- by Linn Barnes
The Mystery of Rue de Montevideo
The summer of my sixteenth year events other than fishing were creeping into my schedule. I mean girl events. I had met Ned Chaucer, his brother Nattie and his older sister Nancy the summer before, and, by now, we were all old friends, these things had a predictable trajectory. Nancy was two years older than me and Ned Chaucer, who was exactly my age. Nattie and Ned, my brother, were the same age and were becoming friends. The Chaucer family was friendly and fun. They had a very beautiful house on the south end of Bethany and would come for a month or so each summer. Sonny Chaucer, Ned’s father, ran the family estate in Leesburg, Virginia with his wife, Nancy (‘Big Nancy’), a beautiful and very wise woman, although to all of us they would be forever Mr and Mrs Chaucer. They were wealthy in an old world way, exhibiting none of the trappings of the ‘nouveau riche’. They were completely free of any the pomposity so often associated with the very rich, for godsakes, they drove chevys. I, of course, fell in love with Nancy that summer and remained so for a very long time. I think she was amused by me, liked my blond, smiley facade and seemed to even think my guitar playing was special, if maybe a little weird.
My earliest contacts with girls had been juvenile and on the mysterious side. In France, in 1953, in La Varenne, outside of Paris, when I was ten years old, I had a crush on my best friend Billy Ellis’s sister, Joannie, a year-plus younger than me. She was a beautiful little girl with wide eyes and a big heart. Childhood loves are wonderful and mysterious. You just have no idea what to do, say or how to act. Nothing makes any sense, and that’s the way it was for me. After we moved into Paris proper the following year, a very strange relationship developed, after a fashion. We lived on Rue de Montevideo in the 16th arrondissement, which was the re-doubt of what remained of the French aristocracy in Paris and the rising new class of wealth and prosperity which developed after the nightmare of 1789. We lived in a townhouse several stories high and across the street from an almost invisible Jewish Synagogue, whatever that was. One day while returning from my fancy little Jesuit school, École Gerson, situated not far away in the Rue de la Pompe, I saw a beautiful young girl with an older woman walking on the other side of my street. I had no chance to say anything, nor any reason to, but we for some reason exchanged eye contact for a brief moment before she vanished into the doorway to the Synagogue. The shocking thing was that she had smiled at me. The Synagogue was not in any way obvious and from what my parents had told me about the way the Jewish people had been treated, I was not surprised. I asked my father about the Jews in France and he carefully avoided any direct reference to what I was to soon understand to be anti-Semitism on a grand scale in la belle France, anti-Semitism that persisted to that day, in spite of the fact that Hitler and Hitlerism had been soundly crushed by the combined allied forces. I asked our lovely Bretonne maid, cook and housekeeper Leonne, a wonderful woman who had been living with us full time for more than a year and was an indispensable part of our family operation, if she could tell me anything about Jews in France. Without batting an eyelash she told me that the ‘youpin’, which I would later learn was something like ‘kike’ or ‘yid’, were not really welcome in France, but there ‘were still a lot of them’. She pretty much gave me what I would soon discover was the usual ‘Jews are really not human and, anyway, they killed Jesus’ mythology. I was eleven years old and had no idea about what I was hearing. It would be years before the full impact of what she had told me finally sunk in. That it was not just the Germans who wished ill upon the Jews, but most of Europe, and a large percentage of my own country, as well. Anti-Semitism, I would eventually learn, was wide-spread in the western world and beyond. But none of this could dampen what I had encountered in the rue de Montevideo across the street from our house. I could not erase the image of this beautiful, dark haired little girl, about my age, with flashing dark eyes and a secret smile with whom I had exchanged a momentary glance. Our living room was on the first floor, that is one floor above street level. There were large windows onto the street below and which looked directly into the upper floors of the Synagogue across the street. I had taken to perching in one of the windows for a while each day after school before dinner was served. Then it happened. One day I looked across the street and there in a window parallel to me was the beautiful girl I had seen in the street. She noticed me right away, graced me with a lovely smile and vanished. This happened periodically for the next two years. I was, I suppose, hopelessly in love, with no hope of ever even meeting this divinity across the way. I was being initiated into the mysteries of women from which I was never to recover.
