When I finished my PhD in 1979, my next career step was to do a postdoc. I wanted to go to the Huge Lab in Strasbourg, since it was the most high-profile lab in Europe at the time. I was very ambitious for an unmarried Indian girl from Southall!! I applied for a Royal Society postdoctoral fellowship-and got it! This was the first grant proposal I ever wrote! My friends Daphne and Jimmy Laing, who owned my favorite second-hand bookstore, The Bookranger, invited me to dinner to celebrate my new job. Among the guests was their sister-in-law. It turned out her brother worked at the Conseil de L’Europe in Strasbourg. When she learned I was moving there she told me she could obtain “The Entrée” to the Council of Europe for me, and she did indeed perform as she had promised!
As a result, during the 18 months I lived in Strasbourg, through various introductions I was given, I was invited to many events at the Conseil and to several very grand diplomatic dinners loaded with ambassadors! My friend Jane Guarnieri, who managed the English books section in the main bookstore, was well connected at the Conseil. I attended dinner at her house, and she got me invitations to various parties and gatherings. The Entrée was the only part of my life in Strasbourg that was either happy or enjoyable. Although I was smart, got my PhD young, and had my own funding, I was not ready for the Huge Lab. We worked all hours, 7 days a week. Weekly lab meetings were held on Saturday in an excruciatingly cold meeting room so we never got a weekend off. The French scientific staff took off on Thursday “pour faire un pont”, “to make a bridge”, basically a 3-day weekend. Der Führer listened in to conversations through the intercom system. The first thing I was told on arriving in the lab was NEVER to say anything with my back to the intercom, and if a certain light was on, Der Führer was listening in from his office and it could not be switched off. This reminded me of nothing more or less than Madame Beck in Charlotte Brontë’s novel “Villette”. I often wonder whether Der Führer knows he has been compared to the Directrice of a Victorian girls’ school…..
I made many interesting friends and acquaintances through The Entrée, for example Cathune Cape, the wife of the UK Representative, Donald Cape. She reminded me a lot of Lady Granville, a very down-to-earth, unstuffy, Ambassadress. She looked exactly like my beloved Hall Tutor at the University of Leicester, Joyce Moody, so I liked her immensely. I will also never forget the French Grande Dame, a cousin of the Duc de Brissac, whom I met at her house one day. She kindly took me under her wing and provided me with tips on how to navigate this complex and sophisticated world “pour eviter un faux pas”.
One party I attended was at the apt of a German attaché, who seemed a bit nervous and jumpy. When I asked why, I was told that about a year before, in the middle of the night, a burglar had broken in. The attaché was in bed, but hearing an intruder, and the sound of breaking glass, had got out of bed to investigate.
The burglar attacked, so the attaché grabbed the first thing that came to hand-which happened to be an iron-and bashed in the burglar’s head…..!! It turned out that the burglar had a record, and it was an obvious case of self-defense, so all was well, but it was a significant trauma for someone who seemed a very quiet and if anything, rather nerdy person.
Other friends 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 to University. Parties at his house were a lot of fun with good food, wine, music, and sophisticated company. One time, we went round the table asking and answering questions in a different language for each person. After a few rounds someone responded in the wrong language and the whole thing broke down in laughter. It was great fun, and I learned a lot, including how to feel comfortable with a wide variety of different people of varying backgrounds.
I wish now I had deployed these connections better. I was young, clueless, and took all this very much for granted at the time. If I mentioned these experiences in the lab, I received puzzled glances from the American postdocs, the most ignorant hicks I had ever met. One of them, on being offered a glass of good Alsatian white wine at a dinner party replied, “I only drink it if it’s cold and carbonated”. Quelle horreur! I didn’t know much about wine, but I did know I was living in one of the great wine-producing regions of France and was ready to enjoy both the drink and food!
