In search of French Past (4): Student at the University of Strasbourg – and much ado about lying

Most people either cannot write, are too lazy to write or don’t have the time to write, or all three. Some who can write, and have time to write and are energetic enough to write will do so but avoid writing about their own lives – an autobiography. The reason why some shy away from autobiography is because there are thoughts and actions in their lives that are either too painful or too shameful to disclose. Many – probably most – people, though, take a less dim view of their lives. Where some feel failure and shame, they see the “courage to be.” to let it all hang out- spill the beans if not your seed. Yet no matter how great the courage “to be”, there always remain things many prefer to hide – not because they are coy, but because they know that it would shatter their image. Secretly they are proud of the dirty linen they would be ashamed to hang out in public. They can’t resist keeping it to themselves; so, they reveal it vicariously; they write novels in which they create a surrogate through whom they can not only exhibit themselves with impunity, but also get paid to do it.

In autobiography, there is a nobler reason for not revealing all – “all” invariably means “all the evil we do”. Often, the evil involves an accomplice. As long as the evil is not a “crime”, we have no right to make public the evil deeds of others. For example, if a couple decided to abort their child, and one of them wanted to write about this in an autobiography, it would be wrong to do so unless the other approved, for, not only will the other partner be adversely affected, his or her relatives and friends will also be affected. Some sins are between you and God alone; that is, if you believe in God or in sin more than being (in)famous at any cost. (See OneDaringJew: An AutobiogRaphy).

At the beginning of 1962, after the second year of my B.A., I decided to go to Europe, especially France. I would finish my B.A. on my return the following year. My father offered to pay for my ticket and gave me an allowance of 25 British pounds. After three months in London (See In search of French past (1)), I took the ferry to France. In search of French past (3): French philosophy, Paris and fleeing the OAS, I described my brief sojourn in Paris and hasty “escape” to Strasbourg.


france germany map use

My father sent me an allowance of 25 British pounds a month. It barely covered the basics. I loved the French banknotes, surely the most beautiful in the world. Cardinal Richelieu (10 New Francs) on the left; the playwright, Molière, on the right, worth 50 Richelieus. Talk about the “Purpose-driven life”: what can be more fulfilling than crumpling a Richelieu, not even to mention a Molière, in your pocket.


Ten New Francs 1960s500 New Francs

I rented a room in the Avenue de la Forêt Noire (Black Forest Avenue) close to the main campus of the University of Strasbourg where I registered as a full-time student. Tuition was free with a small fee for registration. My main subject was French for foreigners. I also attended a few philosophy lectures where students translated from Greek and Latin texts. How far did my £25 British stretch? Monthly rent was £10 and meal tickets £14. The shortfall I “borrowed” from students and took a job during the university vacation for three weeks in a furniture factory in Wissembourg on the Northern French-German border, and one day in a canning factory in Strasbourg, where I stamped the rubber seal onto can lids whizzing past on a conveyor belt – and didn’t get paid. Why only one day? I could’ve taken the boredom for a little longer. I was in the staff bathroom washing my hands, had just picked up a bar of soap when one of the ladies snatched it away. “Get your own.” Not something you should tell a lonely sensitive Jewish Catholic boy, so abruptly. I fled the factory.

On Sundays and several times a week, I attended Mass in the crypt of Strasbourg Cathedral, and sometimes at one of the small university residences close to the cathedral. Some of us would gather in a prefab student residence in the grounds of the Chateau de Pourtalès. Only rich students could afford to stay in the chateau itself.

You wish

You wish

How I envied the ruddy well-fed chap playing classical guitar surrounded by an adoring crowd. Westerners are losing their wonder at the staggering contrast between men and women. This guitar episode came to mind five years later, when I started to learn the classical guitar. I still play and practice regularly.

A Dutch student friend, more than twice my age, had been doing French for a few years. I asked him why he never said a single French word. He said that when he was ready to speak he would do so (it’ll all pour out, will it!). That is not how you learn a language; your mother tongue or an extra language.

A Catholic student friend lived on a farm in the Vosges mountains. He was lame (boiteux) in one leg. He invited me to his farm for a weekend. As we climbed up the hill to his farmhouse, a man, also lame in one leg, hobbled down to meet us – his father. Their farmhouse could be this very one I found on the internet.

vosges as i remembered he farm

Strasbourg is in Alsace and is part of France. Besides French, the indigenous language, “Alsatien,” a Germanic language, is spoken. I overheard my friend’s father ask him whether I was “katolische” (a catholic). Very much so, his son nodded. On Sunday we walked through the woods to a little chapel where we attended Mass.

