Issue 170, Summer 2004
A year and a few months after the end of the war and the German occupation, Paris was muted and looked bruised and forlorn. Everywhere I went, I sensed the tracks of the wolf that had tried to devour the city. But Paris proved as inedible as it had been since its tribal beginning on an island in the Seine, He de la Cite.
I stood on the Champs-Elysees, down which the black-booted Nazis had marched, some with reverence and cultural piety, I had heard, some triumphant, some astonished that they should be in command of the city of light.
But there was little brightness in 1946, except at sunset on a fair day when the last of the sun's rays struck the roof of Sacre Coeur, and the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, and the spindle top of the Eiffel Tower; except in the bright scarves of the French women who walked swiftly and insouciantly as they went about their daily tasks and errands to the baker, the grocer, the butcher, the open markets that had begun that year to display their wares. Perhaps the women were hoping to find, among the stalls, their former lives. Although there was no bomb damage as there had been in London, the old life of Paris was gone.
When I returned as a tourist decades later, the stairs and corridors of the Louvre flowed with foreign visitors. But in 1946, I was nearly alone in the museum except for a drunk, elderly custodian whose eyes swam toward me every so often, suspicion of me evident in his downturned lips and lifted eyebrows, as though I might try to steal the Mona Lisa, then on the ground floor, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace that stood at the top of a long flight of white marble steps.
I found a pension on the rue de Longchamps, and made arrangements for a room. It was cheerless, shabby, and barely heated.
In the evenings I sometimes played bridge with other boarders.
I always had the same partner, who seemed determined to keep me seated across the table from her, and requested me, in an ironic voice, to call her Madame. I couldn't imagine what her irony was about, unless she judged me to be a callous American, or unless it expressed her attitude toward life itself.
Then I saw one evening the faded blue tattoo of a number on the inside of her wrist as she dealt the cards. It was the first time I saw such a mark although it was not the last. She was in her thirties, she told me, but she looked at least a decade older.