When we returned to Washington in 1956, I was enrolled in Alice Deal Junior High School near where we lived in North West Washington, DC. There were all kinds of kids in that school, including a significant population of Jewish kids. I gravitated to that crowd almost immediately. I was thirteen years old, and surrounded by absolutely gorgeous, sexy and unimaginably mature Jewish girls, who for some reason had taken a shining to me. One of them, a dark haired sultry beauty, even called me her young ‘French prince’. I dated and was in love with Jewish girls all of my junior high experience. Here I was, this Irish-Catholic refugee from the streets of Paris, France living a profoundly real enactment of what I had begun to think of as ‘the mystery of rue de Montevideo’. Finally meeting these creatures of my dreams, from whom I had been so carefully segregated from ever meeting, was and remains one of the most dramatic experiences of my life. However, at the core of all of this was the profound love of the mysterious which, one way or another, would define the rest of my life.
The beach was a heaven for teenagers, boys and girls. My luck at having gotten to know Nancy Chaucer was astounding, but not limited to her. There were other what I can only describe as dream events taking place. For instance, I would regularly, especially on rough days, when the fishing was less than optimal, go sit on the boardwalk near the bowling alley or a little south near a coffee and doughnut joint that was very popular in the morning. Families would be gathering on the beach for the day and it was a fine scene to watch from a distance. I loved to speculate about the families arriving, where they were from, how old the kids were and so forth. I think I was eighteen when one day I noticed an extraordinarily beautiful girl arrive with her mother, father, and I assumed her brother, who appeared younger than her by a couple of years. She was a vision of purity and youth, about five five, long black hair, sparkling eyes and teeth, an amazing perfect body stem to stern and a wide open smile that could bring you to tears. I sat spellbound on the boardwalk watching her, amazed by her, really quite lost in the vision of her, when all of a sudden she looked up and caught me in the act. I quickly turned away, deeply embarrassed to have been nabbed in basically a voyeuristic act. I thought about leaving, but I just couldn’t, so I stuck it out, pretending to be occupied with something or other happening off to the north. I was concentrating so hard on not noticing that I failed to notice she had come over to the boardwalk just under where I was perched. She laughed a little, which I heard, and asked me if I liked the beach. I gagged, caught in my childish reverie, and said something banal like, I guess, and, how about you, or something pitifully lame along those lines. Then we both had a short laugh and the heat was turned down a notch or two. She was certainly younger than me by at least two years, maybe three, but she had that certain unmistakable confidence that beautiful and smart girls always seemed to exude. They really were a different species, only allowing we males to stutter and make fools of ourselves in front of them until they vanished, never to be seen again, which is what I was sure would happen, so, I tried to make the best of it while it lasted. We both revealed that our fathers were government people, her's, an Air Force officer, mine, here I had to hem and haw or a second or two, a foreign service officer. We spoke a little of our respective travels with our families to mainly Europe and, in her case, many Air Force bases throughout the country, as well. She said she lived in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, while I explained I lived in the city. And then she smiled that same smile, turned and ran off to her family and raced to the water with her brother, diving repeatedly into a large inner tube they had dragged along. She reminded me of a porpoise, gracefully leaping over the tube and vanishing into the churning sea, only to re-appear and do it again, and again. I was mesmerized and she knew it. I watched her for a long and painful time until I just plain got up and forlornly headed home. This pattern of marginal contact, none really outside the shadows of my own head, continued for a week, until finally one day she did not appear. I went day after day hoping to see this lovely creature, but it was not to be. She was gone. But not the memory of her, which bore into my mind with an alarming power, as helpless as it was. It reminded me intensely of the encounter many years ago with the ghostly Jewish girl on the rue de Montevideo, in Paris. I could not possibly even guess that I would see her again, years later in Munich, Germany.
‘Mysterium mundi gravitas est.'