For breakfast, the father brought down from the loft a slab of smoked fat interlaced with filigrees of bacon. Decades later travelling on a train from Moscow to Kiev, a portly occupant in my compartment offered me at daybreak a slab of pure lard. It went down, well, not so well with her, because, I turned down her offer. I’m not a “Messianic Jew” who balks at bacon, but rather like Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat. “Messianic Jews” are followers of Yeshua (they don’t like saying “Jesus”); many of them observe the Jewish dietary laws. But then what about Peter’s vision of the sheet descending from heaven?

“The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, [Simon] Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour [12 noon – lunch time] to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven” (Acts 10:9-16).

One of the landmarks of Strasbourg is the Goethe statue at the entrance to the main campus of the University. I passed many a quiet moment on a bench close reading French Catholic philosophers like Jean Guitton and Etienne Gilson in French. The previous year (1961) I had registered at the University of Cape Town for courses in philosophy where one of my philosophy professors, Martin Versfeld, had inspired my interest in modern Catholic philosophers, many of whom are French. Now, if only Goethe were French, that would make it all picture perfect. Alas, Goethé looks silly. Anyone for a cuppà thé.


Statue of Goethe

Statue of Goethe

Why did French grip me so. It all began the previous year (1961) at Cape Town University. I was lunching with some friends in the cafeteria. One of them was studying French Elementary. His French textbook (Brooks and Cook) was lying (French gisait) on the table in front of him like a dead thing. Something stirred within me. I picked up his book, opened it at random and began to declame. “Very good,” he said. I knew less French than Peter Sellars. And he only knew “minkey” and hotel phrases like “Have you got a rhume?” A room where the previous occupants had flu. Was some kind of anamnesis (remembrance of things past) going on? It was the Greek philosopher, Plato, who said you don’t learn anything new; you knew it all the time. So, not only, as the Preacher said, is there nothing new under the sun, neither is there anything new in your noggin.

During A short university vacation I was hitchhiking with a German student around France. We almost came to blows over who was the greater – Goethe or Shakespeare. I knew very little Shakespeare, and less about him.

There was Roberta, who was 10 years older than me. We went to a river bank café where I serenaded her with a Johnny Mathis version of “A Certain Smile.”  When the song ended, she told me off. I had to do hard rethink on the meaning of romance, if not of languages. One of my failings in later life is equating sentimentality   with romantic love – between husband and wife. There’s a saying, Les Français, toujours les sentiments “The French, always feelings.” Sentiments (feelings) in French is not equivalent to sentiments in English. I remember how much the girls at school in Wellington, South Africa used to swoon when I serenaded them. As the advert goes for some lotion or other, “It’s not just about feeling but about feeling.” How much I was appreciated the year before when I performed  “A certain smile” for the University of Cape Town Catholic students at our Kolbe House concerts. With Roberta, Romance was in the air, choked by the rancid smoke of the omnipresent Gauloise. (Gauloise is a popular cigarette in France). One weekend, Roberta and I cycled to Freibourg in Germany, 86 kilometres from Strasbourg.


Route from Strasbourg to Freibourg

On the way home in the cold drizzle, we stopped off an an inn where we mulled over wine. I couldn’t understand why Roberta was so shortshrift, why she paid me scant affection. She, ten years my senior, was wiser than I. After leaving the inn, I got so miffed with her that I rode on ahead and left her behind to ride home on her own. I bought a huge slab of cheap dark chocolate, went back to my lodgings, got into bed and wolfed down the whole slab. I got very sick. A few hours later she came to see me and asked me why I had left her behind. I didn’t know what to say; I did a bad thing.

I loved my navy blue duffel coat that was my second skin in England. It was getting warm in Strasbourg, so before class one day, I hung it on one of the dozens of hooks in the foyer. After class I returned to retrieve my coat. It was gone. So that’s why all the other students carried their coats.

The academic year at the end of June. I went to Wissembourg for three weeks where I got a job in a furniture factory.


Wissembourg (French-German border)

Wissembourg (French-German border)

On the outskirts of town, I rented a room in a modest double-storey house alongside the railway line. The landlady dressed in black every day. I never asked the reason why she did so. I assumed that this was her custom. At the time I was too dense to consider that she might be in mourning – over a deceased husband, perhaps, and that was why she was taking in a lodger.

When I arrived, she was very kind and asked me whether I was hungry. She offered me a bowl of rissoto (creamy rice). Afterward she said: That’ll be (so much) for the rent plus (so much) for the rice. I don’t remember the exact amount. Something snapped inside of me. After the previous few months of self-pity, Now this phony kindness, the greedy eyes set in the parchment face framed by spindly black hair.

