In 1968 I was a fresh 18-year-old Austrian girl, straight out of a Catholic convent school, alone in Paris. I was still sleeping with my legs curled up in bed at night because I had been told by the nuns that God was always with me, so I gave him room to sleep with me at the bottom of my bed. I think that's why I'm so small, my legs had no opportunity to grow.
I got a job working for an airline in Vienna because my dream was to travel around the world, starting with Israel and touring the Middle East, but I hated the job, was always late for work and sleepy from partying all night, drinking Jim Beam Whisky and taking pep pills to keep me awake. But this toxic mixture only fuelled my ambition to leave Austria; I could feel the adrenalin pumping in my veins even when I wanted to sleep.
After six months I asked if I was eligible for a free flight to Jerusalem, I wasn't, and my hopes were dashed. But I could fly free to London or Paris. I chose Paris.
I was not prepared for France. I knew how to order a coffee and buy bread but not much else.
On arrival at the Gard du Nord, I saw thousands of people, they all seemed to be the same age as me, but I felt apart and alone. On every street corner, I could see policemen on horses, the horses wearing blinkers, and I now realise that the policemen were wearing riot
gear. In my innocence, I just thought they looked good and impressive.
Unsure of where I was going, I traipsed down the steps into the Metro at San Michel Station. I ignored the
glorious art nouveau detailing, at 18 this left me cold. When I and the hundreds of other passengers came up into what we thought would be daylight a few stops later it was dark. I felt nervous but wasn't sure why. Instead of coming out into the brilliant light of the Spring sunshine of Paris we were herded into Black Marias and were driven swiftly to the police station and locked up for the night. No explanation, food, or drink. I was completely overwhelmed. After a fitful night, we were released on a Sunday morning with no explanation, which anyway I wouldn't have understood.
Sometime later I realised that I had a narrow escape, as unlawful as it was to randomly herd innocent people and bang them up, we had all avoided being involved in the rioting that I definitely would not have been able to survive. The newspaper stands were littered with images over the next few days. Photographs of the streets filled with the fog of tear gas, the bleeding students, the violent clubbings, the horses rearing up and the cobblestone missiles flying through the air. I had no desire to have witnessed it. I had not a single revolutionary bone in my body. I had thought I was rebellious because I had drunk Jim Beam and stayed up until 4.00 am back at home, but inside I was just a petit, brainwashed Catholic, innocent, and scared. I had only wanted an adventure. I didn't want to know about the complicated political reasons for the riots, it wasn't my fight.
After my release from my night of incarceration, I was supposed to go to the Austrian Catholic Centre so that they could find me a good devout family to lodge with. I didn't keep that appointment. But some seed of real rebellion had somehow planted itself into my being. But I still knew that I was lacking and unformed.
Spying myself reflected in an old and pitted mirror outside a patisserie I realised that my Austrian clothes were pitiful and embarrassing, dowdy was not the word. I had money, so I plucked up the courage to find a boutique and bought a shocking pink mini skirt, white plastic knee-high boots, and ashamed of my self-cut hair I bought a purple wig in a fashionable bob style. Outwardly I was a completely new person and inwardly the planted seed was growing towards the light.
I soon found a job as an au pair, the money was bad but I had a place to stay for free and I had from one to two pm off every day and became addicted to fresh baguettes with orange marmalade, I put on 10lbs in 6 weeks, which I didn't like, but it too made me feel stronger and less vulnerable: I took up just a bit more space in the world.
I now had a completely new and trendy wardrobe, a job, and independence. Every day I felt more capable; I started unfurling my legs more and more and giving God less room, I think I may have grown an inch. But I kept myself to myself and didn't argue much with anyone, I kept my head down and tried to be content, but I had wanderlust, I still wanted to break out and be free. The seed grew inside me, and I felt it and I grew stronger as the hot summer rolled on and on, endless days of heat, abundance, and light. The Parisians left in August and the family I au paired for left to go south to swim and re-create themselves, they hesitated when they invited me, I knew that they wanted to be just en famille, so I pretended I didn’t want to go, but they allowed me to stay in their swanky house in Boulevard Saint Germain. I felt happy, happier than I had ever felt. Happy and free.
