University of Montpellier

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Copyright Albertvillanovadelmoral

Though most people think of the Sorbonne when they think of French universities, there are many other wonderful schools too. The University of Montpellier is one of France’s oldest and most venerable, formally founded in 1289 and truly dating back to at least 1137. Not only is it one of France’s oldest schools, but one of the oldest universities in the world.

Before Pope Nicholas IV issued a Papal bull bestowing university status in 1289, there were a series of venerable liberal arts schools in Montpellier. Italian jurist and glossator (legal student) Placentinus came to Montpellier from the University of Bologna’s law school in 1160 and taught there during two different periods. He died in Montpellier in 1192.

Professors from Montpellier’s law school were very instrumental in the drafting of the Napoléonic Code of 1804. These civil laws are still in use in modern-day France, though with some changes over the years.

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Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Albertvillanovadelmoral

Montpellier’s school of medicine was in existence at least as early as 1137, staffed by doctors trained in Spanish medical schools. It’s the world’s oldest medical school still in operation.

In the 14th century, the medical school famously argued the cause of Bubonic Plague was a miasma penetrating the body’s pores. Montpellier-educated doctors urged people not to bathe, for fear it would open pores and invite in the miasma. This miasma was supposedly created by air exposed to decaying bodies, humid weather, and fumes resulting from poor sanitation.

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Faculty of Law, Copyright Vpe

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University garden, Copyright Vpe

Le Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier was founded in 1593 on the orders of King Henri IV, and under the leadership of Pierre Richer de Belleval, an anatomy and botany professor considered the father of scientific botany. France’s oldest botanical garden, it was inspired by Orto Botanico de Padova (Padua), and in turn inspired le Jardin des Plantes de Paris in 1626.

Today, the garden is home to 2,680 plant species, 500 of which are native to the Mediterranean region. About 1,000 of these species are in a greenhouse. There are also palm trees, orange trees, aquatic plants, ferns, orchids, succulents, and medicinal plants.

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Copyright Vpe

The school of theology dates back to at least 1350, as evidenced in two letters of King Jean II. Pope Martin V bestowed canonical institution upon the school in a Papal bull of 17 December 1421, and it was thus closely united with the law school.

The Catholic theology school was thrown into haywire by the 16th century triumph of Calvinism in the region, though the Catholic school was reinstated in 1622. However, the Jesuit vs. Dominican rivalry put even more strain on the school, and it eventually disappeared upon the French Revolution.

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Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Vpe

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Marine biology station, Copyright Fagairolles 34

Like all other French universities, Montpellier too was closed upon the French Revolution in 1793. In 1810, the schools of letters and science were reopened, and the law school reopened in 1880.

In 1969, the university was officially reorganised, as a result of the famous student riots all over France in May 1968. It henceforth was split into three schools. University of Montpellier I had medicine, law, and economy; II had science and technology; and III had liberal arts, social sciences, and humanities.

On 1 January 2015, I and II merged to become a newly-recreated University of Montpellier. III became a separate institution, Paul Valéry University.

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Papal bull of 1289, establishing the university, Copyright Vpe

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Faculty of Pharmacy’s drugstore, Copyright Vpe

My character Imre always dreamt of studying literature by the Sorbonne, but after Csilla and their other friends move to a strawberry farm in Béziers, run by the Jewish Scouts and Guides of France, Imre can’t take the separation and rushes down to that farm. He gets his own living quarters on the farm, and commutes about 30 minutes to the university.

In Montpellier, Imre runs across some of Csilla’s Abonyiak friends whom they’d falsely believed died. I thought all these people had died too, but once they were no longer just names and death dates, I didn’t have to heart to kill so many of them. I arranged for their survival through transports to various factories, being left behind upon evacuation, and death march escapes.

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Faculty of Medicine court of honour (formerly the cloister of Montpellier Cathedral’s monastery), Copyright Vpe

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Bell tower of cathedral, seen from Faculty of Medicine, Copyright Vpe

Twentieth Arrondissement and Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze

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St. Gabriel Church and Hélène-Boucher Lycée, Copyright Sigoise

The 20th Arrondissement of Paris (a.k.a. Arrondissement de Ménilmontant) is on the Right Bank. It’s bordered on the north by the 19th Arrondissement, on the west by the 11th Arrondissement, and on the south by the 12th Arrondissement. Probably its most famous attraction and landmark is Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Historically, the higher the number of the arrondissement, the more working-class and poor folks (many of them immigrants). This isn’t the wealthy, stereotypically “cultured” population which flocked to the arrondissements with very low numbers. As a proud proletarian, it’s right up my alley!