To exit the house, I had to pass her room, the door was always open. There she is lying on her bed, staring at the doorway. Go. Do it. Into the room; hands round her neck. I had been going after work to the empty church to pray: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-44).

At the furniture factory, I spent my three-week vacation removing freshly varnished sheets of hardboard from conveyor belts, which others stapled onto the back of wardrobes. The alcohol in the varnish made me dizzy and my lungs burned.

In my lodgings on my last day in Wissembourg, I slipped off my precious embossed leather cover from my “The Imitation of Christ” – and went to her room. She was lying on the bed. The French gisait [giZe] (from Latin iacere “to throw, cast down”) captures the moment. Gisait (was lying) often refers to the dead or dying. I wanted her one or the other. The sound gisait also evokes ooZing lifeblood. Never before or since had I wanted to strangle someone to death. She leapt off her bed. I held out the leather book cover and thanked her for being so nice to me. I turned and walked out of the room and out of her life.

“I want to strangle you” is generally a harmless outburst; no more than a venting frustration. But it’s more serious when you don’t say it but think it, feed it, sleep it. Should such homicidal inclinations be accepted as part of the human story, part of life, of the evil inclination (Hebrew: yetser hara) of our human frame? No, for such thoughts, indeed hatred, which is their source, can send you to hell: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22a). Jesus says, following on: “… anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Who, then, can be saved; who is able to avoid damnation? Here is what Jesus says about the rich man. “And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:23-26).

Few believe in hell anymore. And heaven? We all end up there; except Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Hmmm.

A few weeks later I celebrated my 21st birthday in the Black Forest. I rode my bicycle down the Avenue de la Forêt Noire (Avenue of the Black Forest) out of the city into the Black Forest along the narrow beaten tar road that borders the Maginot line. I rested at one of the crumbling bunkers along the way.


The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line was a gigantic fortification stretching the length of the French-German border. Maginot, Minister of War between 1922 and 1924, pushed for its construction. General de Gaulle  preferred military mobility to fortications, proaction to reaction, but others argued that Germany might feel less threatened by fortifications. When Germany made its move in 1940, it bypassed the Maginot line and attacked France through neural Belgium, and this vast, intricate Maginot defence just lay (gisait) there to be crumble and get ingested by the living wood.

In July, I left France and  went to Perugia, Italy, to visit a friend, Gerard, from my Cape Town University days with whom I stayed for three weeks. Gerard had a bursary from Italy to study, surprise, Italian. I had learned a little Italian, which is easier than French. Italian is a phontic language – spoken as it is written – like African languages, for example Tswana, a language of South Africa. Dumela is Tswana for “Hello.” The stress in Tswana and Italian falls on on the second-last syllable. Tswana – “duMEla.” The e is pronounced as in “egg” and lengthened “du-MEEE-la.” Tswana speakers can pronounce perfectly the Italian word doMAni (“tomorrow”). When, however, it comes to the French equivalent, demain, that’s different. What makes academic Italian relatively easy to understand is that its vocabulary has much in common with English. After all, half of the English vocabulary comes indirectly from Latin. Latin is a phonetic language, which developed into the Latin languages – also called Romance languages – like Italian, French and Spanish. These are also called “Romance” languages, not because knights went weak at the knees everytime their “Dulcineas” sighed, but because these languages originated from the Romans. Dulcinea is the lady of Don Quixote’s impossible dream. (Seventeen years later I was to be Don Quixote. See In search of French past (2): English Effluence).

I attended art history classes, Italian, at the Summer school of the University of Perugia. I understood quite a bit. It also helped to have some background in the history of art. Here is an Italian sentence. How much do you understand? Michelangelo era uno dei più talentuosi artisti in italia. No, “era” doesn’t mean “era,” “dei” doesn’t mean “deist,” and piu doesn’t mean “poo.” It means “Michelangelo was (era) one (uno) of the (dei) most (piu)…the rest – talentuosi artisti in italia – you should know.

During my stay, I visited Assisi several times. Many art historians believe the Basilica of Assisi to be the cradle of Italian art. Giotto’s frescoes adorn the Basilica. Thirty five years (1997) after my sojourn in Italy, many of Giotto’s paintings as well as those by Cimabue and others were destroyed in an earthquake. I left the Basilica, climbed down the valley, sat down on the grass, opened my knapsack and spread out the cheddar, rye bread, black olives and bottle of red. My déjeuner sur l’herbe (luncheon on the grass). Why – this is for those who want more juicy bits to my story – did I get the feeling I hadn’t really had lunch?

Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe

Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe

After three weeks with Gerard in Perugia, I made for Holland where my father had posted my monthly allowance. Gerard lent me a few pounds. He never got it back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s