It's 11:30 am in Truro, Massachusetts, the time I usually pick up my mail at the post office before the post mistress closes for lunch. Today, I think I'll go to Paris instead to retrace my grandmother's footsteps.
In May 1926, my grandmother and her two young sons set out for France on the ocean liner, the S. S. De Grasse, a two funneled ocean liner owned by the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, also known as the French Line. Packed in her trunk was a small, black leather diary with "My Travel Diary" embossed on the front in gold leaf. Now, as I hold it in my hands, it's looking worn and smells of old, slightly moldy paper.
When my grandfather, Raphael Pierre Daignault, died in 1925, he left my grandmother, Elsie Troup Daignault, two commercial buildings and a house in the mill-town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. After a brief period of mourning, Elsie announced to her astonished parents that she and her two sons, my father, Troup, who was then 10, and my uncle, Alfred, who was eight, were going to France for an unspecified period of time. She argued that she could make a better life for her boys in France on the rent from her inherited properties than she could in Rhode Island. In reality, I bet, she was seeking a way out of Woonsocket.
The first page of Elsie's travel diary, now yellowed on the edges, has a black and white print of a three funneled ocean liner charging east through white capped waves. The next eight pages acquaint the traveler with nautical terms for such things as fog signals and time telling at sea, and shows the interested reader twenty-three national flags, the funnel flags of forty-eight different companies, as well as the designs of twenty-two pilot boat flags to help the traveler identify the nationality of the pilot boats that would guide them into port.
A fold out of "A Mercator Projection Map of the World" with the different countries shaded in pale colors is still attached to the back of the diary. The map includes the major marine routes with mileage for each route. For example, it is 3,419 miles from Yokohama to Honolulu and 3,169 miles from New York City to Le Havre, the route that Elsie, Troup and Alfred took.
An ocean liner or cargo ship was the only option for a traveler wishing to cross the ocean to Europe in 1926. Charles Lindberg's flight from Roosevelt Field on Long Island to Le Bourget Field in Paris in his monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, wasn't until a year later in 1927. The S. S. De Grasse had been launched only two years before Elsie's voyage, leaving us to believe that Elsie and her boys traveled in style or at least with all the amenities of the time.
On Saturday, May 19, Elsie wrote in her diary for the first time. Her entry, which takes up the whole page, is written without careful punctuation and in a spidery cursive, as if in haste. She says,
Up at 5 o'clock Saw sun rising over Le Havre waiting for pilot to come on board De Grasse Great excitement Grand farewells Greatly surprised by our first introductions to France. Customs officer most considerate did not even open bag or trunk. We were surprised to find gardens far advanced it is apple blossom time in Normandy. We saw fields of yellow plant from which French obtain an oil they use in cooking as a cheaper substitute. Youngsters greatly taken by speed of taxis. All took a short walk to the Bois de Boulogne and Champs Élysées and to the base of Eiffel Tower and Trocadero. A long day but pleasant one.
As I retrace her steps on a Paris map, I can see that the walk was anything but short. Also not short considering that she had two young, probably tired boys in tow.
On the top of the next page, she notes that they are staying at the Hotel du Palais, 28 Cours d'Albert Premier. On a trip to present day France via the internet, I can find no evidence of the hotel, although I can see that the Cours d'Albert 1er is a boulevard along the Seine River and that the Grand Palais, built in 1900, is nearby. The online application, Google Maps, zooms me in to today's 28 Cours d'Albert 1er, showing me a narrow 20th century, concrete building with a blue and red banner hanging across the front saying that it is for rent.
Elsie, an indefatigable tourist, writes daily in her travel diary. On the second day in Paris, she and her boys explored Montmartre, the Bois de Boulogne and the Luxembourg Gardens, where the boys rode mules. In the next few days, they saw Charlie Chaplin perform in "The Circus," a show much discussed in its time, took a boat tour on the Seine, sailed boats in the Tuilleries Gardens, and went shopping to buy berets for the boys. They also made the first of many trips to American Express on the rue Scribe to get money.
"Money disappears quickly in all countries," said my grandmother.
As I read it becomes apparent that Elsie intended to remain in Paris, at least for the coming year. In the first week, she interviewed and hired Madame Mernier to serve as her "friend and counselor." She began the process of obtaining a carte d'identite, which entailed numerous visits to city offices and standing in long lines. She also began her search for a school and found an eye doctor for her boys. Apparently, the doctor's office was near a slaughterhouse, because Alfred, whom she called "Brother," remarked that the smell is the same in all countries.