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Town Hall, 1908

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Town Hall, 2009, Copyright besopha, Source FlickrMairie

Its population peak and most concentrated density was 1936, with 208,115 residents, 34,779 per square kilometer. It was annexed to Paris in 1859, and formed from the towns of Belleville and Ménilmontant, the municipality of Saint-Mande, and the commune of Charonne. As of 2012, the population was 198,678.

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Besides Père Lachaise, other landmarks include Belleville Cemetery, St. Germain Church of Charonne, Charonne Cemetery, Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Ménilmontant, Pavillon Carré de Baudouin, Tenon Hospital, Hospital de la Croix Saint-Simon, and many schools and parks. The 20th Arrondissement also has the next-largest Chinatown in Paris.

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Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, Copyright Zantastik

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Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix, sometime between 1863–70

My characters are resettled in a cheap apartment in the 20th Arrondissement upon their return from Nantes in December 1945. Wolfram, who’s since left Le Meurice, has the apartment across the hall, and made the arrangements for them to live there for possibly less than the time of a normal lease.

He’s also bought them mattresses and secondhand furniture, put all their tableware and cookware in the cupboards, and moved in all their extra luggage and Caterina’s recovered small furniture. Wolfram insists he doesn’t need to be repaid, and tells them to consider it a belated Chanukah present.

Their apartments are on Rue des Pyrénées, which forms the eastern border of Père Lachaise.

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Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, 1900

Everyone but Wolfram goes for a walk through Père Lachaise on Csilla’s 18th birthday, 21 December, before starting their planned walk to Al Syete, a Sephardic synagogue in the 11th Arrondissement. The walk ends in terror and horrific flashbacks for everyone but Imre and Júlia, as they have an up-close and personal encounter with the crematorium.

The moment they realise what the building and smell are, they start going into hysterics, which attracts a lot of negative attention. Marie is so badly affected, she passes out, and Imre has to run back to the apartment to get Csilla’s recovered sled. The boys are shaking too badly to carry her, and Imre only has one good arm, since he broke his left hand last month.

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The monument Marie passes out by, in memory of the victims of a fire at an 1897 showing of Lumière Brothers’ films, Copyright Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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Crematorium (chimneys not visible), Copyright Christopher Lancaster, Source Flickr

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was built thanks to David Levi, late president of the Florentine Jewish community, bequeathing his entire estate for the building of a new synagogue. Architects Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini, and Prof. Vicente Micheli combined Italian traditions with Moorish style.

Giacomo del Medici designed the great arch, and artist Giovanni Panti provided the beautiful frescoes and mosaics for the interior. Every square inch is covered in coloured designs with Moorish patterns. The copper roof was oxidised green to stand out in the Florentine skyline.

The cornerstone, sent from Jerusalem, was laid 30 June 1874. Inauguration was 24 October 1882.

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Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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During WWII, the occupying Germans used the synagogue as a storehouse. There are still bayonet blows visible on the doors of the ark.

In August 1944, the Italian people once again showed their righteousness by rescuing the synagogue from planned German destruction. The retreating Nazis and their foul fascist collaborators filled the building with explosives, but brave resistance fighters were able to defuse almost all of the explosives. Very little damage was done, and it was restored after the war.

During the terrible 1966 flood of the Arno, the synagogue was damaged, but once again restored.

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Copyright sailko

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Copyright sailko

My characters stay by a vacation apartment overlooking the synagogue when they’re in Florence in November–December 1945. The green dome dominates the Florentine skyline, and it’s just a short walk away.

On the eighth day of Chanukah, before Saturday morning services have started, Imre gives Csilla a three-pearl ring in the synagogue. He reassures her it’s not an engagement ring, but just a promise ring. He wants them to have a serious, committed relationship before they’re in a position to discuss marriage, and also wants to mark his territory so other men know she’s off-limits.

