens Rue Gauthey - a narrow street I'd heard my grandmother mention a thousand times. A couple of blocks down, we stop at No. 24, an unremarkable seven-story edifice faced with that Parisian creamy gray, that can make the city look gloomy or luminous, sometimes at the same time. It looks gloomy right now.
My father points out the second-floor windows to the right of the entrance, where he and my grandparents lived. Two strangers - separately - begin to enter the building and my father goes over to talk to them. But he doesn't go inside. It has probably all changed.
Outside, he recalls the two warnings his father gave him in 1941.
First, if there was a knock at the door, he was to shut off the radio and turn the dial to something other than the BBC.
Second, if he spotted a car parked outside without gas cylinders on top, he was to go to a friend's house and stay there until his parents fetched him. Shortages forced everyone but the Germans to use natural gas to power their vehicles.
The Germans never came, directly, but my father remembers a neighbor who returned home one day, packed his bags, and left never to return - sent off, everybody surmised, to a concentration camp.
While he explains all this, I snap a couple of shots with him in front of the building. He's smiling, but it feels awkward. It's the first time I have ever taken his photo to preserve a memory like this.
A few blocks farther stands the school he attended. It has a new name now, but we can still make out the traces of the old lettering above the doors that announced the separate entrances - one for boys, and one for girls. He remembers a math teacher who kept looking out the window for suspicious cars (he found out later the teacher was a member of the Resistance) and friends who would chalk Vs - Winston Churchill's famous victory symbol - on the school walls. And every day, German soldiers came and erased those signs.
Did my grandfather, a banker, work in the Resistance? I'd never thought to ask before.
"He delivered leaflets of news - real news, not the German propaganda - to someone in the bank who distributed them. If he had gotten caught, he would have been imprisoned. But I think that's all. He never spoke of anything else."
We head for the department store where my grandmother worked during the war.
"I had the best shoes," my father says out of the blue. Leather and rubber were so scarce that the soles of them were fashioned out of wood.
"When the sidewalks were wet, you could slide. Whenever it rained, there would be groups of boys sliding down the sidewalk."
The store has been modernized - a grocery on the first floor, everything from cutlery to clothing in the basement. We find no traces of the past. Our tour is coming to a close.
It only strikes me later that Paris was something we'd never truly shared - until now. We head back to the subway.
"I'm sorry there's so little to show," my father apologies.
I can't begin to tell him how much he already has.