Monday Memories – Holidays

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

Christmas tradition in our family changed radically from the central focus of home and family to travel and adventure. We now lived in Paris France and were comfortable with our new routines and apartment living. We observed the understated preparations of our neighbors for the holiday season, and remembered our American neighbors’ lights and outdoor decorations. There were wreaths on the doors, pine boughs in planters near the gates and ornaments hung from the lamp posts on the streets but no lights or grand displays in public places. We began to discuss how the family would celebrate our first Christmas in Europe and my parents’ twenty fifth wedding anniversary. My mother wanted to travel and so it was decided, we would travel through France to the Mediterranean Sea and spend our holiday in the French towns of Cannes and Nice, on the Riviera.

A trip at Christmas was a departure from the family oriented, small town celebration I knew for the past decade. Christmas Eve was my parents’ anniversary and always spent with my mother’s extended family. Christmas morning was at home and later, a trip to my father’s family for another celebration. That all changed in 1966, as my mother researched our route and planned the many chateaus and cathedrals we would stop and visit along the way south. The excitement began to build as we planned gifts to pack, ideas of silver anniversary celebrations were discussed and the maps appeared outlining our route. We would stop in Rouen, Avignon and explore Chenenceaux, Chambord and the perfume farms in coastal France. Cathedrals attended by Joan of Arc were on the list as well as the renowned bridge in Avignon. We shimmered with anticipation.

Disaster struck the day we were to leave on our 10 day adventure. Due to a delayed departure, my father discovered a change in plans with his job. De Gaulle had withdrawn his agreement for American forces, NATO and SHAPE headquarters were no longer to be in Paris but moved to Belgium and Germany. Many of the employees were being sent back to the US and that day, my father was included in those to return to the States.  The trip that had been long anticipated was now a diversion from the inevitable move back to America. Reluctantly, we left our apartment and set off to savor our one and only trip through France before packing our belongings for another move. We were disappointed but resigned. The car was packed, the excitement diminished but not gone and we set off.

The change in plans added a new quality to our visits en route to Provence. The chateaus were magnificent and free of the summer tourists that crowd each one in the Loire valley. We walked the paths of the French aristocracy, viewed the portrait galleries in each home and walked through the maze of the cathedral in Rouen. Arriving in Nice, we were weary tourists ready to share the holiday with US sailors in port for Christmas. My brothers and I went in search of a memorable anniversary gift while my mother planned our Christmas Eve adventure. Of course it included a “short walk to the top of a mountain for the table of orientation” which would highlight the distant landmarks. We discovered a centuries old silversmith while my mother read the Michelin guide to glean the area’s history.

After a “petite dejeuner” of croissants and black coffee, we set out for our morning walk. The path was rocky, through dense undergrowth and poorly marked. We wandered off course and three long hours later discovered a cement marker, the table of orientation, at the top of a goat field. The goats were our only companions as rain began to fall and we wearily set off down the mountain. This was not the Christmas Eve tradition of our past, but a test of our endurance. The quick thirty minute climb had turned into a multi hour-long hike. When we finally found our car, we discovered my father had carried a pine branch found on the ground near the top. It became our Christmas tree when wound through the chandelier in the hotel room and decorated with jewelry.

Later that evening, my mother asked about Christmas Eve services at a local church. Yes, she was told, there is an English church within walking distance but you must hurry. We hurriedly gathered our coats and walked the short two blocks to a small church tucked between shops near the waterfront. Entering the old stone building, we heard the familiar carols played and saw the many sailors scattered in the congregation. My memory of the service centers on the sound of “Silent Night” sung by so many Americans far from home, yet celebrating a beloved holiday together.  We were all Americans sharing our traditions in a small church in France, a true congregation.

The remainder of the trip was less eventful, a trip to Cannes, to Italy and then the long trip back to Paris. Our return was somber as the move to the states in January returned to our conversations. We returned to school and work determined to enjoy whatever time was left. Imagine our surprise when my father announced the sudden change of plans he had learned that day. “Pack your bags, but not for the US, ” he said, “We will be moving to Germany.” And so, the adventure would continue.

 

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Tuesday Temptations – A Piece of My Heart

Spring is in the air although the temperature belies the season. Central heat stills warms the house rather than the warm sun. Near the beach, the wind is still cool, the air crisp with promise that make kites dance and sun worshippers shiver. Walks along the water’s edge still chills bare feet and shell seekers find sand dollars among the whelks and clam shells soon to be discovered by vacationers. A few intrepid souls try surfing, wet suits zipped tightly to the neck.