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Copyright sailko

Pasarét and Ponte Vecchio

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Typical Pasarét villa, Copyright Petru suciu

Pasarét is a Bauhaus neighbourhood in District II of Budapest, on the Buda side. Its borders are Pasaréti Út, Hűvösvölgyi Út (which turns into Szilágyi Erzsébet Fasor), Herman Ottó Út, Lorántffy Zsuzsanna Utca, Battal Út, Csalán Út, Páfrányliget Utca, and part of Szerb Antal Út.

Prior to Hungarian independence, Pasarét was identified as Ried (Meadow) on old Army maps. It was later called Sauwiesen (Pig Meadow) and Schmalzbergel (Fat Hill). Serbian Budapestis called it Paša (Meadow). In 1847, philologist Gábor Döbrentei joined the Serbian name with the Hungarian word rét (meadow) to form the modern name: Meadow Meadow.

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St. Anthony of Padua Church (built 1933), Copyright Globetrotter19

In the early 20th century, it became a desirable location, and attracted many artists, musicians, intellectuals, writers, Bohemians, and scientists. Among its famous residents were Béla Bartók, writer Antal Szerb, politician Imre Nagy, composer Ernő Dohnányi, and writer István Örkény.

One of the most famous landmarks is the St. Anthony of Padua Church, built in Bauhaus style like many of the other Pasarét structures built during the 1930s. Even the bus station was built in Bauhaus style. Pasarét also has several parks, and Ludovika Engineer Academy.

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Bus terminal next to church, Copyright Globetrotter19

My characters move to Pasarét after Eszter receives a letter from her much-older sister Mirjam in early October 1945. Mirjam and her three roommates make room for them, and find an abandoned apartment across the hall for the boys. Since the landlord was killed in a bombing raid during the war, no one’s keeping dibs on what goes on in this building.

During their brief time in Pasarét, Eszter, Jákob, Imre, Csilla, and Artur work at the fictional Hotel Juhász Gyula, in various positions. The hotel is also built in Bauhaus style. It’s a blue, four-story, cubic building, not some sprawling grand hotel or huge edifice rising high into the sky.

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Copyright Tamas Szabó

Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the oldest surviving Florentine bridge. Its current incarnation was built in 1345. The first version was built by the Romans, and first mentioned in 996. In 1117, it was destroyed by a flood, and the second bridge was destroyed by another flood in 1333. Only two central piers were saved. Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno River at its narrowest point.

Like Budapest, Florence too saw all her bridges destroyed when the Germans surrendered and fled the city. However, unlike Budapest, Florence was left with this one bridge. Supposedly, this was because of an order from Hitler. Regardless, access to the bridge was blocked, since the Germans blew up the buildings on either end.

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Damaged but not destroyed

The bridge has always hosted merchants, kiosks, and shops. According to legend, the concept of bankruptcy originated here, as a money-charger who couldn’t pay his or her debts had the table where the goods were sold (banco) broken (rotto) by soldiers. Hence, the newly-coined term bancorotto (broken table), or banca rotta (broken bank). Without a table, the merchant could no longer sell anything.

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Taken by famous photographer Carlo Brogi

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View from above, Copyright sailko

Above the bridge is the Vasari Corridor, built by Giorgio Vasari on orders from Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1565. This corridor connected Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) with Palazzo Pitti (chief residence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany’s rulers). In 1593, the Medicis forbade butchers from selling on the bridge, so it wouldn’t be seen as a low-class place. Butchers had had a monopoly on the shops since 1442. In their place went gold merchants.

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View from below, Copyright sailko

My characters Imre and Csilla reunite on Ponte Vecchio after a brief separation, 22 November 1945, Imre’s 19th birthday. Imre stayed behind in Budapest on some mystery business, which he reveals is exactly what she suspected, going to her hometown Abony to dig up the valuables in her coal cellar and to confront the gendarme who’s now living there, the gendarme who tortured her last June.

Imre also reveals a broken hand, acquired when he accidentally punched a brick wall in his white-hot rage, not realising the gendarme had already fallen unconscious to the floor. He still wasn’t satisfied, and kicked the gendarme over and over again, finishing him off with a shovel to the head, and possibly killing him. Imre says he only did it because he loves her so much, the first time he’s told her he loves her.

Sunset fills the sky after this romantic declaration.

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Copyright Martin Falbisoner

Normafa and Neology

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CopyrighKaszás Tibor

Normafa is a hiking, picnicking, skiing, and lookout area at the top of Széchenyi Hill, in District XII (Hegyvidék) of Budapest, on the hilly Buda side. It’s accessible by the Cog Railway (launched 24 June 1874) and the Children’s Railway (launched 1950). Normafa is close to János-Hegy (János Hill), the highest point in Budapest.

