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An unwilling convert to France


My hard rock-induced meditation was sharply interrupted by a beaming blond stewardess. “Que preferez-vous, madamoiselle?” she asked, holding two small boxes with wilted plastic wrap to my nostrils. “Le poulet ou le boeuf?” I rolled my eyes and accepted the chicken, knowing that what I really wanted couldn’t be served at 39,000 feet. It was the 4th of July. I wanted a hot dog. And I really wanted to be home, in my own country, celebrating my favorite holiday.

One month before, I was throwing my mother every excuse I could think of to avoid going go to France with my grandfather.

“Mom!” I whined, ready to launch into a full-scale fit, “What about work? And Jen’s birthday is coming up! And you know I’ll get in trouble for not marching in the parade.”

“Too bad,” she responded, steadfast. “This is a great opportunity for you. You can travel, for free, and you can get to know your grandpa better. You’re going.”

That was exactly what I didn’t want to do. After my grandparents divorced when I was five, Poppa JB moved to California. I began to dread his visits. My mother would restock our entire fridge with JB-friendly food like Raisin Bran and skim milk and I had to forfeit my bathroom to him. He whistled through his teeth, pulled his socks up to his knees, and would hide waitress’ tips underneath his plate. What could be more embarrassing for a teenager? We’d been on vacation with him before, but I always had my mother to stick up for me. The only buffer I would have in France would be his new wife, Helen. I was not looking forward to the next two weeks.

In the end, I boarded a plane bound for de Gaulle airport. For the next 10 days, I explored France with my grandfather and Helen. JB had flown as a Navy pilot during the Korean War, which meant I was getting dragged to every war museum in the country.  If it weren’t for Helen, I would have died from boredom. A 16-year-old can only take so many tanks and machine guns.

I was ecstatic to stay in the small town of Tour-en-Sologne after reliving every moment of the D-Day invasion. The Loire Valley meant chateaus peeking out of the forests, not museums dedicated to de Gaulle and D-Day. We were to stay at the home of the DesBrosses, a French family with whom we had been traveling before ending our trip in Paris. The French Independence Day was approaching and there were few hotel rooms left in the city that matched my grandfather’s high standards and low price range.

I took to the DesBrosses quickly. Not only were Nicole’s cooking skills exquisite, but she, her husband Jean, mother Christiane, and daughter Delphine made us feel like old friends. Christiane’s shrill voice and bubbly personality usually drowned out my grandfather’s irritating whistle and singing, for which I was grateful. Their home in Tour-en-Sologne matched their personalities: grandiose, comfortable, and a little untidy. We spent the first evening much as we had in Provence and Normandy: sitting outside around the pool, our tongues fumbling with the little French we had acquired while sipping aperitifs. The DesBrosses have no neighbors, and with all of our laughter being carried into the cool July evening, it’s probably a good thing.

I woke with a start the next day to Nicole singing as she delivered fresh towels to her guests. She scurried into the yellow bedroom that had once been Delphine’s and threw back my covers. I nearly fell out of the narrow bed! I didn’t know much French, but the tone of her voice implied that something downstairs could not be missed. Awaiting me in the cramped living room was a television broadcasting the Bastille Day parade from Paris. Delphine joined Nicole in “The Marseillese.” Jean waved his arms, ceasing the melody so that his foreign visitors learn the significance of the day. His words were lost amid the murmur of the television and Delphine’s accented English as she flawlessly translated her father’s throaty words. In our impromptu history lesson, I learned:

Charles V built the Bastille prison in 1370 as a fortress to protect the city of Paris at the end of the Rue St-Antoine. In its history, the prison was seized seven times and, by the time it was famously stormed on July 12, 1789, only held seven prisoners. Two days later, a mob armed with 30,000 rifles from the Invalides seized the prison, symbolically releasing the prisoners inside. It was torn down by the early afternoon and the Revolution was underway. Today, the July Column stands in the center of a bustling square, commemorating the demonstrations that have taken place where the prison once stood. It is the only place in Paris where one can protest without a permit.

