A ghost at the Paris Salon

On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Norman and I wandered into a room that was hung with paintings in the old-fashioned way, covering the walls, much as paintings were once hung at the Paris Salon, although less crowded and in a smaller space.

The painting facing the door caught my eye – as it was meant to do. A hunter struggling in the snow and a ghostly figure, its back turned to the fallen man, walking away. What was going on here?

Actually, there are several answers to that question. But first, I should explain the connection to Paris. You might think (as I did at first) that a painting by a Canadian artist on a Canadian subject, found in a Canadian museum, had spent its life in Canada. In fact, it was painted in France for a French audience.

The painter’s name was William Blair Bruce and he was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1859. After a few false starts in his career (he studied law, and worked as a draughtsman), his parents let him try his artistic ambitions abroad. In 1881, at the age of 22, he travelled to Paris.

We can follow his life there through his letters home, some of which were published in 1982. William was close to his family. His parents lived apart, so he wrote to them separately, and to a younger sister, Bell, of whom he was fond. His mother and grandmother supported him as best they could, and he tried hard to justify their investment and sacrifices.

His letters describe the costs of being an artist in Paris. Paying for canvas, for paints, for models, for framing. But there were creative revelations too:

I have discarded almost altogether that former bane of my existence, BLACK PAINT, and I now live in a dreamy dreamy world of colour to which I have always shut my eyes in trying to get the force of light and shade…but now I have joined the hopeful band who detest darkness and earnestly turn their thoughts and actions towards the light…

After a year of study at the Académie Julian, William moved to Barbizon, where he enthusiastically took up painting “en plein air.” In April 1882, he wrote, “I have almost forgotten how to paint inside of a house, it is such a long time since I have done so.”

He was determined to succeed in the Paris art world, which to him meant the Salon. He followed his own intuition and interests and spent some time obsessed with the challenges of painting scenes by moonlight. But he also wanted to understand what the Salon judges were looking for.

A painting called Une lisière de la forêt – matin was accepted by the Salon in 1882 (the current whereabouts of this painting are unknown and no photos seem to exist). For someone so newly arrived in Paris, this was quite a coup.

My picture was received at the Salon all right and very well placed, I am just about wild with delight, for so many of the boys were “bowled out,” that I had given up all hopes for myself and had become quite resigned to take a back seat, when I received the notice. Golly I am just about the proudest hairpin you ever beheld.

The first hurdle was getting accepted. The jury would look at hundreds of paintings a day, raising canes or umbrellas to indicate their acceptance of a particular artwork, as shown in the image below. An attendant wrote “A” on the back of paintings for “admis” and “R” for “refusé.” The accepted works were then ranked. A number one got you “on the line” – that is, roughly at eye-level. Number two meant just above and number three above that. If your painting was not numbered, it was “skyed” – hung high up where it would be hard to see and impossible to get close to.

When William went to see his own painting in the Salon, he was already full of plans for his next effort. He was also selling some small landscapes, since, as he pointed out,

It don’t pay to sell pictures with figures in them at such low prices for it costs so much for models. For my next Salon pictures (they will be two six-footers) I will have to bring a model or two in and that means quite an out[lay] of cash, but when a fellow goes medal hunting, he must lay out the coin, for it is bound to pay a very large interest in the end.

He had learned two things that impressed Salon judges: size (“two six-footers”) and human interest – that is, stories and sentiment.

William began a study of a peasant woman and a young child. As Lois Fink has written, “Neither artists nor viewers seemed to tire of the drudgery or pleasures of French peasantry. Convenient, accessible, accustomed to having artists track through their fields and even their homes, French peasants of the nineteenth century became the most popular of all subjects for French and American Salon painters.”*

He worked in a garden belonging to an old woman in Chailly, just north of Barbizon. He paid her 1½ francs a day as his model, and 75 centimes to the young girl. He expected to take two months to finish the painting and was economizing. “I smoke but two cigarettes a day now, and wear a shirt for three weeks in order to put everything into my picture, and very likely I will drop the cigarettes before long.”

Three months later, he was still hard at it and had changed the composition to show a group of children in the background. He called it Temps passé. In April 1884, he wrote home: “My picture is accepted, numbered, and favourably mentioned. I know no more.”

Once again, the painting was exhibited “just above the line,” and in a good light. But William feared having the painting seized, since he could not pay his debts. Exhibiting at the Salon was an honour, but unless the paintings found a buyer, they did not bring in money.

Over the course of 1884, his letters reveal a growing sense of despondency. “I am pretty well paralyzed. I have had to exist on promises during the last four or five months…I have everything ready to commence my work and I am also penniless and distracted by debts, can’t sell a scrap, simply shored.” He considered giving up painting altogether.

In 1885, he decided to return to Canada. He sailed home in the fall, but suffered a further setback shortly thereafter: the steamer Brooklyn, which was carrying dozens of paintings he planned to exhibit in Toronto, was wrecked off Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in November 1885, and its cargo was lost. William suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a year recuperating at home.

He was back in Barbizon by late 1886, and in 1887 he moved to Giverny. (Did he meet Monet? If so, he never mentioned the fact.) That is where he began work on the Phantom Hunter. In October 1887, he asked his father to “hunt up an old snow shoeing costume and a pair of turned-up-toed snowshoes.” He spent Christmas 1887 in Sweden with the family of the woman he would later marry, Caroline Benedicks, a fellow artist. He was able to paint snow scenes in Sweden, but was still waiting for the snowshoes when he returned to Giverny in January 1888. He had six weeks before the Salon deadline.

On March 24, 1888, he wrote to his mother that his painting on a Canadian subject had been accepted by the Salon, and mentions that his inspiration had been a poem called “The Walker of the Snow” (see below for the poem). The hunter’s face is probably his own and the painting likely represents his own struggles and feelings of disorientation and despair.

That year seems to have been a turning point. The painting was a success and he married Caroline, whom he adored. She provided both emotional support and financial help (she came from a well-to-do family), and William gave up his all-consuming focus on the Salon. Eventually they moved to Sweden and settled in a house on the island of Gotland called Brucebo, where he painted marine landscapes and portraits (many of his wife), among other subjects.

William Blair Bruce died suddenly in 1906 in Stockholm, at the age of 47. His widow donated a group of his paintings to the City of Hamilton, and this donation led to the establishment of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

He is largely forgotten today – he experimented with so many styles that he never became known for any particular type of painting. And his name is regrettably unmemorable. But one of his seascapes is in the Musée d’Orsay. Other works are in Canadian galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The Brucebo Foundation supports Canadian artists, and allows them to work in the house he loved, shown below.

Perhaps he should have been more careful about what he wished for. In his determination to succeed in the Salon, he painted pictures that were expensive to produce. And large crowd-pleasers are not necessarily what individual collectors choose to buy. How many others who were acclaimed at the Salon did the same and are also forgotten now?