But inevitably this new and joyous period of my life was about to end. I got a telegram from my parents telling me that I must return home immediately. They were not happy that I hadn’t contacted the Austrian Catholic Centre. I wasn’t brave enough to say no so I made the necessary arrangements. I had spent all my money on clothes, cigarettes, sipping espressos in the local bistro, and going to gay bars – that was a real eye-opener and if I had a seed of rebellion growing in me after my night in the cells, it now felt like an oak tree was winding its roots around my heart.
I found out that I could get a lift across the border in a car with other people who needed to leave Paris, because of a family emergency, or those lucky ones who were travelling the world. I later discovered that people on the run also used such ways to leave Paris.
I presented myself on the morning of departure at 5.00 am in a very short, cherry red plastic coat, my trusty white boots, and a tiny black dress, I left my purple wig in my bag, telling myself it was because of the heat, but really, I hadn’t been brave enough to wear it much. There were two other Austrian girls who eyed me suspiciously, there was no sense of a bond between us, a Belgian boy and a German guy about 30, rake-thin with a long ponytail and John Lennon glasses. He had a huge rucksack with pans hanging and clanking off the back. He was on his way to Afghanistan.
The driver hurried us into the car, it was sticky, hot and smelly. He drove at one speed all the time – 100 miles per hour – not stopping at junctions or for traffic lights, lighting cigarette after cigarette. When we arrived at the border, he leant across me to get his passport out of the glove box – he sorted through five different ones all bearing his photograph and finally chose a Swiss one - winking at me and cracking a smile to reveal a mouthful of gold teeth he swaggered off taking our passports too. We crossed over into Germany and the two Austrian girls and the Belgian boy left, they couldn’t take it, they went off to find a train. That left me and the German guy. I decided to stick it out and so did he, his name was Herman.
The driver pulled into a Gasthaus and ordered a beer, four beers later he was still there, laughing, picking his teeth and eating vast amounts of Schweinefleisch and Kartoffeln (pork and potatoes). Herman and I waited impatiently sucking on our one Coca-Cola each and feeling ever more fed up and miserable.
Suddenly Herman grabbed his rucksack swung it on his back, fumbled in the pocket of the driver’s jacket took his passport and mine, a bundle of cash and nodded to me to follow. Meekly, I did just that.
It was late, I was cold and hungry and plastic boots are not the right thing to wear across ploughed fields full of cow shit. As dark descended Herman got more impatient, “hey, go and knock on that door and ask for a room for the night.”
I did as I was told, no change there. A woman flung open her bedroom window and a sewage of expletives came flooding out in a torrent, then a chamber pot full of yellow liquid. We ran away – more amused than upset.
When the drizzle turned to full-on rain, Herman tried this time, knocking and knocking at the door of what looked more like a stable than a house. There was no answer, so he tried the door and it opened. In he went leaving it ajar for me. Two counters filled with vegetables and tools stood on either side of the tiny room. we moved carrots, beans, and cabbages carefully and quietly onto the floor. We slept, or rather didn’t sleep, on potato sacks. In the morning I shook Herman awake and we placed all the things back into their rightful places. As we scrambled up the bank and back to the dusty road, a voice behind us shouted, the voice was loud but indistinct. Herman shouted back at him, but the man only cupped his ear – “ich bin sehr Taub!” (I am very deaf!”).
After an hour of walking, and failing to hitch a ride, I was completely finished I couldn’t go on, Herman grew impatient and angry, I was holding him up he said, I was stupid, useless and pathetic. I felt an acorn of anger rising up inside me, unfurling and cracking through my body- through my bones. As he marched ahead of me, I crept closer, unlaced a frying pan and it fell with a clatter, Herman spun round to challenge me, stooping for the pan, but he was gangly and slow, I was petit and quick, I got it first. With one swing I knocked him out cold, picked out my passport from his greasy pocket, took half the money and left. Almost immediately a tractor stopped and picked me up, and soon I was at the train station, with an espresso in my hand, a Gaulois in my mouth and rebellion of every kind in my heart, my body, and my soul.