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Innocence Abroad

continued (page 2 of 3)

I had never met a couple like the Galassis in my life. The sheer range of their education and intellectual passions bedazzled me. Often we would begin our evenings with a slow walk down the Rue Mouffetard, a profligate market street with endless stores overflowing with fruits and cheeses and vegetables of every sort. To me, it looked as if the farmers of France had delivered everything their fields could grow to this amazing, spilling-down street where carts reeling with tomatoes, avocados, cauliflowers, and grapes stood taller than I did. Sometimes, we would stop and buy food for our lunches the next day. That winter we ate cheaply. That winter we ate like princes of the earth. The Galassis would study the menus of brasseries and cafés that fell within the realms of our limited budgets. By the light of candles, I ate sweetbreads and lamb kidneys for the first time and learned the extraordinary range of pâtés and the names of fish that swam in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, we would talk about the work we had done that day. Susan Galassi, as finely boned and pretty as the woman etched into the bottle of White Shoulders perfume, would speak of her progress on her doctoral dissertation, which she was calling Picasso: Variations of the Old Masters. One night she took us to Delacroix's studio; afterward, we ended the evening by toasting each other with Armagnac, a rougher kind of Cognac that they had discovered on their honeymoon. As we lifted our glasses, tuxedoed waiters flowed past us at Les Deux Magots, where Sartre and Beauvoir had once argued philosophy. We pledged our friendship to be immortal and unbreakable. I felt like an artist, bright and footloose on the boulevards.

All day I would write. It came to me in a flood tide, like it has never come before or since. At night I would attend concerts with the Galassis, or the opera, and I would roam the Louvre and other art galleries with Susan whenever I could. She could take a painting, any painting, and contrive a love story to it in words that sprang out of her with vivacity and charm. When she was confronted by a masterpiece she had given her heart to, the words came out slowly, and I could watch the conversion that has always united art and prayer. To Susan, an art gallery was her cathedral, her sacristy, her confessional, and her life's work. My great luck lay in her openness of heart as she shared the secrets of canvases I had never heard of, and her eyes appraised the work of artists through miles and miles of Parisian hallways. Art, like the Seine, was just another river to fall in love with in Paris.

Before they left for Rome for the final months of their sabbatical, Jonathan made a long-distance phone call to Houghton Mifflin to get permission to take me to one fine restaurant in Paris. Neither of us had produced great dividends for the company at that time, but he received permission to eat in a nice restaurant, though not a fine one. We chose a celebrated French place called Dodin-Bouffant, which was known for its seafood, for one of our last nights together. I ordered a half-dozen Belon oysters because I did not want to return to the States without ever having tasted the famous Belons, and they were priced like amethysts even in those faraway days. They were cold, superb, and salty, and a Chablis Premier Cru that Jon had selected accompanied them to perfection. As the meal progressed, I remember passing around plates that contained Dover sole, turbot, and a scallop dish that approached sublimity. The meal ended with a cheese cart, then Armagnac, and then talk turned to our meeting in Rome, when the novel would be finished and I would present a manuscript to Jonathan in payment to him for the ineffable gift of Paris.

For over a month I was in Paris alone, writing about characters who moved through the streets and houses and barracks of Charleston, South Carolina. The weather began to change slowly, and I could feel spring in its ballet slippers making its shy appearance onstage in the Luxembourg Gardens. The fruit and vegetables on the market street of the Rue de Seine near my hotel grew brighter and fresher every day. The chestnut trees began to bloom, and I had never known those magnificent trees were one of the glories of Paris. Each day I wrote a letter or a postcard to my three daughters in Atlanta. I would go to American Express to mail them, stopping by the Louvre each time I went. I received a letter from my friend Cliff Graubart, telling me that he and another friend, Frank Smith, were going to meet me in Paris in the middle of May. The three of us would drive my manuscript down to Rome. "Plan to have the greatest time of your life," Cliff wrote, and I so promised myself.

The day before I finished The Lords of Discipline, I wrote the last chapter of the novel in a single sitting. One cadet had betrayed his three roommates and that cadet was my favorite character in the book. But novels take on a life of their own and sometimes drift out of the writer's control. I now know that could happen even when the writer was living in Paris. Now Atlanta was calling me away from this enchanting, provocative city, a part of which would live inside me forever.

When I met Frank and Cliff at the Gare du Nord the next day, I was greeting one of the best parts of my Atlanta life. Before we left Paris, we rented a white Simca and bought three wineglasses, a corkscrew, paper plates, knives and forks, and paper napkins. At a charcuterie near the Hôtel des Balcons, we bought our lunch for the first day, consisting of two cheeses, Chaource and Camembert, a hard sausage, a duck pâté, a baguette, and a bottle of Rosé d'Anjou. I packed my 700-page manuscript as carefully as though I were transporting the Book of Kells across hostile borders. While putting it in my suitcase, it struck me as a very bad idea that I had resisted making a copy of the book because of the exorbitant price. We loaded up the Simca with our luggage and set out for Rome with Frank, driving out of the sixth arrondissement, my home for five months.

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