Text by Philippa Campsie. Photograph of gallery room and Phantom Hunter from the Art Gallery of Hamilton; photographs of William Blair Bruce, Bruce and Caroline Benedicks, and Brucebo from Wikipedia; photograph of Temps passé from the art gallery of Mount Allison University; photograph of the Salon Jury from the Grand Palais website. The quotations are from Letters Home 1859–1906: The Letters of William Blair Bruce, edited by Joan Murray, Penumbra Press, 1982.

* Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 204. This work is quoted in “ ‘I Have Arrived’: Canadian Painters Journey to the Paris Salons” by Tobi Bruce, published in The French Connection: Canadian Painters at the Paris Salons 1880–1900, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2011. The essay also describes the system of selection at the Salon.


The Walker of the Snow

Charles Dawson Shanly (1811–75)

Speed on, speed on, good master!
The camp lies far away;
We must cross the haunted valley
Before the close of day.

How the snow-blight came upon me
I will tell you as we go,—
The blight of the Shadow-hunter,
Who walks the midnight snow.

To the cold December heaven
Came the pale moon and the stars,
As the yellow sun was sinking
Behind the purple bars.

The snow was deeply drifted
Upon the ridges drear,
That lay for miles around me
And the camp for which we steer.

’Twas silent on the hillside,
And by the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion
To break the solitude,

Save the wailing of the moose-bird
With a plaintive note and low,
And the skating of the red leaf
Upon the frozen snow.

And said I,—“Though dark is falling,
And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome,
If I had but company.”

And then I sang and shouted,
Keeping measure, as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
As it sprang beneath my tread;

Nor far into the valley
Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me,
In a capuchon of gray,

Bending upon the snow-shoes,
With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
As we travelled side by side.

But no token of communion
Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
At the crossing of the brook.

For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
Left no footmarks on the snow.

Then the fear-chill gathered o’er me,
Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
Where the Shadow-hunter passed.

And the otter-trappers found me,
Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
As the snow in which I lay.

But they spoke not as they raised me;
For they knew that in the night
I had seen the Shadow-hunter,
And had withered in his blight.

Sancta Maria speed us!
The sun is falling low,—
Before us lies the valley
Of the Walker of the Snow!

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Get the “L” out of here

A recent Frantastique lesson contained a short animated cartoon called “Mort à l’Académie” (Death at the Academy). It opens with an ominous view of the venerable Académie Française, complete with thunder crackling overhead.


A bald man at a desk in a book-lined room presses the intercom and asks for the next word to be brought in. Seven letters enter the room: G-I-R-O-L-L-E. They shuffle about, looking nervous. The man apologizes briefly, “Sorry, but one of you has to go,” takes out a gun, and shoots one of the “Ls.”


At the end, the remaining letters are seen in a bar, drowning their sorrows and mourning the loss of the extra L. (The girolle/girole, by the way, is a type of mushroom.)


The video explains that the spelling reform carried out in 1990 by the Académie Française entered French textbooks in 2016. Ah, you double Ls, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Well, some of you, anyway.

Intrigued by this top-down approach to spelling, I had earlier bought a small book at a Paris newspaper stall titled Orthographe rectifiée : Le guide pour tout comprendre (Corrected Spelling : The guide to understanding it all), published in 2016 by the newspaper Le Monde. (I love the fact that I can buy this sort of thing at a stall on the street.)

Among other things, the book contains the text of a 1990 speech addressed to the Prime Minister of the day, Michel Rocard, by the perpetual secretary of the Académie and the chair of the orthographic task force, Maurice Druon.* Here is the second sentence:

Quand un premier ministre se penche sur l’état de la langue française, ce qui n’arrive pas tous les jours, il met ses pas, volens nolens, dans ceux de Richelieu.

When a prime minister takes an interest in the state of the French language – something that does not happen every day – he is following in the footsteps of Richelieu, whether he means to or not.

Note the elegant touch of Latin there: volens nolens. In English, we could translate it as “willy-nilly,” but that expression has nothing of the original gravity or sonority.

Druon goes on to state that Cardinal Richelieu had founded the Académie Française to give order and method to the language, to make it eloquent and pure, with the capacity to express ideas in both the arts and the sciences. Rocard had asked for adjustments to eliminate uncertainties and contradictions, particularly to help in formulating new words that were needed in science and technology.

It strikes me that there is a difference between Richelieu’s request for eloquence and purity and Rocard’s request for certainty and consistency, but let it pass.

The changes affect about 2,400 words. L’Office de la Langue française du Québec has published a helpful list of them, which it calls the “Banque de dépannage linguistique.” It’s a lovely way to describe a list, and immediately evokes the québécois institution of the dépanneur.

(For non-Canadians, a dépanneur is a Québec convenience store, open long hours, that sells food and other necessities such as wine and beer. Paris too has its convenience stores – indeed, we rely on them when we run out of something – but they do not use this name. Here is a classic dépanneur in Montréal.)


But I digress. The spelling new rules focus on:

  • the use (or not) of the hyphen (the new tendency is to eliminate it, creating compounds such as croquemonsieur, chauvesouris, and froufrou, but retain it for compounds such as chasse-roue or abat-jour; no doubt there is an obvious difference, but I forget what it is)
  • how to spell the plural version of compound words (basically, stick an “s” at the end)
  • the use (or not) of the circumflex and diaeresis: less is apparently more
  • various “anomalies” – girolle/girole was one such; it was compared to profiterole and bestiole and found wanting
  • words borrowed from other languages (globetrotteur? chichekébab?)
  • the silent “i” in words like oignon/ognon or joaillier/joailler.

I appreciate the desire to be consistent, although I note that the new rules themselves contain exceptions – the text includes several instances of sauf this and excepté that. I do wonder about the effect on Internet searches (I tried “ognon” on Google.fr and got 788,000 hits, but with “oignon” the number was well over 9.5 million). Neither the Larousse Dictionary on my mobile phone nor the French spellchecker on my desktop computer is with the program, of course. But I daresay that if it took 26 years to get the new rules from the Academy into the classroom, we have time enough for people and technology to adjust.

I will rather miss the circumflex on voûte, because it looks like a voute (vault). But it apparently serves no useful purpose. And hey, we get to keep the circumflex in the passé simple (nous voulûmes) and the imperfect subjunctive (qu’il voulût), which just wouldn’t be the same otherwise. They are supposed to look exotic.

All in all, the changes will make dictée more interesting. I remember terrifying dictées at school and during my time in France. Since you lost marks for every error, it was entirely possible to end up with a score of less than zero. My French roommate once cheered me up by playing Dis oui au maître” by Michel Fugain  – a song in the form of a dictée. The YouTube video includes some wonderful black-and-white images of French schoolchildren doing dictée. But now maitre has lost its accent and the accent was part of the song lyrics. Oh dear.


