We, Jack and I, returned from France a couple of weeks ago. So many good things happened there, we will treasure the memories forever. Or will we? We may remember. but we are both getting more and more hazy in the memory department. It is nearly a daily occurrence. .searching for the car keys or the notes on something important, a document that went invisible, etc. So I thought I would capture a few impressions, so we can hold onto them.
I'd gone to Colorado to see Mom just two weeks before and the cost was $580. with a two week advance. So the price of $675 each on American Airlines seemed almost too good to be true. But it was. Flew to Dallas, changed planes, then on to Charles De Gaulle airport just north of Paris. Our bodies were out of rhythm with the European morning that greeted us and we were glad that we had reservations at a Chartres hotel to give us a day's rest to get over jet lag. Getting to Chartres was interesting. Very.
Let me back up just a little. We were both high on anticipation. Jack was to re-unite with his son, Stephane, and although friendly greetings had been exchanged via email and letters (both with Stephane and his mother, Pierrette) we did not know exactly what to expect. Jack felt his French language skills had deteriorated. Plus he was not sure what Stephane's response to him would be. Circumstances had kept Jack out of his life for nearly 30 years. This was a journey to make amends.
When we'd made the decision to find Jack's son we hired an online detective in France.
He seemed to eat up the dollars and could not find the slightest lead. After two years Jack decided he would call his great friend in France, a colleague when he was with W.R. Grace & Co., and tell him that he had fathered a child whom he left behind in France. Since Pierrette had worked for Grace also this was a good place to start.
Jack's old cohort, Charly, a Frenchman with a German name, became a detective himself, and within a month had found both Pierrette and Stephane. Now the exciting adventure was to begin.
Charly speaks fluent English. So communication with him was a breeze. He'd invited us to stay in his guest house. Everyone should have a friend like Charly. He gave us a piece of advice I will never forget: Do not try to find any destination in France by the highway number ,just set your sights for a large city in the same direction and watch the signs for that city. When one nears his destination signs will appear for that village immediately before you have to make The Turn! He knew we could not find St. Martin de Nigelles, his village, so we agreed to meet in Chartres on our second day in France.
I was wide-eyed at everything I saw. The countryside, the sense of history, beauty the French build into everything they construct. I asked Jack a zillion questions about everything we passed, which had the effect of keeping his mind off what the next day would bring. We stopped at a vine-covered inn for lunch, and had a sumptuous mid-day meal that we Americans would never call lunch. I was to learn later that this is the main meal of the day, everything stops for dejeuner. The French take at least two hours for this meal.
I could hear the guests at the other tables speaking their native tongue and I despaired of ever mastering it. They slid their tongues over the words, had a musical sound as their m's and n's were filtered through their noses, and the r's (say air) from a gurgle in their throats. Me? I knew Nat King Cole French. " J'vous aime beaucoup." Then Jack told me no Frenchmen would use the term vous when whispering words of love. So much for that.
On to the small hotel in Chartres. Charming. Comfortable. Couldn't sleep.
The next morning Charly showed. He and Jack are the same age. Charly is tall, thin and handsome. He wears his glasses low on his nose and looks at one over the tops. He has a most charming habit of winking both eyes as he smiles, which is often. He told Jack that he would have to speak to him in French, but when he learned that I had no French in my repertoire, he immediately changed to English and became my teacher of everything French. I rode in his car as Jack followed. It was apparent that he was very intelligent and well-educated, a critic of the French government, and was curious about everything American. Great fun.
We stopped at a golf course for a cold drink, or I should say, a drink that I wished to be cold. (The French are puzzled by our need for iced drinks.) Charly wanted us to see this fine place. An aqueduct from the time of Louis XIV cut through the greens. The whole scene was spectacularly serene and beautiful. Then on to Charly's house. His wife, Veronique, had died two years before and Charly was coping with a large house and garden. He knows everyone for miles around and they all greet him warmly. One morning he drove me in his little car past three old gentlemen and he laughed very contentedly. The old gentlemen bent over to get a view of me and seemed extremely interested. Charly said the fact that he had a woman in his car would make him the center of village gossip for a week. He said he loved it.
