The Coldest Winter is one of Paula Fox's earliest books, and I had meant to read it years ago. It is a memoir of a year spent traveling through Europe when she was twenty-two. The year was 1946. World War II had ended just a year earlier, and much of Europe still showed the ravages of war—heaps of rubble, food rationing and other shortages, a somber and depressed citizenry wherever she went, a gray sky and freezing cold weather to match the mood of the people. She visited London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona, Madrid and many smaller villages in the surrounding countryside.
When I first read about this memoir, I knew I wanted to read it. I, too, had wanted to travel through Europe as a young girl, so I was eager to read what happened to her as she ventured forth into unpredictable, precarious situations without itinerary or plans, living each day as it comes, willing to be a stranger in a strange country with few, if any, acquaintances and little knowledge of its laws, traditions and customs.
I was born in Germany. Though I came to the States at a young age, I often wondered how my life might have been had my family been able to remain in Europe. I often dreamed of returning, to make a trip as Fox had done, to see if perhaps I might feel more at home there than in my adopted country, and might even prefer to live there. I identified with the author and read her stories, her many impressions and observations as though they were my own.
Fox had little money for her trip. I also would have had limited funds. She stayed with friends of her parents or distant relatives, took what jobs she could find such as reading scripts for small sums or writing a few articles for a small British news service. I turned every page, wondering what would happen next to this wandering young woman.
In her inimitable writing style, Fox relates a somewhat harrowing experience in London one afternoon when she was in her small room reading a manuscript.
There was a sharp knock on the front door. I looked through the mail slot, and saw dark cloth. I opened the door with my gut clenched. A bobby towered over me, or maybe it was only his helmet that made it seem so. He touched it with two fingers, addressed me as miss, and asked me if I held a work permit. I shook my head no. He said I'd need to come to the police station with him.
Once there, I filled out a form that required me to swear not to take employment that a British citizen could do and, further, to work only at part-time jobs. I had heard that one needed a work permit but had not taken the requirement seriously. Perhaps it was myself I did not take seriously. For a moment I grasped at the shadowy nature of reality; of how one moves through it like a mist, forever thinking of what comes next and how impalpable the present is.
I made my way back to my apartment chastened.
I held the work permit in my hand, consoled by its meaning: The government protected its citizens and took my presence in England seriously.
This bittersweet little story seemed rather typical of how I think about the British people: somewhat severe but with a civility we don't always find in this country. And again, Fox's description of a bleak Paris is as vivid as a picture postcard:
A year and a half after the end of the war and the German occupation, Paris was muted and looked bruised and forlorn. Everywhere I went, I sensed the tracks of the wolf that had tried to devour the city. But Paris proved inedible, as it had been ever since its tribal beginnings on an island in the Seine, the Île de la Cité.
I stood on the Champs-Élysées, down which the black-booted Nazis had marched, some with reverence and cultural piety, I had heard, some triumphant, some astonished that they should be in command of the City of Light. But there was little brightness in 1946, except a sunset on a fair day when the last of the sun's rays struck the roof of Sacré-Cœur and the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame and the spindle top of the Eiffel Tower; except in the bright scarves of the Frenchwomen who walk swiftly and inscouciantly as they went about their daily tasks and errands to the baker, the grocer, the butcher, and the open markets that had begun that year to display their wares. Perhaps the women were hoping to find their former lives among the stalls. But though there was no bomb damage, as there had been in London, the old life of Paris was gone.
In another chapter one colorful sentence told me the bitter cold she experienced in Warsaw: "Cigarette smoke, strong drink, and conversation in a dozen languages sent you off to your narrow room with an illusion of warmth that lasted until you slid between sheets that were like frozen lead."
Almost every page of this memoir conveys a kind of sternness in people everywhere, with sour expressions on the faces of waitresses, chambermaids, and the people she met on trains and in shops. The author seemed to be describing a general attitude of pessimism, a kind of bureaucratic rigidity and indifference suspended like a heavy cloud over the lives of war-torn Europe. Nevertheless, when her journey ends, Fox is not happy to be going home. A part of her would like to hold on to her European year. Returning to New York brings up questions of "What now?" She has no clear idea of how to start her new life, how to find a new direction.
Once home, she works with difficult adolescent boys who have experienced the worst forms of abuse. One day, she takes them to view the stars and constellations through a special telescope belonging to Columbia University. She hopes by viewing something larger than themselves, their perspective might shift, and that they might view their own tragic lives with greater objectivity, less anger, as her experience amidst the devastation of Europe had "...shown me something beyond my own life, freeing me from chains I hadn't known were holding me, showing me something other than myself."
Reading The Coldest Winter shifted my own perspective as well. It helped me to realize that I am a true American, a grateful American who believes that Europe is a great place to visit. But home for me will always be the good ole USA.
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