He Was My Friend: A Memorial Day Tribute

I remember years ago when I was living in Washington D.C. waking up on a Memorial Day morning (okay, fine afternoon…it was the afternoon, judgers) and deciding to take a walk down the National Mall to all the memorials.  It was an odd decision for me to go by myself as I am a social creature by nature, but for some reason I bucked the trend this day and headed out the door solo.  I knew that it would be crowded but it was a beautiful day and it seemed like a nice gesture to go and pay my respects.

Now, I had been living in Washington for a while at this point and it certainly wasn’t my first time visiting the memorials but for anyone who has ever gone, you know, every time feels like the first.  Walking through those beautiful and haunting structures always makes my heart ache while, at the same time, instilling in me a profound, sometimes overwhelming, sense of gratitude.

This particular Memorial Day I found myself blinking back tears as I slowly made my way through the throngs of people at each memorial, veterans embracing each other, families laying down flowers, tourists giving silent “thank-yous”.

Slowly, I walked through the Vietnam Memorial, reading names and trying to think about each one of those men…boys…men?  Even at that time I was older than so many of them had been.  There were people everywhere, having hushed conversations, taking rubbings of names, holding each other’s hands.  It is funny the things you notice, how sometimes your brain seems to shine a light on something or someone in the midst of a crowd.  “Why them,” you wonder later, “why did I notice that particular thing?

To my right there was a man with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old.  The man was crouching down and asking the boy, “do you see that name, do you see it?”  The boy shook his head and his Father picked him up and placed his hand on the name etched into stone.  Small hands traced the letters, fingers fitting into the grooves.

“Who was he,” the boy asks his Father.

The Father takes a beat as he holds his child in his arms, both of them looking at this name.

“He was my friend,” he says.


The simplicity of that statement devastated me and even now, nearly a decade later, I can still remember it and feel the power of those words.

It has been an interesting feeling for me, living in France over the past 2+ years.  History is so alive here, stories, tragedies, wars, are all so much more tangible in daily life.  In every village there is a Memorial for WWI and often the newer names that were added such a short time later during WWII.  You can hardly turn a corner in Paris without seeing a plaque reminding you of what happened on said spot so long…yet not so long, ago.  In Grenoble, there are reminders of The Resistance everywhere and just down the street from my apartment is a memorial for twenty such men who were lined up and shot on its place just a few short months before the end.  I think about those men a lot.  Did they live in my neighborhood?  Were they from the mountains?  Were they from other countries?  I read their names and I think, “You were someone’s friend.”

I spent much of my life hearing stories of wars, of sacrifices people made, of horrors that people lived through.  One of my Grandfathers fought in the Pacific during WWII and was on the U.S.S. Franklin when a Japanese pilot dropped bombs that blew the ship in half.  What an odd sensation it must be, to live your life knowing that you just happened to be standing on the right half of a ship one day.  My next-door neighbor, a Jewish German lady, had stories as well but only told them to me in our last conversation before she died.  My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI and was here when the Armistice was called* and my other Grandfather was here during WWII, fighting with Patton in the final years of the war.  How many friends they all must have had!

I think about myself living in a country that two generations of my family fought for.  I think about the friends I have made here…did someone from my family, long ago, help yours?  Did someone from your family provide a meal or shelter to a young man whose arms I would later run into as a little girl?  I recently discovered that I have a dear friend here whose Grandfather also fought with Patton; he was in the French military in North Africa.  The chances that her Grandfather and mine ever met are slim to none; they were in different theaters…but still, still, there seems something so beautiful to me that these two men who did something so scary at the same time, fighting for the same thing, for the same commander should have grand-daughters who somehow stumbled across each other in this large and cumbersome world, grand-daughters who became friends in the very place that they and their many friends shed blood for.

I like to think of these two young men, to imagine it.  Maybe at a field hospital, maybe some point during leave, or if there is any likelihood at all, maybe in Paris after it was all over…

I can see it in my mind, streets crowded with loud-talking soldiers, jubilant French running and embracing one another, hands being shaken, backs being slapped, streets flowing with champagne and wine and sheer unbridled…finally, unbridled…joy.

A young French man sits alone in a café amidst all the insanity.  Somewhat awkwardly, an American soldier approaches him.

“Bonjour,” he says in a horrible accent.  “Sorry, that’s all I got.”  He is sheepish but friendly.

The French soldier gives him a smile.  “This is okay,” he responds.  “I have English.”