Safe at Home

Safe at Home

I love the beach in any season, the endless rolling waves, the cries of gulls and serene flight of a squadron of pelicans make each visit a reminder of the constancy of the ocean and its shore. Anne Morrow Lindbergh recovered at the shore, walking miles along the sand, listening to similar sounds. She wrote in Gift from the Sea, “Women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves.”  A walk along the beach provides the solitude to reflect and pursue the dreams coursing within. I seek the peace the shoreline offers, the bright hope of the constant sand and the creative direction as well.

These past winter months have opened new doors to friendships and jobs, new opportunities to develop.  The months of spring hold hope for change. I am changed each year in Spring, renewed faith that growth is possible and probable. The shoreline changes and yet is the same. The sand dunes rise and are swept to sea, the water washes out a sand bar, replacing it further along the coast. The birds continue to seek their dinner along the edge of the waves and nest far inland away from salt spray. A constancy of change is remembered each time I walk along the shore.

Wrightsville Beach Kite Festival

Wrightsville Beach Kite Festival

Kites fly above the dune, secured to railings and beach chairs. Vivid colors of the rainbow splash the clouds above. The few that fall nose dive to earth and rise again to sail across the horizon. Who can resist the temptation of a kite? The urge to run and tug the line sending the colors up to dance in any breeze. The solitude continues but beckons all who wish to try.

I seek the beach, I seek the restorative solitude and the crowds, the calls of the gulls and the sight of kites high above the dune, dancing.

 

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Monday Memories – School Days

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

Out the door, into the elevator and down the walk to the gold tipped iron gate at the street, we raced to be on time. My brother and I were to ride the bus to school, a great army green hulk of a bus, a relic of the post war years. There were no bus routes in my small American town, we walked the few blocks to and from school.  Our new home in St. Germain was miles from the American school provided by the military for dependents. The bus would wind through the narrow local streets, drive over the motorway and deposit us at the sprawling campus of Paris American High School. The sound of grinding gears preceded the bus as it rounded the corner and stopped at our gate. I hoped I’d remember the seat hierarchy outlined by my new friend, Carmen. Elementary up front, junior high behind them and the last four rows for the high school students. Bus seats were as important as the lunch table chosen in the cafeteria. New to bus rides, I found the fifth seat from the rear and grabbed the “chicken bar” as the driver roared away to the next stop. We stopped countless times, sometimes waiting for several minutes for the latecomers to race onto the bus with toast, books, and jackets flying around them.

The ride to school was 45 minutes from our gate and would be reversed at the end of the day. No late buses for sports or after school clubs, there was one bus for our area and everybody would start school at the same time. We arrived at the campus, entering through the gate with guards standing at attention and barbed wire surrounding the complex. There were so many buildings, the elementary school, the three-story high school with its junior high wing and the sports center behind. Two gated entrances were guarded by MP’s who ensured our safety in the middle of Paris. The students were “Army Brats”,  kids of NATO members, civilians with military clearance and the children of diplomats assigned to SHAPE headquarters. We all rode the same army green buses, all felt the first day jitters and all entered the typical American brick building for the start of the school year. No segregation due to rank, race or culture, we were American dependents continuing our education.

I was the new kid in class yet most there were new to the area. Military families moved often and starting at a new school was common. My school in the US was small compared to the multi level, spidering hallway building I entered. There was the challenge of finding the room, the locker, the gym and especially, the cafeteria. I was amazed to survive that first few days, amazed to find the gym locker rooms where I changed clothes from mini skirt to midi blouse and bloomer shorts, amazed to find the cafeteria with the trays and food lines and hundreds of kids. I had walked home at lunchtime throughout my early school days, but now encountered lunch lines, cafeteria food and keeping lunch money; I learned a whole new way of life. It was a full day of new experiences without opening a book.

At day’s end, the process reversed and we swarmed the buses lined along the sidewalk. No stenciled numbers, rather the overhead sign illuminated the bus routes. I searched for familiar faces and assured myself I would find the correct bus. I sank thankfully into my appropriate seat across from the other bewildered students and watched carefully for my brother and his friends. Fortunately there was a stop at the army base before my town, I could always stop there and wait for a general transport bus if I had boarded the wrong bus. The ride home was loud with daily recaps of schedules, mistaken classrooms and late notices and the singing from the front seats. Our driver, a seemingly ancient Algerian, smoked Gauloise cigarettes and winked at the girls, he would mutter in French as we neared each stop. Later in the fall, he would make a quick pit stop before my stop and relieve himself on the rear wheel of the bus before continuing on to my gate. The afternoon ride was comedy in action with the personalities involved.

