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All That Was: Chapter Forty-Two - Life With Madame L

...Madame's endless knavery became apparent almost at once. Her penchant for meddling in other people's business went hand in hand with her extreme avarice and fits of senseless envy. To top it off, she scarcely went out or had a wash. Consequently, we were obliged to put up with her continuous malodorous presence.

She was of stocky build. She shuffled through the house in shabby worn-out woollen garments, leggings, and slippers. Her squinty eyes were the only sign of animation in an otherwise impassive face that was ravaged by age and bitterness. In the evenings, after the briefest of ablutions, she donned a discoloured long flannelette nightie. She was ready for bed...

While Lusia Przybyszewicz continued her studies in Paris, she lived in sordid surroundings. Her landlady, Madame L, was a character straight out of Balzac.

Lusia experienced the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, working as a slave in Nazi Germany, the heady days of freedom in post-war Paris, and eventually the challenge of a new life in Australia. She has captured all of this in the most compelling prose. Her autobiography is a classic account of survival. Read earlier chapters by clicking on All That Was in the menu on this page.

The book is available from Lusia at PO 404 Vaucluse, NSW 2030 Australia ($25 Australian plus postage).

The more involved I became in my studies, the less attention I paid to regular meals or adequate rest. Moreover, I kept up my extensive social life, the common feature of which were very late nights.

I saw less of Michael, who also changed quarters. Besides, he had fallen deeply in love. We continued to meet on Sundays at the Hepners.

Often in the evenings I would accompany my flatmate, Christiane, to play rehearsals, where I met a whole new crowd of fascinating theatre people. Michael's friend, Martin, who became my frequent escort at the time, was also drawn into the circle.

Christiane aspired to becoming a great actress one day. That was her reason for shifting from her native Strasbourg to the capital. Always very chic, she sported a fine figure, strong Gallic features, dazzling brown eyes and sleek dark hair gathered into a bun at the back. She commanded attention. There was a seductive streak to her manner, the meaning of which I misconstrued when we first met.

Simultaneously, I made friends with a slightly older Polish couple, with whom, at some stage, I shared the same cheap hotel in the Latin Quarter. Marysia, renowned for her sewing abilities, was of Jewish descent, but, for her own reasons, she chose to conceal that fact. She was a warm and motherly figure of ample proportions, and she spoke in a soft Galician twang.

Her boyfriend, Miecio, the gentlest of beings and the former first violinist of the Cracow symphony orchestra, had every reason to adore Marysia. Away from his music, he seemed a little boy lost. Regrettably, as a Polish refugee in Paris in 1946, he had practically no prospect of resuming his life's work. Marysia's big heart and dependability gave a new meaning to his existence. He could not do without her, and he followed her everywhere like a faithful dog.

Miecio played the violin like an angel. It was sheer joy to hear him perform Bach's Largo slow movement from the Keyboard Concerto in D minor for the solo violin. The setting for the concert was usually a dismal little room somewhere, with the audience confined to Marysia and me.

Because of my youth and passionate nature, I was unaware of the intensity of my way of life. I felt constantly driven to catch up on lost time as if there was no tomorrow. Horace's maxim, ‘Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero' comes to mind.

The problem was compounded by my hours spent 'at home'. Supposedly they were designed for relaxation and peace, but owing to my landlady's capers they never eventuated. My experiences of 'Life with Madame L.' could, without a doubt become a best seller, if it were handled by a gifted writer. Since I do not aspire to such heights, I shall have to confine myself to the facts as they arose.

Madame's endless knavery became apparent almost at once. Her penchant for meddling in other people's business went hand in hand with her extreme avarice and fits of senseless envy. To top it off, she scarcely went out or had a wash. Consequently, we were obliged to put up with her continuous malodorous presence.

She was of stocky build. She shuffled through the house in shabby worn-out woollen garments, leggings, and slippers. Her squinty eyes were the only sign of animation in an otherwise impassive face that was ravaged by age and bitterness. In the evenings, after the briefest of ablutions, she donned a discoloured long flannelette nightie. She was ready for bed.

Madame tackled me first. She probably found my origins and overseas food parcels more objectionable. She had to know, sample, and taste the contents of every tin I received and stacked in the kitchen cupboard beneath the window sill. On one occasion, to our delight, she fell victim to her own greed. She mistakenly stuffed her mouth with my Australian peanut butter, which she confused with real butter, and nearly choked on it.

On Madame's instruction I had left my suitcase in the basement of the building. Among other things it held all Marcel's love letters. Alas, my suitcase did not escape her scrutiny. Her bad legs notwithstanding, she made her way down the stairs to rummage through my belongings and then climbed up the stairs again. Out of pure malice she even dropped some of the pages on the stairs.

