Vive La France
Any Old World ancestry to which I might aspire is lost in the mists of forgetfulness. I am an American, full stop. A mutt. Not unlike the cartoon dog, Tramp, who courted the delicate cocker spaniel, Lady, in what Wiki says was Disney’s first animated movie back in the ancient 1950s. Therefore I have no justification at all for my sense of connection to France, and things French.
Mais…Je t’aime Paris. La Ville-Lumière. Et tous le cinq cotes du l’Hexagone.
I was thinking about this last night, watching a new-to-me French detective-series on Amazon Prime. It is an emphatic Gallic tour de force, entitled simply “Murder in…” Each episode names a scenic French locale. And delivers ravishing camera work to go with “police-procedural” style mysteries. The procedures are those of the Gendarmarie and their attendant prosecuting magistrates.
France is absent from my antecedents. My mother’s side allegedly goes back to the illicit son of an English “lady in waiting.” Both were exiled to the States, supported comfortably by a “remittance” from a blue-(and hot-) blooded scion of a Prussian-family. He found more to like in London than he meant to. Financed to a good start, given a good education, the bastard son was said to have been a successful business contractor. Prominent enough to woo and wed a Southern Wheeler, daughter of an antebellum dynasty that spawned at least one famous Confederate General. Late nineteenth-century recessions ultimately ruined his business. By the twentieth, he was reduced to house-painting, riverboat gambling, and dipsomania. To the everlasting shame and fury of his wife. All of this from my grandmother, last of fourteen children, natural-born story teller. But none of her tales led deeper in time, or further into the Old Country. Certainly not to France.
My father’s side was even more truncated, with a name supposedly introduced to England by the Norman conquest. The only hint of a French connection. But misleading: family legend was of an infant found hidden in a trunk of women’s clothing beside a burning Conestoga wagon. One of those small, unrecorded frontier tragedies: a little band of immigrants massacred on the High Plains by hostile Indians. The infant the sole survivor. Family papers in the trunk occasioned his naming. Succeeding officers’ wives raised him at the fort whose patrol found the wagons and buried the dead. Social work, U.S. Cavalry style. There was a good deal of subsequent violence in the saga. Including a gunfight over a wandering wife in a Fort Sill wagon yard. Meeting my paternal grandmother late in her life, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I lost the nerve to ask if any of it were true. Like many of her generation, she let the dead past bury the dead. Concentrated with enthusiasm on what tomorrow might bring. Worth emulating, but no aid to curiosity.
So I have absolutely no basis for the emotion I experienced, first time I saw Paris. I felt like I finally was coming home.
Four of us, GIs on a three-day pass from Germany, came to Paris for a Christmas three-day pass. I was sitting next to Helfand in his beat-up ’50 Volks Bug when I saw the Eiffel Tower framed between two banks of roofs down a twisting market street. The two in the back crowded forward to see too. But with merely a tourist’s curiosity; I was the only one choked with emotion.
I lived an entire lifetime those three days. Not least because of an affaire de couer that changed me forever. Where better than the City of Light?(Clichés only become clichés because they’re true.) In a complicated maneuver not necessary for this narrative, I later persuaded the Army to transfer me to Parisian suburbs. Too late to be with my love; she’d gone home for good.
But Paris had its way with me those months. And so did L’Hexagone. Bound for the city once, on the Orient Express, I witnessed a French hunter with his retriever, stalking pintail ducks dabbling in a stream by the tracks. Within minutes, the Express blew through stopped traffic on a rural road. And there stood an immense billboard, advertising “cartouches pour la fusil de chasse.” A billboard. For shotgun shells. Romance first, then duck hunting. To a young man who loved duck hunting almost as much as he loved women, what could be more like home? Vive La France.
When Charles DeGaulle kicked NATO out of France, I took the eviction personally. It felt like being exiled. I never returned. But France, and Paris, never left me. Hemingway famously called Paris a moveable feast. To me, that describes the entire country.
In this dark December of pandemic fear, the moveable feast comes home to me in this lushly filmed, evocative TV series. Each “Murder in…” episode is nuanced, honoring all tenets of good detective fiction. Cynical medical examiners. Menacing, or appealing, suspects. Cop-humor and byplay familiar to me from a career in and around law-enforcement. All against gorgeous scenery.
