AUP Community Blog

Jazz on the High Seas: My Journey to AUP

Robert Sigmund '66

By Robert Sigmund '66

The decision to come to the American College in Paris was the best possible choice for me at the time. I had never had any ability to plan for the future, and at age 16 I had no notion of what I wanted to do with my life. It seemed all my high school friends were going either to elite schools to become lawyers, doctors and businesspeople or to other stateside schools on sports scholarships. My mother, who had recently fallen in love with France after one trip there and who was a skilled bargain hunter, spied an ad for ACP in the back of the New York Times Magazine. On a whim I applied. I signed up to take French in my last year of high school, just in case, and, lo and behold, I got accepted to ACP for September 1964! I read every book suggested by the college as preparation for the experience and took a private French conversation class during the summer. 

I went to Paris by boat! In those days there was a tradition of college students spending a junior year abroad as part of exchanges taking place with Europeans in the other direction. American professors would take a sabbatical in Europe and also exchange gigs with their colleagues abroad. Many of these explorers found their way onto student boats to amplify their adventure. The ocean crossing was extended to nine days to provide a full menu of cultural activities. There were language classes and conversation groups, film showings and discussions, art lectures and masked balls.

I had played music since age four: classical, jazz, and bluegrass, at an advanced level but without discipline and not really connected to any academic or professional circuit. On the boat, I formed a jazz trio with some European musicians. The house band let us use their instruments. We practiced and put on a performance during the talent show night. The boat left at the beginning of September and the weather was still balmy, so often in the evening I would sit outside and enjoy the sea air on the deck. For the first time in decades, the Philadelphia Phillies were in contention to win the National League pennant. AM radio travels large distances over water, so I could capture the broadcasts. I listened every night as they lost four games in a row, and down went their hopes. So it was I left Philadelphia, and the US, behind; but I was going to Paris!

We arrived in Le Havre late at night and took a long train to Paris. I stood next to the window the whole time and watched the French countryside pass by in the fog. The amber streetlights and headlights of the automobiles mixed in with the stone and stucco buildings, the tile roofs, and the agricultural fields created a dreamy and magical atmosphere. It really looked like those 19th-century paintings by Millet and Corot or certain mystery movies of the 1940s. Magic! It was so different from the built-up American suburbs I grew up in.

I arrived in Paris with a terrible cold from having been out on the bridge of the boat every night. The sheer size and bustle of the city were so terrifying that I was too afraid to leave my hotel for the entire first day. I finally mustered up my courage and ventured forth. I was staying at l'École des Mines near rue Gay-Lussac, in the Quartier Latin. My first aim was to buy cough-drops in a drugstore. I entered a pharmacie and in my very best flawed French I proudly asked for "des pastilles contre le tout" ("pills against everything") instead of "contre la toux" ("cough drops").  If the kind pharmacist had acceded to my request and handed over the former that would have ended my story right then and there. As it is, he had a sense of humor, and he corrected my faulty grammar and gave me the correct pills. I moved on to my second objective, which was to discover Paris and be endlessly entranced by it. I am still working on that one, 58 years later.

I walked down the long, sloping rue Gay-Lussac and at the bottom, at the intersection of the famous Boulevard Saint-Michel, arrived at one of the most beautiful places that this world  offers: the Jardins du Luxembourg. I entered the monumental park, and the wonderful dream of studying in Paris began.