Until she perceived that a friendship had developed between me and Christiane, Madame refrained from persecuting Christiane. But when her deranged mind came to the conclusion that Christiane and I had conspired against her, matters changed rapidly and dramatically for the worse; she actually threatened Christiane with eviction. The latter vowed to scandalize her tormentor to the utmost.

'If you deprive me of a roof over my head, I will become a prostitute,’ Christiane threatened. ('Je ferai les trottoirs'.) Madame was aghast!

In an effort to prevent us from communicating with each other, Madame locked up the connecting door between our two rooms. To outmanoeuvre her, we mounted, at bedtime, a conversation, at the top of our voices. We referred to some imaginary great secrets, which we claimed to write to each other on slips of paper and push under the door. Such teasing made her livid.

Madame never cleaned or aired the apartment properly. Her bedroom was especially smelly and dirty. In the night we often heard her exclaim suddenly: ' Ah, te voila, je t'ai!' ( Ah, there you are, I caught you). Invariably, that implied that Madame caught a flea in her bedding.

On some rare and more mellow occasions our landlady would take pains to impress us with her piano playing. She had a considerable collection of rollers of classical music for pianola (a mechanical piano player). The grand piano held pride of place in Christiane's salon. From the moment Madame inserted the rollers into the piano she believed herself to be a concert pianist. A faint animation on her rumpled face and the play of her fingers over the keyboard could easily fool the uninitiated. The spectacle was hilarious.

Each day I snatched a bite of breakfast in the morning on my way to school. I had other 'meals' on the run. When I did drop in at home during the day, in a rush, I would firstly take a long swig of pinard directly from the bottle which I kept in the corner by the front door. Pinard, a crude red wine, rationed at the time, was the standard drink in post-war Paris, designed to be gulped down with or without food. It seemed to quench one's thirst better and faster than the more conventional beverages.

I was making satisfactory progress at school in all the theoretical as well as practical work. My newly acquired skills included fashioning laboratory apparatus, by blowing glass tubes over jets of burning butane gas and moulding the glass into the required shapes. We produced test tubes, beakers, flasks, and so on.

At the Sorbonne Professor Boll's tuition led me slowly into the realm of organic chemistry, of which I knew very little until then. He stimulated my growing interest in it to such a degree that in the fullness of time I continued my studies at the Sydney Tech.

Overall, in spite of the drawbacks, I gained confidence in my future. Living in Paris fostered within me a new sense of belonging, a sensation I had forgotten long ago. I loved the city's grandeur, its scope, and its sophistication. My initial affinity for the French language and culture, which I had already nurtured in Poland, deepened a thousandfold. Unlike those displaced young people who aimed to leave Europe, I felt passionately committed to succeeding on the spot. As yet I could not fathom that some serious obstacles lurking in the shadows would impede me from reaching my target.

Through the war years factors beyond my control made me ignore any health problems I might have developed. I simply believed they would eventually go away. Fortunately, this approach generally worked for me. In Germany, I made a lot of fuss about my ailments on purpose to confound my captors. Apart from that, in spite of the circumstances of my life between the years 1939-1945, on the whole I enjoyed good health. Now in peacetime in France my resilience seemed to falter. No doubt the emotional upheavals at Nogent-sur-Seine were partly responsible.

I tried to ignore the warning signs until the alarming state of my teeth compelled me to see the dreaded dentist. Next in line came a nose and throat specialist who insisted that the tonsils should come out for the sake of my general health. Dr.Friedrich concurred with the diagnosis. By reason of being by nature a coward, I kept putting off any such drastic intervention and I carried on with my activities regardless.

Just before my excesses finally caught up with me I danced all night at a nightclub somewhere at Charenton. The following morning at dawn my blistered feet refused to carry me out of the Metro station. I had to seek the assistance of two policemen on duty in the street. They escorted me, barefooted, across the road. One of them was carrying my high wedge-heeled shoes when the stone-faced Madame L. opened the door. She was still in her nightgown.

Soon after that event I became ill. According to Dr. F. and his colleague, I suffered from rheumatic fever. I was confined to bed in my dining-cum-bedroom with acute pain in all the joints. Worse still, the rims of my soles ached, especially so when exposed to the warmth of the eiderdown. Often in the night I had to thrust my legs up in the air to get some relief. A persistent throbbing caused me to cry out in the night.

Dr F. came regularly to give me salts of gold injections. Except for his visits, I felt too ill to see anyone else. I could swallow only liquids because the joints in my jaws were very sore as well.

Under Dr. F.'s orders my landlady had to cooperate. Christiane helped whenever she could, but there was really nothing much anyone could do for me until nature took its course and I began to slowly recover.

I know that the illness lasted three months, but I was up and about very much earlier than that. Providing I did not remain standing for any length of time, I could cope. At Muttilein's insistence I left Madame's refuge for the time being and moved in with the Hepners. My changed circumstances away from my landlady's idiosyncrasies did wonders for my morale and well-being. I felt at home! Throughout the period of my convalescence Muttilein watched over my diet, making sure I put on some weight.

