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School Reunion

photo, dana, metro notre dame des champs

In 1954, Dana Shaw began his trips to high school
at this Métro station.

Complete With Falling Chestnuts

Paris, September 2001:– This magazine has some long–time readers and Dana Shaw could probably win one of its notional 'awards' if they were not fictional. Not at all fictional is Dana's 'true first' record for being the first reader to have an email published in 'Metropole Paris.'

This was in the 9th issue, which appeared online on Friday, 19. April of 1996. This is what Dana wrote, dated by the Internet as Saturday, 13. April:–

"As a 56 year–old teacher–administrator who at age 14 fell in love with Paris, I immensely enjoy your articles about 'my' city – no one else can have it! – and envy you the opportunity to be there and writing.

"I suppose there is a bit of the 'Lost Generation' in all of us [who] would be expatriates – the need to schmooze with Gertrude Stein – do you suppose she would allow 'schmoozing' in her salon? – to meet Fitzgerald's Zelda and to try to keep up with Hemingway when he was on one of his famous rampages.

"I, also, would like to have spent some time with Eliot Paul on the Rue de la Huchette before it became such a commercialized 'walking street' and to see the original Shakespeare and Company.

"I envy your opportunity to be there and to find the Rue de la Huchette from time to time and not always report only on the comings and goings – spring not withstanding – on the Champs–Elysées. Thanks for taking me with you through your sensitive and descriptive writing.

"Are the marronniers in blossom yet?"

This letter appeared in Metropole because I had never heard of the Rue de la Huchette or of Eliot Paul, and I thought it could be a good idea to encourage readers to suggest ideas for featuresphoto, off limits club, vavin to appear in the magazine, especially since I was new on the job and was probably spending too much time on the Champs–Elysées. The 'marronniers' – chestnut trees – were not, in fact, in blossom.

Known as the 'Elephant Blanc' in 1954, this place was 'off limits' to Dana.

This also led to an ongoing correspondence with Dana, and in October of the same year he contributed a feature which ran as 'Francs were Cheap and So Was Fare.' It was about riding the Métro during Dana's 1954–55 school year, which he spent in Paris while his father researched material for a book while on a sabbatical here.

Since then – 1996 – Dana and his wife, Jan Shaw, have made several visits to Paris, including becoming Café Metropole Club members during the club's 2nd meeting on Thursday, 21. October 1999. The club also provided an opportunity for the Shaws to meet another member, Mark Kritz, and they have rented one or another of his apartments for their recent stays here.

But back in 1996, Dana contributed the feature mentioned above, about what it was like to ride the Métro in the mid–'50s. From this I got the idea to retrace Dana's route from where he lived with his family in a modest pension in the Rue d'Assas, to where his school was located in the Boulevard d'Auteuil.

We didn't get around to doing this during the Shaw's stay in Paris in the fall of 1999. I almost forgot the idea again during their current visit, but managed to remember it, and here we are today – meeting at the corner of the Rue Vavin and the Rue d'Assas, opposite the entry to the Luxembourg gardens.

There is a swirl of students on the narrow sidewalk, made narrower by the many buses coming along the Rue d'Assas, letting the students off right on our toes. Dana remembers the old buses with the open rear platforms, and also remembers that he couldn't afford to ride them often, and when he could they were often 'complet' – or full up.

The entry to the pension where he lived is only a few doors from the corner, and we buzz our way in through its serious door and go through the hall to the courtyard behind, to look up at the fourth floor where the small pension used to be. Dana says the courtyard is nearly unchanged – except that it has obviously had several repaint jobs during the past 47 years.

There is no sign of the concierge, who was '80 years–old' then. On the way back to the street, nobody peers out at us from behind the curtains of the guardian's quarters.

We go up Vavin away from the park, towards Montparnasse. Dana says the block was mostly blank–facedphoto, sign, avenue de la porte d'auteuil apartment buildings – now the street–level shops are full of fancy duds for children, and students are all over.

At the Rue Notre–Dame–des–Champs corner Dana stops and looks the scene over. "There used to be some sort of club here. It was called the 'Elephant Blanc' and I was told to stay away from it!" Today it is the tidy Café Vavin, looking completely harmless and sanitary.

Dana remembers that he used to leave for the trip for school at 7:30, "When it was still dark." After school he would ofyen go to the American church for basketball practice and it would be dark again by the time he got back to the pension.

The daylight is pretty good as we go down the Rue Notre–Dame–des–Champs towards the Métro stop by the same name on the Boulevard Raspail. There is a statue of Capitaine Dreyfus here that I've never noticed before. But outwardly, the station's entry is not much changed, nor has its musty smell down below on the platform.

