In search of French past (5): Why are you so downcast, oh my soul?

In the previous chapter, I described my student days at the University of Strasbourg and my sojourn in Perugia, Italy. After three weeks in Perugia, I hitch-hiked to Rotterdam to collect a letter from my father that contained my monthly allowance. A Belgian gave me a lift all the way from Strasbourg to Brussels, a distance of 431 km. As he was a Flemish-speaking Belgian, not a French-speaking one, and didn’t know French, I spoke Afrikaans to him, a South African language, which I learnt at school. My first language is English and I speak Afrikaans well because not only did I take Afrikaans as a school subject – which was compulsory in South Africa at the time – now no longer so but I also attended a dual-medium school for five years where all subjects except languages was taught in both languages, where the teacher would switch between English and Afrikaans in the same lesson. Afrikaans originated from Dutch. The Flemish consider their language to be Dutch as well, but the Dutch think of it as “ a funny little lingo.” There are many Dutch and Flemish variants. The variant of Flemish my Belgian spoke was very similar to Afrikaans: his funny little lingo and my kitchen Dutch.


When I arrived in Brussels, I took the train to Rotterdam and went to the Post Office to collect my letter. It wan’t there. I didn’t think that in 1962 you could phone South Africa from a public phone in Europe. I no longer had any strength to carry my heavy brown bag. I saw a man standing outside his house near the river bank who let me store my bag in his garage. I walked to the centre of the small river bridge close by, leaned over the barrier. ”Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 43:5a).

I backed away from the the barrier, crossed the bridge, came to a stone church and entered the poorly lit dank interior; a Protestant church because there were no statues. I knelt down in one of the pews prayed. What I prayed, I cannot recall. The rest of Psalm 43:5 I quoted above would have been appropriate: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” I left the church and aim for the centre of the city. I was walking along eyes on the pavement when I nearly crashed into a young “couple” (which in 1962 still could only mean a man and a woman) walking in the opposite direction. I must have looked wretched because they asked me whether I would like something to eat. They led me into a restaurant where they treated me to a ham omelette, toast and coffee. My hands quivered so much from hunger and fatigue that my fork battled to find its destination. The good Samaritans pretended not to notice. This pretense had, of course, the opposite motivation of the priest and the Levite of the parable , who “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

The couple contacted the authorities who retrieved my bag and put me up in a youth hostel, where I was told to stay until they had contacted my home in South Africa. After four days, they informed me that they had phoned my father who said that he had posted the money not to Rotterdam but to Amsterdam. I was given the train fare to Amsterdam. The letter was there with my monthly allowance of £25.


My student card from the University of Strasbourg was valid for all French universities, which meant that I could eat lunch at any university restaurant in France at a cost of £14 a month, which though cheap in absolute terms was expensive for me, because I only had £25 allowance. I needed a job. I took the train to Paris where I found accommodation in a university residence close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was not difficult to find because the students were on long vacation.

jardin du luxembour


“Regrets, I had a few, too few to mention.” A familiar line from the song “I did it my way,” and a big lie. One of my regrets was making an appointment with someone but letting him down. At the university residence I met Luc, a Quebecois, who was studying cinematography. We had arranged that he would fetch me from my room and we would go out to a restaurant. When Luc arrived to fetch me, I was in conversation with an English-speaking student, and had forgotten all about my arrangement with Luc. He knocked on my door. I opened, and for some reason, I looked surprised to see him. He said he was sorry to intrude and left. I was stricken. My thought was that Luc felt that I preferred someone someone who shared my mother tongue to him. The truth was that the Englishman was a big yawn. What is more, although English is my mother tongue (not my mother’s tongue, which was Yiddish), I wasn’t “English.” I felt much more comfortable with the folks from Calais than from Folkstone.  