“Would it be alright if I join you,” the American asks him.  “My buddies are off god-knows-where and this place is packed and I don’t know a soul.  I just want to get a drink.”

“Bien sur,” says the Frenchman before correcting himself, “Of course.”  He holds his hand out as the young American falls like a sack of potatoes into the chair. 

The American holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes to the Frenchman who takes one with a smile.

The Parisian waiter comes over and asks what they would like.  After a discussion about what is available they decide on a beer and a glass of wine.

“Boy, I’ll tell ya,” the American says.  “I’d do just about anything for a Jack Daniels right about now!”

“Jack Daniels,” asks the Frenchman.

“Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee, “continues the American, “That is where I’m from.”

The Frenchman nods.

“What about you,” asks the American.  “You from Paris?”

“No,” says the Frenchman, “South of here, near the mountains.”

The American nods silently, they are both thinking the same thing, wondering what he will find when he returns home.  The waiter comes and sets their drinks down.

“Ah,” the Frenchman says, smiling. “Nothing can be too bad when there is a drink in your hand, eh?”

The American laughs and slaps the table, “Ya got that right!”

The knock each other’s glasses.

“A toast?”  The Frenchman asks before continuing, “To old friends…”

“And to lost friends,” the American add solemnly.

“And to new friends,” the Frenchman says, giving the American a nod while signaling the waiter…clearly they would be getting another drink.   

I like to think that they talked the whole of the evening, sharing stories, swapping tales of home and happier times, that they shook hands when they parted, glad to have spent the night with a new pal, walking off into the darkness…never guessing that two generations later their blood kin would be doing the same thing one random evening on a side street in Grenoble.

That’s what I like to think.


This post is to all the friends – the lost, the found, and the loved.  May we be ever grateful.


* This is the post referencing WWI:  https://breadispain.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=167&action=edit



Cake or Death?

Some days, life can be over-whelming.  You know these days – the ones in which everything seems to go wrong, when you feel like you have the anti-Midas-touch (AMT).  A day when you wake up a little too late and jump in the shower to find that the shampoo bottle is empty, the milk for your cereal has gone sour, and your computer is frozen.  The days when you get stuck in a 45 minute traffic jam on your way to work only to arrive at the office and find out that your boss has been trying to find you for 20 minutes, the days when everyone on the street seems to be scowling at you and purposely walking in front of you in the middle of the sidewalk slowly (a personal pet peeve) so that you can’t get around them.

We all have these days, when it seems like the whole universe is conspiring to work against you and you are unable to fight it.

Earlier this week a friend told me about just such a day.

She is a public high school teacher (yeah, I know, but there is more if you can believe it) and this is exam week which means the students are all in the crazy itchy place where they are aching to get out of there.  Sunday evening she finds out that one of the other teachers is violently ill and that she is going to have to administer her own classes’ exams and help with the exams of this other teacher’s classes – good times, especially since the school decided to change their normal 6 periods to 7 in the past year meaning that the kids have 3 exams per day…and no study period, I mean, really, what do the kids need with a study period during their finals?  As if this wasn’t enough, she arrives that Monday morning to find over-flowing trashcans because the janitor just didn’t bother with her room and water leaking across the floor from her air-conditioning unit; it was turning out to be a seriously AMT day.

Throughout the day, things become progressively more irritating.  The technician who comes to check the air-con says that he would have to turn it off completely to be able to work out what needs to be fixed (which is not something you want to do in the deep South in late May), the substitute teacher for the other class can’t find all the exams and has to have the students help to actually get them together, and one of the classes that she has to help take-over is full of obnoxiously rude-pants teenagers (more than the normal amount of teenage rude-pants-ness) who mouth off to her during the entire period.

ANTI-MIDAS-TOUCH, people, anti-midas-touch.

Finally, her last period comes in and at this point, she is ready to pull her hair out.  The class is jam-packed with her last period students taking their exam but towards the end of the period extra students from an earlier class start trickling in because they still had to finish up their exams (she had allowed them a 30 minute study session since the school had taken away their study period…teachers are amazing).  As they are all coming in and settling in, she begins to explain to them about why there are extra students, about why there is over-flowing trash, about how she needs good behavior because an earlier class was really awful…etc.  In the midst of this, one of the students raises their hand and points to the floor, “the air-conditioning is leaking.”

The students later told her that she turned the same color as her pink skirt.

“I know,” she shouts.  “I KNOW!  I. Know.  But do you want air or a dry floor? Air? Or a Dry Floor?!  Because there is nothing I can do about it!  Nothing!”