Dictée is a French institution, and it doesn’t necessarily stop when you leave school. Some people actually do it for pleasure in national competitions called Championnats d’orthographe, which have been held since 1971. They are open to both students and adults. And throughout the country, people engage in local dictée battles.

In Canada, the dictée banner is carried by La Fondation Paul Gérin-Lajoie: as I write this, the regional finals of the Canadian national dictée are taking place. This year’s theme is the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. If you’d like to test your own dictée talents, go to the website and try “Dictée audio.” There are free tests at all levels to try.

Given the French obsession with spelling, our friends at Frantastique/Gymglish recently launched a new course aimed at French speakers who want to improve this skill. We were invited to the launch last year, but we weren’t in Paris at the right time. However, during our December visit, I dropped by the company’s offices in the 12th arrondissement. I don’t often see the interior of French workplaces, and this high-ceilinged loft, with its jungle of plants and coloured lights, was a revelation.


I chatted with a long-term employee, Adrien, about the company, which offers lessons in English and French as a second language, and now, French as a first language. I find that remarkable. Native English-speaking people seldom feel the need to brush up on their spelling and grammar – even though many people could stand to take a refresher course. Some extremely talented writers in English cannot spell – that is what editors are for (or used to be, when publishers still employed them). I worked as a book editor for years back in the day, and I was used to fixing up spelling and grammar for people who were otherwise in command of the language (and for many who were not). So the fact that there is a market for teaching French to the French is interesting. But with all those new rules to learn, I guess one needs to stay on top.


Text by Philippa Campsie, cartoon images by Frantastique, image of a dépanneur from Google Street View, heavily altered; picture of children doing dictée from YouTube, photo of Gymglish office by Philippa Campsie, portrait of Cardinal Richelieu from Wikipedia.

If you would like to try a month of Frantastique lessons for free, to see how you like it, click here.

*For the complete text, see http://www.academie-francaise.fr/sites/academie-francaise.fr/files/rectifications_1990.pdf

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Paris Elevators: A Tiny Story

I am sure many of our readers have stayed in those small hotels that are so typical of Paris. Over the years they have been reconfigured to add modern conveniences that were not in the original design. We remember one that had a triangular-shaped bathroom shoehorned into a corner, where, if one were so inclined, one could open the French windows, sit on the toilet, and enjoy the view of central Paris outside. The shower stall was so tiny that there was very little room to do any actual washing without getting bruised elbows. If you dropped the soap, you had to get out to pick it up.

These buildings were not designed for elevators, either. But as this became the expectation of most visitors, many were installed in the stairwells. There was not much room, but an elevator slightly larger than a dumbwaiter could do the job. But what was the job? In an earlier era, the porter would carry the bags upstairs while the guests squeezed into the elevator and enjoyed the stately ascent to their rooms.


Alas, porters have disappeared in these smaller places, so the elevators have gained another function. In that same hotel (not the one pictured above), we did what was presumably expected of us: we put the suitcases inside the elevator, pushed the button for the appropriate floor, let the doors close, and raced up the stairs to await the arrival of our baggage. Passenger elevators had become freight elevators. And with their open metal cages and often lovely woodwork, they were the finest freight elevators I had ever seen.

Elevators are now a feature of most Paris apartment buildings. And we got to know one small one quite…intimately, last December. One Friday night, we were going to have dinner with friends, who live in a charming old building in the Marais. We had been there before and knew the elevator was tiny. We succeeded in penetrating the building with its different entry codes for the street door and the interior lobby. At that point, we had to make a decision.

Philippa asked me, “Do we take the stairs or the coffin?” I opted for the latter. It had been a long day, and my feet were tired.


We inserted ourselves into the tiny space. With our winter coats, plus a potted Christmas rose for our hosts in a paper bag, we were squashed. Fortunately, we don’t mind being close together. We pushed the button and after some hesitation, the inner doors closed and the elevator started to move. We ascended slowly for a few seconds. Then the elevator stopped. The doors opened, but instead of seeing the landing in front of us, we faced a concrete wall.

We pushed the button for the third floor again. Nothing. We pushed the buttons for some other floors. Nothing. We pushed every single button on the panel. No luck. We tried a button with the image of a bell on it. A bell rang. We called out, not too loudly at first, but with more alarm as time went on. No answer.

There was an intercom/telephone contraption on the wall, so we tried that. We heard some ringing followed by static. Then we were put on hold. We hoped that this particular corporate function had not been farmed out to some offshore location where the operators who were standing by spoke neither French nor English.


Then everything happened at once. Our friends upstairs heard our cries and the bell, and realized that since we were due to arrive at that time, it was probably us making all that noise. As we heard their voices coming closer, the telephone came to life. I was shouting to let our friends know where we were, and Philippa was shouting into the telephone. The lady on the other end asked for the address of the building; we provided it. Then she seemed particularly anxious to know the number of the floor at which the elevator had stopped. We had no idea, because this was not one of those openwork elevators with a view of the surrounding staircase. The walls were solid.

The edgy sense of panic receded once we were back in contact with the world. Our host went upstairs to call the repair company and returned with the news that a repairman was in the neighbourhood and would be there in 30 to 60 minutes. His wife stayed nearby and kept us talking. She said she had once been stuck in the elevator with her children and had told them stories to keep them amused while they were waiting to be rescued.

When the conversation flagged a little, Philippa sang a few Christmas carols, just to keep panic at bay. When she ran out of ideas for carols, she sang “O Canada” in English and then in French. Time passed.

The repairman finally arrived. When the inner doors suddenly started to close, we yelped in surprise. The elevator sighed its way downwards, the doors opened and we stepped out into the ground-floor lobby again. We reckon we had been in there for about 35 minutes. Had we a bottle of wine, we would gladly have given it to the repairman. We didn’t think he would want the potted plant. Nonetheless I think he understood we were very grateful. We bid adieu to our kind angel of mechanical mercy and walked upstairs to our friends’ apartment. Our host thought we might need something a bit stiffer than wine to start with, and offered Cointreau on ice. We highly recommend this for anyone in a similar situation.

Over dinner, we mentioned that on the Air France flight a week earlier, we had seen a 1982 film that is often replayed at Christmastime: Le Père Noël est une ordure (Santa Claus is a bastard). It is a frantic comedy set in the offices of a crisis call centre on Christmas Eve. In the film, one of the office employees, burdened down with gifts and food for her family in Creteil, gets stuck in the elevator when she is leaving the building. She spends much of the film in the elevator (one of the open kind) eating the Christmas food and using the children’s toys to try to extricate herself. When the elevator repairman arrives… well, maybe we won’t tell you, in case you ever see the film. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.