I realize now how lucky I was to have had The Entrée, aged only 25. I was like Northey Mackintosh in Nancy Mitford’s novel “Don’t Tell Alfred”! Lady Granville herself would have appreciated it! “Toujours enchantée de vous voir, invitée ou pas invitée”. I would go to these dinners (toujours invitée) in my unfashionable, practical postdoc clothes but I was always treated with kindness and civility. The diplomats had met very few scientists-least of all a young Indian WOMAN scientist. They were interested in research and how it was done, and we had long conversations. I think also, I didn’t pretend to be anything other than what I was, and they hated pretentiousness. It didn’t matter that I had little money and was badly dressed. It was a wonderful opportunity to see a completely different side of European life close up.
One heard entertaining stories about the Comte de Pange. Comte Victor de Pange, the French Representative at the Conseil, was held to be rather effete, a dandy very much in the style of Comtes Étienne de Beaumont and Robert de Montesqueiu. According to Jane Guarnieri, he wore kid gloves in public…. Cathune Cape was rumored to have TOLD HIM OFF for doing so! He was a historian and published the Collected Letters of Lady Elizabeth Foster, a heroine of mine, to Madame de Staël when I was in Strasbourg. Mouthwatering!! I saw a copy and desperately wanted to buy it, but it was way, way over my tiny postdoc budget. Limited edition! Pange was a descendant of Madame de Staël, through his mother Pauline de Broglie. She was a sister of Prince Louis-Victor de Broglie, the physicist, who first put into mathematical form the de Broglie Particle-Wave Duality, in the form of the de Broglie wave equation, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. This was a fascinating link with a great scientist and far more interesting than the drones in the Huge Lab!!
Having “The Entrée” was an amazing experience and one that very few 25-year-olds can boast of-certainly nobody else in the lab! Having “The Entrée” was once a time-honored privilege at royal courts and similar venues. It may have disappeared with the advent of modern security screening. I cannot imagine that in today’s security-conscious world, a young person would be given access to an organization like this on the basis of nothing more than a personal introduction. When I mentioned this in the past, people were uncomprehending. That is because few read about or know much about diplomacy, certainly not scientists, who are extremely poorly read outside their research specialties. I have always maintained that one can be passionately interested in science, pursue it successfully, and have other interests. Nobody agrees with me. Their loss.
However, there is the issue of “White Privilege”- where the stories, opinions, and experiences of white people are the only ones that count. I have often encountered blunt dismissal of my experience as trivial. They are not “experience”, merely “knowledge”, and inferior to some White person’s youthful indulgence in “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”. However, any idiot can do those tawdry things and a good many do. But The Entrée? No. That was very different. Only now have I finally gained the perspective to appreciate these experiences for the wondrous gift that they were.
On consideration of my visual memories, I now think it very likely that the Laings’ sister-in-law was Anglo-Indian, and she did this for me because I am Indian. One scientist whom I knew told me that my wide reading “was impractical and stupid”. However, if I hadn’t already read Lady Granville’s and Mme de Staël’s letters, I would not have been able to appreciate this experience at all. And that’s the essence of White Privilege-this person felt perfectly comfortable telling me that, as if his ignorant, pathetically unsophisticated opinion must deserve to be taken seriously. I did not ask for his opinion, I did not want it, and it was jejune.
The American postdocs in the lab all talked to me that way. They all had an opinion about me, based on ignorance since none of them knew any Indian women with careers. They would give these opinions, unasked. The words just came out of their mouths, they expected to be listened to and taken seriously. However, they had no idea how limited, blinkered, boring, and unsophisticated they appeared to me, and I was, if anything, young for my age. By this time, I had been going to India every year since age 8. There were no long-haul flights then, so the planes stopped at major cities on route, you deplaned, sat in the transit lounge, investigated the airport, and got a sense of the world. Most of the postdocs had never left the US before and none of them spoke French.
When I moved to Strasbourg, I made a conscious decision to “become a Frenchwoman”, since I have always been an “immigrant”, and already spoke French. As a result, I had many French friends and a lively social life outside the lab. But of course, I couldn’t say so. Only White people have the freedom to say what they want, when they want, and to whomever they want, whether anyone is interested in their views or not.