Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

I’m coming home!

So Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily prepared to move to Switzerland. Papa and Mama discussed our situation at length, with Papa tending towards our continuing our education in French, and Mama insisting that it was time we went home and learned Chinese. Mama won.

And so, finally, at the age of 13, I was finally going to head back to Taiwan after having spent almost twelve years abroad.

I was ecstatic! Primarily, because I was going to join my own family again. I loved Aunt Lily, and my cousin Therese had become more of a sister than a cousin now, but home is home, mother is mother, and no one can replace that.

dreaming of home and mother

I was also happy to finally get to know my homeland. Well, technically, since Papa was from Nanjing, then so was I. But given the political situation, and having never set eyes or foot on the Chinese mainland, I called Taiwan home. I peppered Aunt Lily with questions. What were the schools like? Would we have to wear uniforms?

Aunt Lily acted all cool and matter-of-fact, even a little snippy. But I could sense her tears under it all. Just as I thought of her as Mama Number Two, she had come to love me as her daughter too.  She sewed dresses for us just like Mama used to, even though she kept complaining about my neck — too long, and set too low in front, causing her to redo the neckline several times. Aunt Lily would sprinkle her speech with Taiwanese words, unlike Mama, who had tried very hard to acquire Papa’s Mainland speech and accent.

Chinese adults equate love and care with scolding and rebuking, or, at best, advice. The more they scold you, the more they love you. Aunt Lily was no different. She kept calling me “kong-kong, gong-gong”, which meant crazy-stupid, in Taiwanese. At dinner time, she’d call out, “jia-beng la!” — time to eat!  and afterwards, she’d tell us to go “kee sey ka tseng!” before bedtime — go wash your buttocks! An operation which entailed filling a plastic basin with hot water, then squatting over it for the washing. Mama had not taught us that Muslims actually need to wash that part of the body after every single toilet use, so we did so only once a day.

Diane Briere de l'Isle -- entry in my cahier de souvenirs

I had my friends and teachers write in my cahier de souvenirs, and then it was  time to pack. Uncle Lung took Saadia and me to town to purchase our airline tickets. There was no parking space in front of the airline office, so he dropped us and left to find a spot. We entered the place and walked up to the counter. We were now taller, and our heads did stick out above the counter top, but the airline workers sitting there acted as if we were still short little dwarves and they couldn’t see us. We patiently waited and waited silently for someone to give us some attention, but none did. They chatted and laughed but totally ignored us. Just then Uncle Lung entered. The hostesses suddenly transformed themselves into smiling and assiduous clerks. They almost fell over each other trying to flirt with Uncle Lung. Thinking back, I guess he was kind of handsome, tall and straight, with glasses giving him a scholarly aura. Aunt Lily often commented resentfully on the female clerks of whatever office she had business in. They would treat her with rudeness or even give her the cold shoulder, but the minute her husband appeared, these women would suddenly fawn all over him. Ah, Aunt Lily, today I feel so much with you!

Anyway, our tickets were finally purchased. They indicated that we were to fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, then BOAC to Tehran, New Delhi, Hong Kong, and finally Cathay Pacific to Taipei. Quite a long journey, with plenty of breaks on the way. Again, Hansel and Gretel set off on their own. Airline services had improved somewhat by then, for Uncle Lung managed to get a stewardess to oversee our transfer in Frankfurt. Which was a good thing, because I barely knew a few words of German gleaned from the girls in school who were in German class. Then, it was the land of the unknown, for all announcements were now in English and the language of the country where we landed. Our English wasn’t that good yet. We had started formal English classes in 6eme and 5eme, but as any student of foreign languages can attest, classroom English does not equal fluency to understand “This is your captain speaking…”


Having each other’s company gave us more courage, and Saadia and I started enjoying playing with the little tray tables and cute utensils. In Iran, I tried to look outside the windows to see the famous roses of Ispahan, but of course, to no avail. Finally, we landed in Delhi, took a turn in the transit lounge and re-boarded the plane. But… what was taking them so long? It started getting hotter and hotter, and everyone was pulling out magazines and fanning themselves. Then, the speakers crackled, and made an announcement in English. A unanimous sigh of annoyment broke out. Even before the captain stopped talking, passengers were getting up, opening the overhead compartments and pulling their bags out. Everyone was grumbling and talking. We were shocked. What was happening?

BOAC stewardess

We also pulled our bags out and followed the crowd. What was going on? Why were we heading back to the transit lounge? Finally, a stewardess came up to us to talk to us. We tried with ers… and ahs… to ask the question, what exactly was happening? A cute Indian stewardess located an English middle aged lady who could remember her high school French. The husband could not speak French, but we couldn’t care less. Finally, between our broken English and her broken French, we could communicate. It turned out the plane had some mechanical problem and would require a longer time on the ground. In the meantime, we, the passengers, would be taken to a hotel to rest and eat.

I became worried. Did we have to pay for all this? We only carried a little cash on us. The kind English lady and her husband were appointed our mentors and translators. She said, no, don’t worry, it’s all on the airline. I worried still about our visas. We did not have visas for India. But I suppose that in cases of such emergency, the immigration officers had the authority to allow two little Chinese girls onto Indian soil without visas. Please, I asked the stewardess, can you send a telegram to my parents to inform them that we would not be arriving on the expected flight? She assured me she would take care of that. So finally, I relaxed. Little did I know that no one took care of it, and my parents went frantic with worry.

new delhi

So, I stared at the dusty streets and colorful pedestrians filling the city of New Delhi. The English couple decided to go out for a walk, but we were too scared of missing the flight. Saadia managed to take a nap but I was way too excited. I decided to jump on the mattress and enjoyed a great trampoline session, something neither Mama nor Aunt Lily ever allowed for fear of damaging the springs. In the evening, the cute Indian stewardess came to take us to the buffet where we met the English couple again.  They took great advantage of the free food and drinks! As for us, since we didn’t know how to ask whether there was pork or lard here, there and everywhere, and were too shy to do so anyway, we ended up eating very little, only dishes that looked obviously vegetarian.

Taipei SongShan Airport

Taipei SongShan Airport

Finally, the plane was fixed, and we flew off again. By the time we landed in Taipei, we were exhausted. As we descended the steps to the tarmac, there was Papa, waiting for us. We ran to him, “Papa! Papa!” and embraced him. He was so happy and laughed from ear to ear! He gave us a great big hug, then stepped back to take a good look at us. In later years, he loved recalling that moment. As he took that look, he suddenly realized we were much taller than what he remembered, and had an instant’s frozen fear that he had hugged the wrong girls!




