Revelations: Art, glamour and sexy men

The time: 24 June 1953 The place: Pier 52, Manhattan harbour The woman: Irma Kurtz, writer
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The Independent Online
I was 17, I was a second-year student at Barnard College, Columbia University, and I'd been saving money to go to Europe. I'd always felt I'd been tugged east, I'd never been interested in going out to the west coast, in fact I didn't go west until I was about 55.

I just desperately wanted to come to Europe and it took me about three years, from 13 to 17, of working part-time in shoe stores, and I saved my money. The last job I had was washing test-tubes in the botany department of my university - that was an awful job but it paid 75 cents an hour, and eventually I made enough to join this group.

I had to go on a tour because I didn't know yet that I would be able to travel alone, that I was the kind of person who would prefer to travel alone. I was about a year ahead, most of my class were 18 or 19, and I was studying English literature - what else? But I was a Francophile, all Americans were in those days.

For me Paris was the romantic dream of my life, it was the American dream in those days, for all Americans. Britain was still war-damaged and grey and dreary, and Paris sparkled with everything we wanted. We read Hemingway, and Hemingway loved Paris, it was romance and art, and we were addicted to art. We were not a political generation, we were apolitical, in America, but art - that was all that we wanted, great art.

Also we were virgins.

I think I knew that I was never going to live in America. I wasn't a good American, I've never been a very good American. America demands obedience, and I always felt that I was born on the planet, not in a country. I just wasn't interested in what America offered - I've never really liked chewing- gum.

I was looking for art, for artists, for old churches, for all the things that were built and painted and created before the 20th century, because America was full of the 20th century. And also, Paris was glamour and romance and sexy men. It was sex. America was extremely puritanical in that period. Paris was freedom and free love. It was as it turned out, certainly sex, I don't know about love.

So I saved my money and bought my passage on an Italian boat called the Castel Felice, the Happy Castle. Pier 52 it was, and we had to be on board at three o'clock in the afternoon, and my parents saw me off. They were worried, they worried easily and I think they had a notion that in a way I was never coming back from that journey, because I never did really.

When we pulled away from the shore, I could make out my parents in these crowds of people, it was like a movie, people were waving and the sun was starting to go down. There was New York receding, that amazing skyline, that my people had done in reverse: I was pulling away from it and very aware that my paternal grandparents had approached that very view and it was a bizarre feeling. And I remember feeling that I was on the edge of something and that I was not coming back. The excitement of it is almost impossible to express, the freedom.

We had six days of sailing ahead of us - it beats the hell out of air travel. It was a spiritual change, when you crossed from the United States to Europe in that time and crossing by sea was an important voyage. You were travelling in more than just space and time, you were actually preparing yourself.

So there I was with a European study-abroad group, being led by a delightful Englishman, queer as a three-dollar bill but I didn't know it. His name was Tony and he was funny and wry and he had that irony that Americans don't have. It was my first real contact with an English person and he was delicious.

I shared a cabin with two Australian girls and I'd never heard such profanity. I'd never met women who could tell dirty jokes and my God those Aussies could tell dirty jokes - they were amazing. There was a first class we used to sneak up to - when you're a young girl and pretty good- looking you can do anything, that's one thing, there are no walls that don't come down. There was more of a party going on up there, but it was mostly crew. They took the best quarters - it was an Italian ship.

First thing I saw was English land, the Needles. We called at Southampton and I thought everyone looked very small and the cars looked very small and all the men were wearing macs. I thought they looked very tired, and I was such an arrogant little American twerp I'd forgotten that the biggest war in the world had been fought 10 years earlier, and 10 years is not a long time to recover from the Blitz. And also the Brits fought it much harder and with much more heart than an awful lot of other people I was to meet in Europe, like the Parisians.

London was on the tour, and I sat on the top of a red bus and cried, coming down the Strand, that got me. Not going to St Paul's and all that, but the street where Benjamin Franklin had an affair with his landlady. I remember seeing the street name and thinking, "My God, it's real, I'm actually going down Fleet Street."

But England - I wrote a post-card to my mother saying, "It is so weary and grey I could never live here." I was waiting for the romance of Paris, the heat and the glamour and glitz. I found London very deep, and I don't think I was looking for depth, I was looking for a good time.

We went to Le Havre and that was magic, immediately. My God, they really speak French! And the food and the wine, with every meal. We took the train to Paris and it was love, but real, awful coup de foudre, that is always such a bitter disappointment in the end. I was ruined the minute I saw Paris. I knew I'd be back - one summer wasn't going to be enough. I met a wonderful boy, a scoundrel, Jean-Claud, but that wasn't it, I fell in love with Paris.

I knew I wasn't an American, but it was in Paris I decided I wanted to be a Parisian. This is practically impossible. Even most Parisians aren't Parisian. I've become very cynical about it, the way you do about your own young love. You look back and are very wry about it but there's no doubt it was love.

We took the boat straight back from Le Havre, and I remember crying (not as hard as I was going to cry the next time I left Europe by boat, because I failed the first time I tried to live in Europe, I had to go back to America). But I was committed, it was like leaving a lover. I was emotionally involved.

So I went back and finished university. I saved up my money and went to Europe again, to live in Paris. I taught English at Berlitz - what else? The most awful job on the planet. We weren't allowed to establish relationships with students, but Madame Something took me to Prunier for a fish lunch and she wouldn't allow me to have the bouillabaisse because she said I wasn't ready.

I was sacked - the only job I've ever been sacked from. But I wanted to leave anyway. I thought, I've got to go home, that's real life. Before we cast off I knew it was a major mistake, but there was nothing I could do.

I went to work in PR in New York, and one of our clients was Givenchy, and they offered me a job in Paris. That time it stuck, but I fell out of love in Paris. I was there, miserable, and Paul Scofield brought King Lear to the Opera, and I went to see it on my own. I thought, bloody hell, I'm going to England, where the language is.

Irma Kurtz's new book, `Dear London', is published by Fourth Estate this week, price pounds 14.99