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Monday, March 3, 2014

Old Friends

I once joked that I knew more people in the French military than I ever did in the American one. Looking back over the past 30 years or so I see that this is not entirely true.  It's just that some experiences loom larger in my memory than others.

Years ago, through my father-in-law who was a retired French army officer who served in Europe, Indochina and North Africa, I often met other retired military at lunches or other family events and sometimes papa would read letters to us from the men he had served with and who were still on active duty.  It made for interesting listening, especially during the First Gulf War.

One gentleman I remember well was a retired colonel who was serving in French North Africa (World War II) when the Brits/Americans landed and he told me that they didn't really want to shoot Americans but, hey, orders were orders, right?

On the American side the only veterans in my family were my grandfather who served in the Aleutian Islands and my great-aunt who was in the Navy during World War II .  Grandpa was a medic and had this deep furrow in his forehead where he'd been shot in the head during his service.  He miraculously survived to come home and marry his sweetheart, my grandmother, from Naches in Eastern Washington. My great-aunt died before I knew her but I still have her rosary and a pin that belonged to her that says "Pistol Expert."

When we moved to Japan I met Americans serving in or retired from the U.S. Navy.  And it was after we'd moved back to France that I realized that the story of Americans abroad all too often does not include retired U.S. military.  Everyone seems to know (or think they know) quite a lot about American creatives in Paris but no one talks about about the men I met in Asia who were long-term expats (10+ years).  These were veterans who, after retiring and marrying local women or exploring business opportunities, just never went back to the U.S. to live.  You run into them occasionally in books written by Robert Kaplan, for example, but that's about it and that's a shame.
Returning to the French side this weekend we had some old friends over for Sunday lunch and as we talked and joked it came to me in a flash that I had known the gentleman sitting next to me for around 25 years now.  I first met him in Nantes in the late 1980's.  He was one of several room mates that my French spouse was living with at the time while they suffered their way through engineering school.  At that time France still had the draft and so when they finally graduated they had national service to look forward to.  My spouse did his service in the U.S. but this fellow decided to go into the French navy.  At the time I moved to France in 1989, he was on a ship, the Jeanne d'Arc and seeing the world (or at least a part of it).
I know this because I remember vividly when he came back and stopped by our apartment to tell stories and give us a Jeanne d'Arc 1989-1990 campaign medallion which I still have.

He liked the Navy so much that he stayed and made a career there.  Over the years it was not easy to stay in touch because he was a submariner (yes, folks, France has subs including nuclear ones) and because they and we were on the move. Nonetheless, we were at his wedding and he had a special place at ours (he was the Best Man).  We had a very memorable visit with them when they were living in the south of France.  We went to Japan and they went to Noumea in New Caledonia for a couple of years.  

Not too long ago we discovered that they are living not too far from us - a rather rare occurrence. It just seemed right that we take advantage of the opportunity to get together and so we invited them for lunch. 

It was so good to see them.  So much to talk about and it turned out that their eldest daughter was in Quebec at the same as the elder Frenchling.  Ah, if we had only known that a year ago...

For every emigrant/immigrant there are two essential questions that are always asked:  "Why did you leave?"  and "Why did you stay?"  The second is, I think, more important than the first but the answer one gives changes over time.  What said at 25 is not what I would say today now that I'm nearly 50.  Today my rationales have to do with people.  Not just those who are alive but also those who have passed away. In my memories the countries of my heart and the people I have known are a tapestry where these experiences are not disconnected, but ones woven into a whole cloth from which I can extract threads and follow them back into the past. 

And that makes the present very rich, indeed.   

1 comment:

Ellen Lebelle said...

Catching up with old friends -- wonderful. We've just recently resumed contact with friends from over 40 years ago. It's nice! Somehow, whatever is was that made us stop seeing each other is of no consequence. We have no idea why the very closeness we had then stopped and it doesn't matter. Probably, it was just life, work, and having other things going on.