"I've lived all over the world," Ribet said. "Many, many places. For a while I was in Tahiti, in French Polynesia. I stayed over there for nearly eight years. Most of my life I sold real estate, which is how I made most of my money, not that I have a lot of it. But I sold real estate in France for a time, until Mr. Mitterrand came into France and brought the socialist system. And then a lot of my clients, who were living all over the world, didn't want to put any more of their money into France, because, you know, the socialist system is always a mess for people with money who want to invest. So I was encouraged to go look around the world for a country where my clients could switch their investments."
Ribet went on, the globe a familiar map to him, "So I went to China for three months, back in the early '80s, but it was too soon in China. It was just a mess, you know. So I came to the U.S. in 1984, in Houston, because my son was a student at the University of Houston at that time. And my wife had a sister in Houston as well. So we checked the real estate there and in Texas, but it was not so good. And then somebody told us we had to go to California, because that's the best place, and so we arrived in San Diego and we started to do real estate here. We sold everything in Paris, and we brought all the money here, and my clients did very well.
"I didn't speak any English at first," Ribet sang, and then, with characteristic self-deprecation he (inaccurately!) added, "and I still do not speak it very well." Then he went on. "But I spent six months in Houston with my son and learned to speak there.
I interrupted Ribet to ask him more about his family. I needed some clarity. He'd told me earlier that his daughter, who is 43, lives in Nice. And his son, who is 10, lives with his wife and him in La Jolla. But then who was this other son, the one from Houston?
Apparently, Ribet's other son died 13 years ago, in a plane crash. A tragedy. "He was doing some skydiving in Riverside County, near Hemet. It wasn't a skydiving accident. The plane he was in took off and then went down about two minutes later."
I extended condolences. But still, some of the details of Ribet's family life were rather unclear. He'd had three kids, but he'd mentioned having been divorced, and now he was married, and...?
Just as quickly as Ribet had grown emotional twice before, remembering World War II and his dead son, so he became suddenly gleeful and sheepish. He hugged himself and rolled on his couch once, sat up, and laughed. There was no embarrassment in those impish blue eyes as he looked at me, but I somehow understood that perhaps there should be some embarrassment. He shrugged and said, "It is complicated. But I am French!" And I made him explain.
"I was married," he said, "and we had a daughter. And during this time I was traveling a lot, and, you know, a girlfriend calls me to tell me that we've had a son. So I say, okay, let me talk to my wife and my daughter to explain. So I went over there and I said, here it is, the situation is like that. So my wife said, okay, I want to divorce. And I said, okay, if you want to divorce, let's do it. So we divorced. And then three years later she came back and said, do you want to remarry me? And I said okay. So, you see, I have had only one wife."
So all that stuff about the crazy love lives of the French, about mistresses and such, must be true... Anyway... Personal information aside, I asked Ribet to tell me his impressions of the United States.
"America is a country of a lot of opportunities," he said. "It is really a free country. You know, everybody asks me why I came to America, and I say, 'Because I like to work.' And you know, that's the point. I don't care about having a lot of free time. I like to work. I like to do things and be active. But it's impossible in France. They have that socialist system, everything is free, so it doesn't do a lot of good to work. Yes, it is free, but if you work, it's very difficult. People complain about taxes in the United States, but you have no idea. The taxes in France start at 65 percent. You give away 65 percent of what you make to the socialist system. So it is not good to work over there."
(According to the French embassy, France's highest tax rate is 48.09 percent.)
I asked Ribet about the French community here. "There isn't so much of a French community in San Diego," he said. "The groups of French people are very, very distant. We try to bring people together in a big social group, but it is difficult. The French are too independent. Everybody wants to be an individual.
"But," he went on, "we have the French-American Chamber of Commerce, which started ten years ago, and it's working pretty well." Ribet is on the board.
I asked Ribet who the pillars of the local French community might be. He emitted the typical French sigh, a kind of pffft! with his lips, and said, "There are so many. You know, with the French, everybody wants to be president!" And then he laughed and added, "But not me. I don't want! Everybody's trying to push me to be president of the chamber of commerce, but I say no, no. I don't like that. And I'm traveling a lot, so it's impossible for me."