On May 26, only one week after her arrival, she records a move to an apartment that took in boarders at 8 rue Jose Maria de Heredia, a short street behind the Ecole Militaire in the 7th arrondissement, a neighborhood in Paris south of the Seine River. There is no mention of how she found the boarding arrangement, the home of Monsieur and Madame Guillier. Perhaps, Madame Mernier assisted her. She merely comments that "it is a typical French home with every indication of refinement," and explained that the war had changed the Guilliers' circumstances and obliged them to take in boarders.
In later years, my father told stories of having to go through two bedrooms in the apartment to get to his own. He also told us about another boarder, a woman who changed her hair color often, much to his and his brother's amusement.
In 1957, when I was twelve, twelve years after another war, my father took me to 8 rue Jose Maria de Heredia to visit the Guilliers. Outside the building, he took photos with his Kodak Brownie camera, pictures that show a dark grey Haussmann building, five stories high under cloudy skies. We were buzzed into the building, pushed open the heavy iron grill door and began our climb up the creaky wooden stairway to the fourth floor. Halfway between each floor was a small door, which my father explained was to a toilet, placed there to keep toilets and their odors out of the living space. It was all too strange for me, except for the smell of urine, a common enough smell in 1957 Paris.
My father had visited the Guilliers off and on since WW II, but we were greeted as if they hadn't seen him in 30 years. We were led into the main room, a living-dining room in which the dining table and a heavy buffet covered with painted chinaware took up most of the space. Light from the only window lit upon a lace antimacassar that covered the one upholstered chair.
I understood little of what was said between the grownups. However, I knew from the kissing, touching and patting that I had to endure that I was most welcome and that my father was loved as family. After our visit, we left with a bottle of pear brandy that M. Guillier had made himself, first growing a pear in a bottle until it filled the entire bottle and then filling the bottle with brandy. I found that bottle in my father's liquor cabinet after his funeral.
Another trip to Paris via Google Maps shows that the buildings on rue Jose Maria de Heredia have been cleaned, uncovering a golden sandstone reflecting the sun. Flowers bloom from window boxes on the iron balconies, the gloom of post-war France erased. I recently saw a real estate ad for a similar apartment for sale across the street from #8. The asking price is 985,000 euros, more than $1,200,000. I bet those buildings no longer have toilets in the hallway.
According to a book of the arrondissements of Paris that I found in my father's desk and still use, the Guilliers' apartment was a relatively short distance from the Ecole Alsascienne, a private school my grandmother chose for her two boys after visits to numerous schools and much deliberation. Founded in the 1800's, the school quickly gained a reputation for its academic rigor and humanism. My uncle, a natural linguist, adapted quickly to studying in French, but my father was almost expelled after only two months. Fortunately, he was given a second chance, spent five years there before transferring to the American School in Paris to prepare for college in America.
Elsie lists the family's activities and travels for the next eighteen months without much comment. While the boys were in school, she explored the city at an exhausting pace. On school vacations, she and the boys made excursions planned for them by Cooks Travel to Brittany, cathedrals, pilgrimage sites and convents of importance to my grandmother, a devout Catholic, and eventually to the different provinces of France, Italy and Spain. Although her entries ended abruptly, probably when she became an expat not a tourist, I truly believe that there was no cathedral or abbey she didn't visit during her years living in France.
Tucked into her diary are three black and white photos, one of an open touring car with Lourdes written on the side. My grandmother, in her cloche hat, is sitting in the back with my uncle and father, each wearing wool jackets and looking directly at the photographer. Another photo shows them in a Moorish Courtyard in Spain dressed as Arabs for the photo, my father mounted on a horse. In the third photo the three of them are surrounded by pigeons in St. Marks Square in Venice. It would have be unusual for a widow to travel alone at that time, but her boys were her ticket to adventure.
Missing from my grandmother's diary were any fears or trepidations about navigating the daily hassles of living abroad or traveling alone through Europe. There is only curiosity and a zealous need to see and do everything the city or country offered. I am left with a sense of a strong independent woman, fiercely attentive to her boys' needs, but just as willing to allow them the freedom to take the subway to St. Germaine to see the dancing bears or to scamper over to the Luxembourg Gardens to rent and sail boats in the basin there. Just as she savored her independence, so, too, did she nourish it in them.
Elsie returned to the United States in 1932 to see her boys educated at American universities, but she never stopped traveling. From time to time she would show up unannounced at our house carrying three or four shopping bags stuffed with her belongings. My cousins and I call her the first bag lady. When I see an older women hauling bags, I study her to see if she is homeless or an independent, eccentric woman like my grandmother.