Slap Our Faces Swollen to Appear Fat

Among the staff posted in Paris was a lady who worked with the Information office. Her husband worked with the office in Brussels. They had three sons. Everyone lauded this talented and highly educated couple. Unfortunately, they had an eldest son who was brain damaged and was kept in a nursing home in Taiwan.

“He spends his days tearing newspapers,” said Aunt Lily. And he needed feeding and cleaning round the clock. That was the first time I’d heard the term “vegetable” used for a human. The other two sons lived in Paris with the mother. They studied at the  Ecole Polytechnique, one of the most prestigious universities of France. Every weekend or two, they would drive to Brussels to visit the father, or vice versa.

ecole polytechnique

One day, disaster struck. The mother was driving while the older son occupied the passenger seat. At one of the bends on the highway, the car flew off the road, somersaulted onto the adjoining field and ended resting on its side, smoke fuming from the engine. The mother, who had omitted wearing her seat belt, had been ejected onto the grass. The son, strapped in his seat with his dutifully locked seat belt, died before the ambulance could reach the hospital.

Aunt Lily took us to their home to give our condolences. The poor mother, in a black dress, sat forlornly in her chair, tearing up. I stared at the floor, not knowing what to say or what to do. I noticed that her stocking had a “ladder” — a snag or tear.  She had always been very sophisticated and professional looking, and her dress had always been impeccable.  I stared at this symbol of her life fraying at the seams.

ladder in stocking

“Ah, what a pity!” sighed Aunt Lily on the way home. “Three beautiful and intelligent sons, yet she is now left with only one.” This remark struck me deeply. Indeed, is it not terrible to give birth and raise and educate three sons, not even daughters but sons… and now, be left with just one? I swore to myself there and then that I had to have at least three sons if in the future I wanted to have at least one surviving to adulthood.

The twins who played with us back in the early 1960’s, Antonio and Roberto, also returned to Paris around the second or third year we were there. I do not recall why, but the mother brought them back on her own, along with the little daughter Melina (named after Melina Mercouri).  The father was not there. It is possible that he had been posted in some other country, and the family had made the decision to split up for the sake of the kids’ education. This separation scenario replayed itself time and again among diplomatic families, and very few survived intact, often ending in divorce.

They too did very well in school, being enrolled in some prestigious lycee, a couple of years ahead of us. They visited us once, typical teenagers, brooding and quiet, not talking to us girls. We later visited them at their modern apartment which boasted, an absolute marvel then …. wall-to-wall carpeting! Unbelievable! I had never seen such luxury before and greatly relished the feeling of being able to sit on the carpeted floor to play Monopoly.

french monopoly

I heard through Papa many years later that they became very successful engineers, and one of them, I’m not sure which, was the main engineer who masterminded the switch of all the French telephone numbers from seven to eight or nine digits. Aunt Lily’s remark haunted me for a while, and I feared for their mother. Would she lose one or two of them? Did she have enough children to survive the vicissitudes of life?

The Wu family, whose daughter Amy was our closest playmate in our early childhood, had left the diplomatic service and emigrated to America. Apparently, they had settled in New York, having decided that there was no point serving a country that had to cut down on its diplomatic staff, as country after country severed official ties with us.

One evening, Aunt Lily returned from a dinner party at the Venezuelan embassy. She sighed deeply, “Ah, penniless diplomats, penniless diplomats that we are! Da Zhong Lian Chong Pang Zi! (Slap our faces swollen to appear fat!) Look at the Venezuelan ambassador’s home! Gold curtains hanging from ceiling to floor! The delectable dinner courses! The expensive china plates and golden utensils… Ah! We just can’t compare! Forced to take guests out to dinner at restaurants only once a month because that is all we can afford with our entertainment allowance. Working for a penniless government. Poor us, penniless diplomats!”

In Chinese tradition, being fat means being wealthy. So a poor person would slap his own face to make it swell and pretend to be fat and rich.

In Chinese tradition, being fat means being wealthy. So a poor person would slap his own face to make it swell and pretend to be fat and rich.

The Communist Chinese had taken over our previous embassy on Avenue George V as well as the old consulate grounds. I assume their staff replaced us now at all the formal events, yet I wonder how well they were able to carry out their functions. Once, I accompanied Aunt Lily to a shopping area close to the Champs-Elysees. She wanted to select some pretty fabrics to sew us dresses. We spotted them: three Communist Chinese dressed in the dark blue Mao uniform. The two men stood outside the fabric store, not quite at ease. The woman was bathed in a glow of admiration and envy, touching and palpating the flowery rainbow-colored gauzes and silks, pulling them up to gaze better at them, then sighing and placing them back.

chinese in mao uniform

Aunt Lily avoided them, did not talk to them, and picked her fabrics as quickly as she could. As we walked home, she explained that the Communists never came out of the embassy alone, but always in groups of two or more. The idea was to have one spy on the others. The poor lady could not wear anything but her uniform, so touching and admiring the pretty fabrics was all she could do with them. Had we attempted to speak with her, she would have been severely interrogated once the group returned to the embassy.

beautiful fabrics

By the summer of 1970, the order arrived: Uncle Lung was being transferred to his new post in Geneva.


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Curtsies and Hypocrisy

Since the Republic of China (on Taiwan) did not have official diplomatic relations with France, our office wore a different name — either Taiwan Cultural Center, or Taiwan Educational and Cultural Office, or some such title (I cannot manage to remember it, and Google did not tell me either; apparently, it was upgraded in 1974 to Bureau de Representation de Taipei en France) . Consequently, the ambassador was also given a different title, that of “Representative”, or, in Chinese, “dai biao”.

However, those among the staff who were of the sycophant variety would still call him “ambassador” in his face, or in Chinese, “Da Shi”. Which is written as大使.Actually, the Representative was an employee of some other ministry — I believe it was the Ministry of Education  — because of the apparent nature of the office. As such, he had very little experience in international affairs or in social functions, which were a large part of the activities of the diplomatic corps. The number and scope of all functions were dramatically reduced for whatever reason,  and consequently, we did not have to attend or take part in as many social functions as we had been used to. 

