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 De Gaulle had withdrawn his agreement for American forces, NATO and SHAPE headquarters were no longer to be in Paris but moved to Belgium and Germany.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.