The Easter Hat


After I finished my PhD at the University of St. Andrews, I did a postdoc in Strasbourg.  

Separately from the daily grind of research, I had unexpectedly received “The Entrée” to Le Conseil de l’Europe through close friends in St. Andrews.  As a result of their introductions, I was invited to many events at the Conseil and to a number of very grand diplomatic dinners.  This was not typical for a postdoc, and at that time, the diplomats whom I knew had met relatively few scientists, least of all a young, single, Indian woman scientist.  They were genuinely curious about what I did.

Among my many friends in the diplomatic community were Karl-Heinz M., his wife Margarethe, and their son Stefan.  Karl-Heinz was Director of Personnel at the Conseil.  He was a true European and spoke fluent English, French, and Italian in addition to his native German.  He was charming, courtly, and kind to a young person just starting to spread her wings.  Margarethe was welcoming and kind and Stefan, a few years younger than me, was getting ready to go off to University.  Parties at Karl-Heinz’s house were a lot of fun with good food, wine, music, and sophisticated company.  Guests spoke many European languages and I was encouraged to polish my French.  

I met many interesting people and improved my social skills-always a good thing if one is a postdoc-too many seem to have no social skills at all.

That year, 1981, I was invited to lunch with the Ms on Easter Sunday.  In preparation for this I had acquired a “Chapeau de Pâques”, an Easter Hat, from the vintage clothing boutique I patronized, L’Accroche-Coeur.  L’Accroche-Coeur (the Kiss Curl) was run by an American from Texas, Caroline, pronounced CAROLEEN in the French fashion, rolling the R.  She had fallen in love with France and moved there permanently.  She was beautiful and spoke fluent French, having lived in Strasbourg several years by the time I moved there.  Heaven knows what she would think of current shenanigans in TX-parce qu’elle était devenue toute Française.

The hat had great character that appealed to me at once!  As soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it!!  It was a big Edwardian hat, probably pre-WW1, constructed from some gauzy black fabric draped over a wire frame.  Upon it, to one side was a large stuffed starling, wings open.  It had a net veil which came well down over my face and touched my collar bones.  Possibly a mourning hat…. POMPES FUNÈBRES-and indeed it was quite funereal, perhaps appropriately for Easter.  To wear it out in public required no small measure of dash and bravado……. and “that obscure object of desire”, a hatpin.  I remain rather mystified that such structures even count as “clothes”, let alone “fashion”.  I got dressed and pinned the hat securely to my then immensely thick and curly hair.

A cab to the M’s house seemed appropriate to the dignity of the occasion.  I got one at the corner of Rue Turenne, where I lived, and drove in luxury to the Ms’ fine apartment in the Orangerie district.  

The cabbie commented, “J’aime votre chapeau”. 

“C’est mon Chapeau de Pâques”, I responded. 

He laughed and said, “C’est pas un chapeau de Pâques, c’est un chapeau pour le boudoir”. 

We both laughed!  French cabbies like to flirt mildly and are tolerant of one’s less than fluent French.  This was very different from the daily, unending, street harassment I suffered from the Algerian immigrants.  We postdocs kept pretty much the same hours as the local prostitutes, the Algerians thought I was one, and therefore it was open season.  A cabbie’s badinage was nothing.

Heaven knows what the Ms and their guests thought when I showed up, though Strasbourg Easters were characterized by such whimsical headpieces, but we all had fun and a lovely Easter lunch.  The diplomats, being diplomats, said nothing.  In fact, I was always amazed at their kindness to me, and their interest.  I kept the Easter Hat for years until it finally fell to pieces.

Joyeux Pâques!!

Sandya Narayanswami 2021