I think this moment was the proverbial “straw.”

“And really you need to be quiet,” she keeps going. “Because I’ve got these kids finishing their exams in here, and they deserve quiet, and wouldn’t you want quiet?  It’s not all about you, you know!  Now, go get a mini-whiteboard or start communicating through interpretive dance because You. Can’t. Talk.”

Air or a dry floor?  Cake or death?  On the AMT days it can be really hard to see that “cake” is on offer.  Often, we just put our blinders on and zoom in our camera lens and only see the negative, frustrating things that are happening.

“What are you talking about?  There is no cake here!”

We feel like the universe is attacking us and our only choice is to put our heads down and muddle through.  To make matters worse, we often don’t realize that other people around us are having trouble locating the “cake” as well.

After my friend told me about her freak out in class, I asked her how the students reacted; I figured a group of teenagers, in the midst of final exam stress probably gave her grief.  This is what she wrote to me:

“And they’re shaking with laughter (and a small amount of alarm, I think, because there were some very wide eyes), but they got quiet, and I got the extra kids settled in chairs and working and start to get everything sorted, and after seven or so minutes I look over, because there has been movement, but no noise, in my peripheral vision, and…

…they are doing “The Wave”* around the room.  Without making a sound.

I laughed so hard, I had tears.”

Some days you can find “cake” in the unlikeliest of places and some days those around you will take the time to hand you some, you just have to choose to take it.

After all, it should be a simple choice, right?  Life is either cake or death.

Thank you to my friend for letting me steal her story and her words!

*For those of you unfamiliar with “The Wave” here is the wiki link and a YouTube video:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_%28audience%29


You’ve Got Some Gauls!

“Uh-oh, I really hope she doesn’t poo, I don’t have any little bags with me.”

I am walking in the park with a couple of expat friends, one of whom has his dog with him.

“I might have a bag,” my other friend says, digging through her purse.

“Wow,” I say. “So do y’all always pick up your dog’s poo?”

“Yeah,” says friend number one.  “I get a lot of weird looks from people when I do it, like ‘what on earth are you doing?’”

I laugh at this, thinking of the obstacle course of poo on the sidewalks throughout town (our nice little Espace Chiens aren’t in Centre Ville).

“Well,” friend number two chimes in. “My husband and I will stop and give people dirty looks when we see their dog go, you know, to see if they will pick it up.”

“Really?” I ask.  “Have you ever been able to shame anyone into doing it?”

Friend number one looks at me as though I have missed something really obvious.  “The French have no shame.”

This is a beautiful, hilarious, and sometimes annoying truth – there is no shame in the French game. They are an unflappable people when faced with societal judgment.  For instance, Americans are working to eradicate cigarette smoking through a vigorous shame-campaign:

What?  You want a cigarette?  We will need you to publicly whip yourself 3 times with this cat-o-nine-tails and then step into that designated smoking area – you see it, the space with the septic sewage oozing out from the ground.”

As you light your cigarette the town’s children surround you throwing rotten vegetables and pointing while yelling “Smoker! Smoker!”

Or something like that…perhaps that is a bit dramatic.  My point is that we are trying really hard to change the branding of smoking from being something cool and/or normal to something gross and trashy because the thought is that if society decides it is nasty then that will dissuade younger generations from smoking (aka: through shame).

This is why I am constantly amused/surprised by the references to cigarettes throughout my French courses.  In one of my grammar textbooks there is a chapter of exercises (a chapter is about 3 pages) which includes 4 different sentences on the subject of cigarettes, I’ve even had teachers use smoking as examples for sentence structure in class.  These are things that would be incomprehensible in the United States.  Smoking in a textbook?!  Tsk, tsk!

The French just take a different view on the matter – and no, it is not the view that nothing is wrong with smoking, but perhaps rather the idea that public shaming just isn’t going to be the most effective method in France.  In fact, it could even encourage the behavior it is trying to prevent:

“Pffff…you say smoking is disgusting and I should be ashamed, uh?  Challenge accepted, you bureaucratic oaf – I will now smoke on your baby and then casually dump my ashtray in the front seat of your car…and it will be dead sexy, uh?”

