The Luxembourg Gardens

by Nicholas Ruddock

In September of 1961, when I was sixteen, I flew to Paris. I was to stay with a French family on the first leg of a student exchange. But things got mixed up in a hurry. The family’s grandmother, in Marseille, suffered a series of strokes, causing the mother and father to rush off together to care for an extensive property. The two daughters went with them, so I was left with just my new friend, their son Pascal, at their apartment on Rue Budé, on the Île St. Louis. Then, within a week, Pascal was arrested for, of all things, sedition. He was involved with a radical student organization, or “cell” as it was characterized in Le Monde, dedicated to the realization of self-government for France’s closest possession, Algeria. Bail was out of the question. All France was spooked by the fear of insurgency. After an hour of struggling with long-distance codes, I managed to contact the father in Marseille with the news, but no, he would not return. “Pascal has made his bed with Communists. He will suffer the consequences.” He apologized for deserting me, but said that if I walked daily across the Pont St. Michel, if I purchased a baguette and cheese and then walked for two hours in one of the twelve directions of the clock, if I spoke openly to passersby, my vocabulary would improve and my life would be enriched. “I have told Pascal the same, but he is oblivious to common sense. You shall do better.” We were speaking in French, of course. He instructed me on watering his plants. “Thank you,” I said.

I hung up, feeling disheartened. Who could have imagined this? I thought of phoning home but the complexity and the cost were overwhelming. I was on my own. Locking up the apartment, I descended three flights of stairs to the inner courtyard, looking up at jury-rigged laundry lines suspended from various windows. I waved au revoir to the elderly concierge and pushed open the heavy door to the city. I would follow his instructions, I would enrich my life. To that end I crossed the nearest bridge to the Cathedral, raised my eyes to examine the gargoyles—I had no idea of their meaning or import—and then, map in hand, set out in a northerly direction, imagining the hand of a clock pointing to noon.

I first crossed the river, or a branch of it, on the Pont d’Arcole. Soon I found myself in a large public square, and after that the roads narrowed and became more commercial. I passed pastry shops, flower shops. At a boulangerie I purchased, as per my instructions, a sliced half-baguette with cheese and sliced tomatoes, wrapped tightly in white paper. But I was too nervous to eat it on the spot, and there were no benches or green spaces. On I walked, without direct purpose, my sandwich pinched between arm and chest, leaving my hands free for the map. It quickly became clear that Pascal’s father’s advice, to walk in a straight direction, was impractical. Narrow streets branched off at differing angles, drawing me irresistibly off course. I attempted to make corrections, but after an hour or so of indecision I found myself at the foot of a funicular, a short tramline that rose, my map indicated, from Place St. Pierre to the Basilica Sacré-Coeur. I had wandered perhaps four hundred metres from my intended path. Still, not bad, I thought, for my first day.

In September of 1961, when I was sixteen, I flew to Paris. I was to stay with a French family on the first leg of a student exchange. But things got mixed up in a hurry. The family’s grandmother, in Marseille, suffered a series of strokes, causing the mother and father to rush off together to care for an extensive property. The two daughters went with them, so I was left with just my new friend, their son Pascal, at their apartment on Rue Budé, on the Île St. Louis. Then, within a week, Pascal was arrested for, of all things, sedition. He was involved with a radical student organization, or “cell” as it was characterized in Le Monde, dedicated to the realization of self-government for France’s closest possession, Algeria. Bail was out of the question. All France was spooked by the fear of insurgency. After an hour of struggling with long-distance codes, I managed to contact the father in Marseille with the news, but no, he would not return. “Pascal has made his bed with Communists. He will suffer the consequences.” He apologized for deserting me, but said that if I walked daily across the Pont St. Michel, if I purchased a baguette and cheese and then walked for two hours in one of the twelve directions of the clock, if I spoke openly to passersby, my vocabulary would improve and my life would be enriched. “I have told Pascal the same, but he is oblivious to common sense. You shall do better.” We were speaking in French, of course. He instructed me on watering his plants. “Thank you,” I said.

I hung up, feeling disheartened. Who could have imagined this? I thought of phoning home but the complexity and the cost were overwhelming. I was on my own. Locking up the apartment, I descended three flights of stairs to the inner courtyard, looking up at jury-rigged laundry lines suspended from various windows. I waved au revoir to the elderly concierge and pushed open the heavy door to the city. I would follow his instructions, I would enrich my life. To that end I crossed the nearest bridge to the Cathedral, raised my eyes to examine the gargoyles—I had no idea of their meaning or import—and then, map in hand, set out in a northerly direction, imagining the hand of a clock pointing to noon.

I first crossed the river, or a branch of it, on the Pont d’Arcole. Soon I found myself in a large public square, and after that the roads narrowed and became more commercial. I passed pastry shops, flower shops. At a boulangerie I purchased, as per my instructions, a sliced half-baguette with cheese and sliced tomatoes, wrapped tightly in white paper. But I was too nervous to eat it on the spot, and there were no benches or green spaces. On I walked, without direct purpose, my sandwich pinched between arm and chest, leaving my hands free for the map. It quickly became clear that Pascal’s father’s advice, to walk in a straight direction, was impractical. Narrow streets branched off at differing angles, drawing me irresistibly off course. I attempted to make corrections, but after an hour or so of indecision I found myself at the foot of a funicular, a short tramline that rose, my map indicated, from Place St. Pierre to the Basilica Sacré-Coeur. I had wandered perhaps four hundred metres from my intended path. Still, not bad, I thought, for my first day.

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