Here she is, as played in the film by Josiane Balasko. Alas, we didn’t have a trumpet to summon help.


When it was time to depart, we put on our coats, took one look at the door of the coffin (our host later told us that the dimensions of the floor were 52 x 54 cm or about 20 x 21 inches) and without discussion, walked down the stairs and into the Paris night.


We took the stairs more often after that.

Text by Norman Ball, image of hotel elevator from TripAdvisor (Hotel Langlois), photographs of elevator door and interior by Patrice Roy, photograph of intercom by Philippa Campsie.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris film, Paris hotels | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Life on the rue du Ranelagh

By the time you read this, we will have returned from Paris, where we spent Christmas. Friends had graciously given us the use of an apartment on the boulevard Suchet in the 16th arrondissement.

Ah, le seizième ! C’est un peu triste, n’est-ce pas ?” said a lady in a shop, when we mentioned where we were staying.

We knew what she was implying. The 16th is reputed to be little more than embassies and private streets, whole swaths of it closed off by iron fences and digicodes, automatic garage doors and frosted glass panels.

But as we walked along the rue du Ranelagh to and from the Metro or the bus, we saw plenty of life, too. Shopkeepers, students, dog walkers, movers and delivery people, parents with kids in strollers or on scooters, and, yes, expensively groomed women in fur coats, men in formal business attire, and plenty of gardiens.


Rue du Ranelagh would never make it onto a short list for the “Only Street in Paris” (the name of an enjoyable book by Elaine Sciolino). It is not a street that captures a little world; it is neither unique nor typical. Parts are attractive, parts are banal, and some bits are downright peculiar. But it is far from triste.

Let’s start with the name. When Philippa lived on the rue du Ranelagh as a student, she had a vague idea that it had been named for an Irish notable. Wrong. She should have noticed the all-important “du.”

If the street had simply been named for a person, the word “du” wouldn’t have been there. (See note on Paris street names below.) Rather, it is the street of the Ranelagh, and the name does not denote a person, but is an eponym for a pleasure garden. Such a garden had been established in 1742 in Chelsea, London, on land that had belonged to a Lord Ranelagh, and his name became associated with the place.

The creation of the Paris version in 1774 is attributed to someone called Morisan (nobody seems to know his first name). He is usually described as a “garde” at the Porte de Passy, but he was more than a gardien. Clearly he had the resources and connections to enclose some land belonging to the maréchal de Soubise, build a café, a restaurant, and a “salle de spectacle,” all of which were sufficiently upscale to attract the highest in society, including Marie-Antoinette. (Dances were held on Thursdays; this implies a clientele that does not work on Fridays.)

Morisan originally called it the “Petit-Ranelagh,” but dropped the “Petit” when the place became successful. It had a checkered career during the Revolution, but revived for a while in the first half of the 19th century, again, on Thursday nights. At this point, men paid three francs to enter, women paid one franc. According to an account from the 1840s, this was a good sign – one should avoid places in which women were admitted free.


Today, les Jardins du Ranelagh is the name of a park near the Musée Marmottan on the western edge of the city. There are rides for children (ponies included), marionettes, and a statue of La Fontaine, complete with renard, corbeau, et fromage.

The rue du Ranelagh lies south and east of the gardens, and spans the area between the old Petite Ceinture and the river.

Each day, we would approach the street from its farthest western point, crossing the route of the Petite Ceinture, which at this point is a nature trail in one direction and a dog-walking path in the other.


Some of the old rails are still visible.


When the railway was still running, there was a rickety-looking passerelle (footbridge) going up and over the line at this point.


Emerging from this strip of greenery, one is confronted by two huge buildings on either side of the rue, positively writhing with sculptures on their facades, one surmounted by a ludicrously high top that serves no apparent purpose; the other by a tower with a crest that is probably fanciful.


Facing these imposing residences across the Boulevard Beausejour (which parallels the railway right-of-way) is a structure the size of a detached garage, squashed between the road and the Petite Ceinture … La Cabane du Smartphone. Improbably enough, it appears to be a going concern. It commands a splendid view straight down the rest of the rue du Ranelagh.


The juxtaposition suggests that the rue du Ranelagh does not take itself all that seriously. A few steps farther on are a convenience store, a tailor shop, an interior design company, and a Sicilian restaurant. Commerce flourishes among the mansions.

This stretch of the street was the last to be developed, since it was at the outermost edge of the city. It includes several large detached houses, the late 19th-century equivalent of nouveau-riche suburban monster homes, built by people with pretensions.


The most eye-catching, a brick castle with a turret, shown above, is now the embassy of Suriname (hands up all those who would need Google to locate that country). Another is the embassy of Slovakia.

We were more interested in an anonymous house we passed. There is a blue rope leading from the iron fence at the street to the front door. Did it allow visitors to ring the bell without entering at the gate? Was it a crude mobility assistance device? At first, we never saw any lights after dark, but one evening the top floor was illuminated. Madwoman in the attic? A servant looking after the place? We had all kinds of theories.


At the corner of the rue du Ranelagh and the avenue Mozart, there are all the necessary shops – boulangerie, fromagerie, boucherie, poissonerie, wine shop, pharmacie – as well as a Metro entrance. The bustle here is the same as one would find anywhere on a commercial street.

A little farther on we pass a florist, where we bought a Christmas rose for friends, and the Lycée Molière, originally established as a lycée for “jeunes filles” in the 1880s, one of five established for young women only. It is co-ed now, but we were impressed by its origins.

Opposite the lycée is a woodworking business (ébenisterie). When we looked in, we saw a young woman efficiently restoring an old chest of drawers.


Another business, which we found weirdly fascinating, was the permanent make-up shop. It may be busy at other times, but when we passed we never saw anyone taking advantage of the facilities, which resembled a cross between salon and surgery.


In this part of the rue du Ranelagh, many buildings date from the 1950s or later. Their facades are forgettable, but many seem to have one delightful feature: at ground level there is glass on the street and the garden side, so passers-by can look through into the interior gardens. What a contrast to the hidden gardens of the older buildings! How very Republican. Liberté, égalité, visibilité. No more separation between inner and outer landscapes.


Most of the buildings have underground garages with sloping entrance ramps, but one day, we were amazed to see a door open and a car drive onto a car-sized elevator that would take it to its designated floor. We weren’t in time to photograph the interior, but here are the doors.


From the rue Raynouard east, the street descends towards the Seine, with the huge bulk of Radio France on the south side, made even bulkier by the paraphernalia of ongoing construction and renovation. We were interested to discover that before Radio France, this was the site of the usine à gaz de Passy.