As I grew stronger I committed myself to part-time study up to Easter 1946. The date for my tonsil operation was scheduled for sometime after the Easter break. In preparation I had already purchased a number of medications, which included the one used to congeal blood. The instructions on the packet made me shudder. With each visit to the chemist, my anxiety increased. The thought of the operation preyed constantly on my mind.

At that crucial time, by coincidence, Marysia and Miecio announced that the Polish authorities had offered them a special low-priced ten-day Easter recess holiday in Nice on the French Riviera. By sheer luck they managed to include me in it. I found at last a perfect excuse to avoid the operation!

When I broke the wonderful news to Dr F., he thought the change of scene and sea air would do me a world of good, but he warned that my injections had to continue. He supplied me with a whole series of medicines for the trip and even arranged with a Nice doctor of his acquaintance to give them to me regularly during my stay.

Up to then the only break I had enjoyed since the end of the war, was the recuperation session at Vesinet. The prospect of a real holiday, especially at the world-renown Cote d'Azur, raised my spirits to new heights.

But my heart sank again when I took stock of my scanty wardrobe. What a depressing sight! In the end I bowed to the inevitable, and selected the most deserving items from amongst the garments handed out to me by uncle Boruchowicz and Mrs. Taub.

The three of us travelled to Nice by train. The town welcomed us in splendid April weather. Sidewalk cafes dominated the sprawling boulevards (des Anglais and des Americains) that run parallel to the coast of the sparkling Mediterranean. Down below, the celebrated pebble beach was swarming with bathers. The air smelled salty, and it reminded me of the faraway Koberowo days by the Baltic. I was enthralled!

Away from the coastline, Nice had the appearance of a semi-tropical garden city. Citrus fruit and palm trees lined the many avenues and squares. For a novice like me it was sheer paradise! I could not believe my eyes!

Though the three of us booked into a modest hotel, it felt like a palace compared to our lodgings in Paris. Marysia and I shared the bed in a single room; Miecio had a room all to himself.

On the first morning of our stay, I startled Marysia by jumping out of bed at the sound of a service bell. For a brief moment I had confused the place with the 'Gaststatte Am Hochenstein'.

We found the elegant resort teeming with recently discharged members of the Polish army contingent, who had been under the command of the famous General Anders. They were well known for their recent heroic exploits on the Western Front. The Poles were well respected by the inhabitants of Nice.

We were in luck. Thanks to Miecio's fame, we were automatically included in the list of diners at the excellent Polish canteen. The meals were simply divine and the company exclusive, to say the least. Those present included former officers of high rank. They were mostly middle-aged or older: men representing the Polish intellectual elite. The conversation at the table was amazingly stimulating.

Amongst the distinguished guests, I met a contemporary of Marshal Pilsudski. They were childhood friends. I found this encounter extraordinary. He could have been my grandfather. He liked chatting with me, most likely because of my youth; I was impressed by his attention and impeccable manners. He was the owner of a chicken farm at Grasse, the centre of rose cultivation and perfume production. He offered me the job of manageress on his farm, which I gracefully declined.

Marysia and I were the only women present at those illustrious gatherings. We therefore attracted a great deal of attention. All of the men were exceedingly gallant in the Polish traditional manner. However, as they had left their wives and families behind in Poland, they were always on the lookout for adventure. I was very much aware of the situation and kept my distance. I did not really feel at ease within a society which in normal times belonged to an entirely different world from the one in which I grew up.

We spent our mornings on the beach. I soon mastered the skill of lying comfortably on the flat round pebbles. When you stood up, you could see in the ground the precise imprint of your body. Customarily short of cash, I wore a home-made costume, immortalized in a few snapshots still in my possession.

Diving under the waves became one of the highlights. The cool water seemed to lessen the discomfort in my feet. After just a few days of this pampered existence, I began to feel much healthier in every way. I could even walk short distances.

Two nice middle-aged Polish civil engineers attached themselves to our trio. We explored the entire Cote d'Azur together. Our jaunts included the crossing of the border into Italy at Menton and my own brief but successful gambling experience at the Monte Carlo Casino. I stored in an old photo album shots of Cannes, Grasse and Menton as well as some idyllic pictures of me with a young Russian emigre named Francois.

Before returning to Paris I purchased, with the money I had won at the Casino, lemons, unobtainable in the capital, but very cheap around Nice. On the return journey I travelled with my suitcase filled with the fruit, and my belonging tied in a bundle. The inconvenience was rewarded by the substantial profit I made by selling my lemons on the Paris black market. The gain helped to defray the expense of the holiday.

After my Nice adventure I felt well enough and stubborn enough to cancel my tonsil operation altogether.


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