I was a Paris Pirate for 5 short months. The lessons learned were varied and basic, more learning of life than academics. Memories of French bubblegum chewed secretively in gym class, the long lockers crammed with coats, sneakers and texts, the smell of the cafeteria on spaghetti Friday and the posters for Prom at the Eiffel Tower revolve in my mind. Those memories provided confidence for every job and school change when being the “newbie” could never be quite as terrifying as that first day, that first bus ride to a sprawling school campus dropped in the middle of Paris.

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Penniless Penalties

A recent disconnect of my electric service brought home the penalties of the impoverished. One mislaid bill set off a chain of events that will ultimately cost well over $500, strained relationships and a heap of self-doubt. How do people without means continue to exist in a society that penalizes the penniless?

Third Person Past Perfect

There is a charge for falling below a certain bank balance, there is a charge for withdrawing money from a “foreign” ATM, there is a charge for paying with each credit card, there is a charge for paying with cash, and there is the charge of your time to run here, there and everywhere to pay the exorbitant amount required to restore service. I live in an all-electric house with septic and well. When there is no power, there is no water, toilet, light, stove or refrigerator. Electricity is all important. So I scrambled, I texted, I borrowed internet and cash and ultimately walked 5 miles to get the bill paid and the electricity restored. And then, there was the reconnect fee. Missing the deadline by fifteen minutes meant an additional $47 to have the person return. Another fee, another penalty added to the others already charged. And there is a 10 day grace period before an additional deposit fee is due because the bill was mislaid. Unfortunately, the five-year good payment history is void now. We are starting over.

With an additional $100, there is no charge from the bank. With an additional $350, there is no charge from the power company. With an additional $150 there is no ATM fee, or charge for credit card use. Without the extra funds, how do others cope with emergencies and financial deadlines?

Yesterday, a woman and her children were found sleeping in their car in the parking lot where I work. Their belongings surrounded them, created pillows for the young children asleep in the rear seat. I was grateful a customer notified us of their presence and grateful to know the phone number of the agency most likely to help them. I was saddened to know the panic the mother must have felt to live in her car to hold her family together.

Emergencies occur every day, people suffer loss of job, home, and belongings. That should be penalty enough without  the outrageous fees added. I am grateful to friends and family. We are grateful to have enough, grateful to live in our home and work out arrangements. We are also committed to helping those who have no other resources, live in their car and are penalized for falling behind.

I wish there were others willing to eliminate the penalties for being penniless.

 

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Dinner Out

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.

I left the small suburban town in America and moved to Paris at age 13. Our family had shared many happy family meals around the small oak table in our home yet I had yet to experience a restaurant like the Officer’s Club in Paris. The night was magical, the setting from a movie set. Red velvet draperies, crisp white linen tablecloths, silver table settings and a young girl set on living a dream.

My father had been living in Paris for several months before the family joined him. His daily routine had included many evenings at the Officer’s Club, with colleagues from his office, sharing a meal, ending a workday and our arrival did nothing to change that. We were going “out to dinner.” For some, this is a usual event, nothing special, yet for me, it was a magical night complete with a display of Paris couturier finery and a drive along the Seine.

The room was in an old pre-war building with high ceilings and long windows open to the summer evening. The maitre ‘d met us at the entrance and escorted us to the table. Silver service sparkled on the table, the linen napkins crisply folded at each seat. We were seated at a round table on the edge of the dance floor. My eyes were wide with anticipation, I had never been in a restaurant like this, there was a dance floor, four piece band and the lights of Paris outside our window. Seating us, the maitre ‘d snapped our napkins open and spread them on our laps. My father’s eyes twinkled with amusement and anticipation of sharing this experience with us. My mother leaned in and whispered her excitement.

We had dressed for dinner in our “best” clothes, a simple habit from my father’s youth. My lace dress seemed too drab for the elegance surrounding us, there were officer’s wives in evening gowns. Seated at our table we peered out at the room. Soft conversation surrounded us, the drapes absorbing the sounds of the diners. The tuxedoed waiters brought a basket of fresh French bread to the table. Oh glorious, it smelled like heaven, yeasty and crisp, the crust mad e crumbs on the tablecloth. My father reached across the table to show me how to rest the broken bread on my knife after buttering each bite. Such a small thing to remember all these years later.

