Monday, January 26, 2009

Foreign Relations

I am talking to Gilbert, at the boulangerie.

Why weren't you in Washington this week, for the inauguration?

My invitation was lost in the mail, I say. (My level of French has progressed to being able to make feeble jokes.)

I order my baguette--don't say, pas trop bien cuite, say, pas cuite, Gilbert tells me--and, while I'm counting out change, he looks over my shoulder and says to the squat elderly lady behind me that Madame est Américaine, and La Poste lost her invitation to the inauguration.

Américaine, she says. Et vous êtes contente?

I glance back at her and nod, Mais oui, très contente, very happy, and finish counting out my change.

The floodgates open. Moi, je suis trop contente pour vous, pour nous, pour le monde entier. I was 14 years old when the Americans came, when they liberated us, and I have always loved America, loved Americans. They saved us, you saved us. But these last years, they have been atroce. We did not know what had happened to America, where it had gone. This man, Bush, he was un catastrophe, un désastre, pour vous, pour nous, pour le monde entier. And after Clinton had left everything très fort, l'économie et tout, and then Bush came and the economy is ruined, there are wars, the environment, c'est un catastrophe partout, a worldwide catastrophe. But now Obama, il est si beau, si jeune, si intelligent, et maintenant, j'ai encore de l'espoir. Now I have hope again. Félicitations, madame. Je suis trop contente.

Gilbert has gone long since to help the man behind my new friend, and I am standing in front of her listening and trying to follow. She is a short woman with hair dyed orange, in a house dress with a hand knit cardigan and a jacket over that; a striped scarf, also hand knit, is looped a couple of times around her neck. She peers at me out of plastic-rimmed glasses, and around her slightly magnified green eyes there is a quantity of pale green sparkly eyeshadow. She carries her sturdy leather pocketbook in one hand and her straw market basket in the other, and leans forward, toward me, while she speaks, so intense and emphatic in her bearing that I wonder if she's going to throw her arms around me.

I have been weepy all week but manage this time not to well up; it's probably the effort of concentrating. I think of this woman as a young girl, only a little older than E and G, living through the Occupation, and I think of the fear that she must have breathed in and out every day, the neighbors who disappeared, the men who didn't come back. I think of her in her mother's kitchen when the neighbors come with the rumors in August 1944, and I think of them peeking out from behind the lace curtains, afraid, anxious, and yet thinking, maybe, maybe this time. And then the sound of the soldiers in the distance, the jeeps, the boots, and finally the sight of the soldiers themselves, and this young girl with the green eyes standing on the roadside and watching as these men come into her village and dispel the fear while they pass out chocolate and hope. And how all her life she's carried this memory, and now she feels hopeful again.

Merci de me dire tout ça, Madame, I say. Thank you for telling me this.


  1. Ah, Mmm Marron,

    I have been living for the past two decades plus with a Framéricain, 72, who lived a life in WWII France that closely resembled that of your relieved and happy Frenchwoman.

    I have been blinking back tears since the primary election was won by President Obama and your post has made them flow anew.

    Thank you for posting this beautifully moving story from your newcountry life. It does my heart good to hear it.


  2. Thank you for this post. I think it's written with just the right amount of translation and restraint.
    Elaine (who knows almost no French words at all)

  3. Oh! This made ME tear up. I hope there are millions more like her around the world.

  4. Great post.

    I am SO loving being the "good guy" again. It's sweet to be an American in France these days.

  5. how fortunate for you that you got to meet her, and hear her news and pass it on. you are now a bit of an ambassador, je pense.