I owe my sincere thanks to an old friend (from the Martin Agency days) and great story-teller, Daniel “Catfish” Russ, for this beautiful memory of France some years back. Please check out Daniel’s blog here. One more thing before I hand it over: Daniel, great last paragraph. Great last sentence. Thanks so much.
About 12 years ago I traveled to France with a friend. We stayed in Paris for about 3 days and were scheduled to go to Coutance at a bed and breakfast on the Normandy coastline. The train out of Paris was late and so we missed our connection in Fouligny. That was the last train out. The conductor told me “Il n’y a pas d’hôtel ici.” No hotels. So I asked if he could recommend a cab company. “Il n’y a pas de taxis ici non plus. Pas un seul.”
OK. So I called a taxi from Coutance to pick us up. It was a 50-minute ride one way.
The taxi shows up, driven by a man who looked like he would rather be retired. It was a Mercedes Benz 500, gold, very comfortable. My French is passable and I learned early on that the French appreciate it when you at least try to speak their language. To be sure, on our first night in, we were staying in a small hotel in Paris in the 14th arrondissement. It was raining and we were famished and so we walked down the street to a small family restaurant called “Restaurant Romandie.” It was run by an extended Romanian family that had lived in Paris since the war. I started speaking French to them. They gathered round and spoke with me and were nice as can be. One of them collected our menus and gave us new ones. I can only imagine that there was a menu for locals and different more expensive menu for tourists.
At the end of the meal, they gave us a bottle of Hungarian red wine. The label said Magyar Voros. I stuffed it into my bag and took it to Coutance a few days later.
Back in the cab. I spoke with the cabbie and told him I wanted to see the Normandy coast. Coutance was near Utah Beach, the western most invasion route for the Allied forces on D-Day. It was there that the US 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne was tasked. I told him that my father was in the United States Army Air Force and that he serviced B-17s. The guy got all choked up and asked if we had eaten. I said no. He called the hotel and asked them to make two dinner plates, that we were going to be late.
As we approached the hotel, he stopped and pointed to a small restaurant that he and his wife owned. I could see through the window and though it was closed, it looked like a woman cooking for two special needs children. I remember that it was on a steep hill that would rival any city street in San Francisco.
He told me that he worshipped Americans because as a small child, he remembered how brutal the Germans were, how his parents hated them. He remembered sitting on a rooftop in the old town with his father and watched as troopships unloaded and barrage balloons were tethered to the fishing docks.
My how times change.
As we got out of the cab, he looked at me and said “Mon père est mort là,” pointing at the beach. I shook his hand and thanked him for his kindness. I tipped him well.
My buddy and I checked into our respective rooms. A small, quiet woman came by with our dinner plates. It was roasted chicken, fried potatoes, salad, a small baguette and a small piece of chocolate. My travel pal then came into my room where we ate. I pulled out the Hungarian wine, given to us by Romanians in France.
I love France. I love the people. Every time I have been there I have been blessed with a moment of grace like this. Coutance, by the way, is beautiful.
I think of this Cabbie that was so appreciative of what we did so long ago. And how sad it was that that the generation of French nationals who once adored us and remembered what we did has all but died out. And how the generation of Americans who did this, and did it right, has also died out. And I think about how much we all need each other, even if we forget that.
(Thanks also to Daniel’s friend McAfee for the beautiful photography.)
What a lovely and touching piece.