A World of Romance

When I was a teenager, growing up without a TV, I spent my free time reading. I am much older. I still don’t have a TV and I still spend much of my free time reading.

Fifty years ago, I immersed myself in Russian literature. I was a very passionate fifteen years old girl.

Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Puschkin and Gogol and Checkhov and so many others. I read and reread their works never getting tired of them.

At present I still remember most characters from those books that held me spellbound. I fell in love with them most probably because their life was so romantic and  filled with passion and tragedy. Not really the kind of life I would have enjoyed in reality though. But I was fifteen and a dreamer. I loved to live in a world of romance.

Almost thirty years ago, I was living in Paris where I met a young woman from Poland. She was married to one of our acquaintances. We became friends by force of circumstance, I’d say.

At the time, Poland was still a part of the communist bloc. My friend’s parents were living in Warsaw with their two oldest daughters, both of them married to Poles.

I met them in the early 1990s when it became much easier for Poles to travel to France. (Even though I remember we had to help them out so that the French immigration bureau would let them come and stay in Paris for a few weeks. It was tough. Lots of red tape involved.)

I was very excited to meet my friend’s parents. They were already quite old. Close to their eighties.

My friend's father had been in the Polish diplomatic service before WWII. He looked very upper middle-class with a soupçon of nobility.

Later on, I learned that he had indeed emigrated from Russia with his family in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution, leaving behind them their property and everything else since they truly were nobility. (Which did not help a bit when in 1952, Poland became officially the very communist People’s Republic of Poland.)

Her mother was Polish. She was very elegant and sophisticated. So charming and exquisite.

Both of them spoke a very fluent and cultured French which meant that they really were upper-class in Poland.

Well, anyway, I was utterly under a spell after meeting them. Not because they were upper-class but because they truly were delightful and educated. They had this touch of Slavonic charm that I had so much yearned to exude every time I read one of those Russian novels I loved so much.

One day my friend and I were having a heart-to-heart talk about love and marriage since both of us had barely survived a very hurtful first marriage.

Her mother was listening very intently while we were airing our grievances. Then she smiled very sweetly.

“My dear daughter, you know my story but let me tell your friend what happened to me when I was a very young woman.”

There I was. In one of those Russian novels I had loved so much.

You see, H.'s family was really upper class. Her youth was filled with rides in the countryside from mansion to mansion, with invitations to balls and whatever was fashionable at the time. You think that this life only happens in novels, Russian ones preferably. Well, this was H.’s everyday life besides learning French and English and good manners with her governess.

One day, she was properly introduced to a dashing and handsome officer  who met all the desiderata of her family. She agreed to marry him of course.

So there she was. Married to the dapper young officer. She was terribly in love with him or maybe more with her idealized picture of their well-being.

A few months went by. Life became unbearable very quickly. He was madly jealous and he double-locked her in their apartment whenever he had to return to quarters or when he went to his club.

She tried to reason with him. To no avail. Then she implored him. To no avail.

One day he told her that if she dared to leave their apartment without him, he’d shoot himself in the head.

She was frightened but one day, she managed to go out while he was away. She wanted so much to have tea with her girlfriends in a fashionable tearoom not very far from their apartment. She was very young and somewhat frivolous, she said.

So there they were. A group of young women having a good time over a nice cup of tea.

The door opened. He came in and looked at her.

“I warned you that if you were to go out on your own, I’d shoot myself. I did warn you, didn’t I?”

He pulled his gun and fired. Not at her. He shot himself.

“He fell on my lap. This was so ghastly. I never thought he would do it. And I didn’t even have time to reason with him. He came in and it was over in a few seconds.”

Death is always tragic but suicide is even more tragic. And this young man was the classic hero in a Russian novel. A truly classic hero to his eyes and the rules of his brotherhood.

What happened to H.?

She grieved but not for too long because she met A. a few months later. He was a few years older than her, I think. They got married and they had three daughters. And they weathered one war, the destruction of Warsaw and postwar communism.

They grew old very serenely and they died peacefully less than a couple of years apart.

And their death was not a tragedy at all. Their family grieved of course but life went on as it should.

Years went by and I had almost forgotten this story.

My friend and I have chosen different paths and we only meet occasionally. We now talk about our children and not about long gone parents.

Last week, I was in Warsaw and we happened to pass by their old apartment. And the memories came back.

Happy memories of H. And warm memories of quite a few Russian characters still cluttering my mind after so many years even though I no longer take refuge in a world of romance.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

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