At the river’s edge is a commuter train station named for avenue Président Kennedy, a gas station, and a graffiti-adorned car wash so small that it could be a pop-up. Norman saw a model of an Alfa Romeo there that he had never seen before. The car wash and gas station obscure the view of the river from the bus stop, where we would wait for a No. 70 to take us to the Musée Valentin Haüy, where Norman is pursuing his research.

After doing this walk backwards and forwards for more than a week, we concluded that the 16th was far from triste. It is a lively part of the city, not all of it hidden behind digicodes. But it takes some time to reveal itself.


Note on Paris street names: Streets are named for people, places, or things. In general, for a person, the proper name appears alone (avenue Mozart, rue Mirabeau). For a place name, it takes the particle de (rue de Rome, rue de Bretagne). For a thing (which might be a date or event), it takes the particle plus the article, that is, du, de la, de l’, or des (rue de l’Assomption, avenue des Peupliers).

There are exceptions, of course: sometimes a name includes a particle (rue de Tocqueville), and a name with a title or honorific is treated as a thing (avenue du Président Kennedy, rue du Docteur Blanche). Some names, like Ranelagh, are eponyms and therefore things. Masculine place names take the article (place du Canada) and sites such as former suburbs or gates are treated as things (rue du Faubourg St-Jacques, place de la Porte Saint-Cloud). Sometimes you just have to know whether a word is a name or a thing: rue Jasmin refers to a person with that name, not a flower, for example.


Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

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My life in France (Part 3)

Paris was exhilarating; Paris was exhausting. By Easter, especially with all the extra services the choir had to attend, I felt in need of a break. One problem: no money. Then someone at St. George’s Church told me that a few members had recently gone on a retreat at a Benedictine monastery. It sounded restful and inexpensive. It sounded interesting. I wrote to the Benedictines and asked if it would be possible for me to work instead of paying them for my stay. Of course, they replied. There is always gardening to do. And that is how I came to visit Bec-Hellouin in Normandy for the first time.

The abbey at Bec dates back to the 11th century. The parishioners of St. George’s had gone there because of its strong connections to the Church of England. William the Conqueror was from those parts and called on a friend from Bec Abbey, Lanfranc, to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the church had been destroyed during the Revolution (a tower remained), but in the late 1940s, a group of monks resettled the remaining abbey buildings. The former refectory – an austerely beautiful vaulted space in a Neoclassical building dating from the 17th century, which had been used as a stable during the Revolution – became the new church.


My destination was not the abbey itself, but the nearby Monastère Ste-Françoise Romaine, whose residents were called moniales, rather than nuns. The monastery was about two kilometres from the abbey and consisted of a main building and several large, comfortable houses for guests. One of the wonderful features of the place, for me, was the fact that on Sundays and feast days, the moniales joined the monks in the abbey, so they were able to sing the vast repertoire of four-part church music, rather than being restricted to women-only or men-only music. In fact, the choir was renowned and had made several records.

On the Tuesday after Easter, I left Paris early in the morning and took a train to Evreux. I bought a coffee in Evreux station as I waited for a bus. I was hungry, but I was anxious not to spend much money. Then a mother standing beside me bought her child a fresh brioche. That was too much for me. I bought one. I don’t think anything has ever tasted better.

The bus from Evreux wandered through the countryside, stopping in small villages. A couple of hours later, I got off and walked up the road leading to the monastery. As I approached, I saw the black-robed moniales were getting onto a minibus. Soeur Marie-Josèphe, the guest mistress, took my bag, put it under a seat on the minibus, and motioned me to a seat at the back. The moniales were on their way to sing Vespers at the Abbey, and I was apparently going with them.

At twilight, having had nothing more than that coffee and brioche all day, I found myself in a long hall made of pale stone, where the monks and moniales stood in a circle around the altar, chanting. The monks wore cream-coloured robes and the moniales wore floor-length cream-coloured veils over their black habits. They still do, as this image from the monastery website shows.


The windows of the former refectory were clear glass, with a view of fields and trees. The light outside faded, the candles in the church glowed. The music took me far away.

Back to the monastery in the minibus in the dark. (This was a special dispensation for a new arrival – after that, I walked to and from the abbey on my own, through the quiet Normandy countryside.)

After dinner, at which I struggled to stay awake, I was shown to a room at the top of one of the houses on the property. It was plain, but more comfortable than my Paris room, and joy of joys, there was a bathroom with a huge, claw-footed bathtub.

In this aerial view of the Monastère from a postcard I sent to my parents, you can see the main building, and at the bottom right, the guesthouse with its blue roof. The dormer on the left was the room I occupied.


I spent five days there, mostly on my knees, either weeding the leeks or at services in the moniales’ Oratoire or at the Abbey. The food was simple and plentiful. I ate as much as I could. I took frequent baths. I met with and talked to the moniales, who were well-informed and perceptive. Soeur Marie-Josèphe could be very funny. One of the guests asked her what nuns did during their recreation time. She raised one eyebrow. “Figurez-vous,” she said, “we are mostly silent all week. What do you think we do?”

I hated to leave, but Paris waited, with its work and obligations. And it wouldn’t be my last visit to Bec.

Back on the rue du Ranelagh, the hectic pace continued. My mother has kept many of the letters I wrote during that time and as I read them now, I am astonished at the amount I managed to pack in week after week. Here is something I wrote in April:

I sang in a concert with the Jeunesses Musicales de France – the Mozart Requiem at the Salle Pleyel, a 30’s recital hall with no atmosphere/ambience whatsoever. Even backstage was about as thrilling as the lounge at Central Mortgage and Housing. We had to wear long black skirts and awful synthetic blouses with pobbly buttons down the back to ensure discomfort when you sit down and which split apart when you bend over. The effect was to make us all look severe and sexless (80 female choristers who reproduce by budding or spores). Still, it went off all right.

The reference to Central Mortgage and Housing was from a dreary summer job in Halifax, and the bit about reproduction betrays my recent degree in biology.


The letters also describe a busy social life. A friend from the Jeunesses introduced me to some great cheap places to eat. When an American friend from Angers visited with her parents and grandparents, I was able to put this knowledge to good use. I also made two good friends at church, both Yale students. Larry was studying organ with Marie-Claire Alain and Adrienne was doing research for her Ph.D. in art history on the work of Theodore Rousseau (not to be confused with Douanier Rousseau) and the iconography of trees.

Larry and I formed a habit of walking the length of the Champs-Elysées after church on Sunday. He once dragged me into the McDonalds near the Arc de Triomphe to sample the milkshakes, which he said were so much better than the equivalent in the United States, because they used such creamy milk (!). Adrienne lived in the Cité Universitaire, but once house-sat for some American friends in a place near the Pantheon. I remember an evening there making and then eating cheesecake, something neither of us had been able to find in Paris.

