I came close to never being an American. When my husband, David, and I arrived in France at the end of World War II, it was with the firm intention of settling there.
But post-war France was totally devastated: the economy was in ruins, food rationing was in effect, housing was simply impossible to get unless one paid a hefty bribe. It was very cold inside and out.
We might have struggled through it all were it not for our intense dislike of Communism which was then spreading like a wild fire. The Communists had been the backbone of the internal Resistance Movement in France and nothing was going to stop them from claiming the rewards of their struggle. My father, whose dream had always been to come to America persuaded us to apply for visas as did he.
We did not know at that time that The United States (which had already saved Europe during two World Wars) was about to intervene once more. The Marshall Plan would halt the forward movement of Communism which we observed when we first arrived in France.
Our visa application was accepted. We were going to San Francisco.
And so it was that in August 1948 we landed at San Francisco Airport on a freezing and foggy night while carrying a very tired 13-month-old child. We were greeted by friends of my parents who lived there. I must admit to an instant dislike for the city with its grey and hostile ocean, its ridiculously perpendicular streets, and undulating alien landscape. And in our first rooming house, they served dinner at the uncivilized hour of 5 PM!
But gradually, we came to enjoy our new city. On our very first Sunday, friends took us to Sigmund Stern Grove for a picnic and free concert in a majestic outdoor setting. Across the Bay in Oakland, Lake Merritt became a frequent destination where we watched birds and people enjoying their free time. Our daughter Dina happily waddled around, fed the ducks and delighted in the egrets and herons.
Both Sigmund Stern Grove and Lake Meritt introduced me to the uniquely American concept of the private philanthropist who, having amassed a fortune, uses it to contribute to the happiness of his fellow citizens.
As we settled in, we learned how to minimize living expenses by renting very cheap rooms in other people’s apartments (this was quite a few years before Airbnb.) Once we lived almost rent-free when we were asked to keep an eye on an eccentric older woman whom her son didn’t want to leave alone. Later, we had a basement room with a view of the sidewalk and the feet of passers-by.
We enjoyed the American experience of openness and accessibility. We loved the public libraries (thanks to another Philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie) and it was remarkable that one could just stroll through a University Campus. (It didn’t work that way at the Sorbonne in Paris)
Eating out was very cheap and places were open flexible hours unlike in France where restaurants had rigid eating times. We found out that in stores they expected you to serve yourself and bring your purchases to a counter to pay for them. That was a very alien concept to us, but really quite practical.
Dina enjoyed the many playgrounds where she met other children. It is funny to remember that it made no difference that she didn’t know a word of English.
And so, we gradually learned to operate pragmatically rather than to follow generations-old ways as we slowly inserted ourselves into a very different world.
My husband David made his way in the working world. In those days, unions were strong and he was able to get a well-paid job that allowed him to support the family which was soon one daughter richer; Helen, was born in 1952.
(more about my career in a later blog)
I have now lived in the United States longer than anywhere else. Becoming American was very gradual and almost imperceptible. We simply took it for granted. Our family became part of the “salad bowl” of America, each person retaining their distinctive flavor and yet mixing in and contributing to the taste of the whole.
So there is the final of my various layers…French, Jewish, Russian, American. Me.