This is a society that doesn’t accept embarrassment and therefore can’t be controlled through threat of humiliation.  Line-skipping is another good example.  The French aren’t exactly keen on one-by-one straight queues for things but rather mass disorder and a collective gathering at point of payment or entry – it’s a dog eat dog kind of situation and one in which it is very easy to be skipped.  It is no rarity to have someone brazenly step in front of you while waiting on a line (especially little old ladies).  In the United States if this happened you might be able to make someone self-conscious enough to apologize or move by giving them dirty looks or talking loudly about their rudeness…not so in France.  In France it is more like this:

This is you:  “I can’t BELIEVE that chick just stepped right in front of me.  Give her laser eyes, make her feel super uncomfortable.  DEATH STARE – DEATH STARE!  HA – TAKE THAT!  This is going to be the most awkward wait of your life you LINE-SKIPPER!”

French Response #1:  “I think there is something wrong with the person behind me.  They look crazy – I am glad I got in front so that I will be out of here first.”

French Response #2:  “There is someone behind me?”

French Response #3:  *yawn*

The French just don’t have a desperate need for approval (like Americwhat?  Nothing, I didn’t say a thing).  They are content to dictate their own personal behaviors and no amount of societal humiliation is going to make them pick up their dog poo or queue in an orderly fashion if they don’t want to.  It just isn’t the French way and I suspect it probably never has been.

Let’s journey back to Gaius and Sextus, our Ancient Roman Sentinels stationed in formerly Gallic territory to better exemplify the point.

Gaius:  This place is driving me crazy!

Sextus:  Oh come on, at least it isn’t as crowded as Rome.

Gaius:  But that’s just it, Sextus, in Rome at least there is some order but these Gauls are killing me.  None of them ever line up straight, just the other day when I was off to get some bread, right as the baker opened his door they all just crowded up towards it.  You couldn’t tell who was first and who was last.  I told two of them that if they didn’t get out of my way I would have them beat and you know what they did?

Sextus:  Uh…got the heck out of your way?

Gaius looks at Sextus and shakes his head mournfully.

Gaius:  No, they didn’t.  They just acted like they couldn’t hear me.

Sextus:  Woah.  Bold move.

Gaius:  Right?!  I mean, don’t they realize that they have been enslaved, humiliated?  Where is their shame?

At this moment a Gaul approaches the two of them, heading towards the door to the Praetorium.

Sextus:  And just where do you think you’re going?

Gaul:  To the Praetorium…obviously.

Sextus:  HEY –

Sextus smacks the Gaul on the behind with the broad side of his sword.

Sextus:  Don’t get mouthy with me!

Gaius:  Yeah – you have to show us respect!  It is the law!

The Gaul gives them a pointed look.

Gaius:  Kneel, you Gallic trash!

Gaul:  Pfff…

Gaius and Sextus exchange a look with each other and Gaius whispers in Sextus’ ear.

Gauis:  This is exactly what I was talking about.

Sextus walks towards the Gaul and stands over him menacingly.

Sextus:  Look here, if you don’t kneel now you will be shunned from any and all decent society!  You will be mocked and people will turn their back on you in the street!

At this point our Gaul just shrugs and walks on through the gates.

The world would never be the same.

Broccoli Wars

MB does not like his vegetables.  Just like a child, he will plow through the vegetables on his plate immediately so that he can savor and enjoy the “good stuff” (read: pasta).  When we go to the grocery and I suggest some spinach or broccoli or green beans I am met with a look of abject horror.  In a perfect MB world, food would consist of nothing more than cheese, pasta, and bacon.  In fact, before we met he apparently would make his own style of pasta carbonara (bacon, pasta, cheese, cream, and mustard…really just pasta a la MB but he likes to call it carbonara) for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT.  “Oh come on,” you are thinking, “Not EVERY night.”  Yes people, every night.  So much so that the first time I came for dinner at his house and he made crepes his roommate commented on it – asking where the “carbonara” was – it is still an on-going joke with his friends because apparently this was his nightly meal for about a decade.

I, on the other hand, eat large amounts of vegetables every day and actually start to feel kind of gross if I go more than a day without a healthy dose of fresh, crunchy, colorful veg.  With all this in mind, planning dinners can be a bit of  challenge – how do I get my yummy veg but also satisfy MB’s need for cheese and starches?

Well, here is an excellent idea from Emilie and Lea’s Secrets (photo courtesy of their website…no way I could take a picture that pretty): http://emilieandleassecrets.com/2013/04/24/tartelettes-au-brocolis-et-au-chou-fleur-au-cheddar/

Emilie and Lea's Secrets

How good does that look?  And an excellent way to sneak in broccoli and the even more greatly feared cauliflower into a dinner.  Hope you will try it out and enjoy!

P.S. There will be a for real post in a couple of days!!  🙂