In May, I wrote:

I’ve had 6 hours’ worth of exam writing so I am temporarily sick of life – it was no better and no worse than I expected, with one or two GLARING exceptions. As I may have mentioned, owing to the fact that all 140,000 students in Paris write their exams in the same few weeks at the end of term, we [foreign students] had our exams moved forward to today, whereas lectures continue until next Friday. The questions were written and submitted by the professors months ago and as a result there were a couple of questions [on topics] that had not been developed in classes yet. Oh well, improvise, improvise. By the sixth hour I had writer’s cramp up to my biceps and I would have put anything down just to finish and get away.

The exams were held in large modern buildings in Arceuil, a suburb south of Paris. To add insult to injury, the location was outside the zone allowable on my Carte Orange, so I had to pay an extra fare to get there.


When term was over, I headed back to Bec-Hellouin, this time for a longer stay. I was run down and my resistance to infection was low (another whole story there, involving a trip to hospital, but I shan’t go into it now). I may be one of the few people to have experienced malnourishment in Paris, because I spent money on everything except food. But two weeks of gardening and chapel and the moniales’ hearty meals put me back together again.

Then on to Caen, Anne-Marie, and her family. They had recently had a death in the family, and I asked Anne-Marie if I should stay away. No, she replied, please come. I think I provided a useful distraction at a difficult time, and as always, they were generous and kind.

When I returned to Paris just before my departure for home, my chambre de bonne was occupied by an exchange student visiting one of Madame L.’s sons, but we had prepared for this. Monsieur St-Hilaire let me stay in his granddaughter’s room. She stayed with him in term time (though she was never there when I visited), but had returned to her family in La Baule. So my last week was spent in comfortable surroundings.

The night before I left, Adrienne and I had dinner together. I had booked a cheap charter flight from London to New York, and she gave me the names and numbers of two friends in London. I expected to be in Gatwick for only a few hours and assumed the information would be of no use. I was wrong.

When I arrived at Gatwick after a hovercraft trip across the Channel, my flight was overbooked. There would, however, be a place for me on a flight that left in three days’ time. After taking a little while to absorb this information, I hunted for the numbers Adrienne had given me. The first person I called was no help. The second told me to call back in half an hour. When I did, he told me to come to William Goodenough House, a residence near the University of London.* He had arranged a room there for me. I checked everything but an overnight bag and my guitar at the airport and set off for three days of unexpected sightseeing in London.


The journey home had one further wrinkle in store. Before leaving Paris, I had gone to American Express and several banks in Paris in an attempt to change francs into U.S. dollars. There was some bureaucratic barrier to this exchange, and I was told to change my money at the airport. At Gatwick, the woman at the exchange desk told me she would have to convert the funds first to pounds and then to dollars, and that I would lose quite a bit on the transaction. Change them on arrival in New York, she suggested.

But the flight was delayed, and I arrived at Kennedy Airport well after midnight. The exchange desks were closed and I had nothing but English pounds and French francs. I needed to get to La Guardia to catch a morning flight to Toronto. I went out to the taxi stand and asked for suggestions. One fellow said he had a taxi-driver friend who might take foreign currency. The friend was summoned, and I paid for my trip across New York in French francs. I slept on the floor La Guardia near the Air Canada check-in desk and got the first flight out to Toronto and home.


Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from the the Wikipedia entries for the Abbey of Bec Hellouin, Salle Pleyel, and the Maison des Examens in Arcueil, and the websites of the Monastère Ste-Françoise Romaine and William Goodenough House.

*Many years later, my nephew and his girlfriend (now fiancée) lived for a year in William Goodenough House and we visited them there.

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My life in France (Part 2)

The day after I wrote my last exam in Angers, I made a quick trip to Paris to find a place to stay. I had been accepted by the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne, and I made a beeline for the housing office. It was a sunny day in January, and I walked from the Gare Montparnasse to the Latin Quarter by way of the Jardin du Luxembourg, feeling giddy at what I was about to do.

I found a listing for a room that I thought I could afford, just. However, when I went to see it, even I could tell that the route from the Metro stop to the apartment lay through a red-light district. Ah, non. Back to the housing office.

The other affordable option was a room in exchange for work. The lady in the housing office sized me up, made a phone call, and gave me an address in the 16th arrondissement: 28 rue du Ranelagh. I was expected for an interview as soon as I could get across town.

When I arrived, I was impressed by the large building near Radio France.


Madame L. was cordial and explained her terms: 10 hours of light housework a week for a room, no board. Deal.

Back in Angers, I packed my bags, made my farewells, and went to a couple of final choir practices. During the spring university break, the choir was to travel to Kassel, Germany, for a short all-expenses-paid(!) tour to accompany the signing of a twinning agreement between Angers and Kassel. The choir director had agreed that the bus would pick me up in Paris on the way. This was not entirely because of my singing, but because she needed me to accompany two of our songs on a guitar.

The night before I left, Anne-Marie and I celebrated her having passed the first part of her driving test. We demolished a half-bottle of white wine and a box of After Eights and told silly jokes. Oh, I was going to miss her.

I arrived back at the Gare Montparnasse with two suitcases and three bulging plastic bags and took a taxi (the last one for a while) to get to rue du Ranelagh. Madame L. showed me to my chambre de bonne on the 7th floor. The good news: there was an elevator serving the back stairs. The bad news: my sink had only one tap (cold) and the facilities consisted of a grimy shower room and a toilette à la Turque down the hall. I learned to use these without coming into direct contact with any surface – I used a bath mitt to handle everything and wore flip-flops in the shower.

My bedroom window looked into the courtyard, but just above the roofline I could see the very tip of the Eiffel Tower. I got into the habit of looking at it first thing every morning, just to remind myself I was really here.

On my first day, Madame L. told me that she was about to accompany her son’s scout group on a trip to Brittany and that my duties during her time away would consist of checking on a neighbour every evening. Dada, as she was known, was the aged servant of M. St-Hilaire, who lived two floors below Madame L.  Dada was so frail that she could barely push the trolley on which M. St-Hilaire’s dinner was laid out. So I did it for her.

Albert St-Hilaire was in his eighties and had recently broken his leg. When I arrived that first evening pushing the dinner trolley, followed by Madame L., he took an immediate interest in a new face, sat us down and plied us with 1961 port and petit-fours. He said he hoped I could chat with him on occasion. Indeed I could, and over the course of the next few months, we got into the habit of spending Sunday nights together. Dinner consisted of cold meat and salad, followed by fruit and cheese (prepared by an able-bodied woman who came in every day and did most of the actual work in the apartment), and then we watched the Sunday night movie – anything from Tarzan dubbed in French to classic French films. I also spent plenty of time with Dada, who was kind; I helped her with various tasks, she lent me magazines and gave me leftover food. Both inhabitants of that apartment were starved for company, but given French social boundaries, they could not be company for each other.