As for our Representative, the staff criticized him greatly in his back for his performance and his personal life.  In his face, they bowed and smiled and called him “Da Shi”, which he never denied. I particularly remember one gentleman, who came a couple of times to visit Uncle Lung at home. He would get so incensed with his criticism that he would yell out, gesticulating and waving, ramming his finger downward to illustrate his opinion, and call our representative “Yao Da Bian” instead of “Yao Da Shi”. It may sound like two different titles, but if you read this in Chinese characters, there is a very minor difference. The word “Da Bian”, meaning feces, to put it politely, is written 大便 . The slight difference is an extra horizontal stroke inside the rectangle, and the tip of the central vertical stroke cut off. The gentleman would think himself very smart and laugh at his own demeaning jokes.


I was appalled. I did not particularly like Representative Yao or his family, but I would never smile and bow in his face while screaming insults in his back. This was my earliest exposure to blatant hypocrisy. I could not believe that every time we went to the Yaos’ home, an expensive and expansive luxurious apartment in a chic quarter of Paris, this person’s wife would always be there, like a shadow of Madame Representative. She would be choosing curtains or bringing wrapped presents or sharing recipes, bobbing and bowing and smiling. “Pai Ma Pee!” — patting the horse’s rump —  Aunt Lily would mutter. Meaning, buttering them up! I would walk up to the lady of the house and shake hands, and my knee would choose that moment to unlock  and re-lock itself — my genetic loose ligaments, I presume.  And the hostess would smile and exclaim, “A curtsy, is it? What a courteous and well-mannered child indeed!”


Their daughter had a hard time catching up at school, because she had never been exposed to anything but schools in Taiwan and was dropped smack in the middle of high school in France.  All of us, children of internationally mobile workers, knew the drill. We would spend one to three months catching up with the language, and thereafter become first in class. Which is why we felt very little pity for the poor girl who was crumbling down between school work and tutoring.

The few functions that we did attend were usually of the Chinese-community-networking type.  Once a year, an entire movie — whichever was an office box best seller at the time —  would arrive with the diplomatic pouch, in large reels of celluloid film, the good old way.  These would be then projected at a theater rented for the purpose.  Our community was quite large then, regardless of the lack of official recognition, for the theater would always be full. This was in the days of real cinemas, when the capacity of each hall was much larger than that of today’s multiplexes.  I am aware that Taiwan-made movies then were no match for Hollywood, but I relished them. They were such a rare treat.

The Duck Farmer was a best-selling Taiwan-made movie in the late 1960s.

The Duck Farmer was a best-selling and award-winning Taiwan-made movie in the 1960s.

In the three years we spent with Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily, we managed to go three times to the cinema: once with Chang JieJie to see the War of the Buttons, which I greatly enjoyed; and twice with the family to see Asterix et Cleopatre, and Jungle Book.  The first was too colorful and too busy and the second was condemned by Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily as too colorful and too noisy as well. They felt Walt Disney’s greatest movie to be Snow White and Jungle Book did not match its style. We nearly went to see Oliver Twist, but at the last minute, Uncle Lung remembered that in the story, Oliver was taught to pick pockets and rob houses. Not good for children. So the outing was cancelled. To our great disappointment.


French cartoon feature, based on the comic book of the same name.

French cartoon feature, based on the comic book of the same name.

The most memorable event with our Chinese community however, was a camping trip to La Baule, a seaside resort on the southern edge of  the province of Bretagne (Brittany).  There were at least a dozen tents, some with families, like us, and others with a mix of singles, planted in a square on a grassy lot. On the third day, we held a cooking competition.  Aunt Lily was greatly excited, although the challenge was in creating a great dish over a butane stove, and having a very rudimentary supply of ingredients.  She and her friend Mrs. Teng decided to prepare a dish entitled  “Ants Climbing up a Trunk”. I believe they did win a prize even though the bean vermicelli surprised them: once thrown into hot oil, it deep fried itself instantly by puffing up into a white, fluffy and crunchy snack-like nest. The “ants” were minced beef cooked in soy sauce with Mu Er (Tree Ear fungus). They did not have any more supply of bean vermicelli and so were forced to serve their dish as is.

This is how Ants on a Tree Trunk looks like traditionally.

This is how Ants on a Tree Trunk looks like traditionally.

Ants on Tree Trunk, with the bean vermicelli deep fried.

Ants on Tree Trunk, with the bean vermicelli deep fried.

Aunt Lily was and still is really a great cook. She taught me a dish of tomato, egg, scallions and shredded beef that she had invented. In later year, I named it “Spring Garden” when I wrote its recipe up. I have taught it to my children, and it remains the number one favorite dish in the family, on its way to become a family heritage.

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Change is the only constant.

If changing one school a year taught me anything, it was that nothing in life was constant, and nothing stayed important if you changed the context.

Since my essays had so impressed my previous French teacher, I expected the same from this new one in 5eme. French literature and writing was not only rather tame at Lamazou, but the teacher never seemed to notice anything exceptional about my or Saadia’s writing. I tried my best descriptions, my most astounding vocabulary, my amazing acrobatics in grammar and rhetorics, all to no avail. I was totally unable to draw one word of praise from my new French teacher.  Eventually, I stopped trying. I would just hand in my essays, and that would be that.

Biology this year was non-flowering plants. Although I was a bit surprised to find that algae, mosses, lichens and ferns had a really strange reproductive cycle, this could not compete with cow teeth, dog skeletons, or a thick folder herbarium filled with primroses, violets and lilies-of-the-valley.

