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Published: January 27th 2019
Evidence from passport stamps suggests that we made two forays into France. On the first of these it looks like I went with Dad in late June, with Mum then joining us later, and the three of us then all making our way from there on to Switzerland. It seems that the three of us all then went back for a second time for a week in late August.
The Channel Tunnel was only a pipe dream (no pun intended) in 1964, and on at least one of these trips we caught the overnight train from London to Paris. I remember being awoken in the middle of the night by the noise of the train being loaded onto the ferry, and then waking up in the morning to find us rolling through the fields of northern France.
The main reason for us visiting France was to see Dad's eldest daughter and my half sister Pat, who lived with her family in the southern Parisian suburb of Antony. Pat was married to Dr Laszlo Szabo, and I'm fairly sure they'd met whilst working together as biochemists at a laboratory somewhere in Paris. I'm also fairly sure I remember being told
that Laszlo had fled Hungary with his mother, who I only ever knew as Madame Szabo, sometime around the time of the 1956 Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Pat and Laszlo had three very young children, Patrick, Monique and Veronique. It was a distinctly matriarchal household, with Madame Szabo very much in charge, and she always sat at the head of the table at mealtimes. Laszlo spoke something like nine languages, and according to stories I was told this included just enough Italian for them to be able to get their car fixed when it broke down on a trip that they'd taken to Italy. Pat was completely bilingual after having lived in France for a number of years, whereas Dad didn't speak any French at all. I remember Pat prattling several minutes worth of instructions at Dad one day as we left to go somewhere. Dad let her finish, and then smiled and told her that he was sure that what she'd told him was very interesting, but would she mind please repeating it in English. From all the family happy snaps I've got, one could be forgiven for thinking that Patrick was German, as he always seemed
to be dressed in lederhosen. I remember it as being a very hot summer, and the three Szabo children and I spent a fair bit of time splashing around in a small plastic wading pool which had been set up in Pat and Laszlo's back yard. I think that Patrick in particular might have appreciated the relief that this gave him after the suffocating heat that he must have had to endure trooping around all day in a pair of leather breeches. I vividly remember the very tearful farewells at the station as we left Paris at the end of the second foray, and this was particularly poignant in hindsight as it turned out to be the last time that Pat ever saw Dad.
I think Dad and I initially stayed at Pat and Laszlo's house, but there can't have been enough room for all three of us there after Mum arrived, so Pat and Laszlo rented us a small apartment on the sixteenth floor of a building in a nearby housing estate. This all worked fine until we ventured out to the local boulangerie early one morning to get a loaf of bread, and returned to find that
all the lifts had broken down. I don't remember either of my parents ever doing any exercise other than some casual walking, and I'm not sure that either of them were particularly fit, so I should probably have been very thankful that we all managed to get back up the stairs to the apartment that morning without needing to call on the services of the local ambulance brigade.
We visited all the traditional Paris sights, and I remember being very excited about going up the Eiffel Tower. Other icons on the itinerary included the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House, Montmartre, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Madeleine Church, Napoleon's Column in Place Vendome, Napoleon's Tomb in the Dome des Invalides, and Versailles and Fontainebleau Palaces.
The Madeleine Catholic Church was consecrated in 1842 as a memorial to the glory of Napoleon's armies. This means that at least three of the icons we visited seem to have strong connections to the great leader, so in light of this I thought I should do a bit of research into Napoleon's legacy. I think I'd always known that he was widely regarded as a great military leader, but was perhaps
less aware that he was also responsible for reforming a lot of the French laws that seemed to be very biased towards the aristocracy in the times before the French Revolution, and also varied at lot from place to place across the country. Self interest wasn't however ignored. An article in the UK's Telegraph points out that no one has ever quite got around to repealing the Napoleonic law that makes it illegal to call a pig "Napoleon". So if you're thinking of holding a pig naming ceremony anytime soon it seems that you will be left well alone if you've got the short list down to "Charles de Gaulle" and "Francois Mitterand", but expect the gendarmes to descend with merciless force if the N-word is still in the mix. The French have however recently made some inroads in law repealing, and in 2013 they overturned the Napoleonic edict that made it illegal for a woman to wear trousers unless she was riding a horse or a bike. Napoleon apparently had a lot of mistresses and introduced a law that granted immunity from prosecution to any man who murdered his wife after catching her "in flagrante". The article isn't clear
on whether this one's been repealed yet. In the article's opinion Napoleon's two most noteworthy legacies have nothing at all to do with either military leadership or government. It credits him with introducing the world to the habit of wearing hats backwards; he was apparently the first person to wear a tri-cornered hat with the flap at the front, and the article blames him for "unspeakably annoying people" now wearing baseball caps backwards. In the article's opinion, Napoleon's other great legacy was making it OK for short men to become national leaders.
It seems that Napoleon's body took its time getting to its tomb in Les Invalides, and it suffered its fair share of indignities along the way. He died on St Helena, and his heart and stomach were removed as part of a post-mortem examination immediately after his death. Rumour has it that his penis was also removed at the same time, and re-emerged years later to be put on display by the Museum of French Art in New York in 1927. There does however seem to be a fair degree of doubt surrounding the authenticity of this relic. Napoleon was initially buried on St Helena, and stayed
as such until 1840 when he was dug up and taken to France for a funeral service. His coffin then remained in the Chapel of Saint Jerome in Les Invalides until 1861, when it was moved to its current location inside a red quartzite sarcophagus under the main dome of the Invalides.
It seems that I wasn't privy to all family expeditions during our time in Paris. Years later I happened to be thumbing my way through a box of pamphlets and souvenirs from the trip in the attic of our family home back in Melbourne, when I came across a souvenir program from a show at the famous Lido in the Champs Elysees. As I opened the cover, my teenage eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. Staring up at me were pages of photographs of the bare breasted young ladies who it seems were the main feature of the performance. I assume Mum and Dad snuck off to this together, perhaps without telling anyone where they were going. I can scarcely imagine my father having ventured to such a show on his own, although that said the thought of my highly cultured, conservative Methodist mother attending anything
quite so risque is a bit more than I can manage to get my brain around. My maternal grandmother would surely have turned in her grave if she'd known. I think that maybe it is now time for me to view my parents in a wholly different light. I wonder if they ever wondered in subsequent years why their teenage son seemed to be spending so much time in the attic....
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