Bear with me. There is a lot of back story.
This encounter took place in the summer of 1977. I was seventeen. My parents and I lived in London that spring, but they went back to the States at the end of June. And I went to France.
The Sex Pistol’s anti-anthem “Pretty Vacant” had just been released as a single and its words of rage and ennui travelled with me across the Channel. And it was as fun to sing as a footballer’s chant but so much more transgressive.
My folks were well-to-do leftists from humble origins who were convinced that their sons were spoiled: they sent me to go to work for an anti-poverty organization in the month of July. My older brother had been sent four years earlier. The organization was based in the Paris suburbs and it had a summer camp of sorts for adults. Left-leaning teachers and university students offered their labor in exchange for room and board. I was the youngest volunteer worker. My written French was fine by then–I had composed essays in French about Balzac and Flaubert for school–but I was not used to speaking la belle langue at all.
We were housed in an old nunnery along the Oise River; the stone floors were always cold and the cracked walls were always damp. But even in summer I never saw one bug or one mouse inside, as if even the vermin recognized the holiness of the ancient structure. Nearby, in the town of Pontoise, poverty and despair were rampant.
We drank black coffee from bowls in the morning. And we ate chunks of bread that we tore from long loaves and spread butter and confiture atop them.
In the days we worked hard—I converted an unused garage into a photography studio, laying brick. I shared this task with a school teacher named Jean from Lyon. During breaks he read the communist paper L’Humanité and I read the socialist Libération. On a few sweltering afternoons we’d sneak off to a café to drink beer and listen to the working men argue quite dramatically over minute details about cyclists competing in the Tour de France.
The group prepared dinner together and we ate the meal slowly outside on long tables. My French improved. No one spoke English to me ever, even if they knew it, heeding my request. My ear began to discern that each person had a different accent and cadence depending on their region. I especially loved the emphasis on the final vowel in words like chouette (as a noun the word means owl but used much more as an adjective to convey cute or cool or awesome) or plage (beach) when spoken by people from Le Midi, or the South.
We picked chamomile to make tea for bedtime and cursed at the Concorde jet when it flew over us as it inevitably stopped the flow of conversation, which seemed as vital to the meal as the wine. On especially warm evenings, we went down to the river after the dishes were done in search of a breeze. Inevitably we would sing.
Michelle from Nice was quiet in conversation but she sang especially well—kind of like Françoise Hardy–and played the guitar beautifully. She loved to sing this one song I had never heard before about a woman named Suzanne. Due to her accent, she added another syllable ensuring the final two letters “n” and “e” in Suzanne were enunciated when she sang the first line “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river.” She also elongated the word “down” so it sounded like “down-ne.”
I loved the song from the get-go and the earnest, determined way she sang it–as if it were a hymn not a pop song. It was rousing but also sad. I also loved how the song revealed and referred to the moment since we were also brought “to her place near the river” (though not by the mythic Suzanne but by the actual Michelle). And if I were to speak for the collective, I’d daresay we were enchanted by how a voice meets and molds a melody. We knew we were witness to an interpretation. This song she always sang by herself–unlike most others as we usually joined in by the second verse–and our duty was to listen with devotion.
But for me, I also enjoyed hearing just a little bit of English–mispronounced so delightfully–at sunset. I experienced how my language could also sound rich with melancholy and rife with spirit, especially when sung.
One evening I asked Michelle: “Qui a écrit cette chanson?” She looked aghast that I did not know the artist who wrote our anthem but answered with conviction: “Leonard Cohen.”