Remembering My Friend Paul

I was sixteen when I met Paul, and sixty-two when I saw him for the last time in his hospital room in Paris, after he had suffered a bad fall. He seemed recovered and upbeat, had sold his apartment and secured a nice room with a terrace in an assisted living facility. Then he passed away before I could see him again.

Meeting Paul at sixteen, my life took a different turn. It was convoluted circumstance that brought us together, eventually leading me on the path I took. It all started with math; I was poor in the subject and my mother always on the lookout for a tutor. One day, the guidance counselor at the American School of Paris where I was in 11th grade, informed me that a young American would be teaching me math three times a week after school. Scott was just out of college, and I found him very American. Although he had lived in France as a child, nothing much of that seemed to remain and he no longer spoke French. Unlike the Americans I was used to, who had been expats in France for years, he was ‘fresh from America’ something which I found simultaneously exciting and very unfamiliar. We held the lessons at my home in St Cloud. He lived the life of the poor American student in Paris, lodged in a tiny unheated ‘chambre de bonne’ or maids room under the roof of a seven-story building on the rue d’Argenteuil in the 1er arrondissement, a quiet street near the Louvre and Palais Royal. I figured that food would please him, and before beginning the lesson, I took him to the kitchen, opened the fridge and let him fill his plate with whatever there was, which he deemed both delicious and plentiful. He taught me how to brew tea properly and we would sit at the kitchen table, me sipping from my large cup while he bit into a last night’s left overs. Forty years later, he reminded me of those moments which I had almost forgotten.

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Paul and his then seventeen year old cat, Mimine,1973

Scott took teaching very seriously and it is not surprising that it later became his profession. He taught me math, but when we had finished the lesson, we would talk about the world, the universe, spirituality. He had something to say about everything and didn’t mind, from the height of his 22 years, tell me his thoughts. He had come to Paris to connect with the students of Saint-Bonnet, a French mystic, spiritual teacher, and remarkable healer from the Rosicrucian tradition. Saint-Bonnet had passed away over a decade before, but there were a great many of his students in Paris, and Scott was studying with them, including the only English speaker, Paul Vervisch, the owner of the maid’s room where Scott lived. Paul lived in an apartment on the 5th floor, with his partner of over twenty years.

I was already interested in spirituality, and my conversations with Scott took a fascinating turn, like unravelling an unknown depth in everyday reality. Suddenly, what seemed drab and boring no longer was, and the world began to feel very exciting. My father had always admired Buddhism for the way it holds the individual responsible for his or her actions, and connecting to this idea, I felt a deep sensation of freedom; not the freedom of action, but to discover, to open my mind, change my perception.

Scott told me about Saint-Bonnet. Paul, who was an actor, had met Saint-Bonnet through his theater connections in the 50’s, where he attracted a following among prominent actors. He employed meditation-type-exercises, which Paul taught Scott and were, I surmise, a point of interest for him.

 

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With Paul and Scott in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, 1972 

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Scott had great respect for Paul. He described him as ‘old’ in body at least for us, (forty-two years old) but very young in spirit. Since 1961, Paul acted the character of Mr. Martin in a daily performance of the Bald Soprano by the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco in a tiny theatre called la Huchette near the Place St Michel. His English was excellent, having lived several years in New York in the early 50’s. Besides acting, he wrote and translated. Then Scott explained that he lived with another man, George, and paused, gauging my reaction. I may have been sixteen, but I knew what that meant, and thought nothing of it.

Math began to take on another dimension. I never grew to like it, but it became tolerable and I made a genuine effort to get through the material. What came attached with it, though, made me look forward to every lesson and our discussions widened into all types of metaphysical subjects. The mind could possibly do anything, Scott wondered; bend spoons, materialize objects, cause us to levitate. I thought to myself how convenient it would be to materialize a bottle of wine. Months later, I scoffed at myself; if my mind were capable of the extraordinary feat of materializing a bottle, why would I ever want to dull it with its contents?

