Comtesse Christine - My Favorite Countess
Not Instant Friends
She was a countess, although I never told her that I knew she was. Christine had grown up in the sheltered life of the French aristocracy and so had little experience in the real world. We had become friends out of proximity and the fact that neither of us worked. Well, I worked when I could, but she had no need. The francs magically appeared in her bank account, whether she needed them or not.
I was American and had very little style or grace. I wore jeans and a long black sweater and funky socks with men’s style oxfords. I had short, sort of masculine (for the 80s) hair – when I could afford a cut at the Jean-Louis David School. Christine, on the other hand, wore prim sweater sets with skirts and hose and conservative flats – ALWAYS.
How We Met
We met because of Madame la Comtesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, or rather her kids.
I had worked for Madame's son during his family's annual vacation to the South of France where they had a Clermont-Tonnerre home by the sea. Although I'd been hired to tutor the kids, they had no mind for English lessons during vacation, so I became the "domestic nanny" and was welcomed into the family for most events, but helped serve lunch, clear the table, get the kids ready, babysat when the adults went out. I'm sure that the kids learned plenty of English while I spent ordinary time with them as I learned French trying to get through the days with the family.
Toward the end of my stay, the kind father asked what I would do next. I told him that I didn't know, I was hoping to find another "situation" so I could stay in Paris. And thus I was offered a large "chambre de bonne" (servent's room in the attic) where his mother lived in Paris and I would merely have to look in on her often to see if I could help her. Although the details were all loosey-goosey, I gladly accepted - relieved that at least I'd have shelter. Getting a job would be easy!
Unbeknownst to the old Comtesses son, his sister had offered the same arrangements to two young sisters from the aristocratic class.
My Tiny Room - Explained
When I arrived in Paris, I had to wait for Madame to return from her summer holiday. I spent a strange period in the son's Paris apartment that was managed by an old cranky Barron - but that's another story.
Madame finally arrived and I was shown up to my tiny, orange room on the 7th floor. The heat was stifling the day I arranged myself in it and I had a total loss of self confidence and a feeling that I'd been duped. Really, he'd said a large room!
A few weeks into September, the reason I'd been put into this chambre de bonne became clear - the two young aristocrats arrived. Where they were expecting a room for each of them, their surprise was that they now had to share the large studio that I'd actually been promised. Through the long cold winter, I imagined what it would be like to have lived in the studio with a real kitchen (instead of a tea cart with a hot plate) and have a full bathroom (no shared Turkish toilet down the hall.)
Eventually, I worked out a schedule with one of the sisters named Christine, with set days to spend with Madame; she was the sister that wasn't going to school. She was supposed to find a job, but never did. I did have a job and needed days off from earning my room to earn some money so I could eat!
Christine and I would often sit in my small orange room which looked out over all of Paris and drink coffee and smoke. She allowed me to ramble on in my unruly French, correcting me only when I had botched the same word many times. “Marianne, you are a silly girl” was the only English she knew.
Eventually, we spent a lot of time together. Since we both took Madame for walks, we had a mutual thorn in our sides to talk about. Because I was so broke and had to walk much of the time, I got to know the city better than she. I would drag her out, when I had enough francs, for a beer. Well, I would drink the beer (being the vulgar American), while she would sweetly sip her Porte.
One day, when I had been seeing Robert the Algerian for a while, I invited her to come with me to Robert’s friend’s house for “une bonne couscous
“They are Arabs?” she asked, totally aghast that I would even know these people. With not a small amount of coaxing, she finally agreed to come. “But my sister would kill me – you can’t tell her.” I disliked her sister Madeline and she disliked me. I couldn't think of anything but good manners that would have made me utter two words to her. Christine’s secret was safe with me.
So we traveled out of the elegant center of Paris to the mysterious outskirts. I laughed at her nervousness and desire to go back to safety.
Suddenly, we had arrived. There was Robert and his friend O’hara who was Moroccan. There were candles, loud Arabic music and the heavenly aroma of the couscous. Christine had never tasted it but was quickly seduced by the saffron and cumin and lamb and vegetables of the tangine. The couscous was light and fluffy and the red wine strong and heady.
“Mange, Mange” the young Arab men told us. They liked women with meat on their bones. It was hard to stop; the flavors were all so intoxicating.
Having survived her evening so totally out of her comfort zone, Christine laughed and held her very full tummy all the way home.
Eventually, I dragged her all over the city when I had time. There was a great, cheap store called Tati where mostly poor immigrants went. I loved to go through the bins of scarves and shirts and sweaters – dreaming of owning the designer equivalent some day. Christine hated the store but humored me, warning “Don’t go in the dressing rooms. You’ll disappear and they’ll load you onto a truck and take you to Algeria to be a white slave!” This always made me laugh so hard, I would purposely try things on just to see her stress and issue her warning.
Finally, at the end of my stay, I brought her to Salzburg, Austria with me. By this time, Christine had started wearing clothes like mine and had even accepted some funky socks my mom had sent. Although she wore jeans and shoes just like mine, a casual black sweater and longer white shirt, she still, some how looked more “put together” than I ever could.
Madeline had notice the change too and snubbed me even harder. Christine’s friends wondered why she would ever go to Salzburg! Well, I had friends there and we would stay with them. But since it would be late when the train arrived, we stopped at Munich instead to stay in a hostel. I dragged her to the Hofbräuhaus. Two regulars in their 70s sat with us at the long table and when I didn’t like my beer, one man gladly traded his liter of beer for my small half liter. I laughed myself silly as I hefted the beer mug, needing two hands to lift it. And Christine enjoyed sipping her petite porte.
Unfortunately though, the hostel had been full and I had no money for a hotel. So we had no choice but to stay in the train station. I was mad and miserable as it was cold and rainy. But Christine marveled at the fun of our adventure - sleeping on the floor of a train station! Her sister would never believe it. Christine's excitement and enthusiasm almost made me smile.
And it turned out she loved everything in Salzburg – all my friends and their generous floors, the food and the sights and even her one eventual beer.
She left me in Salzburg to go back home to Paris and shortly after, I returned to the States. We never heard from each other again.
Other Stories of Living in Paris
- Awaiting the Countess
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