His garden is lovely with a footbridge over the River Druette that flows across his property. The air was so damp that I began to understand Charly's ever-present coat. He told us that Vikings traveled up the Seine and into the Druette to find food. There is an old Viking graveyard nearby to verify this surprising story.
His home on rue de Henri Baillods is surrounded by a stone wall about 7 feet high. Vines and vegetation are in profusion. A neatly clipped hedge sets the boundaries. No home in the village had an open yard, all were walled. When the two men left me on my own I wandered the neighborhood and disturbed the dog (s) that lived behind every walled garden. I was entranced by the architecture and the general ambiance of village life. The lanes are narrow and the stone walls have sturdy wrought-iron gates that are always securely locked. Each house was different from the next, and I imagined each had a colorful history.
Even the name of the street has a story. During WWII the Germans used the neighboring village of Maintenon as an ammunition center. Huge caves and a direct railroad line to Paris made this a perfect location for this important activity. Five teenaged boys filled with patriotic bravery decided they could pull off a sabotage that would cripple the German system. They had a member of the Resistance radio the RAF that they would light strategic bonfires at midnight to direct a bombing raid on the railroad. They pulled it off, but the next day the German High Command had every man in the village brought to the village square and threatened to kill them one-by-one until they gave up the names of the perpetrators. It did not take long. Soon a firing squad took the lives of these young boys. Their story is remembered yet and each has a street named in his honor. Each time I write that address on correspondence I am conscious of Henri Baillods, so it is a very fitting tribute.
One more thing about Charly then on to the object of our journey. We were scheduled for the big reunion with Stephane and Pierrette at three the in the afternoon on our third day in France. So upon awakening in a most comfortable big bed in the guest house we were welcomed into Charly's cuisine (kitchen) for petit dejeuner (literally little lunch, but breakfast to us). He served me tea in what I thought was a cereal bowl. I drank it like it was nothing new to me. I loved this. We ate the ubiquitous baguette with home made currant jelly.
I'd thought I might just spend the day with Charly since the initial meeting of Jack, Pierrette, and Stephane was going to be highly emotional and I had no place in it. But when Jack told Pierrette, on the phone, she was insistent that I must be there. Now, I'm glad she did, but at the time I became as anxious as Jack about how it would all go down.
We'd come prepared with gifts. A diamond and pearl necklace for Pierrette, toys for our "new" grandchildren Bastien who was three, and Clement who was two, a bag for Helene, Stephane's wife, and a Sacramento River Cats shirt for Stephane. We also had a watch for his birthday in the next week. September 29, 2003, his 36th birthday.
We crawled down the lane in our rented Renault, and pulled up tentatively not knowing exactly which cottage was his. The gate swung open immediately telling us that someone had been watching for us, and Pierrette stepped out to greet us. She embraced Jack then me in a flurry of high pitched French. I nodded and smiled but I didn't have a clue. Here we were American husband and wife and husband's old lover embracing and all in tears.
My imagination had led me to expect a true femme fatale, but here was a little French lady, plump and no longer a girl. (Yes, in my imagination she had not aged, but had remained beautifully alluring,) Her hand that gripped mine as we walked to the house was trembling noticeably. Then we were in the door. Serious, cautious Stephane stood like a statue as we approached. Somehow the next five minutes were so intense that I almost have no memory of them. But we soon found ourselves, the five of us on the outside deck or verandah behind their neat little home. The boys were napping and wine and hors-d'oevres were served. I just smiled and nodded when they would look my way.
While a little reserved, we were being treated with respect and kindness. Even though I could not catch a word it was obvious to me that Pierrette was very proud of Stephane and had not taught him anything negative about Jack. Strikingly pretty Helene served refreshments and touched my hand. I knew that we were going to be friends, she and I.
When the boys awakened I found my niche. They did not expect conversation from me so we played together while the grown-ups talked.
Sometimes I could get the flavor of the conversation. Was Pierrette asking Jack to do something so Stephane could have his name? Tears rolled down Jack's face and he looked at me. In English I told him to do whatever was needed to show his love to his son. The look on Helene's face told me that she understood English!
We stayed the entire day. (In France Friday and Saturday end after midnight.) That evening the children were given their dinner and put to bed about eight. Then Helene cooked and served a lovely dinner for us. Wine and conversation flowed. We were at the table for over three hours. We didn't eat a lot but the courses came slowly and were presented in a most lovely way. Back at Charly's we could hardly sleep again. What a day! We had found a son and now we would start a new chapter in our life.
