14 December 2007

An old letter from Rouen

Yesterday I was going through a box of old papers and I found a letter I wrote to my mother in 1972. She saved it and gave it back to me a couple of years ago. In 1972-73, I lived in Normandy, where I worked as a teaching assistant at a lycée in Rouen. I had been there less than a month when I wrote the letter, and I was 23 years old.

Tuesday, October 3, 1972
Dear Ma,

I came back from Paris Saturday afternoon with a bunch of American and English assistants who will be in the general area of Rouen. I caught an awful cold — which I haven’t lost yet, though it’s getting better — in Paris. Why, I don’t know. The weather has been beautiful for almost two weeks now. It didn’t rain once all the time we were in Paris.

I think I caught the cold because everybody had one, and we were all sitting crushed together in the auditoriums of the Sorbonne six or eight hours a day listening to lectures. The number of sneezes and coughs per minute from the audience gradually increased by the hour, and, combined with the nose-blowing, the sound at the last meeting on Saturday morning was nearly deafening.

I guess I’ll start moving into my apartment today. I saw it for the first time yesterday, and it’s not at all what the lady said it would be. They’ve spent a lot of money, I’m sure, fixing it up. The furniture is all brand new — bed, wardrobe, desk, dining room set, and a huge kitchen cupboard. New wallpaper and paint and curtains. Probably brand new linoleum and tile. But they spent all that money making it pretty instead of buying a $75 refrigerator, so there isn’t one.

The plumbing hasn’t been done yet, so there won’t be any hot water for about a month. They said they would put in a cooking stove in the next two or three days. Also no bathroom, although facilities are available. I’m on the second floor, and the toilet is on the third while the shower will be on the first — will be as soon as they install it. Within two weeks, they say.

At any rate, the two rooms are really big, and the location isn’t bad, so I should be OK once I get used to it. I could buy a tiny fridge for about $60, new. I’m going to start looking for some used ones. Somebody around a city of 300,000 people must sell them.

But maybe not, considering the way these people use everything, including the paper the butcher wraps meat in, over and over and over and over again. We Americans just don’t understand thrift, when it comes right down to it.

I’m going to start work on Friday, even though I started getting paid on Sunday.The school system here, both high school and university, seems to run on a minimal amount of efficient organization. It does no good to try to push things through unless you know exactly the right person to go to. And that takes years of experience, I’m sure. It’s better to just sit back and let things run their natural course in time, and something eventually will turn up.

I’ve been told that I’ll be in class 10 hours a week. At least four of those will be as an assistant to the professor in his classroom. Those are the only four hours I know about — three on Friday with one professor, from 11:00 to noon and from 2:00 to 4:00; then two hours every other Saturday morning, 8:00 to 10:00, in class with Monsieur Davoine, the head English professor...

All these years later, I was surprised to read that the weather was so nice in Normandy that fall. That's not how I remember it. I'll have to revise some of my old stories. I guess the gray, damp weather we had over the winter obliterated all memories of good September weather.

I never did get use of a working shower downstairs from that apartment. All year I had to trudge over to the lycée a couple of times a week to have a shower in the school dormitories. My memory is also that I didn't get hot water and heat until January, not in November as promised at the time. And the weather turned very cold and gray, with a constant drizzle of rain. I caught the flu and nearly died.

And the professors at the lycée, with two notable exceptions, treated me like dirt! Some of them told their students not to attend my conversation classes because they would pick up that awful American accent and vocabulary. The worst of them would constantly ask me, whenever I said anything, "But how do you say that in British English?", and then they would make fun of my pronunciation.

It was pretty miserable, actually, but I was young and excited about being in France, so it didn't matter much. The apartment was a couple of blocks from the train station in Rouen, and not more than 10 minutes' walk from the Place du Vieux Marché, the old market.

Here's a link to part 2 of this topic about the old Rouen letter.


  1. Ken, this letter to your Ma is priceless. It shows how developed your writing skills already were at the early and tender age of 23!

  2. my mother saved all of my letters from my junior year abroad in 1969-70 (quite an exciting time to be in Paris) and I wrote in great detail, so I'm glad to have them now...I also kept a journal, which I ended up writing en francais to keep "the parents" from perusing it when i got home...haha....still one of the best years of my life!

  3. CHM, wait, there's more. I'll continue tomorrow.

    Melinda, good idea to keep the journal en français. I never kept a journal, unfortunately. But I do have a box full of old letters.

  4. At 78, I still have the 5-lines- cards sent by my very British, laconic son when he left home, with his trumpet, in his 20's. I had nightmares about him being homeless, cold, hungry,sick. A letter like yours would have sent my French heart soaring...but you did not tell the whole truth, Ken, even though you wrote with eloquence!... Claudia

  5. It's very nice tohave this slice of your past and you are fortuante that "Ma" keep it to pass it back to you.


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