Juggling algebra

Juggling algebra

Actually, my biggest surprise was Math. I discovered in the depths of myself a passion for algebra. It was really nothing more than a bit of pre-Algebra and the first steps of elementary Algebra, but it fascinated me. I relished the neatness of line-by-line work to reach the final solution.  It was a wonder that perfect order and sense could produce the solution to a mystery: the value of x! Our Math teacher would regularly assign one measly problem to solve as homework. Occasionally, she dared assign TWO!  But one day, she picked up enough courage to hand out THREE math problems for just one evening!  The students could not believe their ears. I mean, they did have a life, after all! Three math problems? Did the teacher go crazy or what? They argued and bargained, and finally, the entire class decided to go on strike the next day. Well, in a manner of speaking. First of all, I had not agreed to strike, but no one had asked for my opinion. Secondly, striking really meant not doing the Math homework. I was in tears. No! Please! I wanted to do it! I really really would have LOVED to do my algebra homework, the one passion I had that year! Come what may, I did it anyway. And enjoyed every bit of it. The teacher was forced to re-assign the homework for the day after, with Number 3 downgraded to a bonus question, since it involved material she had not taught us in class. But with the principles already in hand, we should have been able to derive the solution. It turned out that I was the only student who succeeded in solving it. The Math teacher duly praised my work in class. And I decided that Math was my new love.

binary system

The year had started in a rather strange way, for we had been introduced to set theory and the binary system, with the comment that this was Modern Math, “New Math”, and we would need that for computers, which were the way of the future. Now, 45 years later, I still haven’t used — ever — the binary system for anything, and especially not for computers. I won’t deny that trying to use a home computer — once they came on the market — did throw me a tough learning curve. Even so, the hardest thing about it was using DOS (remember that dinosaur?). Everything since has been a piece of cake, comparatively.

To come back to New Math, I could not believe how easy elements and sets, and union and intersection were compared to trains that chugged toward each other at differing speeds, or converting cubed millimeters to cubed decimeters. Gone were the sweats and drudgery of long divisions. I did regret a bit the fun of constructing angle bisectors and such, but the sheer satisfaction of manipulation symbols to come to an elegant solution was absolutely incomparably amazing! It was the epitome of puzzle solving!

As a result, the Math teacher loved me. She also happened to be our Art teacher. One day, we had the choice of drawing and painting any landscape we felt like. I started  sketching a cliff, like the ones I’d seen on Chinese paintings. The teacher looked over my shoulder at the sketch. “The Chinese are supposed to be really good at painting. Tell me, what are you painting here?” I stuttered and stammered, because I didn’t really know. Nothing like high expectations, voiced out, to make you unable to produce anything good. I got stuck. I didn’t know what to do with that cliff. I added a winding river, but something looked wrong. I wondered whether to paint the cliffs green or brown. Eventually, the whole thing turned into a messy disaster. The teacher walked by again, and she looked disappointed. I felt disappointed too, for having disappointed her.

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Chinese landscape painting, cliff

Today, as I teach my students to paint landscapes, I realize that no child is born as an artistic genius. All children have creative seeds inside of them, but we need to give them the tools, not expect them to re-invent the wheel. No one expects children to solve quadratic equations without any instructions, yet we do expect children to pop onto paper a wonderful painting if their parents claim they are artistic. Yes, we read in the news stories of artistic prodigies like Alexandra Nechita, but we forget that she was given colors, paper and the freedom to experiment and practice. All children who are allowed to doodle and sketch for endless hours, days, months and years do turn out to be great artists. That seemingly effortless winning painting did not spring out of nowhere!


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How to set up a lose-lose situation

volleyballThe other PE hour in the Ecole Lamazou consisted not of dance but of volleyball. I started figuring out what the syllabus was: one weekly hour of prescribed gymnastics, and one hour of in-depth study of a specific area of sports. Since our History and Geography teacher, Mlle Mounier, happened to have been in a volleyball team, it was only logical that she should teach us her favorite sport.

It actually started quite well. She would arrange us in a circle and stand in the center. Then she would throw the ball to us using the tips of her fingers, with her hands in a claw position. She repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping the wrists, hands and fingers tough and strong and in the correct position. Very quickly, I was able to excel at throwing the ball in this manner. Then she gave us more exercises on how to serve, four fingers closed upon the palm yet straight and strong. She also taught us to receive and bounce back the ball using both hands combined into a single fist, with the thumbs straight and tightly against each other.  She specified that one had to kneel one of the legs to get this right. And I got it right. She praised me for a good job and I glowed. After all, PE had always been my worst subject, and being able to conquer my waterloo was more satisfying than continuing to score at the top of the class — after Saadia, of course.

wrist hit volleyball

Then, one day, Mlle Mounier announced that we were ready for a match (game). What was that? Oh, so it wasn’t just throwing the ball to one another? There was more to it?  OK, I was ready. So, she picked her best players, meaning, me included. The net was set up, and she gave the signal to start. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Oh, the ball is coming my way! Quick, hit it! I hit it to the opposite side of the net. Everyone yelled. “No, Fawzia, to the other side!”  Oh, sorry. We played again. The ball came to me again. I hit it to our side this time. Everyone yelled. “No, Fawzia, to the other side!” Now I was totally disoriented. So, which side did they want me to throw it to? Since I had no clue, I would play it by ear. Sometimes I hit the ball this way and sometimes that way. Round about half the time, it was the wrong way.

That did it. I did not like the game at all. How many people enjoy being yelled at constantly? With no way of figuring out what was wrong and how to correct it? I did try another class of this riddle then gave up. The next week, when Mlle Mounier would be picking out her players, I would hide behind the stage curtains so she couldn’t see me. Thus my career as a volley ball player fizzled out.

the end

It is very interesting to observe how many well-meaning teachers set their students up for failure without realizing it. I suppose all my team mates knew the rules from previous experience or from watching television. Since Aunt Lily did not have a television set at home, I had never seen a volley ball game in my life and had no idea what it was all about. I did not even know there were rules to it.  It would have taken a simple question from the teacher to find this out, and remedy it by teaching me the rules, or point me in the direction of a rule book.

As it was, I assumed it was my inborn, lifelong inability to excel at sports, and managed to get out of the games for the rest of the year.

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Climbing to the top

At the Ecole Lamazou, the general PE class, or Gymnastique, included, again, rope climbing.