The next day a bowl of tea, jam and bread, and back to Stephane's. We were there only an hour when Daniel and Danielle Lange, Helene's parents arrived. (Both names are pronounced the same!) For the first time Stephane proudly introduced his father.
Had he waited for this since boyhood? I could tell by the look on Madame Lange's face that they were prepared to be cautious with us. Within the hour Daniel's booming laughter filled the air and then Helene's aunt and uncle happened by. We were being inspected by the famille. Why, oh why, had I never studied French? I had a smattering of Spanish at my command, and Pig Latin, and I could fake a French accent a la Inspector Clouseau, but I was a bump on a log.
In late afternoon we went for a marche through the village and up a hill to the Lange family maison. We sat outside as more family dropped by. Madame was curiously absent, I would see her walk briskly back and forth from an outbuilding to the kitchen door many times during the next two hours. More wine and much talk. Eleanor, Helene's six year old niece found me interestingly unable to communicate and took it upon herself to teach me as one would a baby. And I did learn from her. (That first day with her left its mark on both of us and we will be friends forever.)
At nine in the evening a huge table was set and dinner was served. Madame Lange (now known to me as Ninette, not Danielle) had labored hard and prepared a dinner fit for a wedding reception. Frog legs deep fried in oil with finely chopped garlic was the first course served. Jack informed me of the nature of this delicacy but I told him, and meant it sincerely, that if these wonderful people served me horsemeat I would eat it with a smile.
At one o'clock in the a.m. we rose from that dinner, where each course was accompanied by a different wine. We weren't sure that we could find our way back to Charly's through the dark countryside in our tired and wine-soaked state, so Frederic, Stephane's beau-frere, drove us in his pickup truck and Helene drove our Renault back to St. Martin de Nigelles. They wanted to take good care of us. It was so lovely.
Right here let me explain the beau-frere thing. Beau means handsome and the term is belle if it is a female, meaning lovely. These two designations are prefixed onto any relationship to show that it is by marriage, not a blood relative. We say brother-in-law. And I was thrilled the first time Helene introduced me as her belle-mere, which can mean mother-in-law or stepmother.
The following week we had planned to tour the Loire Valley and all its beautiful castles. We reached Chambord when I succumbed to the stomach flu or its French cousin. There was a tourist hotel on the grounds that had beautiful accommodations. The French- American troubles over Iraq had put the tourist business in a slump, so we had huge bed-sitting room for 79 euros. It gave us the impression that we could really afford France!
I looked out my darkened window several times that night. We were not at Disneyland and a huge medieval castle was outlined against the starry sky! I had stepped into a fantasy. I decided that my grandchildren had to have this beautiful experience too. I began to think "what-if" the first step in every big decision I've made in this life of mine.
Charm, history, our new family, all drew me to what-if we had a little cottage in France and lived the French life for a portion of every year. The next day I spoke to my daughter Elizabeth and told her of my what-if . She enthusiastically endorsed it. I told Jack and he just stared at me with sentimental tears in his eyes. That's all I needed.
Charly hooked us up with a realtor, Gilles Morel, at the Sombin Agency in Maintenon. He showed us a few homes, but Jack and I knew it was the first cottage he showed us that had struck the right note. A small place surrounded by a huge yard with a forest and river on one side, in an old village. We first tried a very low price which Monsieur Morel declined to even offer to Madame Jeuve the owner. He said it was an insult. Americans! But we finally arrived at a price and the long, drawn out process of ownership change began. We would have our little French home!
We spent the rest of the week with Stephane. We asked him to pick a restaurant for a birthday celebration. Charly, Pierrette, and the Langes were to make up the birthday party. When one makes a reservation for dinner in France the table is reserved for the entire evening, sort of like renting a space. I placed everyone around the table. I wanted Stephane to see his father and mother together, so I placed them at the head of the table, much to Pierrette's smiling protests. I sat with Charly. We arrived at eight and left when the restaurant closed. Pierrette kept coming over to me and kissing me. The French are so kissy anyway.
