At Cafe de la Tour I found a seat close to the porte-fenêtre for a nice view of the village square on market day. The serveuse cleared away the dirty ashtray and demitasses before I set down three baguettes, my purse and my keys, and nodded bonjour to the strangers on my left.
Jean-Claude, the former patron (his daughter Sophie now runs the place), was seated at the opposite table with two burly locals. The three retired men had their noses in a pile of black-and-white photos and that is when I noticed for the first time that Jean-Claude owned one, a nose, that is. He had shaved off his legendary mustache! Gone was the dramatic white flip which swooped up and out at either end. The once soft, uniform curl was like a giant eyelash that batted as he spoke. So long was that mustache that it curled right up over the tip of his nose and covered it.
"What? You didn't know?" Jean-Claude turned to greet me, and share about the little accident he had had along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where he had had an inspiration while watching the young freestylers. That is when the idea struck him to borrow one of the boys' BMX bikes... only to quickly discover that he, Jean-Claude, had a fear of heights!
Dangling over the edge of a mini ramp, Jean-Claude's fall was imminent, and he landed smack on his shiny head. Thirty some odd stitches later, he still hasn't lost that radiant smile--although he did lose all of his front teeth—which explains the "bald spot" above his upper lip, one that now matches the smoothness of his head, the mustache having been shaved off when the dental work began.
"That must have been traumatizing!" I said of the well-known mustache, thinking about the loss of what could surely be considered a limb. Jean-Claude looked at me blankly before that beaming smile returned.
"Ce n'était rien," It was nothing, he said thoughtfully, his eyes returning to the pile of old war photos.
Changing the subject, Jean-Claude handed me the black-and-white images, explaining that the photos were of the Libération, taken when American solders arrived in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, freeing the village from German occupation. I recognized our town's square; only, instead of the realtor's office there was a little boutique with a wooden sign that read "Mode."
The men seated beside Jean-Claude were now recounting war stories. As Jean-Claude and I studied the photos, I heard bits and pieces of the burly men's conversation: "...the parachutists landed...the maquisards fought...a soldier fell right out front..."
"Look at the hats!" Jean-Claude cried out, loud enough to muffle the voices next to him. He began pointing to a photo in which a crowd of men stood in the village square, their heads kept warm with those stylish newsboy caps. While J.-C. and I looked at '40s fashions, the men seated next to us continued commenting and I picked up scraps of their grim dialogue—
"...the Americans captured the Germans...prisoner of war...chained to the soldier..." but Jean-Claude's well-timed exclamations drowned out most of the sad and violent images.
"Look at the children! So many children!" Jean-Claude piped back in, this time pointing to a photo in which some little kids were seated on the church steps, but I found it hard to concentrate on the image. Instead, my ears were trying to tune in to the table beside us, where the men continued their remembrances:
"...the prisoners were marched off... blood..."
"Ah, the platan tree is still there! Do you recognize it?" Jean-Claude enthused, but the men's bleak commentary continued: "...American soldier shot down by the train station, died right there...the American and German were hit, killed by the same blow!..."
"That's Pascal," Jean-Claude chimed in, his back now to the men seated at the table next to ours. I looked at the photo of a skinny, grimy-faced kid, shorts rolled up, socks falling down around his bony ankles.
"His family still owns the carrosserie down the street," he added, ignoring his tablemates. "Ah, wonderful man! He must've been 6 or 7 years old in this photo." Jean-Claude shook his head, but there was a gentle smile on his face, that is, until I voiced a lingering question:
"Can you tell me about the war?" I asked, trusting Jean-Claude to paint a sensitive portrait of life here in Les Arcs-sur-Argens during WWII. Instead he threw me another one of those famous blank stares.
"C'est intéressant... la guerre," I said, saying anything to fill in the silence.
"No, war is not interesting!" Jean-Claude said, swatting me several times over the shoulder with the photos, in mock condemnation.
"Look at that gun!" I said.
