Childhood Memories By Emile M Tubiana
Friday, November 09, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
My first arrival in Paris
It was when the church bells of the place des Abbesses rang.I ran downstairs to have my breakfast at the corner cafe on the rue Antoinette.The neighborhood was already stirring.Several boys late for school hurried along with their school bags on their backs.Indifferent, an old woman was selling newspapers at the entrance of the Metro (Subway).
The coffee shop was half filled with customers.Some leaning on the counter, others seated, were drinking coffee and chatting.In the back was an empty table from which a couple had hurriedly left;on the slightly disheveled tablecloth stood two empty cups.From the next room came the clinking of billiard balls.As soon as the waiter saw me, he rushed towards me, greeted me with a professional smile on his face and cleaned the table.He knew me well, since I was a regular.He changed the tablecloth and brought me my usual cup of coffee and two hot croissants.
After this frugal breakfast, I took special pleasure in smoking my first cigarette of the day.I enjoyed watching the passers‑by through the window.It was my favorite time of day. I could let myself daydream, oblivious to the surrounding noises.Millions of thoughts raced through my head.Everything was still new to me since I had only recently moved to Paris.I had never experienced such noise and commotion.Nothing left me indifferent.And I was very happy, in the same way young people are on their first visit to Paris.I had known this city only through books and hearsay.Paris had been described to us so much in school, Paris had been so often the object of reveries on the class bench, Paris took on a unique symbolism during my childhood.As I sat in the cafe, all kinds of images marched through my head:the kings of France, the Middle Ages, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, the Revolution, Napoleon, Dreyfus, Zola, Petain, De Gaulle, the Germans, the Americans, and the British.In a sense, nothing was unknown to me.And yet I felt removed from all of this; everything felt strange.
I was finishing my second cup of coffee when Roland, a childhood friend, walked in.His curly hair was combed more carefully than usual.He was wearing a brown striped suit and had grown a mustache to look more mature.He had moved to Paris long before I had.Occasionally he would come and meet me in this cafe; we enjoyed reliving old times.Although he had some relatives in Paris he felt as out of place as I did.That day he looked as if he had some good news.He eagerly shared with me and elated us both:our friend Vincent had just arrived in town.Another lost soul, I said to myself, but in fact I was happy to see my former classmate.Vincent was a devil in school.His parents were Italian.He had come to Paris on his own, they had preferred Italy.Paris appealed to him since most of his friends had settled there.
Would I be able to recognize Vincent?I thought about how skinny he had been in school.He used to play center forward in our soccer team.He always knew his lessons perfectly, and of course, our teacher was very fond of him.I was trying to recapture the lines of his face, but no luck.I'll never recall that face, I thought; it's disheartening; I can't remember him at all.Except for his blue eyes, I drew a blank.I blamed myself for having such a poor memory; why couldn't I even remember the shape of his face?After all, we had spent quite some time together.We once had a fight over a schoolgirl who actually didn't care for either of us, but since she loved the attention of any boy she flirted with us both.Where can she be now?She is probably married.She was certainly not made for celibacy.
Roland and I exchanged a host of memories of a world which seemed far away.Our old friends from school were scattered all over.Some of them we had run into by chance and knew what they were up to now, but most had disappeared from our lives forever.Many things had occurred since.We live in different worlds.Our new occupations and our tumultuous life have disrupted our desires, not leaving us much space to see each other as we would like to.However, we needed each other very badly in order to function well in this complicated and difficult world.
Outside it started to rain lightly.Roland, moved by the recall of our memories, did not stop talking about school, our teacher, soccer, the priest, the rabbi and the days when we played hooky.I remember one morning when Vincent and I were deliberately late for school because the night before we had stayed up late fooling around and had completely forgotten to do our homework.We thought that coming late would spare us the embarrassment of not being prepared, but as luck would have it, the assistant principal caught us sneaking in and told us to bring a note from our parents explaining why we were late.The weather was so great that we had decided to play in the woods behind the school.However, in the evening a sense of remorse overwhelmed me and the lesson I had to memorize loomed over me.What should I choose?To memorize or not to memorize those lines?I was torn between freedom and obedience.At home dad was looking at me with suspicion, which gave me the feeling he could read my thoughts.I guess my face gave me away.To save face, I took my book and started to study.And that note of apology I had to hand in the following day!How would I get it?My father would certainly not understand and I was risking a reprimand.Tired and worried I fell asleep.
In the cafe, I was no longer listening to Roland.He had succeeded in taking me way back into the past.He finally realized I was not with him; he got up and said"See you to‑night at my place, Vincent will be there."
Outside the rain poured down in sheets.As I crossed the street, I became soaked to the bone.Ah! My poor grandma would have been unhappy to see me in that state.She resented my mother letting me go to school on cold and wet days."What more are you going to learn?You are better off staying warm with me at home," she would say with her soft and caressing voice."What's the point of arriving in school soaking wet; the two of us aren't going to get bored, are we?"I would look at her with gratefulness since I already saw myself saved from the martyrdom of school.I did not see any harm in it and was happy to stay with her and benefit from her warm presence.I thought of the birds which don't leave the nest until they are ready to fly.My grandmother had never gone to school, but she knew how to love us and give us affection, which was much more enticing to me than the alphabet or arithmetic.What is the good of going to school if it is not appealing?We have our whole life to learn.Once our childhood is ended, we are thrown out of our paradise.We are educated without regard to our inherent ability and desire.And so we risk being put in a lifeless mold.What means do we have at that age to resist the stultifying discipline imposed on us?We are helpless, but our case is not unique.The lion, for example, is tamed against his will; consequently he loses his freedom and his crown when put behind the bars of a circus cage.
Our poor kindergarten teacher!She loved us so much in that little school that she never married.She had never known the feeling of motherhood.Her life was not easy with us, but she was always so understanding even when we left live grasshoppers on her desk;all she would say was "Oh! Those poor little creatures!"We did not really intend to frighten her, although we were amused when she showed her fear.And the next day we would bring her flowers to win her forgiveness, as we were really very fond of her.
We enjoyed the grasshoppers, the birds, the flowers, we did not see any harm in that, it was all natural.She would say to us "You are little devils, but I love you because you are good-hearted."We spent our days either in class or outside in the covered playground.We built sand castles.It was in this playground that we first learned the folk songs, "Au clair de la lune", "Sur le pont d'Avignon".We had no idea of the significance of "Avignon" then, but it was this way our teacher introduced us to French culture and France which was then so far from our little sheltered environment.
At the end of the school day, the bell rang and we left our little childhood dreams to return to the world of the grown‑ups, as our parents were waiting outside.We were too young to know the way to our own homes.When we are adults we will behave in the same way with our own children.After all, we, as children, lived in a different world and our parents could not penetrate our privacy on their own.As children we had to learn our parents' language in order to express ourselves.We knew what we wanted, but the grown-ups could not understand us.We were in the same situation as foreigners who have to learn the customs and the language of the country in which they have to settle.Being children, whether we were Catholics, Muslims or Jews we spoke the same language, we understood each other.What bound us together the most was the fact that we were of the same age.
Promotion to first grade meant we were growing up and with it, our understanding of grown‑ups was enhanced.We discovered gradually the world of the alphabet and the numbers.We learned them by heart, but the use of this knowledge was far from clear to us.One thing we understood was that we were at the threshold of the complicated adult world which would lead us on paths unknown.