I really cannot fathom why France puts such emphasis on rope climbing. Since I already grumbled about this in previous posts, I shall refrain from doing so here. So in all the intervening years, while I gallivanted around the world, little French girls had been honing their skills in rope climbing. And therefore, by the time I was in 5eme (Grade 7), they were all regular little monkeys, scooting up and down a smooth rope to the ceiling of the gymnasium in a matter of seconds. No more knotted ropes by then, only smooth ones. And the PE teacher would time each climber, click! the moment her feet left the floor and stop it, click! the instant she touched the ceiling with her hand. The times varied between 9 to 11 seconds or so. The distance was around one and half floor’s height, so I would say, maybe 15-20 feet.

girl climbing rope

 Climbing a smooth rope

All the girls, including Marie-Therese the Vietnamese, would take turns walking up to the hanging rope, grab the rope with both hands, raise one foot, and hop! off they would go. Fist over fist, raise feet, fist over fist, raise feet, etc. all the way up, touch the ceiling (click!) then fist under fist, lower feet, fist under fist, lower feet, until they hopped off back to the floor. Very neat, very fast, clean cut. Then Marianne the English girl, Saadia or I would take our turn, grab the rope, raise one foot, and hop! kick wildly in the air trying to find the rope with the other foot, swinging round and round like a Tarzan wannabe, our buttocks seemingly heavier than a ton, until our arms got tired, then we would fall back to earth, totally humiliated. Marianne had the worst time of the three of us, because she was heavier, and also because her white skin showed the pink and red of embarrassment so much more clearly. Clearly, they don’t make students climb ropes in England either. So every week, when it was time to climb rope, we’d sit criss-cross apple sauce on the floor, in line, waiting for shame time, go through the embarrassing experience, then go back and sit down again. Week after week.

The teacher never made a single effort at coaching us. She actually did not bother to even time us. She would just wait till we finished hanging and swinging and then go on with the clocking of the remaining students. And occasionally mutter about foreign girls being hopeless.

This so bothered me that one day I decided to study the phenomenon. There must be a reason why all the French girls could climb and we could not. I tried to visualize the monkey climbers and contrast that image with that of the heavily sagging and hanging Marianne or Saadia. Suddenly, it struck me! When the French girls stood at the rope, ready to go, their hands were in front of their chest while we reached up as far as we could to grab the rope high. So in order to pull ourselves up, we had to use pure arm power to lift our entire body up.  Since we had no muscles to speak of in our upper limbs, this feat was totally impossible. The French girls on the other hand, used leg power to go from a squatting to a standing position, using the hands only to steady themselves.  Now the whole thing started to make sense. That’s why they were going: fist over fist, fist over fist. They would raise their crossed feet with the rope tightly held between the feet only a little at a time, straighten the knees to raise the body up, fist over fist, then do it all over. Aha!

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

Holding the rope too high up means having to use only arm power to lift the entire body upward.

So, armed with this knowledge, the next week, I awaited my turn eagerly, hoping my theory would work out. My turn came.

I walked up to the rope, and this time, placed my hands only in front of my forehead instead of as high as I could reach above my head. I looked at the teacher. She just looked at me in a bored way, knowing this was all a show until I fell back down. So I hopped and grabbed the rope between my feet the way I had been taught in first grade. Wow! What a great feeling! My arms were not stretched out and I did not feel heavy! OK, what next? Ah, yes: fist over fist. Slowly, instead of the tak-tak speed of the other girls, I placed my left hand above my right, then my right above my left. Ouf! Still there, still in the air! All right, slightly loosen the grip on the rope between my feet, slide up a bit, grab and step on the rope again. Good. Now my fists are back in front of my chest. At this point, I heard “click!”, the teacher had pressed her stopwatch. I glanced down at her. She had a wide-eyed look that held a mixture of puzzlement and awe. That felt good. I can do this. OK, so left fist, grab, right fist, grab, feet slide up. Then it happened, the ceiling was right on top of my head. I looked down. Big mistake. I nearly fell off my hands went all sweaty. OK, don’t look down. Don’t look down. What now? Oh, yes, I have to touch the ceiling. I tried to take my right hand away from the rope. It took two tries for my hand to finally be able to leave the rope, but it was trembling. Slowly, slowly, I lifted it, all sweaty and trembling, and “tap!” I touched it. I touched the ceiling! Quickly, I grabbed the rope again. Fist under fist, lower feet. Fist under fist, lower feet. Then I thought, oh, just slide down! And I tried. Big mistake. No one had told me about rope burn. My palms were on fire by the time I touched the floor again. Click!  “Forty-two seconds!” said the teacher. But she still had that awed look on her face. I walked back to my place in line. And noticed that all the girls had a similar awed look on their faces too!


And I don’t want to pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I felt so great! The feeling was incredible!

Today, I look back and realize that it was the victory of mind over body. There is a system to everything. Learn the system and you win. I was still weak in body and not particularly good at PE, but I had learned to climb a rope despite all.

The next week, the PE teacher went on maternity leave to deliver her baby. So it looked like God decided that since I had mastered this challenge, it was time to move on to the next one.


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My cherry tree

I am not sure whether it was the general atmosphere of a parochial school, or whether it was the after-effects of those Comtesse de Segur books in my early childhood, but it was at the Ecole Lamazou that I encountered my deepest character-building experience.

Jean Valjean unveils his true identity.

Jean Valjean unveils his true identity.

Whenever I re-read Les Miserables, or nowadays, watch the musical, and reach the part where Jean Valjean as the mayor M. Madeleine agonizes over whether or not to go to the court and tell the world who he really is so as to save a vagrant accused of being Valjean, I reminisce. I reminisce about that event at Lamazou, in 5eme, in our third trimester, when I had grown more friendly with my classmates and more free in my actions. Our French teacher was on maternity leave, thus an older lady with pale blond hair and heavy make-up was her substitute.  All teachers know that the hardest students to teach are the middle school ones. They are in that no-man-land called puberty where they have started rebelling against authority but not yet started worrying about college entrance. Poor Mme. Viguelloux did not stand a chance.  Her make-up foundation was of a distinctly paler rose shade than her neck and stopped at an obvious line a few millimeters short of her hairline. I personally did not notice it, but the girls in 4eme mockingly discussed the strong body odor emanating from under her armpits whenever she leaned over a student. Her worst shortcoming was definitely the talent she had at turning any lesson into a profoundly boring endeavor.

That afternoon, she paced slowly across the front of the classroom reading a literature text. Her wonderfully monotonous voice and low pitch lulled us all into that uncomfortable zone between sleep and consciousness where you fight the nod and try to look lively but feel that the effort is impossibly herculean.  Already, Emilia got into trouble for playing some small portable radio every time the teacher turned her back, and pretending it was not her when Mme Viguelloux demanded she hand it over.  The atmosphere was heavy, hot with impending summer, and simmering with listlessness and apathy.

