From acclaimed concert flutist and the artistic director of Mistral Music comes a passionate memoir about young love, heartache, and the role of memory in our lives. Inspirational and heartfelt, Paris Blue: A Memoir of First Love brings full spectrum color to a love affair with Paris, music, and a man whose limited vision couldn’t keep her from shining. A deeply felt, bittersweet reflection on how youthful passion changes you and clings to you forever, this is a story that has embedded itself in Julie’s heart and mind for forty years. It is time to share it.
It wasn’t every husband who would let his wife meet her French ex-boyfriend for dinner when he came to town – the same ex she had fallen in love with singing Beethoven’s 9th in Paris, and who figured prominently in a memoir she had worked on sporadically for decades. But my husband had long accepted my need to revisit the past, so I kissed my family good-bye and off I went to play an orchestra concert in Boston, followed by dinner with Luc.
Luc was a 29-year-old married French lawyer in the chorus I joined during my junior year abroad in Paris. When I noticed his furrowed brow across a sea of cheerful singers, I was drawn to him and his well of darkness.
It was 1976 and I had arrived in Paris in September to take courses in literature and philosophy on a small side street near Montparnasse. I had also come to study with a famous French flutist, a fact I never failed to mention when asked, eager to set myself apart from other American students scattered at cafés wielding L.L.Bean backpacks and copies of Madame Bovary.
Being independent in a city so seductive and poetic was quite a heady mix for a small-town girl from Maine who had only known the tame green campuses of New Hampshire and Connecticut. At first I floated through the streets during the calm morning hours in a state of disbelief, bus fumes mingling with the intoxicating aroma of warm croissants that wafted out onto the sidewalks from the local boulangeries. But then it started to sink in: I was twenty years old and living in Paris.
I walked endlessly and moaned faintly at every bridge and cobbled square. But by November, the golden October light was gone, and the sun stayed hidden behind thick, gray clouds. My limited romantic history had consisted of unconsummated crushes and premature endings, and now the misty quays that I roamed only heightened my loneliness. I needed to find a way to fill the void: I searched for a chorus to join, and was soon skipping out of an audition for the Choeur de L’Orchestre de Paris, clutching the year’s schedule and Berlioz score to my chest. The deep resonance of 200 voices on my first rehearsal swept me into a world I craved. I was home.
On my third week, as I looked up from my music to the conductor, a solemn, strikingly handsome face radiating quiet intelligence in the second row of basses made me lose my place. For weeks I stared secretly at him. He never spoke to anyone at intermission, and was always the first to leave at the end. I identified with his estrangement, and needed to know more. By the time we brushed past each other backstage after the first concert and I saw him up close for the first time, it was as if I had imbued a mythical love potion.
Months later when we finally spoke, I noticed a wedding band, but accepted his gentle offer to drive me home from rehearsal. He mentioned he was separated (I knew it!) and then I submitted to the velvety timbre of his voice as we spoke in French about Schubert, May ’68, and his deep love of his Brittany. Then, a seemingly insignificant request from the conductor – that the basses change places with the tenors, bringing them side by side with the sopranos – changed everything. For three nights when I walked onto the stage, there Luc was on the edge of the bass section, indicating an empty seat beside him, and we sang Beethoven’s Ninth thigh to thigh under the bright lights of the concert stage, with neither the desire nor possibility to speak. We surrendered to the beauty of the choral symphony which tied us like Proust’s hymn nationale de l’amour, and after, stared into our red wine at Closerie des Lilas, drenched with music and emotion. He needed to learn English for his work in international law; I needed to be in love.
During most of February we sat behind rain-streaked windows of cafés across Paris, reading aloud from Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales and the English Romantic poets. He stared at my lips as he tried to master difficult phonetics of the English language, but we never touched each other. During one lesson when I held up my Perrier bottle to ask him what color it was, I discovered he couldn’t see greens or reds - only a certain shade of blue. That he literally saw a different world than I did was disheartening, but far more so was the realization that a divorce was not imminent: she was fragile; there was a three-year-old son. He confessed that he hadn’t slept since the day we met. Some days I shook my head in disbelief that I was living an embarrassing cliché, in love with a married man. But it didn’t occur to me to want more than he could give me, as nothing in my life had ever given me as much.
By March the English lessons moved to under the eaves of my 6th floor chambre de bonne on rue Bonaparte, close to the Seine. The radio transmitted France Musique as Mahler, Wordsworth and love became indistinguishable. These became our “nouvelles methodes” of English lessons,” as we tried to read lyrical lines from Tintern Abbey. I didn’t care about Gertrude Stein, Arthur Miller, or other writers who had described the magic of this city. It was my Paris now.
When I returned to the States for my senior year at Wesleyan, I lived only for the letters that arrived from him daily. I would spot the fragile, crinkly, blue envelope through the glass window of my PO Box, and spirit it away to a solitary place to read his minuscule French writing and imagine his voice: “How can I make you understand my despair with this distance of time and space?”