After a few days, I registered with the tourist bureau as a French-to-English interpreter. My first job was a trip to the Palace of Versailles. I was the guide’s interpreter on the bus. After the tour, the group asked me where they could spend a good night out. This was my chance to return to the small restaurant in the Latin Quarter where I had been a few days earlier and had fallen in love with the Spanish dancer in the band. My first visit to this restaurant was at the invitation of a two North American students. When the boy went to the bathroom, I asked her if he was her boyfriend. Not at all, she said. She seemed to take to me. I wanted to ask whether I could see her again. She gave me her address but I didn’t contact her again. What I did instead was slip a postcard into the post box at her university residence wishing her a good life. And rode off into the night like the man of La Mancha – on my ass. “O! that ye would read [the scriptures] oftener, and ponder them better, how there is nothing in this world,—which may seem to fall out by chance to you, that you know not how it is to come to pass, and can see no cause nor reason of it,—but it falls out by the holy will of our blessed Father. Be it of greater or less moment,—or be it a hair of thy head fallen, or thy head cut off,—the most casual and contingent thing,—though it surprised the whole world of men and angels, that they wonder from whence it did proceed” (Hugh Binning). In short,  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).

I took the Versailles tour group to the restaurant. The meal was very expensive and second-rate. I couldn’t eat the black inky paella. They were shocked at the bill. They paid my share. An elderly American in the group was furious for wasting his last precious night in such a tacky, expensive place. What I could have pointed out to him was that the Folies Bergère would have been much more expensive if not less tacky. Besides, all that matters in this life is to see the Spanish girl again, which I did, boxed in by her extended family.

The job at the tourist bureau was not well paid – the guide gets all the tips (“tip” in French is pourboire; “for drinking” – what else?). I got a job as an interpreter at a big food supply depot. Trains delivered the supplies and workers would unpack them from the trains and load them on to trollies that transported them to the hangars. The workers would rip open random boxes and help themselves to some of the contents. Chocolate bars were popular because they could be wolfed down quickly. I don’t recall participating. I lunched with the workers. A morass of red faces – not because caught red-handed, but because of all the bottles of red plonk they drank at, or more accurately, for lunch. On rainy days, I brought my umbrella to work, which caused much merriment. My nickname was “parapluie” (umbrella).

I attended Sunday Mass in the small church of Saint Julien le Pauvre situated near Notre Dame Cathedral. The church was first mentioned in the 6th century in Gregory of Tours “History of the Franks,” which makes it the oldest church in Paris. It is now a Roman Catholic Church of the Melchite Greek rite, a branch of the Byzantine church. Its interior is like a Greek Orthodox church, embroidered with icons and frescoes. There are no statues as would be customary in Roman Catholic churches of the Latin rite (the vast majority of Roman Catholic churches). Since Vatican II, the Mass in most churches is no longer celebrated in Latin. I felt the same Byzantine ambience in Saint Julien le Pauvre as I felt in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral in London, which also has a Byzantine interior. I preferred icons to statues because, they were less physical, and therefore, more “spiritual.” I never liked that song “Let’s get physical, physical, I wanna get physical, let’s get into physical, Let me hear your body talk, your body talk, let me hear your body talk.” Talk about what? What not.

st julien le pauvre

One Sunday after Mass, I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard (behind the trees on the left of the picture) when a Dominican priest, sat down next to me. He said he was sitting close to me during the Mass and was struck by my fervor. His name was Louis-Albert Lassus, an itinerant retreat master serving the monasteries of Europe. His birth name was Louis and his priest name, given at ordination, was Albert. Here is a photo of Louis-Albert, which he gave me.


Louis-Albert Lassus

Louis-Albert Lassus


 I admired the monastic life very much; most Roman Catholics do, especially recent converts like me. I found Roman Catholicism not only intellectually impressive, it also appealed to the “deeper” mystical side, the nectar of the soul. Louis-Albert invited me to his priory in Bordeaux. This was the beginning of many journeys and retreats with Louis-Albert in different monasteries in France and other parts of Europe. I describe some of these in the next chapter. A few weeks later, I quit my job at the food depot and joined Albert in Bordeaux whence we departed on our peregrinations “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).


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