This is a post about how I came to live in the Netherlands, not being a tourist and never intending to be a tourist.
It Always Comes from Afar, One Day
By Persephone Abbott
In summer I heard of his death, not unexpected. There were few reactions, many slow, and yet I felt the loss distinctly, a sting under my ribcage although I had not set eyes on him for years. “I would have gone,” a friend wrote, thinking of his last days in France, “But you know how difficult he could be.” I had not been his favourite student, not even favoured. I didn’t weed his garden or paint his walls. Early in our acquaintance, at his insistence and in much company, I spent one dreary November week in his house in the mud filled French countryside hugging a hot water bottle, and vowed never to return. I didn’t.
With regret, I wished that I had told him the story, the part he never knew, of how I came to be his student. While he lived, while I was near to his massive presence adored by so many of his students, I refrained although I knew his shoulders would have shaken with mirth, and he would have called out to me in German, “Child, child.” His uncanny green and hazel eyes always insisting that we all call each other the informal you, whether in French or Dutch, and implied in English. Nevertheless he swayed above me in his native German. “Kindchen,” he’d say, feigning to be scandalized.
To me it seemed to be fate. I believed then in destiny because I had no future. My last year in Paris was the bitterest of the four. Born the same year, the two voice teachers and seasoned French divas I studied under were facing mandatory retirement. One admitted, passing a manicured hand over her chignon, she was exhausted at the sight of students, while the other, a lioness with a fiery, dry mane barely middle age on paper, looked terrified at the loss of her social life and the coming months, or in her fantasies, decades, dependent on the company of her stalwart maid. The sopranos battled each other, their ex-husbands’ ghosts, berated their studio accompanists all of them looking uneasy behind the keyboard, and took out their frustrations on students, bouncing us from one floor to the other on petty errands. We would call the women, out of their earshot, by their last names.
“Call me Udo.” He said wearing a black turtleneck, sitting next to an uneasy looking pianist behind a black upright on a blue linoleum floor. He’d said hello in his pleasant baritone voice, looked at me from under precocious snow-white hair, and listened, one ear cocked, to me squeak through Hugo Wolf’s “Das Verlassne Mägdlein.” He complained that no-one else had shown up from the audition list. He waved the list.
My local conservatory, a modern building a block away from my unheated chambre de bonne in the seventh arrondissement, was hosting. The masterclass fee was low, an entire week, providing a very reasonable opportunity to catch the attention of a new teacher, a faculty member of a Conservatory in the Netherlands. A further reduction of two hundred francs, as I was a resident of the seventh arrondissement, settled the matter. I had two months to assemble the money.
My monthly list of expenses to cover in Paris included my conservatory fees, and my metro pass. This last item had for many months gone unpaid. I jumped the stiles, illegally coasted around town on buses, or walked a great deal. Bottom on my list was food. Knowing that I wasn’t the type to be victim of anorexia nervosa, an American friend, who came to check up on her father recently relocated to the French capital, found me uncharacteristically wearing a size zero. As it turns out, our lives have crossed at the most extraordinary moments.
We’d met in a field strewn with refitted WWII barracks and lonely children without English as a first language, Berkeley University housing for international students with families. Our common language was dysfunctionalism. Inseparable through the years, yet not one, frequently disapproving of each other’s choices, my friend and I stood together, careful to watch for oncoming traffic that the other did not see, and handed out cards in the endless cribbage games, part luck part calculation, of our sisterhood. We two were family and I was not family. Her father, recently sprung from sixteen years in a Vietnamese prison, was surrounded by a set of cronies nurturing illusions of regaining grandeur via his release.
His charming girlfriend, employed at an exclusive bank, the giver of “tickets restaurants,” ensured that I too became a receiver of French meal vouchers in return for English conversations designed to prepare my friend’s father for his immigration to the states. His interest in my intimate relations prompted me to engage in conversations in which fictive Jean-Yves, avid trombonist and sensible butcher, largely figured. I wore baggy clothes to our ever dwindling appointments. Finally, the wiry senior citizen, enemy of the communist regime, decided that I, poor child, should learn about The War. I must admit my high school education had been rather blasé about the matter. “We won’t get into that mess,” paw-pawed the history teacher, a sandy haired sportsman. It then became de rigeur that the ex-convict read aloud to me about the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a three month slog that was a decisive loss to the French. On my last day in his company he returned from the kitchen with an entire package of Vietnamese pressed pork roll wrapped in banana leaves. On occasion, I had been the recipient of half a pork roll but never a whole one, which was let’s say so big say and very pink. Shoving me against the hall wall, he waved a big French bill under my nose. Think of it, he was telling me, we can make an arrangement. In his world, the former ministry world, mistresses were business transactions. He deposited the bill in the breast pocket of Jean-Yves’ shirt in which I was masquerading and leaned forward to kiss me, demonstrating that dental care in Asian gaols was somewhat lacking. Escaping his embrace, the pressed pork roll swinging alongside my knee in its plastic bag, I exited the building as fast as I could in my too small shoes, a gift from a friend, and the exact remainder of the needed masterclass fee in my shirt pocket, no small change, heading towards a new life in the Netherlands.