By next May the waiting was over: Luc’ s new law firm was sending him to Boston for the summer to study English at Berlitz. I opted out of my college graduation ceremony, found us a flat on Beacon Hill, and memorized tide schedules in Maine.
But from the moment he stepped off the plane, Luc was unrecognizable. Stripped of his cherished French language and familiar surroundings, he retreated into his shell and assumed a vile contempt for everything American around him, including me: When he left for Berlitz on the fifth day, I packed up the blue-gray sweater I had spent months knitting for him, and threw my keys into the mailbox. I had to forget about Paris, the Seine, and the life I had imagined there.
For the remainder of my twenties, I had several relationships and breakups, and even traveled 3000 miles to Paris with one unpromising boyfriend to orchestrate a nonchalant encounter with Luc at a chorus rehearsal to show him I had moved on. None of these men was married or French, but not one made me see my future children in his eyes. That is, until Michael came along.
One night, six months after my thirtieth birthday, I was heading towards a newsstand in Harvard Square, and there he was: a young, green-eyed physicist buying Scientific American smiled at me, and I knew. A year and a half later we were exchanging vows by candlelight and dancing to a Klezmer band.
My sweet young husband didn’t write me love poetry but every day his large and small acts embodied his attachment to me in the present, physical world. He didn’t share music with me in the way that Luc did, but he could lull me to sleep with a few strokes of his fingertips on my forehead, and when we slept, our limbs interlaced like baby animals. He rated the severity of my chronic back injuries by number (“That looks like a seven to me”), and patiently initiated me into the daunting world of computers by making a numbered list that began: “1. Turn computer on,” as he would do in later years with cell phones, digital cameras, and dvd players. When I was pregnant and sleepless, he ate cereal in bed with me at 3 a.m., and, months later, with our newborn daughter, stuffed pillows under my elbows when I nursed her. We shared countless, intimate details about the everyday pleasures and complexities of our lives.
Then one December morning when my children were 11 and 7, and I was a busy Boston freelance flutist living in Cambridge, the phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered breezily as I slid a muffin tin into the oven.
“Bonjour, c’est Luc Berthelot.” He was in Boston and asked if we could meet. I was pleased to hear from him, secure in my marriage with seemingly nothing to prove. I didn’t want the old hurt to retreat to its nest for another 25 years, and thought this might be my last chance to find some answers. I agreed to stop by after a concert I was playing that night.
It was after ten by the time my concert was over and I headed in my car toward the waterfront to look for Luc’s hotel. It felt wrong—that it was late, that I was going out of my way to see him as I might have done at twenty, and that, if I hurried home, I might be able to kiss my family good night before they went to bed.
“What am I doing?” I whispered, as the first flakes began to fall onto my windshield. When you fall in love at twenty, I thought, does the heart forms around the other person, like an old tree slowly absorbs a sign hung on it when it was a sapling? And then, when the sign is gone, do you forever feel the lack of it, feel its imprint, where it once rested?
I had hoped that Luc and I might finally have that honest exchange about that fateful week in ‘78. But I was wrong. Even twenty-five years later, Luc was incapable of discussing our ending – his shocking behavior, the startling letter his wife sent, the ultimate divorce and child custody case. For years I had wanted to hurt him, to show him I had married someone as smart and handsome but who could give me so much more. But I wanted something different now. Gentleness, wistfulness, maybe. A moment of recognition of what we once had.
“Aren’t you ever going to tell me what happened in the summer of ‘78?” I tried. But it was no use. We remained trapped in a stilted and superficial conversation. We talked about our children and our careers.
I didn’t find the answers I was looking for that night, but I as I drove home under a falling canopy of snow on the highway, something came to me: Luc’s true colorblindness wasn’t his inability to see colors, but his limited vision of the world. Even if I hadn’t discovered his shocking behavior that summer, I would have soon realized that a certain shade of blue wasn’t enough for me, that I needed the full spectrum to be happy. Perhaps it was my own color blindness that prevented me from seeing who Luc was then and who he could never be for me.
But there is imagery to last a lifetime. Fragments of that early Paris blue on rue Bonaparte still flicker dimly through the prism of the safe and happy life I have built here and now, surrounded by the people I love more than memories. The lines from Tintern Abbey rang truer than ever:
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food for future years.
Wordsworth reminded me that our pasts are not to be mourned, but treasured, and that what I had left of myself and Luc on rue Bonaparte in 1977 enriched me daily with “life and food for future years.”
The beauty and sadness of that certain shade of blue still dwelt within me, even as I drove home in the night towards the beautiful life I had built with my present loves, here and now.
About the Author
American flutist JULIE SCOLNIK has enjoyed a diverse musical career as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral flutist, and is the founding artistic director of Mistral Music, a chamber music series which since 1997 has been known for its virtuosic performances, imaginative programming, and the deep personal rapport she establishes with her audiences. She lives in Boston with her husband, physicist Michael Brower, and their two cats, Daphne and Chloë. They have a daughter and a son, Sophie and Sasha Scolnik-Brower, also musicians.