The day was crammed with activities. We allowed the DesBrosses, drunk off patriotism, to pack us into their silver Renault and show us around the countryside.

After a trip to magnificent chateaus, tramping through mud at the DesBrosses’ hunting lodge, and an attempt on President Chirac’s life, we returned to Nicole preparing dinner. She shooed us all out of the kitchen to enjoy our last evening with our new friends and some aperitifs.

Voila!” she exclaimed, setting a heaping plate of steaming black mushrooms in front of my place as we sat down to dinner. I sent Delphine a bewildered look from across the table.

Champignons de la mort,” she answered as she scooped two spoonfuls onto her plate. I would have preferred a hot dog over something called “mushrooms of death,” but I choked them down at Helen’s urging. The conversation flowed as fast as the deep red wine Jean had bought for the occasion. Before we knew it, the streets had darkened.

Our voices met competition shortly after as the cadence of a solitary snare drum found its way into the DesBrosses home. From down the shadowed street, I could see half a dozen small lights hovering in the air. The cadence began to sound natural and as it approached, I could see hundreds of people lined up behind lanterns.

“Each year, a parade passes through town, past our house, and down to a small meadow,” Delphine explained. “Everyone in town goes. The meadow is about a mile down.”

“A mile? What’s at the end then?” I asked, unwilling to walk anywhere unless it was important.

“Fireworks, of course!” For fireworks, I eagerly jumped to the end of the processional. Something about taking part in a Bastille Day fête was making up for not being in the States for our own Independence Day. I had a family here in a village of 750 people, my stomach was full from an authentic meal, and I was marching in a parade.

The street was lit for us by fireworks in brilliant purples and reds. Smoke hung in the air, reminding us of the shape and size of what had just fizzled out as we joined a group of people already waiting for us in the small meadow. Friends and neighbors greeted each other by touching their cheeks to one another. When it was over, the citizens of Tour-en-Sologne sang “The Marsaillese” into the sky and embraced. Taken by the camaraderie and patriotism of the townspeople, I hardly noticed the hand that now rested on my shoulder. Without looking, my grandfather had reached out to me. This was from a man who would not let me crawl into his lap as a child, and I was startled. I turned to look at him. He had his hat off and over his heart. It may have been the lingering smoke in the air, but to me, his eyes looked glossy.

This was not his holiday, nor was it mine. But here, in a village watching fireworks, I understood more about my grandfather in one moment than I had in 16 years. On a day of great importance to the French, I found something of great importance to me. My grandfather was no longer a stranger. We had both come to France not knowing what to expect or learn, but had both found the meaning of patriotism, sacrifice, family, and those things that remind us of where we have come from.

We left the next morning for Paris. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye to our new French family, but we promised to stay in touch. As we drove away, I smiled and looked for the towering rooftops of the chateaus, knowing that all of my complaining pre-trip was useless. I saw both coasts of France for free, picking up countless postcards, Eiffel Tower key chains, and a grandfather somewhere along the way. I had taken on the Bastille Prison and torn down its walls, rebuilding something more special.

Life returned to normal the following week. My tan faded just as quickly as it came and I was forced back into the monotony of my real life. I began to look forward to my mother’s pre-JB race to prepare our house because it meant hearing him whistle through his teeth in the morning as he prepared for his day. His visits meant expensive dinners like the ones I enjoyed in France, an explanation of the flight maps he would use when flying to Chicago to visit, and of course, a hug.

Losing Poppa JB three years later shook me. As I stood up to speak at his memorial service last January, I smiled through tears and recounted his goofy mannerisms that I now found endearing. I was happy that it brought laughter in a time of mourning. Many of the friends and co-workers present were strangers to me, but I was overjoyed to tell them the things that made him special to me, focusing on our trip to France. He may not have been perfect, or even lovable to most, but he was important to me, I explained. Somehow, amidst chateaus and a meal of mushrooms, I had found a friend, and more importantly, I had finally found my grandfather.

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