As for Madame L., we got on well enough, but she turned out to be fanatically parsimonious. She was the sort of woman who turns lights off when she enters a room. She watered down cleaning products (I would just add more when her back was turned). And she refused to consider replacing her ancient, feeble vacuum cleaner – the only attachment that could actually pick up a thread from the carpet was the crevice tool. Imagine, if you will, cleaning a four-bedroom apartment with a crevice tool. It took some time, believe me.

Light housework included ironing and dusting, but also washing the car (to be fair, she and I did that together), walls, windows, and floors. I became well acquainted with the serpière – a vile, thick grey cloth that one pushes around with a short-bristled broom to scour the kitchen floor. What would I have given for a sponge mop!

But hey, it was only ten hours a week – she never asked for more than that. My hours were scheduled in advance, and I could do mental French practice while ironing or vacuuming. A few times I spent an hour or so talking English with the younger two of her four sons (she also had a young daughter) and I am pleased to report that one son improved his oral comprehension to the point that he stopped failing his English tests.

At times it felt a little odd to be a domestique in one apartment and an honoured invitée two floors below. Add to that my roles as a student and a chorister.

The arrangement at the Sorbonne was very different from that in Angers. I attended four two-hour lectures a week – Études stylistiques (my favourite), Évolution historique de la France (enjoyable), Littérature française du XXe siècle (not bad), and Histoire des idées dans la France moderne (irredeemably dull). On Friday mornings, two back-to-back lectures were held in the École de medecine, in an amphitheatre of hard wooden seats with high backs and narrow ledges in front that made an awkward surface for writing notes. After four hours of taking notes in a book propped on my knees, I would stagger out feeling like the retreat from Moscow. This picture of the amphitheatre from the Internet is not the best quality, but you get the idea.


We also had classroom time in a building on the rue de Raspail with Mr. Cordier, a former high-school teacher who had been pulled out of retirement to deal with a larger-than-usual group of foreign students. He was hilarious, knew all our names by the second class, and gave us a thorough grounding in language and literature (not to mention French jokes). Our text was a bright green book containing poems and excerpts from novels. I still have it, the text surrounded by my pencilled notes.


I joined two choirs: that of the Anglican church of St. George’s as well as the Jeunesses Musicales de France. The church was a wonderfully welcoming place, since nearly all members of the congregation were expats. The choir director was Canadian. (Norman and I still attend this church when we are in Paris and the friendliness we find there always makes us feel at home.) The church was in the basement of a modern apartment building – there had been a conventional 19th-century church building on the site, but it had been damaged during the war. The decision was made to sell the site to developers and reserve the ground floor and basement for St. George’s. The new sanctuary had only recently reopened and I was there for the inauguration of the new organ.


The Jeunesses Musicales de France was rather different, and the choristers were not as jeune as the name suggests. The middle-aged wife of the conductor, M. Martini, sat in the front row and had a tendency to argue with him over points of interpretation. Brought up as I was to respect choir directors’ every whim, I found this startling. And rehearsals never started on time. But we did sing in some impressive venues and even made a recording of the Mozart Requiem, so I saw the inside of a French recording studio in Boulogne-Billancourt.

I had left my moped with Anne-Marie in Angers, so I took to the Metro and the bus system. When I ran out of money at the end of each month, I could amuse myself by taking a new and unfamiliar bus route. And I always ran out of money, because at the beginning of the month, after renewing my Carte Orange, I would buy tickets for an opera, a ballet, or the theatre. Or all three. I would get the cheapest seats available, but it was still an indulgence that skewed the budget. I had promised my parents that I would get by on the same monthly amount I had had in Angers, and not having to pay rent certainly helped. But it was, after all, Paris. I went to museums and art galleries at times when they were free or cheaper than usual, I bought nothing that was not strictly necessary (basic food and school supplies mostly), but I could not resist the lure of the Opera House.


And that reminds me… but I have gone on long enough. I will finish my tale in the next blog.

Text by Philippa Campsie

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My life in France (Part 1)

At the library the other day, I spotted a book about Paris I hadn’t seen before. It was by a young American woman who had spent a year in the city, learning Life Lessons and fashion tips (not necessarily in that order) and who earnestly wanted to share the wisdom she had gained. I don’t think she missed a single cliché about the lives of Frenchwomen. It made me smile.

It also made me realize that in six years of blogging, I have never described my own experiences as a student in France. It might be time to do so. They are not the kind that would be published in a book with a beret-wearing, poodle-toting, Sabrina lookalike on the cover, but it is, in fact, possible to experience France without those things.

Mine was not a Junior Year Abroad. I had finished one degree before I went, in history and biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. And I did not spend the whole time in Paris: I lived for the first half of the year in Angers, in the Loire Valley.

The idea to go to France came from my father, who thought all Canadians should speak both official languages proficiently. At Christmastime in my last year of university, when I was home in Toronto for a couple of weeks, he suggested I spend the following year in France. Since I had no better ideas about what I should do after graduation, I agreed.

In the New Year, I located the French department at Dalhousie and knocked on the first door I came to. The professor in that office told me that just about every university in France offered courses for foreigners who wanted to learn French and that I should send inquiries to universities in cities or towns that I thought might be interesting places to live. It was good advice.

Paris never occurred to me. I wrote to Angers, Montpellier, and Toulouse. The first and warmest response came from Angers, so Angers it was, at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest (and no, I’m not Catholic).

In the fall, my parents combined a holiday in England and France with dropping me off in Angers. This is a photo my father took of me on the ferry between Dover and Calais.


In Angers, I had been assigned a “place with a family” by the university housing office. My parents took me to the designated address in their rented car. We pulled up in front of an attractive house near the university. I thought I had landed on my feet. The woman who opened the door greeted us politely but distantly, and walked us through the house, out the back door, across the garden, and into another house. That was where the students stayed. I was given a room on the top floor. The bathroom facilities were down three flights of stairs and across the garden. Not quite what I’d been led to expect.

I wondered aloud what it would be like in winter. My mother was horrified.

Back to the housing office. The woman there offered some other addresses. One, she told us, was usually given to French students, because it was a long way from the university. That’s the one we picked, after looking at some rather dodgy arrangements elsewhere.

I ended up in the attic of a small house on the edge of town. Here is an image of the place from Google Street View. It appears closed up (Google must have passed by in August), but otherwise, it is as I remember it. One in a sea of similar-looking houses.


There were skylights at the back, so I did have natural light in my room, but my only view was upwards. The attic was sparsely furnished but spacious. On two sides of the room, the ceiling came down close to the floor. I learned to avoid sitting up suddenly in bed.