I kept shaking my calves, a trick I had developed to keep my blood pumping without appearing to be moving anything. No use. I kept switching from one to the other of the two permitted positions in class: crossing my arms on the desk, or crossing my hands behind my back. Still, my head threatened to nod and my eyelids to sag. My creativity got the better of me. I craved to share my thoughts with my friend, the one sitting behind me. I propped my literature book up against the back of the girl in front, and silently tore a small triangular corner off a page. Then, still pretending to cross my arms, I stealthily covered that little triangle of paper from torn edge to torn edge with tiny lines of “hahahahahaha… hehehehehehe…. hohohohohoho…. hihihihihi… houhouhouhou… ” and so on. Then, pretending to shift to the hands-behind-back position, I held the paper up in my fingers and waved it at my friend. She quickly picked it up and tried reading it. But her co-table-neighbor Myriam (we were seated two to a double-desk) leaned over and whispered not too softly, “What is it? Let me see! Let me read it!” A shuffle ensued behind me, causing Mme Viguelloux to walk over and slam her book shut. She stretched her hand out. “Give it to me!” Then angrily, she threw at Myriam, “Zero to you for misbehaving in class!” In France, it was quite routine to hand out academic zeros for behavior problems.

I felt really bad for Myriam, but I felt even worse when she ran to me when class was over. “Fawzia,” she snapped angrily, “it was your fault that I got a zero! You are the one who wrote that paper! You had better go to the teacher tomorrow and tell her it was  you so she can remove that zero and give it to you instead!” Myriam’s father was a banker, so I guess that is how she got her skill at crediting and debiting. Whatever the case, that remark came like a thunder out of a blue sky. It carried with it wafts of Jean Valjean’s dilemma, the one that turned his hair white overnight. And it brought back the mixed feelings I had at pretending to be a good sister and taking over my little brother’s sins in Ankara. It reminded me freshly of the horror I had felt at my father’s threats of telling my classmates I was a thief and a liar (see The Famous Chocolate Story). I barely slept a wink that night. Of course, I could not share that anxiety with anyone. It was a torture I had to withstand alone. Should I? Should I not? To tell or not to tell, that was the question.

To tell or not to tell... that is the question.

To tell or not to tell… that is the question.

As a child, all I could think of was that it was her own fault for trying to read what was none of her business. I recalled those ruler spanks on the palms I received unjustly in the cramming school in Jeddah and realized she must be feeling the same way. On the other hand, as an adult who has by now judged over hundreds of children’s altercations, I can see immediately that there were two different culprits, the one who wrote the paper and the one who talked during class. However, for me at the time, my own fault loomed huge across my mind and would not go away. I would tell myself that after all, Myriam had so many zeros anyway it was not going to make much difference. A zero for me would not harm my average too much but would stand out in angry red as a witness to my bad character and false image of a model student.  Finally, by the time morning came, I went to school totally haggard and pale but with a final resolution. I would tell, come what may. It was the right thing to do.

I walked into the school yard where all the girls played and chatted awaiting assembly time.  I looked for Mme Viguelloux but could not find her. By the time class started, we found out why. She had quit. Yesterday, on top of her harrowing session with our class, she had received a gift from the girls of 4eme: an entire carton of deodorant. Spray underarm deodorant were a new invention then and quite expensive. All the girls in 4eme had pitched in to buy that carton. But I don’t think Mme Viguelloux appreciated it. That had been the last straw. She would not take it any more.

Right hand page: Mme Mangematin's entry in my Cahier de Souvenirs.

Right hand page: Mme Mangematin’s entry in my Cahier de Souvenirs.

The new substitute was younger, more good-looking, which was always a plus with the girls, but with a facial expression and voice that were much more firm. To top it all, she had a threatening name: Mme Mangematin (Mrs. EatMorning). I looked at her and wondered where I was going to find the courage to tell her about the zero. Myriam bugged me, “Fawzia, did you tell her yet? If you don’t, I will!” So finally, during break time, I approached Mme Mangematin who was on yard duty. Cough, cough. Hum! Cough, cough. “Madame…” She raised an eyebrow, “Yes? What is it?” The worst stammering show I had every put on. I… I… well… Somehow, I managed to mention that Myriam had received a zero the previous day for talking in class while holding a paper, but the paper in her hand had actually been written by me. “So?”  So Madame should remove her zero and give it to me instead.

Mme Mangematin had very piercing eyes. She turned those radar beams on me, beams that were disguised as kind brown eyes. She remained silent for what seemed like centuries. Still red-faced, I bowed my head in dread and sweaty anticipation. Finally, in an emotionless voice, she said, “That grade was given by another teacher. I am not allowed to change other teachers’ grades. I’m sorry.”

To say I was not relieved would be a lie. I finally could breathe. Although I did have to act like I was sorry about it when I related Mme Mangematin’s answer to Myriam. Well, I thought, George Washington owned up for axing down the cherry tree, and he became the first president of the United States.  So I wondered, what was I to become?

Washington and the cherry tree

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Broken dishes and overthrown dictators

I did eventually come to greatly admire the spirit of Catholicism, if not its apparent rituals. It certainly had nothing to do with my classmates’ failed attempts at converting us. It was the behavior and character of our nuns that impressed me. One Saturday, Saadia and I raised our fingers and volunteered to stay behind and help clean up after lunch when the sister on duty asked. After cleaning the tables, we were assigned the job of drying stacks of hot wet dishes fresh out of the huge dishwashers.  Our tabliers had large deep pockets sewn on both sides, that had grown saggy with the constant weight of all kinds of little treasures as well as that of our hands when we had nothing to do with them. As I turned to place a dried plate away, my pocket caught the sharp stainless steel corner of the counter. I shook myself to free the pocket, but instead, shook the entire counter. A stack of plates as high as my nose trembled with the quake and flew off, crashing onto the floor in a formidable clanging cacophony. I stood there frozen. My friends later told me my face had turned pale.

Had this been at home, Mama’s hand or knuckles would long have come down on my back or head, accompanied by an explosive string of remarks on my lack of sense of responsibility, and the current cost of porcelain. But the sister with the black-rimmed glasses hurried over, lifting her robe for longer strides. She took one look at me, and kindly patted my shoulder. “It’s all right, no matter. Don’t worry. Think about it, had you not offered to help out, you wouldn’t have broken the dishes.”