Soon, we shifted some of our lessons to his tiny room, sometimes crowded with American friends, and Scott introduced me to Paul, ‘downstairs’. He was as Scott had described him ‘young’ One has to remember that this was 1972, a time still hovering around the height of the generation gap. I didn’t feel it in Paul, and though he did have his own strong ideas, they were free of prejudice and the bounds of what was considered ‘normal’. I could ask all the questions I wished. Paul’s appearance was that of a man approaching middle age, one whom no one would notice on the street. He had learned to be what he wanted without attracting attention and in that, he was like my father. I liked that; one didn’t need to waste time explaining oneself to others, just do as one pleased by staying discreet. Paul and I related to each other immediately, and he showed an interest in what I thought though he was never shy to give his opinion. Soon I had joined his yoga class, given by Henri Legay and Patrick Planquette. Yoga in France was quite a novelty at the time, and their regular classes took place in a small apartment in the 14 eme with students of all ages, though all older than me.

My parents gave me love, moral and material support, though I didn’t expect them to understand my curiosity for metaphysics and need for mind development. I didn’t tell them about Paul, I just couldn’t see myself explaining him to them, and sometimes pretended I was going out with school friends, behavior they thought normal for my age. I continued to see my friends at school, but took more time on the weekends to attend yoga or spend time with Paul and Scott. I tried to interest my then boyfriend, Richard, in my new discoveries, and though he tried, he couldn’t relate.

Scott and Paul were the first pillars of support in my search for what I wanted, which turned out to be Tibetan Buddhism. We spent a few happy months together in the Spring of 1972, gathering in Paul’s apartment, going on strolls in the Tuileries gardens nearby. I had unlimited access to bring friends to see Paul act in the Bald Soprano and saw the play multiple times. We all went to see a Tibetan lama, Kalu Rinpoche give public teachings, my first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.  I became a regular at Yoga, and convinced my mother to pay for the classes. My mother was pleased; my grades had improved and she found me much more agreeable and easy going. She liked Scott and would always offer that he join us for lunch before or after a lesson. Then June came and Scott left. We parted at a metro station, going different directions, me watching him get into the train on the opposite track. He promised to write, and said we would meet again soon, maybe in the US, when I went to college.

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Scott at our house in Normandy, 1972

After Scott left, I continued to see Paul regularly. I went to his apartment where we had lunch or just talked over tea. I showed him my photography, told him what I did, how I felt, about life, about what Scott was doing, as he didn’t write much; he was in Switzerland, then back in the US, then traveling in Guatemala. Paul and I sometimes met at Yoga. In between, we wrote to each other, to point out this or that. One day Paul wrote urging me to quickly go and take pictures of the demolition of the Halles district; ‘they are knocking down all the houses, and one could see inside, like in a doll’s house, wall paper, bathroom fixtures, everything’. I went, to witness the last phase, a round metal ball crashing into six or seven story buildings, reducing them gradually to rubble.  I also met his friend George, an Englishman, who worked for a travel agency and was often absent.

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Paul and I took pictures of each other with my Rolleiflex. Here, in his armchair, in my self embroidered jeans 

I learned more about Paul’s life; he was born in 1929, his father was from Belgium and his mother from Pau, in Southwestern France. His father was an authoritarian figure who had served in Congo, and on his return had settled in Biarritz where, with his natural aptitude at making connections and his knowledge of 3 languages, became a chauffeur at the Hotel du Palais, where he became the favorite of the celebrities and aristocrats who frequented it, among them the Prince of Whales and Gloria Swanson. Unfortunately, the 1929 crash considerably reduced the hotel’s clientele and the family’s financial situation and they moved back to Belgium in 1933. They remained throughout the war, suffering from the bombs and acute lack of food. In 1943, Paul, a skinny 14-year-old, was evacuated and sent to a smith’s family where he cleaned, cooked and did farm work for the elderly couple. Belgium was cut off and he had no news of his family. When Paris, and finally the Montauban region were liberated, the couple who harbored Paul were arrested as German collaborators and interned. The war over, Paul’s father decided to become a gentlemen farmer, ‘so they could eat well’. He bought a 14-hectare farm, karakul sheep and Sussex hens. The land was too poor for cultivation and the Karakul sheep constantly ran away, only the hens brought some success. Paul grew prunes while his sister minded the chickens.