The time came to leave. We lunched with Charly at a gorgeous, leafy outdoor restaurant on the banks of the River Eure and within sight of Chateau Maintneon, a medieval castle. Stephane embraced his father warmly, Helene was teary-eyed. The little boys waved until we were out of view. We would return at Christmas, to close on the house, and to embrace them again. C'est magnifique!
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My senses were bombarded by so much these past few months that I don't know if I can stay on course long enough to give a day-by-day account. (Did I hear you breathe a sigh of relief?) So I will try to remember impressions of different experiences and you can read what interests you.
Let me start with one of my favorites. FLOWERS. France is abloom in May and June. It is thrilling to gardeners and those who love color, fragrance, symmetry..well, anyone with eyes. There are no weed patches or untended yards. How can that be? I puzzle over that. The French proclivity for trimmed hedges, flowering trees and shrubs, climbing roses that grow in profusion, geraniums in every window box, wisteria and grape vines that drip over wrought iron fences is delicious to the senses. Each time a new road is traveled fresh delights unfold. Grass is trimmed to the water's edge of the many rivers and lakes. Lombardy poplars, towering elms and oaks, leafy willows, all grace the countryside. In the kitchen gardens vegetables and herbs march in regimented rows and are guarded by teepees of pole beans.
OUR LITTLE HOUSE is surrounded by ten-feet-high trimmed hedges and gated in front. Tall evergreens grow in the lower part of the back yard. There is plenty of room for picnics and play when the welcoming sun calls us outdoors in the spring. The house is modest, but just right for our needs. It was fun to shop for used furnishings and art to fill it with warmth and color. We've added a second toilette, upstairs, and plan a terrace just outside the French doors. Do the French call them French doors? I'll have to ask!
On that same note, what about other things we call French? I know that FRENCH FRIES are simply frites. French toast is pain perdue, literally translated as lost bread because it is generally made with old or 'lost' bread. French lilacs are just lilacs ( say leelocks), but even more beautiful than any I have seen in the U.S. French braids are plaits Indienne. (How about that, we say they are French and they say they are Indian.)
French dressing? They've never heard of it. French Onion soup? Just onion soup, of course. French kissing? Oddly they do not use this term (okay, maybe not so oddly) but patinage roulette. Literally translated as roller skating. A blushing young lady told me this in answer to my bold question!
Which in turn leads to another type of FRENCH KISSING. The both cheeks kind. It is a charming custom but a totally new experience for this just-shake-my-hand person. The day before we left France on our last visit we were at a fete for friends and family. Here's the kissing drill. Friends get a peck on the right cheek, then the left. Get mixed up on the sequence (I have) and you meet in the middle. Embarrassing. Oh yes, if both kissers are wearing specs, one removes them. If a female with makeup offers her cheek at a distance, you air-kiss. Family, at least in this region, requires four kisses, right, left, right, left. Children kiss your cheek then hold up their right cheek for a return kiss. Since there were 30 to 40 people at this gathering just saying good-bye was very puckering. They speak as they do this as a greeting: "Ca va?" To which one replies "Ca va." And taking leave it is "Bon nuit" or "Au revoir". I am so busy trying to remember which cheek and how many kisses that I don't have the speaking-kissing down yet.
Our village is on the same latitude as Quebec and because of this northerly position the DAYLIGHT HOURS are tres different from California. In summer full darkness does not arrive until well after ten in the evening and shines brightly in the window at five in the morning. When we were there at Christmas darkness fell at four in the afternoon, or I should say 1600 hours as military time is used in France.
I have not learned to eat on the French timetable. But I am determined to be French in France. BREAKFAST is coffee or tea and some form of bread. Lunch is from 12:30 until 2:30 precisely, all businesses close during these hours. And the restaurants close around 2:30 and re-open at 7:30 in the evening. Ladies and children take tea and sweets at 4:30 in the afternoon. Children are fed and put to bed by seven thirty or eight, when all the adults have aperitifs. On weekdays the dinner is very simple. But on Friday and Saturday nights it is a celebration.