“That’s right,” I thought, “I only broke them because I was helping dry the dishes…” I could not believe it. Not a single word of reproach passed her lips, even though there must have been well over two dozen plates in shards on the floor. By the time I recovered from the shock of her kindness, she had finished sweeping up the mess.

tall stack of plates

My obsession with history led me to ask once Maria-Marta to tell us about the history of Argentina. I was stunned. It wasn’t very long, only a couple of hundred of years long. And it consisted — at least that is what it sounded like — of a series of coups d’etat, one person overthrowing another till he himself got overthrown by a newcomer. I thought she must be joking. But she was dead serious. That was my introduction to the history of the New World. No dynasties lasting a few hundred years, no galant knights or damsels in distress, no historical legends shrouded in the mists of time, no valiant general turning into exiled emperor pining for his blond cherub son on a lonely rock in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Just plain sparring sessions, king of the hill for grown-ups. My interest in South American history took a nose dive. It was not until years later, after watching the musical Evita in London, that I started becoming interested in it again.

history of argentina


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What is the Trinity?

This time, there was no hiding what our religion was. No more riddle in installments.

Before registering us, Uncle Lung had chatted at length with the Headmistress about our religion and our dietary restrictions, as well as the understanding that we would be exempted from Bible study and Mass. Except for Saadia and I, everyone was Catholic this time. Although we were exempted from formal religious classes and activities, we were immersed in the general Catholic atmostphere of the school nevertheless.

Every morning, we started class with everyone standing up, making the sign of the cross and reciting a prayer. Obviously, we two, who again ended up in the same classroom, had to stand up too. We did not recite the prayer, but after listening to it a few hundred times, we do know by heart the “Notre Pere, qui etes aux cieux,…”  (Our Father) and the “Je vous salue, Marie, …” (Ave Maria).  In the lunchroom, before eating, again everyone recited a prayer, and everyone made the sign of the cross.

Since this was a girls-only school, I suppose the overall culture was more subdued and well-behaved. At least, I did not have to dodge food launched from spoons-turned-catapults at lunch or scotch-tape-balls at break time. I cannot vouch however, for what the girls did after school though, because some of them made a point of mentioning quite brow-raising things in their conversation, to show they were actually very worldly.

Maria Marta's entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

Maria Marta’s entry in Spanish and French in my Cahier de Souvenir

What was really interesting was the sprinkling of girls with an interesting and different background, like us. Maria-Marta Mantel was an Argentinian girl, and like us, her father worked in a diplomatic mission. He was the Military Attache at the Argentinian embassy. Diane Briere de l’Isle was French, but her father worked with the UN and had been posted previously in New York, so she was more open-minded than her compatriots to globalism. Marie-Therese Le was Vietnamese. She had a slight inferiority complex because as a refugee, she attended the school on a scholarship. But I loved her gentle personality and we became great friends. Marianne Powell’s father worked with the BBC, but unfortunately, he was British and more unfortunately still, Marianne’s mother was German. The deadliest mix.

Marie Therese's entry is on the left page, and Christine's on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

Marie Therese’s entry is on the left page, and Christine’s on the right, along with a generous sample of her long hair

For the first time in my life, I was thankful to be Chinese. Oh, of course, we still got discriminated against. That subtle type of discrimination that is not out in the open usually but unmasks itself now and then upon demand. One day, we were getting our history tests back and our teacher had returned all the papers except one. “In all my years as history teacher,” she began proudly, looking at the last paper in her hands, “I have never ever given a full mark for a history test.”

I must explain here that in France then, a history test was usually an essay-type question, with the response running through three to five pages. That particular test, I remember, asked us to describe the life and culture of Romans under the reign of, I cannot quite recall which emperor, but it could have been Augustus. Quite by chance, I had taken the trouble to study for it. I normally just scanned through the pages, and that was enough to make me top of the class, after Saadia, that is. But this time, I bothered to count the aspects of culture: clothes, architecture, food, leisure, etc and so made sure to mention and discuss all of them.

“Today is the very first time I have done so,” the teacher continued. “There was truly nothing I could find missing in this essay. This student…” At which point, a contemptuous voice somewhere behind me on the right sneered, “Ah, we know well… It’s the little Chinese…” — On sait bien… C’est la p’tite Chinoise, la…” The pink cloud I was riding on suddenly vanished in a puff, and I fell down amid storm and rain back to the muddy earth. I lowered my head and wished I had failed the test. I wasn’t just Chinese, I was a “little” Chinese. A despicable one. You know, you turn good somersaults, indeed, but since you are nothing but a circus monkey, we expect you should do so…

But whatever scorn we got, it was nothing compared to the blatant spite Marianne received. She was blamed for burning Joan of Arc, poisoning Napoleon, using chemical weapons in WWI, and so on. In brief, all the anger and hate accumulated from centuries of defeat at the hands of the English and the Germans were directed towards her. A few times, we caught her with shining dewdrops in her eyes, trying very hard to hide her flaming cheeks. And so, despite her long blond hair and porcelain skin, she hung around with us, the Yellow, the Hispanic, and the Cosmopolitan.

In the second trimester, a Lebanese girl joined us for a couple of months. I was happy to meet someone from the Middle East. I told her I understood Arabic. “Really?” she said, and immediately asked me, “How do you say… er… “tree” in Arabic?”  I was stunned to discover I could not remember. “It’s… it’s…” There it was, on the tip of my tongue… but what was it? I frowned hard, trying to squeeze the word back up from the recesses of my memory. She looked at me half doubtfully. “It’s shajarah. — Ah, yes, of course, it’s shajarah!” I rejoiced. And then, in the morning, she would greet me with, “Marhaba!” (hello) and I would stutter, tongue tied. In Saudi Arabia, we would say instead, “Assalamu ‘alaikum!” (peace be upon you) though I had heard the term “marhaba” from people like our doctor, who also used to say, “ahlan wa sahlan!” (welcome) but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall the correct reply to those!

The Arabic word for hello, "Marhaba"

The Arabic word for hello, “Marhaba”

No one bothered much about the fact that Saadia and I were Muslims. Actually they envied us the fact that we could skip Scriptures class. Until one day — I am not quite sure what triggered it, perhaps some missionary zeal from Bible study– a few girls took it into their heads that it was their duty to convert us. Christine Frachet, a kind tall heavy-boned girl with two long auburn braids, led the little group. They would corner us at lunch, at break time, wherever. They told us we should believe in God. We did, we replied. They told us Jesus could save us. We weren’t quite sure we needed saving. Finally, tired of the onslaught, I told them, “Look, I don’t mind converting. You convince me, and I shall convert. But if you cannot explain the Trinity to me, how could I convert into a belief I don’t understand?” And, surprisingly, they were unable to explain it. They would beat round and round the bush, and traipse all over it too. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they are one but they are three, well it’s a mystery and you have to accept it and believe in it… I knew very little about my own religion, but I did know that God was One. And to this day, I marvel at the simplicity of God’s Oneness, and how that faith in His Oneness shone in its logic and protected me from straying.