"Ah, the chewing gum!" Jean-Claude replied, cleverly evading the subject, and ignoring the photo that the men beside us had just handed over. "The Americans and their chewing gum! The soldiers, who were often called 'Joe', loved their chewing gum!" he said with that contagious smile.
And like that, I sipped my café-au-lait and watched Jean-Claude point out rosy details in the old, dark photos. He was seeing the children's smiles, the fashions, the beautiful trees, as well as hearing the whir of wheels riding up the seaside ramp and his own freestyle foray into...well, never mind the crash. On he went, painting his own postwar portrait of Provence and, though not erasing the past, he expertly drew blanks over the pain.
la porte-fenêtre = French window
la serveuse = barmaid
le patron (la patronne) = business owner
la Libération = the freeing from foreign occupation
la mode = fashion
le maquisard = "man of the maquis" (wild Mediterranean scrubland) or French resistance fighter hidden in the forests and mountains during WWII
la carrosserie = automobile body shop
* * *
Thank you for alerting me to any typos or formatting problems, in this story! Click here to access the comments box. Note: the first 30 comments in the comments box are not edits; they appeared when this story was first posted.
La Commémoration du 8 mai
Today, May 8th is a French National holiday: Time of Remembrance and Reconciliation for Those Who Lost Their Lives during the Second World War. Do not miss the video at the end of this edition, in which students portent le flambeau, or "carry the torch" of remembrance via song. You'll hear excerpts of La Marseillaise and le Chant de Partisans (second video), and witness the touching and humble reconnaissance of France's youth.
Note: if you are viewing this edition via email, you might need to click over to the blog (try clicking on the title at the top of this letter) to view the videos. Don't miss them!
PS: many thanks to readers for submitting these book recommendations:
1. Is Paris Burning?
2. Wine and War
3. And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance
4. Suite Francaise
End quote: La guerre, un massacre de gens qui ne se connaissent pas, au profit de gens qui se connaissent mais ne se massacrent pas. War, a massacre of people who do not know each other, to the profit of people who know each other but do not massacre each other. --Paul Valéry
:: Audio File :: Download guerre.wav
Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce French words in the following Proverb:
Qui terre a guerre a. / He who has land, has war.
la guerre classique = conventional warfare
la guerre chaude, froide = hot, cold war
la guerre sur terre = land warfare
la guerre atomique = atomic warfare
la guerre planétaire = global warfare
la guerre de rues = street fighting
...more terms and expression at the end of this letter
Books & More:
Lonely Planet France : inspiration (and itineraries) for exploring France your own way.
Paris After the Liberation: 1944 - 1949
de bonne guerre = legitimately
un nom de guerre = a pseudonym
être sur le sentier de la guerre = to prepare for combat
faire la guerre à quelqu'un = to criticize someone
à la guerre comme à la guerre = to take the rough with the smooth
partir en guerre contre quelque chose = to go to war for something
s'en tirer avec les honneurs de la guerre = to receive an honorable discharge
Le Chant des Partisans
Ami, entends-tu le vol noir des corbeaux sur nos plaines ? Ami, entends-tu ces cris sourds du pays qu'on enchaîne ? Ohé partisans, ouvriers et paysans, c'est l'alarme ! Ce soir l'ennemi connaîtra le prix du sang et des larmes. Montez de la mine, descendez des collines, camarades, Sortez de la paille les fusils, la mitraille, les grenades ; Ohé les tueurs, à la balle ou au couteau tuez vite ! Ohé saboteur, attention à ton fardeau, dynamite ... C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux du lit font des rêves Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue, nous on crève. Ici chacun sait ce qu'il veut, ce qu'il fait, quand il passe ; Ami, si tu tombes, un ami sort de l'ombre à ta place. Demain du sang noir séchera au grand soleil sur les routes, Chantez, compagnons, dans la nuit la liberté nous écoute.
English translation, and history behind this song, here.
Three Random Words:
un casse-dalle (m) = (from the slang "dalle" = hunger) = snack
aneth (m) = dill
le caoutchouc (m) = rubber (caoutchoucs = galoshes)
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