The French DIET is heavy on meat, seafood, and dairy products, and of course the famous French bread that they buy daily. Two vegetables are served at the main meal of the day, and always a little dessert, usually pastry. They have coffee in demi-tasse cups, and refused a mug of coffee that I sat before them in my ignorance. Iced drinks are not part of their culture, order one at a restaurant and receive one measly cube. I like their grocery stores, but cannot find many products we find common, such as cottage cheese, onion salt, cinnamon. Milk and eggs set on the shelf, not in a cooler. I served a Mexican dinner once because several said they loved chili con carne, but when I presented it they were puzzled. It was not the dish they expected. Same deal with macaroni and cheese. There is not cheddar or American cheese in their stores, so I am not sure what they mean.
CHILDREN are expected to eat adult fare, and they do. I saw little ones eat raw oysters and liver pate. My American grandchildren would go hungry. Every adult in the family circle disciplines and comforts every child. Another thing: Helene took the boys, ages 3 and 4, into a classy gift shop with all kinds of breakable stuff and the kids did not touch a thing. Now how that happens, I haven't a clue. The kids start public school at age 3, and they start teaching them to read, it isn't play school. They wipe their feet, then square up the doormat. Never put their shoes on the furniture, etc. Their training is firm and serious.
SOME OF MY FAVORITE THINGS: The little van that comes by in the mornings, tooting the horn to invite the housewives to come out and buy fresh baguettes.ˇ Clothes snapping in the breeze on the clothes lines. ˇ Bright colored shutters on every window.
ˇ Old rock walls from the Roman era still standing. ˇ Trains that run exactly on time and are sparkling clean. ˇ Flower shops that overflow onto the sidewalks. ˇ Outdoor cafes for people-watching and the wonderful relaxing atmosphere. ˇ The first day of summer fete when all the amateur musicians and dancers perform in the city square for the public.
ˇ The village bric a brac sales, what fun! ˇ Buying a 'simple sandwich' from the carte and finding it half a fresh baguette sliced and filled with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, boiled egg, and mild horseradish, all for 5 euros. ˇ The farm land that is a patchwork quilt of many grains, and the coquelecot (blood red poppies) that bloom at the edges of the fields and along the roads. ˇ The gentle rain that comes most summer afternoons about 1400 to water the gardens. ˇ Seeing the serious, un-smiling Frenchman turn into a smiling friend. ˇ I love their word for garbage. Poubelle. ˇ And when they say to me "In France we do it this way..." ˇ And brocante shops, second hand stores to us, but treasures to me. ˇ The non-hurrying lifestyle (with the exception of the highway speed demons). ˇ Old houses that have stood for centuries and remain in the family.
ˇ Little girls with a sense of style that must be in their genes. ˇ Striped awnings. ˇ The filmy scarves that all the ladies wear. ˇ The friendly interest in everything American.
ˇ The innovative packaging of grocery products. ˇ And the anticipation of more to come.
THE SIDEWALKS AND ROADS are very narrow. Little autos are a necessity as is watchfulness when you are afoot. We have a little Suzuki to zip around in. If there is no available parking, the French have no problem with parking on the sidewalk. They only pass on the left, against the law to pass a car in the right lane. There's a spider web of lanes and paved roads and probably five different ways to reach each village. One can reach an intersection and signs pointing in different directions for the same destination.
GYPSIES still travel the countryside and have the right to park on public land for three consecutive days before they must move on. It was my impression that they do handyman work, but the locals feel that they deal in drugs and bring trouble with them. They pay no taxes on their apparently un-reported income, yet they use the medical and educational systems that are tax supported. So the French are none too happy to see them set up camp. Farmers plow a six foot strip along the road that I thought to be a fire-break, but was told it is to prevent Gypsies from pulling their travel trailers onto their property. It is a very old problem.
BOYS are adventurous and travel on their bikes in clusters. When Karyn could not find our home she pulled up to a group of cyclist, 12 and 13 year-olds, and asked if they knew of any Americans who lived in the village. They gave her a bicycle escort to our door. They later came back to play ball with Nathan and Ryan.
I have come to the conclusion that French WOMEN are pre-disposed to be slender and beautiful, and have an instinct for perfect taste. When I showed up at the Super U Grocery in my sneakers and jeans, I advertised my Americanism. They are also smaller boned than our general population, which was not the case in Amsterdam where we visited this spring.
