Alexandria, VA – “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Over the past ten years, my bride Pamela and I have noticed a decided shift on the Happiness Meter in the good ol’ USA, what with the divisiveness of politics, the legal system swaying in the wind like old laundry, and the rising sovereignty of the business and finance worlds. So we devised a plan for the next act of our lives. We decided to pack it all in and give France a try.
I spent a good portion of my youth growing up overseas as an Army brat. Add in a 30-year Navy career and it’s been some 28 countries. Pamela has done a bit of globe-trotting herself. She’s run up a total of 12 countries, so considering a move to Europe isn’t so drastic a thought in either of our pointed little heads.
Why France? Well, it’s centrally located between just about everywhere else in Europe, so a train ride or jumping on a plane isn’t a stretch. A 3-bedroom, 2-bath stone farmhouse or little house in a medieval town comes in at half the price we have paid for a mortgage in the U.S., and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a wine shop. They have 200+ kinds of cheese and a seemingly limitless supply of baguettes. When Pamela’s primary care physician heard of our plan, he sat bolt-upright in his chair and said, “We love France! And they have the best healthcare anywhere!”
Pamela has started taking French and is doing quite nicely, but it’s been a challenge. The beauty of the French language is they spell out incredibly luxurious words but throw most of the consonants away completely, never to be seen again. Some vowels seem like they were orphaned early in life too. And the spelling and pronunciation changes for any number of rules or reasons, some based, it seems, completely on whimsy. Take the French National Anthem for example “La Marseillaise.” It’s pronounced “la mar-say-yes” with complete disregard for all those L’s, A’s, and I’s.
I am fluent in German, which could prove a liability and not endear me much to the French, witness two World Wars, so I plan on keeping it subterranean. The difference between German and French is clear. The German language, like the people, employs precision. Every single letter is written to be pronounced – no matter what – and you must do it well! French simply can’t be bothered.
Another attraction of France is that it also has an amazing “modern” history (over the past 1500 years) filled with all sorts of wonderful tidbits. Crack any European History book and it seems like France was either the invader, the invaded, or a battlefield for others to bloody for over 1000 years. Who can forget the Hundred Years’ War? The Thirty Years’ War? And that shorter but ever popular Seven Years’ War (1) (And what about two World Wars thrown in for good measure?) England and France couldn’t seem to cozy up to one another for the longest time. Then World War I came along and, since Churchill spoke their language, the French said, “C’est la vie,” and these two started using the two-cheek smooch that has endured nicely for decades.
Another reason for moving to France is to indulge in my passion for history and mix it with my military background. A friend of mine, a retired British Army Major (Royal Fusiliers), is a highly regarded military historian who has studied and written extensively on the World War II D-Day invasions in Normandy. He has conducted tours and “staff rides” to select groups for more than a decade. Over dinner last January he asked if I wanted to sign on as a partner to give the Naval side of the invasion.
Viewing my future here as yet-another-retired-navy-contractor-guy, I thought it could be time to diversify. By the time you read this, we will have (hopefully) cleared our COVID-19 tests, boarded a plane, and landed in France to prepare for tours of the Normandy beaches.
Mark Twain, although far from being a Francophile, did possess a deep interest in Joan of Arc. He wrote what he considered his favorite book, The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (I & II), having taught himself French and researched her life exhaustively from original manuscripts in French. Charles Dickens was also enamored of French history. Witness A Tale of Two Cities, which rose out of the French Revolution. (2)
Over the centuries, dozens of former leaders who were handed a pink slip by their people, found the way to France. A quick scan of the exiled reveals that the United Kingdom, the United States, and France are the top three favorite locations for former heads of states. Both Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (also known as Lenin) and the Ayatollah Khomeini spent years in France, avoiding the local constabulary back home. Even France had to deal with a bad actor or two. Napoleon was the head cheese in France twice. And he was exiled twice. He just kept coming back like a bad Sou.
Shakespeare had a real thing for France. It was a popular location in many of his plays, such as All’s Well that Ends Well, As You Like It, along with several of the Henrys and a King John thrown in for good measure. (3)
Finally, because my sister is a chef, I must mention food as another reason for heading to the Continent. Most places in France have Markets, and market days are frequently twice a week, when you can pick up fresh groceries for several days.
None of it has been pumped up with preservatives, colorized, or saturated with whatever is chemically trendy these days. Usually the French just walk around with a baguette under their arms, carrying a bag full of fresh yummies for dinner and a bottle of whatever wine is local.
I’ll keep you posted on how things progress in this new endeavor. After the dust settles in November, we might come back for a visit to check in on friends and family. If another American head of state decides to make France his home in 2021, however, we might have to pack out again and start over someplace else.
Endnotes: (1) These wars got progressively shorter starting in the 1400s, then the 1600s, and finally smoothing out a bit in the 1700s. I guess everyone got tired of all the eligible men disappearing and with the whole war thin. Or crossing the English Channel became more dangerous with transportation improvements. (2) I better put in a huge nod to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or, as a theatre type, I’ll be banned from the front of the house at the Little Theatre of Alexandria or Port City Playhouse. (3) Not Measure for Measure. That was Austria. You keeping track?
ICYMI: On Watch – Do No Harm