Paul finally went to Paris in 1951 against the wishes of his father, with a little money saved up from the sale of his prunes. Two years later, he inherited some money from his godfather and bought the apartment at rue d’Argenteuil. In 1954, he met George, saying it ‘was love at first sight’ George was married, though separated from his wife. He left for New York and Paul followed him there and worked as a delivery boy in an upscale wine store. Through George, he met many celebrities in the arts and had a memorable time.

In 1958, Paul and George decided to return to Paris where they moved into the apartment on rue d’Argenteuil. George continued to work for the travel company Percival, representing them in Paris for Europe. Paul began his acting career in 1961. I knew that Paul wrote for a magazine, as he mentioned it often in his letter, but neither Scott nor I remember which.

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In early 1973, through my yoga teacher, Patrick, I was introduced to his Tibetan teacher, Ngor Phende Rinpoche, a Sakyapa Teacher, and I began receiving teachings from him. Paul was interested in all esoteric practices and encouraged me in my endeavor. My father also did.

In the fall of 1973, I left for the US to attend Vassar College. After Paul passed away, I took out all the letters he wrote to me in those years, responding to what must have been very long and detailed writings of my life; they were full of encouragement and advice, probably responding to questions I had. There were many mentions of what Scott was or wasn’t doing, of whether he had or had not heard from him. I learned he met Krishnamurti in Switzerland and had an affair with an older, married woman. We all got together a few times in Paris in the later 70’s; by then Scott was a student of Krishnamurti and was living in England, I had met Kalsang, whom I would marry in 1979, and was a Tibetan Buddhist.

I didn’t see Scott for many years after that, but we kept in contact through Paul. I gave birth to all my children but one in Paris, and Paul came to the hospital with flowers each time and once brought me an antique embroidered Chinese robe as a present, which he suggested I cut up to use for my Tibetan Losel doll project. Much of it was frayed, but there were some beautiful parts which I used. My father bought those dolls, which are now in boxes in my daughter Dechen’s closet in Amdo.

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Our yoga teachers, Patrick Planquette and Henri Legay, 1973
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Scott visiting Paris, 1975
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Paul in a play other than the Bald Soprano,1973
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The demolition of the Halles district in Paris, 1973
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In Paul’s apartment, 1976. Most of the paintings in the background were by his maternal uncle

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Years went by. Sometime in the 90’s Paul had a bus accident in Algeria and had to give up acting Mr. Martin, which he said had become second nature to him after more than 30 years. I continued to visit him sometimes with my children.He already knew Kalsang from the time of our marriage.

In the last few years, I made it a point to visit him each time I was in Paris. Last year, I found him very frail, and he spoke of settling his affairs and selling his apartment, in a way that would allow him live in it as long as he could. It didn’t last very long. Later that year, he had a bad fall in the bathroom and had to wait almost 24 hours before a child heard him calling for help from the outside staircase.

I started seeing Scott again in Portland in 2012. In an American setting, he seemed very cosmopolitan. After all, he had spent twenty-five years in England and travelled the world. He also spoke perfect French.  Circumstance is so random. Scott told me that he first heard of Saint-Bonnet around 1970 in Hong Kong, where he met one of his disciples by chance. He had a very powerful dream and this man gave him Paul’s name so that he could connect with Saint-Bonnet’s teachings, saying he spoke good English. Scott traveled to Paris after college to meet Paul and my bad math led me to Scott, who needed the tutoring money to survive in Paris.  Scott led me to Paul, who led me to Patrick who introduced me to my first Tibetan teacher.

Extraordinarily, a 16-year-old girl and a 42-year-old man from opposite worlds, found a profound friendship that lasted for almost 50 years. It was a friendship which altered my life completely, and I will forever be grateful to Paul.

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Visiting Paul with Kalsang and our four children, 2005 
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Selfie in 2015
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My last visit to Paul in his apartment, in 2017. He poses in the same armchair (re-upholstered since the 70’s) in his Norlha shawls. 
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Scott and Suba (and Phoebe), with whom he shares his life, in Portland, 2015

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