Normafa takes its name from the Norma tree (originally called a storm beech, viharbükk), said to have been planted by King Mátyás Corvinus in the 15th century. After the Hungarian National Theatre performed Vicenzo Bellini’s two-act opera Norma there in 1840, the new name originated, and stuck.

Sadly, the namesake tree no longer stands. It survived many terrible storms, but in 1927, it was destroyed by lightning.

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Copyright Kispados at Hungarian Wikipedia

The area fell into disrepair due to more daytrippers than infrastructure could accommodate. There weren’t enough rubbish bins or benches, and many exposed roots and slippery leaves caused accidents.

Revamping took five years, and added many new paths, more secure gravel paving, replacement of soil with natural rock from the hill, easy-to-read maps, relaxation areas, lots of new and improved benches, 16 rubbish bins, and an upgraded playground.

Other new additions are an outdoor gym, a 4.5-km. running track, drinking fountains, a baby-changing room, bathrooms, bike-parking, and a cross-country skiing and biking track.

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Source FOTO:Fortepan — ID 02787

My characters hike up to Normafa for a daytrip during Sukkot 1945, with a large picnic lunch. Csilla suspects Mrs. Goldmark let the holiday lunches on Saturday and Sunday drag on so long on purpose. Mrs. Goldmark has to be at work on Monday, so there are less buffers between Csilla and Mrs. Goldmark’s older son Imre, whom she’s trying to set up. Imre has also been getting increasingly flirtatious.

Csilla gets drunk on Tokaji Aszú wine and strawberry liqueur, liquid courage for getting physical with the sexually experienced Imre in a secluded spot in the forest. She’s insulted when Imre says he’s not doing anything with a drunk, but after she explains her reasoning, he agrees to treat her to a sensual experience. This is the first time the very tomboyish Csilla has ever done anything with a man.

Unfortunately, as Imre rounds third base, Csilla has an intense flashback to being tortured by a gendarme last June, and her friends come upon the scene and think Imre’s trying to rape her. On the last day of Sukkot, Imre has his sister Júlia deliver a love letter to smooth things over.

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Neolog synagogue of Subotica, Serbia, Copyright Dickelbers

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Neolog synagogue of Trenčin, Slovakia, Copyright Martin Hlauka (Pescan)

Neology is a denomination unique to Hungary and some nearby areas. Many people inaccurately call it the Hungarian equivalent of Reform Judaism, though it’s more like liberal Modern Orthodoxy, or very, very old-school Conservative Judaism.

Neology began as a mild reform movement in the 19th century, among those segments of society more inclined towards integration during the Era of Emancipation. People were throwing off their symbolic chains, moving out of ghettoes, acculturating to wider society, becoming full, equal citizens of their host countries. In 1867, Austria–Hungary granted legal equality.

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Neolog synagogue of Szeged, Copyright Somorjai Ferenc

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Fabric New Synagogue of Timişoara, Romania, Copyright Gratziela Ciortuz

The first Neolog rabbis were very influenced by Zecharias Frankel’s Positive–Historical Judaism, from whence the Conservative Movement evolved. This rift solidified following the schism of the 1868–69 Hungarian Jewish Congress. There was a lot of bad blood between Neology and Orthodoxy, each thinking they represented real, relevant, modern Judaism.

To make matters even more complicated, there arose another unique Hungarian denomination, Status Quo Ante. This was also a mild reform movement of sorts.

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Neolog synagogue of Oradea, Romania (formerly Nagyvárad, Hungary), Copyright Andrei kokelburg

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Neolog synagogue of Braşov, Romania, Copyright Mark Ahsmann

Neology has separate seating for the sexes (generally with an open-air women’s gallery or more relaxed mechitza) and liturgy essentially identical to Orthodoxy. Men are required to cover their heads, Gentiles play organs on the Sabbath, intermarriage isn’t allowed, there’s no confirmation for teenagers, and traditional kosher is kept.

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Neolog synagogue in Cluj–Napoca, Romania, Copyright Ana Maria Catalina

Today, Neology is the majority denomination in Hungary. All my native Hungarian characters have Neolog origins, though Eszter’s family leaned more towards Orthodoxy. Since Abony only had a Neolog synagogue, they had no choice.

