Here is a short excerpt from my memoirs: “I used to Be French….”:
Young and youngish Americans of the early 21st century have personally only known prosperity. That is, historically unheard off prosperity. They are also fairly familiar with extreme poverty, with misery, because of the good job television often does documenting it in other parts of the world. More rarely, foreign travel gives them glimpses of appalling living conditions. And, of course, the many who have served in the Peace Corps are well informed on this topic. It seems to me that our contemporaries know little, by contrast, about the kind of poverty that prevailed in developed countries until recently. I call it “normal poverty.” I grew up in normal poverty, in Paris, in the forties and fifties. Here is what it was like.
My family of seven lived entirely off my father’s small public servant’s salary and off what he scrounged from after-hours bookkeeping for small merchants. We lived on the edge of Paris, in a charmless but well-maintained area of apartment blocks built by the city twenty years earlier. Municipal rents were probably kept artificially low. The seven of us shared an apartment that was smaller than the house I now occupy with my wife in California, a state where living spaces tend to be smaller than in most other parts of the country. Yet, we had central heating and hot water in the single bathroom. Other blocks nearby had indoor plumbing but no hot water, incredibly. Telephone service was the pay-phone at the café downstairs. When my family got its own phone, after the expected ten year wait, my mother immediately clamped a padlock on it.
Everyday food was not very good; it was sometimes borderline gross, but there was enough of it. Then as now at least. freshly baked bread was available twice a day in Paris, Since we ate a lot of bread that fact alone made life agreeable. Sunday lunch was a little more attractive than the usual fare but not by much. It was almost always the same: roast-beef and sautéed potatoes. We ate pastries and ice-cream only on special occasions but fresh seasonal fruit was normally on the table. There was green salad with most lunches and most dinners. (That would be a good reason to justify the esteem 21st century greenies instinctively feel toward France if they knew about this! Basically, they know little though.) However, toward the end of the month, grit and jam sometimes became dinner. There were months when it happened several evenings in a row. It was humiliating for my mother and distressing for my father who had antiquated notions of good nutrition. I don’t think the children minded much. We never went hungry.
In general, hunger was probably rare or unknown in France after 1948, when the last post-war restrictions were lifted. Yet slight malnutrition was rampant. I had myself a light case of the rickets when I was about eight. Rickets is a bone deformation. It has disappeared, I think because of increased intake of calcium and of vitamin D. I believe there was no rickets at all in the upper classes of France. Tuberculosis, also a disease promoted by malnutrition, was also common in the poorer half of the population although not very widespread. Yet, everyone was tested for TB at school and everyone received the necessary vaccinations as they became available. When one of us was sick, the doctor would promptly make a house-call. We were frequently sick.
Even public transportation within Paris was not always affordable. My parents gave me five round-trip tickets each week, just enough to go to school and back. If I wanted more, I had to hustle them by myself. (Central Paris where everything happened was too far to walk there.) Movies were rare and books out of reach except in the mostly ill-run and stingy public libraries. My father was a cop. By luck that I consider almost life-saving, intellectually, the City Police library was a happy exception.
My family was sturdily middle-class in the sense of possessing some “social honor,” as defined by the sociologist Max Weber. By the way, that’s the only real meaning of the vague term “middle-class.” This status simply implies that we had an uncontested right to look down our nose at a large fraction of the population, for no particular reason, and that our betters were bound to treat us courteously. I insist on this because, again, this is not a tale of rise from abject personal poverty. Middle-classness imposed its own requirements, the fulfillment of which was constricted by lack of financial means. Growing up in normal poverty, my siblings and I encountered repeatedly and increasingly obstacles in achieving the personal appearance our social standing required and had made us desire.
