My French Non-Connection

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1113essay_elseBy Kenneth Rose | “In the elderly, Organic Brain Syndrome, or OBS, usually first manifests by the inability to acquire new memories. It then often progresses to confusion, mood swings, long-term memory loss, and eventually death.”

There were precious few lessons in my journey to becoming a physician that I didn’t need to learn. However by the time my third-year psychiatry professor began her morning lecture on OBS, I’d already had a life-altering experience with its effects.

Shortly after graduating from Penn, I found myself living in the northern French city of Lille. Lille was not the kind of place that you would find in a French travel guide. The insular working-class town, located near the Belgian border, presented itself as a charmless, cold, rain-swept outpost of traditional Gallic life.

One fortuitous perk of living in France in the 1980s, however, was that the exchange rate was firmly in my favor. At 11 francs to the dollar, I could afford to reside in a beautiful and sprawling Beaux Arts apartment. My building had only six units, rented by young families and retirees. It was an exceedingly tranquil place to live. Madame Domenai, a voluptuous middle-aged blonde, was the building’s omnipresent superintendent. Her bright, industrious, and coquettish manner gave the place some personality, but nothing that quite qualified as intrigue. I had few friends and there were few distractions.

Almost every morning, after rising in the rainy, pre-dawn darkness, I would wearily walk down the polished marble staircase on my way to the Café L’Ecurie for breakfast. From across the elegant atrium I would see an elderly widower who was probably in his eighties at the time. He lived alone in the apartment directly below me. It appeared that we kept to a similar sunrise schedule. Our morning salutation routine also remained unfailingly consistent.

First we’d wave at each other and exchange greetings: “Bonjour Monsieur,” to which I’d listlessly reply, “Bonjour Monsieur.” He would turn around, bend over, and pick up the mail packet that Madame Domenai had lovingly wrapped in twine and placed in front of his apartment door. As I continued down the stairs, he would wave again, and then retreat back into his residence.

His most notable trait, at least to me, was his formal dress code. Even at that early hour he was invariably clad in a pressed, dark blue suit buttoned over a necktie and a starched white shirt with cufflinks. His black leather shoes were shiny. His white hair, which was still quite abundant, was always perfectly coiffed and styled. In addition, whenever he went outdoors he usually carried a gold-handled umbrella in his strong right hand and wore a black beret cocked to one side. Despite his rather advanced age he exuded an aura of power and authority. Tall and thin, he stood ramrod straight, like a soldier with a penetrating stare.

Intrigued by his unwaveringly formal dress code, sometime in October I asked Madame Domenai who he was. Her answer surprised me.

“Oh,” she said. “That’s Monsieur Mulot. He was in the French Resistance with General de Gaulle.” A look of absolute reverence washed over her face. “I was told they were very good friends.”

De Gaulle had been born in Lille, perhaps the city’s sole claim to fame, in addition to non-stop precipitation.

“The Monsieur used to be a famous lawyer in Paris. After the war he helped prosecute many German war criminals,” she continued. “He is a very great man. I’m honored to have him live here.”

I was stunned. I’d thought the guy was just some kind of punctilious 80-year-old aristocrat. But my neighbor was living history. A few weeks later I ran into him at the Boulangerie Vauban, whose usually imperious proprietor was fawning all over him.

“Good afternoon Monsieur Mulot, what can I get for you today?” she said, like a schoolgirl flirting with the captain of the high school football team.

While her noble patron looked over the assortment of breads in front of him, the woman held her breath in anticipation. Finally the old man quietly asked for a ficelle. She dutifully retrieved a long, thin, extra-crispy baguette from the shelf behind her, and even persuaded him to take another, on the house.

“You never know, Monsieur. You might get hungry after lunch.”

Monsieur Mulot smiled modestly, thanked the woman somewhat unenthusiastically—as a celebrity might have done—then tucked the two slender loaves under his right arm and quietly exited. As he turned, I noticed a small silver pin on his black beret: the Croix de Lorraine, the symbol of the French Resistance. Now even I was awed.

That night I lay in bed listening to the rain fall, wondering if I should go downstairs and talk to Monsieur Mulot. He lived alone. Perhaps he might welcome the company. For me it was a once-in-lifetime opportunity. The man had lived at the center of one of the most critical times in French history. At Penn I had majored in political science, and I loved the history of World War II. What kinds of missions might he have performed for the Resistance? Which Germans had he helped to prosecute? Was de Gaulle really the unremitting hard-ass history paints him to be?

