ILLUSTRATION: John Wm Burdett (1943-2019), The bedroom at 5 Av Victor Hugo.
5 Av Victor Hugo is written by Robert Burdett
Chapter 3, Haricots Verts
Not too many college kids did a junior year in Europe in the early 60s. A lot of those who did got there by sailing from New York City on one of the ocean liners built around the time of WWII. I sailed out of the port of New York in August of 1962 aboard the SS United States. Bound for Le Havre.
This was a massive, three class ocean liner built in the late 30s. It was converted to a troop ship during the war, hauling the youth of America to Europe and the fight against Fascism. The American soldier kids were all proudly Antifa. After the war, the SSUS was put back into commercial service for the 5 to 7 day crossing between NYC, Southampton, England and Le Havre, France.
Third class, where I lodged, was true to its troopship heritage, but you could sneak into the other areas of the boat, and people were nice to you and bought you drinks, because you were there and you were a kid heading to college in Europe. “Isn’t that adorable?!”
The SS United States was a thoroughly modern steel boat by pre and post-war standards. The joke back in the day was that the only wood on board was the block where the chef chopped the meat.
There are so many stories to tell, but this one leads directly to my first meal at the dining table at 5 av Victor Hugo in St. Mande, a collar suburb hugging the east border of Paris.
Two years of high school French, and another two years in university had not really prepared me to, how do you say? Speak French? And none of the people at the table had ever bothered to learn English.
Honestly, I had no idea of where I was or who these people at the table were. I had arrived in Paris from the boat with my classmates earlier in the day, been grabbed by an older woman with flaming red hair, and stuffed in a cab for a long ride with her talking non-stop in a language that I did not recognize. Maybe French?
5 av Victor Hugo was a large, 3 story house. The dining room was big. There were maybe 8, 9 or 10 people at the table for the meal served a little after 8 PM. Dinner, yes? There was the older woman with the flaming red hair and an older man. The parents, right? There was a guy in his mid-20s, an attractive young woman around maybe my age, a slouchy teenage boy with an attitude, and a darling younger girl, Nanou. I got that name right away. The immediate family, I guessed.
There was a friendly German Shephard-ish sort of dog. Why are animal names easy to remember right away? Figaro. A cat: Minou.
There were one or two other people at the table – men – who seemed to be friends of the first guy I mentioned. Why were all of them looking at me?
Madame got up from the table, went to the kitchen, and brought out dinner. It was a huge, steaming platter of green beans.
“What the fuck” says I to me. “I’ve been lodged into a house of fucking vegetarians!”