My earliest clear memory on this issue is of lying in ambush for my mother while she was inside the pharmacy. When she came out, I begged her, literally begged her, to let me have an extra individual dose of shampoo. I was rationed to one a week. By that age though, I wanted the girls to think I smelled good in the unlikely event one got close enough to get a whiff of me. The fact that you bought shampoo in pharmacies contains in itself the description of a backward and penurious economic system: Shampoo had not even become a product for mass consumption. My mother refused, of course, remarking that the family budget did not permit seven times two doses a week.
A couple of years later, and for similar reasons, I became haunted by sartorial desires. Specifically, I craved dressing like the English upper-class. It was pretty much the Paris representation of what Americans of the same era called “preppy.” It required a Harris Tweed coat and thick gray flannel pants, not any flannel, the lighter gray flannel. Then you had to have a plaid wool tie and you must wear brogue-type shoes. Shirts flashed an early signal of growing American influence because they must have button-down collars. There was a store called “Old England” right in the middle of the Latin Quarter where you could buy the whole outfit. I stopped in front of its window hundreds of times. It was ridiculously out of reach for almost everyone but it gave you a life goal of sorts! Around seventeen, I became a rich teen-ager working as a bell-boy in a near-luxurious hotel. At that point, I did get my hands on a couple of proper ties and on an absurdly English pair of shoes. I even purchased a wool cap of exclusively British design. I did not come close to acquiring the Harris Tweed jacket or the flannels though.
I am not telling this story to excite pity, obviously. One can lead a perfectly good life without looking like a movie caricature of an English gentleman of the fifties. I am telling it to illustrate the ideas that poverty, even mild poverty, has complicated psychological consequences and that it leaves mental sequels. First, the poor and the moderately poor, are often obsessed with the consumption of the financially unattainable. Later, as an adult, I became modestly prosperous in my own right at the same time as real prices were dropping enormously everywhere in the world. Craving the unattainable was pushed up toward luxurious foreign travel and fancy sports cars. And, then, the cravings vanished. Here is the underlying psychological arithmetic: When you can easily afford a good Toyota you stop dreaming about cool, little red MGs.
Secondly, the sequels of a childhood and a youth spent in normal poverty may be ineradicable. I have never been able to bring myself to buy socks anywhere but at the flea market. Also, I never bought the real McCoy, the real Harris Tweed, that is. This, for two, cumulative reasons. In the first place, every time I faced the actual, concrete decision, I concluded it was too expensive, irrespective of the price and no matter how high my discretionary income. Secondly, the easier life became, the more clear it became that cheaper imitations were fine. I have had one in my closet now for ten years. It would not quite satisfy my greedy little 17-year old heart but that teen-ager has disappeared, swept away by a tsunami of general economic well-being.
Here is a learned socio-historical footnote to this story: The forerunner of this massive rise in prosperity for all came early but it was not understood. Like many good things, it came from America. As early as the mid-fifties, there was a lively traffic in Levi’s blue-jeans at the Paris flea market. The jeans were not manufactured in France and they were not imported new. Available were new Levi’s smuggled in from American military personnel stores, PXs, and used jeans. The first were very expensive, and the second were fairly expensive because of their artificial scarcity. Interestingly (though I don’t know why it’s interesting), over-washed jeans with holes at the knees already commanded premium prices, as they do in the early 2000s.
Retrospectively, I think that the very existence of American blue-jeans soon changed the rules of “cool” for the young in France, in Europe, and eventually, everywhere else. They undermined most youthful sartorial cravings. Jeans were tremendously important because they were the harbinger of a sort of economic leveling from the middle of the social pyramid. The normally poor stopped envying and therefore aping the upper class because they had been given an alternative. Then, they stopped feeling chronically poor. And then, they went on TV reality shows about marrying a millionaire.
© Jacques Delacroix 2010
There are other excerpts of my memoirs linked to the front page of this blog [in the recommendations section]. Again, I am looking for a publisher or for an agent. Please, circulate. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[Editor's note: this essay first appeared on Dr. Delacroix's blog, Facts Matter, on January 22nd 2010]