Copyright © 2002. 2007 by Martin S. Reff
All Rights Reserved
If home is where the heart is, then my heart is in Paris and has been since I sat in the park opposite Gare St. Lazar one early morning in September 1950. A friend and I had just arrived via "boat-train" from London where there was fog, pies that had fish in them, people who looked awry at our informal trousers and shoes. I was uncomfortable there.
But the man who just passed with a baguette wrapped in paper in his hand didn't even see us. I felt at home for the first time since I had left the States in early August.
My love affair with Paris dates to my reading Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham when I was a lower sophomore in college. The novel, set mostly in Paris, is the story of a young man who wants to be a physician. He was, like me, taken with finding meaning in life. At one point in the novel a writer-philospher-café-vagabond by the name of Cronshaw provides Philip, the hero, a cryptic answer. "You want the meaning of life?" he must have said, "Here - " and at that point he hailed a peddler of Persian carpets and bought one for Philip. "Here, take it." It took me awhile to understand.
I loved the cafés, and the picture of Paris that Maugham had so skillfully created. Years later when furnishing a bedroom I bought a Persian rug. To this day it lies at the foot of our bed.
It is not meaningless as I once thought, but beautiful with its intricate colors, its repetition of lines, colors and forms, and the infinity it suggests, Yet, it carries with it in its fabric threads that are worn, twisted, broken and repaired as well as the mistakes of the weaver and, of course, the knots and shreds of its creation. It's almost perfect but for those imperfections created by humans and the fabric itself.
In 1949 during my junior year at college, where I was majoring in English, a friend asked me if I would like to go to Paris and study at the Sorbonne. He said we could do it under the GI Bill of Rights, an educational program for veterans of World War II. I agreed and studied French during my last semester. We both graduated in February 1950, worked during the spring for a nest-egg. Our tuition (which turned out to be about a hundred or so dollars) would be paid by Uncle Sam and we would receive a stipend of $75 a month for room and board but we would have to pay for transportation by steamship and other related costs.
On August 4 we embarked on a voyage that would change my life in ways I never ever imagined. How I arrived and what I did and learned and some of my experiences are mentioned in the narrative that follows but for the most part, that's another story. I returned home in early spring of 1952, four months shy of two years.
I had fallen deeply in love with France but it wouldn't be until about 15 years later that I had the chance to return for two weeks. I had not forgotten what little French I knew nor had I forgotten how much Paris meant to me.
Then late in 1986 or early in 1988, six or seven years into a new career and 15 years into a very happy second marriage, I read an article by a man named Bradley in MotorBoat and Sailing about his idyllic cruise aboard a barge on one of the canals of France. It struck a gong! Years before while in the Paris as a student I had read Robert Louis Stevenson's small volume An Inland Voyage in which he recounts a short charming trip he and a friend took on a river in France.
I suggested to my wife, bravely, that we could retire, sell our house and all our belongings, go to France, buy a boat to cruise, and live on it for as long as we wanted. My wife, who didn't know French and had never been abroad, took this with a large grain of sea salt. But Marcia who was, and still is, always eager for a new experience shortly agreed. The rest is history.
We did exactly what we planned. Bought a boat, cruised the inland canals and some rivers, lived aboard in Paris until 1992. We had an experience that thousands of people dream about. The first section of this web site is devoted to those years.