A veritable treasure trove of personal history was there for the taking, just one flight below me, except for one minor problem: I could barely speak French.

Sure, I could make myself understood in many basic ways. But true conversational French still eluded me. I briefly considered enlisting a bilingual neighbor, but for some reason didn’t want to get him involved.

The more I thought about it, the more I persuaded myself it was a stupid idea. For the last 40 years, he’d probably been pestered with the same silly question. So what was de Gaulle really like? Surely after a difficult life this man deserved a modicum of privacy from nosy neighbors. So just like that, I talked myself out of visiting Monsieur Mulot.

Truth be told, it wasn’t just the language barrier that stopped me. I was completely intimidated. He was a genuine hero of the French Republic. I, on the other hand, was just a lonely, tongue-tied, 20-year-old kid from Staten Island.

As the months went by Monsieur Mulot and I continued our usual morning routine. Then, sometime around mid-December, just before I was about to leave for Christmas vacation, I noticed that he began answering the door without his suit jacket on. He’d still wave and say, “Bonjour,” but no jacket. Now for most people this probably would be no big deal. But seeing Monsieur Mulot without his suit jacket on was like Marcel Marceau without face paint. It just shouldn’t be.

A few weeks later I descended the stairs to find my esteemed downstairs neighbor not only jacketless, but now barefoot as well. He still had the tie, suit pants, and starched shirt, but no socks or shoes. His hair was a little messed up too. Maybe it was my imagination, but I also thought that there was a little less acknowledgement in his dark brown eyes when he saw me. There seemed to be bewilderment and confusion in his squint, as though he was wondering, Who the hell is this guy waving to me?

As weeks passed things got weirder. He’d forget to pick up his mail for several days. Letters and newspapers would gather at the base of his door. Other times I’d see him walking aimlessly around the atrium.

One morning in mid-April, Monsieur Mulot opened the door as usual, but this time he had no trousers. Shirt, cufflinks, and tie were all accounted for, but he was naked from the waist down. The onetime attorney, World War II freedom fighter, and personal friend of Charles de Gaulle was now a spectacle of wrinkled alabaster skin that shone like a beacon in the dim morning light.

It wasn’t long before Madame Domenai called his daughters, who arranged to have a private-duty nurse live with their father. I never saw him again after that. From that moment forward, every time I descended the stairs and passed by his apartment I hated myself. His locked door now spoke louder than anything he might have ever told me. I had let something rare and special slip by.

A few mornings later, while I stirred my tea at L’Ecurie, it occurred to me that my encounter with Monsieur Mulot may have represented more than just a lost opportunity to befriend a worldly Frenchman. When it came to new experiences, I had always been afraid to take chances that might enrich my life. Even as a student at Penn, I’d spent so much time worrying about grades that I’d squandered much of what the university had to offer. So what if I couldn’t communicate perfectly with Monsieur Mulot? At least I would have tried. The risk had been so low, the potential reward so large. Now I would never have the chance. That realization was a turning point in my life. Now I try everything, sometimes to my detriment, because nothing is more detrimental than taking no risk at all.

The following October, I returned to France for a visit and stopped by the old apartment. Madame Domenai greeted me with several cheek-staining kisses and a crushing bear hug. After the initial pleasantries, I got up the nerve to ask about Monsieur Mulot. Sadly, she told me, he was now in a nursing home. It had been an unusually hot summer and the relentless heat had apparently caused him to go full frontal before of a small group of our startled neighbors.

“Monsieur Mulot lived in our building for almost 25 years and I’ll miss him.” Madame Domenai said as her sapphire eyes welled up with tears. “I hope you had a chance to speak to him before he got sick. He had led a very remarkable life.”

“Unfortunately I didn’t,”I told her, as I felt the disgrace suddenly flood back into my body.

Madame Domenai looked back at me in astonishment.“That’s truly a shame,” she said. “I know he would have especially enjoyed speaking with you.”

“Why is that?” I asked apprehensively.

“Monsieur Mulot loved to tell stories about his experiences during the war,” she replied. Then she added, “And he spoke perfect English.”

Kenneth Rose C’82 is a plastic surgeon in Manhattan. He is married to Jayne S. Ressler C’89, W’89, L’94.
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