We ordered the filet, a delicacy I had never experienced. Filet mignon, served with new potatoes and French string beans. A simple American dish, prepared by a French chef for newly relocated Americans. I’d never heard of the dish let alone had it prepared to my instructions. The waiter filled water glasses, scraped crumbs from the tablecloth and hovered attentively at the edge of the room. I absorbed every detail of the evening, from the taste of the food, the service of the wait staff and the sounds of the small band playing for the dancers. My parents left me at the table and headed toward the dance floor in between courses. Where had they learned to dance so effortlessly? When had they learned the etiquette of an elegant evening? I was learning every moment.

The evening wound on, the meal was complete with an eclair, served with powdered sugar on a lace doily. I wasn’t in New Jersey anymore. The wine, the sounds of other diners and the lateness of the hour had me nodding at my place. And then with some excitement, the room came alive as rack after rack of clothes were wheeled  on the square dance floor on display for the women in attendance. The waiters hovered expectantly as the wives rose and perused the offerings. Coats, jackets and gowns were offered to the women, all Paris originals and dazzling to my eyes. I asked my father, “Does this happen all the  time or is this a special occasion?” “It happens every night,” he replied. Oh my, Paris originals at my fingertips. First, filet mignon, now designer clothing. Would the evening have any more magic?

I learned to expect the Officer’s Club on Thursday nights. I learned the magic could include a moonlit drive along the Seine, a soft summer walk along the banks. I learned we had begun a new life in Paris that would change my way of looking at life and I would never forget that first restaurant experience. Designer clothes, crisp linens and a hovering wait staff serving a meal I couldn’t have imagined. Magic could happen, it was up to me to decide if it could last.

 

 

 

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Fiction at 13

The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960’s.

Desireeis_paris_burning  I was a reader in transition when I landed in Paris. As a young middle school student, I had been introduced to American authors like O’Henry, Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Esther Forbes. My library card was well-worn from weekly forays into the fictional world of the Young Adult section. When we moved to Paris, there was no longer a willing librarian to recommend new authors or the proper reading material for a young girl. I was on my own, reading newspapers, American magazines and anything I could find written in English. (My French never did allow me to visit the “bibliotheque.”)  During that first summer, I was limited to the books my father brought home from the office, the books circulating among the wives of his colleagues. Since cereal boxes were boring and I needed something more than solitaire to entertain me, I shared the books with my parents. I found more than entertainment, I discovered fascinating history, romance, intrigue and a little known genre called historical fiction. I was addicted.

A recent reference to the Bernadotte family reminded me of those first lonely months in Paris and the book that introduced me to European history. The book, Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, is the story of a young woman in love with Napolean, her adventures in Paris and her later transformation to become Queen of Sweden. Desiree became Queen of Sweden when her husband, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, became King Charles XIV John. They founded the Bernadotte dynasty that produced the modern love story of Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian. A love story for the 21st century. No wonder I was so intrigued. Thirteen years old, a French love story that was “real” for the reader. I was hooked.

The second book that influenced my present and my future was Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Real history set in the city where I lived. The very buildings I walked past in my Sunday visits to Paris were described in the book, brought to life in details by historical authors. The pockmarks I saw, the landmarks I visited were each described in detail from the days of the Nazi occupation. I lived in the history of the city, ready for the bursts of bombs over Paris, the American troops riding in tanks to liberate the French and the various intertwining histories of the people I met walking along the Seine. How exciting to pass under the very bridge where the Resistance officers traded secrets with the Allies. The book was so descriptive of the moments leading to the liberation, I almost expected to meet Charles De Gaulle en route to a meeting when I turned the corner in the 5th Arrondissement. Living amidst the historical sites, I learned that history and the present intersect on every street corner.

I wasn’t lonely anymore. I was in the middle of history, meeting with Resistance officers, reading telegrams from Berlin. I was living in Paris but each page of the book placed me in the 1940’s rather than the turbulent 1960’s of my present.  I had found a new path, a new way to look into the past and find the present. While my friends at home in the States were talking of “Grotto dances” and “The Rock” I was living amidst the pages of a book, living the history of the ancient city, verifying facts and visiting the buildings with their war plaques and pockmarked facades.

My view of history was forever changed by the realism of my present connected with the living proof of the past. These two book made history come alive, transported me to an age unknown previously and introduced me to a living history I would pursue throughout my life. The authors wrote, described, and set a scene so real that I was allowed to live among the pages of history, right before my teenaged eyes. A history so real that years later, I wondered if I had lived the dream of Desiree, young, in Paris and eager to experience the excitement of a future filled with mystery and romance.

I learned that Paris was not burning nor did young Desiree marry Napoleon but in those months before I started high school, I learned that history is made in each day we live and can be found within the pages of a book. Two books can change a life.

 

 

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