Ilze Berzins

Chapter 1

I could never stand to be a tourist anywhere, and most especially not in Paris. My journey across the Atlantic was no summer vacation, no Junior Year Abroad. I was making a pilgrimage to the magical city I had loved forever, and where I’d live until the day I died—or that’s what I foolishly said to myself way back then.

In the fall of 1963 I had just turned twenty-one. I was  a big, strong, energetic  young woman, in love with everything about Paris. And the intensity of what I felt gradually found an echo, warmed Paris, coaxed it to open its fabled glorious arms and embrace my youthful adoration.

Slowly, very slowly, I began to feel at home and gradually I became part of the tribe. It took a while. Years, actually. Until I realized that to really fit in, to truly belong,  I would have to marry the  first Frenchman who asked me. (But that comes later.)

There were so many experiences, encounters, adventures. So much that I don’t know where to begin. And so it’s best to start at the beginning.

Growing up in French Canada (Montreal) I was however educated a l’anglaise. I went to McGill University when I was fifteen. I loved learning. The English classes (Shakespeare ,  Milton etc.. ) seemed dead and dull  and I quickly gravitated to the French department. Classes  were taught by native French professors. If you know anything about Canada you’ll know that there’s a vast difference between Continental French and Quebecois. The Quebecois I had heard all around me I found to be an ugly version of a wonderful language. Besides, the Quebecois people at that time were considered … well… white niggers,  to steal a phrase from separatist Paul Vallieres. Les Negres Blancs de L’Amerique is the title of a book he wrote which caused a sensation – and an awakening.

I longed to get away from it all and connect with the birthplace of the wonderful literature I had enjoyed – Proust, Camus, Colette, St Exupery, Sartre, Simone de Bouvoir and a plethora of writings that had set me to thinking about … well… man’s fate. La Condition Humaine written by intellectual par excellence Andre Malraux caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic.

I had a record collection: Jaques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Leo Ferre, Edit Piaf and many others. The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Not my world.

It wasn’t only literature and music which made me into a Francophile. My mother and grandmother spoke French. Going to the French Lycee in Riga was the proper education for well-to-do Latvians until the Bolshevik occupation. My great aunt Berta had made regular pilgrimages to Paris for her seasonal wardrobes. Even my uncle had a French tutor. So how could I escape this family tradition?

In the fifties and sixties my family was struggling. Both parents were working. My brother and I had after-school jobs. There certainly was no money for frills like Junior Year Abroad. But I worked very hard. I waitressed and saved my tips. It was all for my grand adventure.