After the train comes, Dana says it used to skip several stations – with the one at Rennes being lit only by 'four dim bulbs.' Even today this station closes early in the evenings.

At Sèvres–Babylon we switch to the line ten Métro that runs out to the Pont de Saint–Cloud. In Dana's school days it only went as far as the Porte d'Auteuil.

"When a train was in the station, the 'portillon' gate would be shut so no passengersphoto, danas school, auteuil racing through the tunnels could get on the platform," Dana says. The trains had both a driver and a conductor – now they only have a driver and he only has closed–circuit TV cameras to show whether passengers are getting off and on safely.

Dana's one-time school is now an apartment building.

Also, of the five wagons of a Métro train, the centre one was for first– class ticket holders only. "I didn't get a seat often," Dana remembers. He used to stand in the front car right behind the door to the driver's compartment, and look through its window at the oncoming tracks and stations.

"That winter had bad weather, and when the train went under the river I used to see water cascading onto the tracks. It was fun!"

The lines we are on today have steel wheels on steel rails, but they don't make the overall screeching noise like they used to, Dana says.

When we leave the Métro's depths at the Porte d'Auteuil, Dana remarks that the trip used to take 40 minutes from the pension to the school's door.

This part of Paris, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne and on the boundary between Paris and Boulogne–Billancourt, has changed a lot. "I used to smell the grass and the trees out here," Dana says, noticing that we are almost on top of the Périphérique and right beside the westbound autoroute A13 – where there isn't many good smells and hearing anything is difficult.

As we go west on the Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil, Dana points out that the tennis complex of Roland Garros has swallowed up the road he used to take to get to school. He and his fellow students also used to take this street to the Bois de Boulogne, where the school's physical–education classes were conducted.

While going along here, I get a bullseye–shot on the head from a fresh chestnut. I'm surprised morephoto, dana, courtyard of pension than hurt – how many conkers have I escaped over how many decades of being around chestnut trees in the fall?

At the intersection called the Porte de Boulogne we turn east into the Boulevard d'Auteuil and continue on until we come to the school – now transformed into an apartment building.

In the courtyard of the pension, Dana looks up at windows he used to look out of.

Behind the metal fence, Dana says the forecourt used to be plain gravel, with fewer trees. The building used to house the American Community School, with grades from seven to 12. Most of the students were from expatriate, embassy, or business–executive families.

Dana remembers the headmaster's name, and that he had been gassed in World War I. But because of his age at the time what he remembers best was playing for the basketball team. There were practice courts a block away, on a playground beside the Boulevard Murat.

Besides the snazzy, and reversible, basketball jacket he was expected to wear, he remembers that the school's team squeaked into the Paris' city league championship playoffs in 1955, and lost in the final game.

"The French played with an odd ball at the time," he recalls, "And we had a regulation basketball. When we played against the Parisians, we used their ball for half the game and ours for the other half. It was pretty fair."

There isn't much to see at the ex–school, so we amble along the shady side of the Boulevard d'Auteuil back towards the Métro station at Michel–Ange– Molitor and pass the site of the former basketball courts, and cross the Boulevard Exelmans.

When we get to the Métro station, we decide to go back a block for a café. It has been mostly sunny, but it has not been too warm, and in the shade of the buildings it is cooler.

But back in 1955 Dana spent little time in cafés because his weekly allowance of 500 francs – worth $1.42 then – didn't allow it. With embassy kidsphoto, return metro molitor attending the school, he got entry to the embassy's snack bar, and other friends who had access to the PX occasionally supplied American goodies unavailable in Paris.

The café we find today has an extended terrace with a glass roof. It is light like being outside, while being comfortable – just right for stringing two cafés out for a couple of peaceful hours.

At the end of the school day, Dana used this Métro station to get the basketball practice.

When his father's sabbatical year ended, Dana returned to high school in Albany, New York – with good enough grades from the American Community School in Paris to begin grade 11.

He says he had to 'rebuild' his circle of friends there. The boys were not curious about his year in Paris. "They had sports and parties and cars," he says, "But girls wanted to know what Paris was like and some of them wrote to me while I was here."

"It was the greatest year of my life," he now says. He remembers it as, "Being in a huge city and having the freedom of being a teenager."

From that time to this, he 'saves' having an occasional pastis, or a dish of 'oeufs–mayonnaise.' "They're nothing special, just something I like" – but he waits for when he is in Paris, because these go with the city and are not the same elsewhere.

We walk the block back to the Métro and ride it together to Sèvres–Babylone. Here we part, and end up standing on opposite platforms.

My Métro train headed for Montparnasse comes in first and as I get on it I see Dana's train for Montmartre has arrived, and know he will soon be there, up on the north side of the 'Butte.'

This feature first appeared in Metropole in September of 2001.

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