Machal and Le Meurice

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Machal is an acronym of Mitnadvey Chutz L’Aretz, Volunteers from Outside the Land. During Israel’s 1948–49 War of Independence, about 4,000 volunteers from around the world (some Gentiles) came to the newborn state’s assistance. Right after Israel declared its independence, she was attacked by Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Liberation Army. All hands were needed on deck.

Most Machalniks were WWII Army vets from the U.S. and U.K., but many also came from other countries. A total of 58 countries provided volunteers. The majority of Machalniks served in Israel’s fledgling Air Force, since they had a lot of experience with flying planes during WWII, and were able to purchase used planes for relatively cheap.

In all, 123 were killed in action, 119 men and four women. Possibly the most famous Machalnik who was killed in action was American Mickey Marcus. Another important Machalnik was Milton Rubenfeld, father of Paul Rubens (whom I as an Eighties kid will always think of as Pee-wee Herman). Many returned to their countries of origin, but some stayed in Israel. Some of the founders of El Al airline were Machalniks.

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My character Imre Goldmark leaves his studies at the University of Montpellier to fight as a volunteer after his girlfriend Csilla and her friends leave for Israel in 1948. Imre is a hopeless intellectual, romantic, and dreamer, but he wants to prove his manliness to Csilla by fighting on the front lines. Csilla has no idea he’s in Israel, let alone in uniform, until she hears him screaming her name in hospital, in the throes of the worst pain of his life.

Csilla, who doesn’t know the true extent of his wounding, vows to take care of him and nurse him back to health. However, before Imre can be discharged and released to her care, his mother and professors intervene and have him taken back to France against his will. It’s a long, twisted road to happily ever after for these two.

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French Machalniks

Le Meurice is a gorgeous 5-star hotel in the First Arrondissement of Paris, opposite the famous Tuileries Garden, on the Rue de Rivoli. The Louvre is a short walk away. Its 160 rooms and suites are decorated in the style of King Louis XVI.

The first Hôtel Meurice opened in Calais in 1777, and the Parisian branch opened in 1815, at 223 Rue Saint-Honoré. In 1835, it moved to its present location, in a new, beautiful, luxurious building, with all the same amenities and perks.

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Copyright Axou

In 1891, electric lights were added, and in 1905–07, the Hôtel Métropole on Rue de Castiglione was added and the building underwent a thorough rebuilding under the direction of famous architect Henri Paul Nénot. Modern, tiled bathrooms were added; Louis XVI style was introduced; telephones and electric butler bells were added; reinforced concrete was added for privacy; public rooms were relocated; a wrought iron canopy was put over the lobby; a grand salon and new restaurant were added; and the lift was a copy of Marie Antoinette’s sedan chair.

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Hotel restaurant, Copyright Janine Cheung, Source Flickr

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

From September 1940–August 1944, the occupying Nazis used the hotel as their headquarters. During that final month, General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, stayed there. He was under orders to destroy Paris, but he disobeyed Hitler and surrendered to Free French forces. Supposedly, Hitler screamed “Is Paris burning?” to him over a Le Meurice telephone.

Many famous guests have stayed by Le Meurice, such as Salvador Dalí, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, FDR, the Shah, Rudyard Kipling, Plácido Domingo, Ginger Rogers, Yul Brynner, Mata Hari, and Elizabeth Taylor.

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

The cheapest lodgings, the Superior Room, starts at 830 Euros a night, and the priciest option, the Belle Étoile Suite, starts at 14,500 a night. Other options include the Presidential Apartment, Executive Junior Suite, Deluxe Junior Suite, Superior Junior Suite, Prestige Suite, and Superior Suite. It’s a very child- and pet-friendly hotel, and has an amazingly beautiful restaurant, with fine dining.

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Copyright Langmuir family, Source Flickr

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Hotel restaurant, Copyright Janine Cheung, Source Flickr

My characters spend a thrilling week by Le Meurice in December 1945, financed by Marie’s dear friend Wolfram Engel. They run into one another by the depot, as Marie and her friends have just arrived from Florence, and Wolfram has just arrived from Lyon. Without a wife and children, Wolfram has a lot of disposable income.

Staying by Le Meurice is a dream come true for these young survivors, a complete turnaround in their fortune in less than a year.