He was my Friend: A Memorial Day Tribute

In Remembrance

This is a repost from last year’s Memorial Day. 

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

 

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A Bachelor Showdown

Conversations with France, Cultural Differences

Last week, the French version of “The Bachelor” (“Le Gentleman Celibataire”) concluded and France and I decided to meet for aperitif to discuss it.

France: Alors, what did you think? Much better than the American version, non?

I let out a sigh and take a big gulp of my kir.

Me: Why do you have to phrase everything like that? I mean, don’t tell me something is bad and then ask for my confirmation, it is so antagonistic.

Now France lets out a sigh.

France: Mon dieu! It is you who is being antagonistic right now, non?

I give France a flat look and decide that the irony is not going to be recognized.

Me: Yeah, it was good. MB and I enjoyed it, we watch the U.S. one as well. BACHELOR NATION, WOOP WOOP!

France is nonplussed by my display of enthusiasm.

Me: Anyway, it was cool to see all the funny cultural differences.

France: Like what?

France pulls out a cigarette and takes a sip of pastis.

Me: Hmm…well, like some of the basic behaviors of the women were really different.

France: Mais, bien sur, French women and American women are not the same.

Me: Well, we are all women…

France gives me a look as though that is questionable.

Me: BUT, we were raised in really different cultures, so guess that is part of it. Like, the French women were so much more reserved, hardly any tears during the whole season. I also couldn’t believe how some of them complained about the “Gentleman Celibataire” not being that good-looking! It cracked me up, you would never hear that on the American version. Our women are always so excited and eager.

France: Oui, this is true, you Americaines do not know the art of playing hard to get.

Me: Apparently not! I mean, I couldn’t believe the one girl who wouldn’t get out of the car to meet him, but instead sent him a note telling him to come and retrieve her from the vehicle. Blech! I was so surprised that he kept her around after that.

France: But of course he did! This was a very charming thing for her to do.

Me: Really? I don’t get it. In the U.S. that would be considered high-maintenance.

France: Soooo…??

Me: We don’t consider high-maintenance to be an attractive quality.

France: Ah bon? C’est bizarre. Americain societé is so confusing. Okay, so what else did you find different?

Me: Hmmm…well, it seemed that, overall, the women on the French version looked more natural than on our version – you know, less make-up, messy but nice hair, the girl who came out in overalls the first night…stuff like that.

France: Ouais, mais bien sur! You American women do not have subtlety. The art of being understated, this is what is truly sexy. In France, you do not need to have all this maquillage on your face and every single hair brushed into place. Americans always think that to be attractive you must have the tight, revealing dress but the French, we are not-

Me: Oh, let’s pump the brakes for a minute.

France: Quoi?

France is all innocence and takes a drag off the cigarette.

Me: I mean, I will agree on hair and make-up but you can’t claim that the “naked dress” was an example of French subtlety. That was like the least subtle dress I’ve ever seen in my life.

France: I don’t know what you are talking about, I’m sure it was very nice, you just don’t understand style.

I pull up a video on my phone and hold it up, France turns red before quickly looking away.

France: Okay, so there was one dress that was, perhaps…a bit much.

Me: And the rugby game in string bikinis? I mean, women wearing next to nothing running around a field and tackling each other? Was that subtle too?

France scoffs.

France: Oh la la la la…you make me so tired sometimes. You can’t even understand the subtlety of what I was trying to say, huh? And please, in U.S. you are constantly showing things much more vulgar than this.

Me: Alright, fair enough. I’m just saying that “people in glass houses…”

France: Shouldn’t walk around naked?

Me: Something like that.

France: So, what else was different? Because of course, I wouldn’t know, I have never watched it; I try not to watch American television.

I roll my eyes.

Me: I don’t know. I mean, obviously, I missed our host. He has been on the show since the beginning and is just part of the experience, I guess. In the French one, the host wasn’t really around too much.

France: But why should he be? He just needs to be there to move things along.

Me: Meh…I don’t know, I like having the host be more involved.

France: Pfff…it is too much…this Chreez ‘Arrison.

Me: I thought you never watched it? How do you know his name?

France looks away and takes a long drink of pastis.

France: Quoi? I don’t know, maybe I have seen one or two episodes.

Me: Ha! You love it, don’t you?

A look of irritation is thrown my way.

France: Anyway, this is not the point, the point is that it is much nicer without this American host always butting his nose in, huh?!

My hands ball into fists.

Me: You better watch it, France. Don’t nobody talk trash about Chris Harrison! You got that?!

France tries to shrug but I can tell that my message got across.

France: Well, there is no argument that the Bachelor himself was much better in the French one, huh?

Me: Why does there have to be a winner and a loser? Can’t we just compare the differences?

France blinks at me uncomprehending.

France: Je ne comprends pas.

Me: Why does every conversation have to be a competition?

France: Because, then what is the point?

I feel like I’ve just stumbled across a major part of the French psyche. But moving on…

Me: Okay, whatever. So yeah, I liked your Gentleman Celibataire. He was good-looking and he seemed pretty nice. Although, his clothes were a riot, eh? Like, the yellow pants? What was that about?

France looks at me like I am crazy.

Me: No, they were nice, just, you know, different.

France: Ah ouais, these stupid khak-eez that you all wear are so much better. Pfff…

Me: France, I was not trying to be ugly and you know it, I was just saying that he had a fun, colorful style, not that he-

France cuts me off.

France: Don’t worry, Americaine, EES OKAY!

I shriek in horror and clap my hand over my mouth.

Me: Is that a Juan Pablo reference?!

France shrugs but has a knowing smile.

Me: How dare you?! That was a dark time for Bachelor Nation…I can’t believe you would bring that up!

France: No, but really EES. O. Kay.

Me: Alright then, that is how it is going to be? At least Juan Pablo and Nikki are still together…your fabulous little Bachelor couldn’t even stick it out until the “Girls Tell All” episode, he had already broken up with her!

A flash of anger crosses Frances face.

France: He chose the wrong girl, huh? Everyone could see it. She was charming, of course, but there were no complications with her, she was no challenge, she was too enthusiastic and available. He should have recognized that this would become boring quickly.

Me: Oh, now you are just talking crazy. She was the nicest one on the show, in fact, she was my favorite from the beginning!

France: Oh la la, of course she was and doesn’t that just say it all?

Me: Awwww…France…don’t worry…ees okay.

 

 

Quickie: Advice for Americans

Cultural Differences

This is just a quick post with a link to an excellent video from the website Comme Une Francaise which can give Americans some advice on how to behave in France.  This would be helpful for those of you travelling for a vacay and certainly for business.   I wish I had watched this before I moved over!

A real post will be coming soon…but for the moment, enjoy!