Monday, April 10, 2006

Rendezvous in Paris...

We both went back to our respective universities in September and continued sending each other letters, tapes and little mementos to each other. His letters were usually five pages long and in French. French was a language that I knew mainly from my truly pathetic attempts to study it at school, with a series of terrible bored teachers handing out lists of vocabulary and conjugasions. As a family we had visited France several times and I was always the one sent to buy a baguette or the entrance ticket but my French was basic and, like most English people, I couldn't pronounce the rolling 'r' and vowels very well. The usual response to my verbal French was ashrug of the shoulders and a 'je ne comprends pas...'

I did manage to scrape an 'O' level in French in 1986 but only with extra home tuition. My writing was childish to say the least and at the best boring, on the lines of 'Il fait beau aujourd'hui.'(it's sunny today). So when my French love-letters arrived in the post I had no idea what he was talking about half the time. I certainly had never been given that kind of spelling to learn. So I wrote back to Jacques in English, the same chatty five pages describing my life, my work and my thoughts. I did listen to the tapes though, which to me when I translated them as best I could, were suicidal. A chap called Jacques Brel singing about a lost postman or a dead son? It was awful and I began to wonder if I was missing the plot? Why would anyone send such sad songs?

We had a brief rendezvous in the autumn of 1989, when I was in Paris researching Raoul Dufy, the French painter for my art history dissertation. Jacques was passing through Paris too that weekend. We met for dinner near the Gare du Nord. It was a set-menu and we hardly ate anything except the dessert, mousse au chocolate, which came in a huge bowl with two spoons to share. Our language was limited but we communicated with gestures and smiles. Shortly after the meal he announced he had to go for a haircut. I wondered if I was understanding him properly. A haircut? Instead of a night with me? I found after several years later that he was going to stay with a family friend who was a hairdresser and he could not avoid it. My hopes of a romantic liaison in Paris were dashed as he courteously deposited me at the hotel nearby and practically ran away for his train!

Still the romance continued on paper and with the odd phone call. In the spring of 1990 I was writing my dissertation on the French painter and artist Raoul Dufy. A new book was published in France, which catalogued all his work and was essential to my work. My university librarian said there was no hope of it ever coming to their shelves since it was in French and expensive. Then the glossy newly printed book arrived in the post - a present from Jacques! That was the best thing he could have done and surpassed a million red roses and boxes of chocolates! I dedicated my dissertation to him.

For the long summer holiday in 1990 he invited me to accompany him on the Trans-Siberian Express from Budapest in Hungary to Beijing in China. It was only 60$ return trip. But the thought of being stuck on a train for a week was off-putting (where did you wash and what about toilets?) and I wasn't that bothered about seeing China then. I was more interested in Eastern Europe. So I declined and he went ahead anyway. But since I didn't have a job lined up I decided to have one last interesting summer holiday before my student card ran out. I booked a month long student Euro rail pass to cross Eastern Europe. Inter-railing for a month round Europe by train in the summer was so popular it could almost have been included in the university curriculum, but East Berlin, Prague and Budapest? These countries had just broken their Communist ties and were opening up to freedom. That was exciting! So I planned to meet Jacques on his return in Budapest. He would recount his tales of Russia and China and I would have some adventures in Eastern Europe on the way...

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