About AMSTERDAM. Forty eight hours was fun and just enough time to spend there. Our hotel was on a canal. (Just like the picture in my 4th grade geography book!) Bikes outnumber the cars 50 to 1. People light up a roll-your-own marijuana cigarette to go with a cup of chocolate or while riding their bikes at break-neck speed. Everything, but everything, is tolerated there in way of behavior and dress. We sat at an outdoor café and enjoyed the show.
PRICES on everything are always higher than we expect. Add to that the exchange rate of one euro to $1.25 and it knocks your socks off to dine out, pay the hotel bill, buy garden tools, fill the tank...Well, there was one area, medical care, that was absolutely amazing. Jack required a weekly check of his blood for the clotting level, and we found a nurse that came to our home, took the blood to a lab, with diagnosis available at the local pharmacy. Less than $6 for her and $6 for the lab.
GROCERY STORES are similar to ours, with a few distinct differences. Fresh fish on ice is displayed outside the butcher case. (We wanted to buy ice for a party and the fish market was the only place in town that had it, but they said we could not drink it because they re-cycled it from the fish display.) There's ten time the magazines, easily. At least ten times the cheese and yogurt products. One aisle has nothing but flower and vegetable seeds. The meat department features all kinds of pate and organ meats. There are no white eggs, only brown. The grocery carts are chained together outside and one must use a one euro coin to unlock them. The money is returned when the cart is re-chained. The clerks sit on stools at the check-out counter, which they call desks while the customer unloads the groceries. Then one must move to the other end and bag the purchases after they are rung up, very, very carefully and slowly. There are no courtesy clerks.
POLITICS was a subject I avoided, but at times Jack did not. I never heard a good remark about our president. They are convinced he is either stupid or evil. On a person-to-person level we experienced nothing but friendly acceptance and once a "Vive les Americains!" On the anniversary of D-Day there were good memories shared in the local and national newspapers, but much criticism of our present government policies. When we traveled through Normandy we saw many signs of gratitude to the American troops of WWII. Window boxes in that area have the stars and stripes displayed along with the tricolour.
To a Frenchman the world is his PISSOIR. Beside the road, perhaps even facing the traffic, or on our street where workman were installing sewer pipe. But one takes the cake, the retired Directeur Generale of W.R. Grace & Co, a very prestigious personage, the executive to whom Jack and Charly reported during their careers. He joined us for lunch in Charly's beautiful garden. And he did this twice. Without a word he arose from the table, went to the shrubbery, and relieved himself. He peed! I was amazed. But no one else took any notice.
CHARTRES CATHEDRALE is breathtaking. I was thrilled when my granddaughter, Elizabeth, walked as in a trance into that grand place. She walked the labyrinth with 6- year-old Sophie following her. Soon others watching joined them. We were told the labyrinth is usually covered by chairs, so Providence must have prepared this day just for my granddaughters. The garden that surrounds the cathedral had four recently acquired statues. Words cannot convey the pure joy of looking at them. One in particular. A young woman appears to be running forward with her face uplifted and arms outstretched. It touched me profoundly. I had a disposable camera and when the photo was printed it was perfect. I had it printed on canvas and love looking at it. Across the cobbled street from this overwhelming structure we sat at a small table and marveled at the fact of what we were seeing. African ladies in brilliant native dress started to fill the stairs of the church and Jack, so good with languages, managed to ask where they had traveled from. The Congo. I asked permission to photograph this stunning group and they smiled their yes. Then they motioned for me to sit with them. I handed my camera to Jack and joined these now laughing ladies. When I called out "Jack, take our picture" they began chanting "Jack, Jack". Another photo I will always treasure.
There are hundreds of other thoughts in my head, but I will close with a little summary of the best part of our last stay in France. We had a FAMILY brunch, our American family and our new French family. There were thirty of us. Before we made the trip we had gone to the embassy in San Francisco where Jack completed the procedures for recognizing Stephane as his legal son. At this party Jack made a little speech in French, told Stephane he loved him and made him an honorary American by placing a cowboy hat on his head. Then to our surprise, and to his own I must add, Stephane paid a lovely tribute to Jack and led a toast to his father. They embraced and we all had a lump in our throats. Then the group called out my name. I gave it a go, in English of course. I told them that now we were all one family and at that they stood and Daniel led them in a beautiful song of friendship. At the conclusion Helene led a hip-hip-hooray. It doesn't get any better than that.
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