Each episode plays out to a satisfying conclusion. Not only for justice. For the emotionally complex lives of protagonists, men and women consumed by the Job, their loved ones often the collateral damage. Being French, of course there are romantic and sexual and familial sub-plots. All mature and gripping, engaging the emotions. But that sounds like a movie review. My reaction to the characters and scenery is more deep and visceral. Almost like “face-time” with distant in-laws one actually likes, and misses.
My perhaps unique pleasure in this crime fiction a la Francais is enhanced by sharing it with my lady-love. She does have known Gallic antecedents; her father was Quebecois. She and her siblings were raised in both languages. She comprehends the French of each episode, while I make do with English subtitles. My hearing is so iffy I’d have to do the same with dialogue in English. And my high-school French is sixty years behind me. (I managed, while I was there. When alcohol lowered inhibitions I was almost fluent. But that was long ago.)
Why did I even take high-school French, in Florida? Latin seemed pointless. Spanish, in Florida, too pedestrian. That’s what I told myself. My first duck-hunting buddy’s mother spoke French. She trained for the consular service before doing the forties thing, marrying and having children. My clearest memory of her is standing at her ironing board saying “When you get there, and go to turn on a tap, remember: C for chaud. Hot. F for froid. Cold. Don’t scald yourself.” When, not if. I felt fated. (And did remember, just in time, my first night in a Pigalle hot-sheets motel.)
My former wife’s Scandinavian antecedents were Old-Country deep. Traceable four hundred years to one farmstead above the fjords. But her own, separate, experiences of France were strong as mine. The first time we danced, far across the world, I said you would have loved Paris. And she said: “I did.”
Tonight, discussing an episode of “Murder in…” I said I was waiting for a Brittany episode, because that’s where my daughter spent her exchange-year in high school. My lady-love wondered why she had chosen France. I said she wanted Japan but I talked her out of it. After all, her middle name was Gabrielle. As if my wife and I anticipated need for a name more compatible to French than the hard “H” they struggle with. And France…well, if she got in trouble in France, I irrationally thought I could go to her aid. Not Japan.
My daughter’s only difficulties were trying to learn Greek — in French! And bureaucratic, overly formal schooling. Her extended host-family was marvelous, fairly defining joie de vivre. (When I tried je ne sais quois about them, she coldly called me on English-speaking pretension; said the French did not assign the phrase much cachet.) She made life-long friendships in Brittany. Later wound up teaching French to American airline executives’ kids, ahead of overseas deployment. Was a tour guide for some of them. Her host- family bid them welcome, for “immersion” in the culture.
Fast-forward a quarter-century. My lady-love and I reunited in the twilight of our years. More fit, more peripatetic than me, she has been to France many times. Usually with her brother, whose accent sounds native. She has scores of stories, and lobbied gently for us to take a sentimental journey together. I haven’t owned a passport in ages. Given my disabilities, such a trip was unlikely, even before the plague. Her brother had planned to retire to France before the pandemic closed things down. She had to cancel an advance airline ticket for a visit to his retirement digs. Not the worst reversals anyone has suffered under viral fear. Annoying, nonetheless.
“Murder in…” eases the annoyance. We can sit and sip coffee, or snack (croissants and Brie) and tour France visually. While the gendarmes solve baffling cases, and work out their own complicated lives. It is sheer joy when she recognizes some terrain feature (I drove that road!)with delight.
Last night, one final connection occurred to me: an uncle of my daughter’s host-family was a member of the Gendarmarie. I was, back then, employed by a state-police agency. Like cops everywhere, he proposed an exchange of official insignia. I sent a shoulder flash. He sent unit-inscribed key chains and uniform-medallions. Some were from the elite Gendarmerie mobil. I wondered if he was a SWAT type. My daughter didn’t know. Or care. He was just another likeable member of her likeable French family. Good enough for me.
I still have his keepsakes. Maybe I will dig one out as we watch these splendid episodes. Talisman for my deep, irrational, emotional connection to a place that felt like home. Still does, on evidence too thin for the most gullible prosecuting magistrate. Merci, to those who created this wonderful series. Et…Vive La France.