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Ecole Lamazou

That summer of 1969, we moved again. The landlord, an airline pilot, was moving back to Paris and wanted to re-occupy his home. Uncle Lung found a very modern apartment in Nanterre, a banlieue (suburb) of Paris. Number 123, Rue de St Cloud (yes, yet another Catholic saint), was a compound of apartment buildings, quite new and modern, compared with the previous two homes, all white walls and large windows, sunshine and lawn. We occupied an apartment on the ground floor, or rather a sort of half floor, since we had to go up a few steps. We all absolutely loved it. However, there was a drawback.

Nanterre happened to be a hotbed of left-wing activists. Indeed, it was in Nanterre that the student riots had started a year earlier, before they snowballed into a nation-wide movement. The high school there was named Lycee Joliot-Curie, after Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie, the son-in-law and daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie. They had been jointly awarded a Nobel Prize too, for Chemistry, which was a good thing. But they had been known to have joined the socialist movement, which was a bad thing. So although the lycee was barely a 5-minute drive from our home (equal to a 14-minute walk), Uncle Lung was concerned. He wrote to Papa to share his concerns and both agreed we should not attend that high school. It would be safer to put us in a private Catholic school for girls. I can see my readers raising their eyebrows in disbelief. After all, today, no one sending their children to a high school named J.F. Kennedy would immediately be suspected of supporting the Vietnam War. But during the Cold War, being suspected of Communism was tantamount to high treason, especially in countries such as Communist China and Nationalist China, and even more so in two families that worked for the Nationalist government.

Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie

Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie

Through a couple of old ladies from among his acquaintances, Uncle Lung found the Ecole Lamazou, private, Catholic and run by nuns in full habit. By the way, Uncle Lung happened to know an inordinate number of old ladies who were very friendly with him and had known him since his student days. He once took us all to have tea with two old ladies who lived rather “a la campagne“, in the countryside. That was the first time I saw tea brewed so long it turned brown, and moreover mixed with sugar and milk. I was horrified. How could anyone drink this terrible concoction? And call it tea? And dip cookies in it?

But let us return to the Ecole Lamazou. I did a quick search on Google, and the marvel of modern technology showed me that it has now become simply a private elementary school. The high school is no more. The biggest surprise is that it is now mixed! Boys and girls! In everyday clothes… And I saw on the pictures MALE teachers! And the headmistress is not a nun! At least she is not dressed like one. And there are colors! Above the main door, the name of the school is shiningly multi-colored.

Ecole Lamazou today: the builidng is the same, but the sign is multi-colored and it is now only an elementary school.

Ecole Lamazou today: the builidng is the same, but the sign is multi-colored and it is now only an elementary school.

But back then, it was an all-girl school, with all the girls in uniform. We wore a knee length navy blue skirt (meaning below the knee, not above it) with two pleats in front; white shirt; navy blue cardigan; white knee-high socks; and a blue tablier on top of it all. There were lay teachers, but some of the teachers were nuns, and all the administration consisted of nuns. They were real nuns, the type you do not see anymore today. They wore wimple and veil, and a long ankle-length purplish burgundy frock. We called them Soeurs (Sisters) and the headmistress Mere (Mother). I am not sure which order they belonged to.

The school was located at 80, Rue Boileau in the 16th arrondissement in Paris. This meant we had to walk down the Rue de St Cloud — a very pleasant walk, mind you, along pretty houses with geraniums on the window sills — to the circle called Place de la Boule, where we took the bus to La Defense. There, we caught the brand new express subway called the RER to Etoile, where we disembarked and changed to the regular subway, the Metro which took us to the closest station to the school. That was quite a daily trek, and required three different tickets. We would buy the weekly type and keep them all in a transparent plastic holder.

Once, on the way home, Saadia was reading a book — as usual — and had kept her ticket holder as bookmark in the book. Catherine, our classmate, wanted to read it too, and kept bugging Saadia for it. “I’m nearly done, just wait a few minutes…” Saadia finally finished reading it, just as the train pulled into Catherine’s station. She slapped the book closed, Catherine grabbed it and jumped off. We continued our trip to Etoile where we got off. Just as we started walking down the brightly colored hallways, Saadia emitted a sudden scared cry, and stopped dead in her tracks. I looked at her. She had turned pale. “My tickets.. my tickets… I left the tickets in the book… Catherine took it…” she stammered. I understood. Strangely, when such emergencies occur, I seem to grow suddenly very cool-headed and my thoughts run perfectly well and clearly and come up with an instant solution or course of action. I wish my brain would act just that way during exams…

So I firmly said, “It’s all right, no big deal. We’ll just walk home. — But how?” Saadia now turned red and flustered.

Metro station Etoile

Metro station Etoile

I showed her how. Right outside or inside each station, there is a huge map of the immediate neighborhood. We walked there and checked out the streets to follow in order to reach the next station. At the next station, we did the same, checked out the route to the one after. And thus, station by station we made it to Place de la Defense. Then, all we had to do was follow our usual bus route. Somewhere along the way, around dusk, there was a group of teenage boys playing in the street. By then, I was too tired to cross the street to avoid them. We just walked past them. Which goes to show that extreme fatigue decreases phobias or anxiety. By the time we rang the bell, it was dark. I asked Aunt Lily whether she’d been worried about us. “Not at all,” she answered nonchalantly over her shoulder, finishing a seam on her sewing machine. “I figured there must have been some activity at school that kept you longer than usual…” Ah, how times have changed. Today, I would not dare send 12-year-olds all by themselves to take three sets of public transportation in a large city. Then I certainly would panic if they did not show up for a few hours past their usual time home.

Place de la Defense today

Place de la Defense today

In 1969, Place de la Defense was a construction site, with barely the first tower completed.

In 1969, Place de la Defense was a construction site, with barely the first tower completed.




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