I saw little of the family downstairs, who were pleasant enough, but busy with their own lives. After all, they had not signed on as hosts for a foreign student; they normally offered lodgings to French students. The entrance to the attic was through the garage door and up a flight of stairs, so I could come and go independently. That was fine with me.

But the best part was that I had a French roommate. Anne-Marie spoke no English. My friendship with her made all the difference to my experiences of France. She laughed merrily at my mistakes (come to think of it, she still does), and we ate often dinner together, always with a French-English dictionary on the table to help keep the conversation going. If I had stayed in the place I’d been assigned originally, I probably would have spoken English to the other foreign students and learned much less.

We shared two rooms, a toilet and sink (I was allowed a bath downstairs twice a week), a tiny fridge, and a camping stove (which once caught fire while we were cooking). We made our own evening meals. Once or twice, the family invited me for Sunday lunch.

Most weekdays, I got a midday meal at the restaurant universitaire. There were several in town, for students from my university and those from the Université d’Angers. We queued up in what had once been an orchard; there was a plaque on the stone wall about a man who had bred a special type of pear there. I found a photo of the plaque on Wikipedia, although it is now attached to a different wall from the one I remember.


I say “queued,” but actually, French students don’t line up tidily when waiting for a meal. They crowded around the door and when it opened, they surged forward en masse. On occasion I had to step back hard on someone’s foot to gain a bit of breathing room.

On the days the restaurant universitaire served boiled tripe, I filled up on bread, cheese, and vegetables. Otherwise I ate everything in front of me. Everybody complained about the food and everybody ate as much as they could. It was plain fare – none of those famous French sauces. Lots of lentils, I recall.

I bought a moped. Many of the students did (Anne-Marie had one, and so did several of my classmates). Angers was a quiet place and buses to my suburban lodgings did not run after about 7 o’clock in the evening. With a moped, I could get to class and back quickly, and get around in the evenings, too.

Here is the main university building, the one shown on the brochure; our classes were in an undistinguished modern building behind it.


The classroom building was cold in winter (some of the windows didn’t close properly) and we kept our coats on in class. Most of the other students were British, but there were also students from Scandinavia, Iceland, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States. There were plenty of parties and get-togethers, and I made friends with a couple of the British students, but most of the Brits went home after a couple of months (this was all the time allotted in their university programs).

It was like going back to high school. We had a home room with a teacher who focused on the basics, and then we could choose from an array of optional classes.

I particularly enjoyed Synthèse in which we learned how to summarize articles and write a précis (an invaluable skill that has served me well ever since). A class in translation from English to French (mostly using newspaper articles) was taught by a lively young man with blond curly hair who couldn’t manage the name “Philippa” and so called me “Fifi.” A lugubrious prof who taught us composition carried on a personal crusade against wasted words and insisted on concise, efficient writing (another valuable skill, in any language). An older gent in a blue smock, who had written a short dictionary of slang, taught us random bits of French culture.

Here are some of the students from our class. I don’t remember who took the photograph. And I don’t know why there are no male students visible; I did have male classmates. I am at the far left, and our homeroom teacher, Madame Pajotin, is fifth from the left.


There was also a language lab for working on pronunciation. On the way to and from class, I would wrap a scarf around the bottom half of my face and practise rolling my Rs with the noise of the moped engine to cover my efforts. I am proud of mastering French Rs this way.

I joined the university choir. Thank goodness for the moped, since we had evening rehearsals. Fortunately, I could read music, so even though my French was still a work in progress, I was asked to lead some section rehearsals (where the choir splits up into parts to learn a new piece).

I have very few photographs of my time in Angers, but I do have a photo of the choir. I am at the very far left. At the centre is our wonderful director, Mireille. The choir was a lifeline: I was one among equals there and I no longer felt like a foreigner.


At one point, the choir was invited to join the chorus at the Grand Théâtre (shown below) for several performances of Tosca. The only parts of that opera house I ever saw were the backstage area and the stage itself, since I never attended a performance there as a member of the audience.


During my time in Angers, I had a couple of accidents on the moped, and in both cases, strangers rushed to help me. When a tire blew out on a busy (but slow-moving) road, the couple in the car behind me picked me up, took the moped to a nearby gas station, drove me to class, then promised to go back and got my moped and take it to the dealer for repairs. As I gasped out my thanks at their generosity with their time, they kept saying, “C’est normal.” And people wonder why I love the French.

My language skills improved, partly because of Anne-Marie’s coaching and partly because she went home to Caen on Fridays. I spent many hours on the weekends reading aloud to practise my French pronunciation, memorizing vocabulary and conjugations, and completing assignments for class. This was the reason for my eventual move to Paris: I was already in the most senior class and I needed a bigger challenge.

But before I left, I spent Christmas in Caen with Anne-Marie’s family. I became very fond of her parents and her sister Françoise (she also had two married brothers who lived elsewhere, but I didn’t get to know them well). Her mother was a wonderful cook, who added Calvados (apple brandy) to many dishes. She wasn’t the clichéd elegant Frenchwoman: she paid little attention to her appearance, but she was kind and reassuring, and I learned more from her than I can ever acknowledge.

Her husband was equally welcoming, and very proud of his corner of France. He simply could not imagine the point of travelling abroad when everything one could ever want could be found in Normandy. It was hard to argue the point.

Like the family in Angers, Anne-Marie’s parents and sister hadn’t signed on to host a foreign student, but perhaps because of that, I was treated more like a relation than a foreigner. My experience of France was very much shaped by those few weeks in Caen.

On Christmas Day, dinner started at 1 p.m. and continued until late into the evening, with a brisk walk in late afternoon for fresh air. The “trou Normand” was a feature of the meal – a shot glass of Calvados knocked back quickly to aid digestion of the mountains of food. Everyone watched me to see how I would react and I did not disappoint: I choked and coughed and my eyes watered, but I got it down.

New Year’s Eve was a party with family and friends at a half-finished house that Anne-Marie’s parents were fixing up in a tiny hamlet about forty minutes’ drive from Caen. I do have a photo that I took of Anne-Marie there.


Her parents had bought the property when the municipality of Caen closed the allotment gardens where they had previously grown their vegetables. They found a bit of land in the countryside with a tumbledown farm building attached. First they established a garden to grow fruits and vegetables, with hutches for raising rabbits on garden scraps. Then they started to fix up the house.

On New Year’s Eve, we ate and drank and played silly games all evening and then went for a walk under the stars at midnight. At about three in the morning we collapsed into sleeping bags on a concrete floor in the half-finished house.

A few years ago, Norman and I revisited the house. When Anne-Marie’s father showed us around, I was delighted to see that almost nothing had changed in the hamlet.

There were exams in January and a break in February, at which point I moved to Paris. But that is another story for another blog.

A happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all our readers, Canadian or not. 

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs from various sources.

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