The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

TED Talk – French History: Part I

Charlemagne holding up the Church in his P.R. image that was hugely popular and circulated throughout what was then Europe. (Photo: Internet Image)

Alexandria, VA – “Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs – everything is a pretext for a good dinner.”

– French playwright Jean Anouilh

My bride and I have been living in France for six months. We have taken in many of the village, town, and city churches and cathedrals, dined on a variety of sumptuous dishes, completed the arduous task of getting utilities turned on, toured many art and history museums, labored painfully with Duolingo French[1], sampled a wide array of wines (Pamela) and beers (me), purchased a car[2], and have experienced the notorious French bureaucracy in all its glory trying to obtain our Long Stay Visas, driver’s licenses, and enrollment in the French medical system (Carte Vitale).

American and British expats who have lived here for years stare, mouths agape, when we describe our (mis)adventures since many things have changed and become “trickier” administratively since their own arrivals. What years ago was a piece of cake has become an administrative maze that baffles the veteran expats here.

All frustration aside, I am glad we made the move to live overseas.[3] The food is terrific here. Nearly every village and town has its market day and what they offer is like something out of a movie, or at least a step back in time. Everything in the stores is fresh — produce, meats, fish, poultry – and yes, the bread and desserts too. And don’t look for corn on the cob in February. That ain’t happening. France is serious about farming; the produce section at the local market only carries what’s in season.

Contrary to popular belief, Marie Antoinette’s last words before her death on the guillotine were not, “Let them eat cake.” She asked the magistrate, “What’s the matter? Don’t they like cake?” (Photo: Internet Image)

A typical dinner for two, entre (that’s an appetizer, not a main course like in America), a plat (main course), followed by a cheese (fromage) course, and/or dessert, plus a bottle of the local wine, comes in at a whopping $50 U.S.  We learned reservations are important but don’t worry about being hurried out because they want to “move” tables. You should hang around as long as the wine, water, and Calvados pours.

It’s a whole lot of fun dabbling in history here, too, especially since it’s chock full of nobility and the peasantry getting involved in all sorts of things. Like the other crowns of Europe, the French married back-and-forth with dynasties to secure thrones, which translates as “power” in Europe. The church, first Orthodox, then Catholic, vied for power over other crowned heads or at least tried to maintain power on an equal footing with the others, then plied their flocks with buying “indulgences” to increase their bank accounts. So, the peasantry, trying to curry favor with the clergy to earn a space in heaven, dropped some coin in the collection baskets. Later they had to dig even deeper into their pockets when the King wanted to kick off a new war over some nebulous infraction, nuisance, or just because he was bored.

French history is replete with examples of royal double-dealings. French and English histories become very muddy, bloody, hard-to-follow, incestuous, and downright chaotic because they were constantly fighting over the same lands, switching political loyalties as fast as they switched bed partners, and looking over their shoulders for the ever-possible knife-in-the-back by the angry bastard son or lovechild daughter of a mistress hell-bent on ascending the throne.

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugene Delacroix 1830.

A big name is Charlemagne, “King of the Franks.”[4] He was son of Pepin the Short and became Numero Uno with the death of his father in 771 CE. He went thrashing about against the Lombards (Italy), the Muslims (Spain), and the Saxons (Germany), Christianizing them upon penalty of death unless they went along. After a while all the Louis, Henris, Phillippes, etc., start to blur, and the capitals seem to move fluidly between London, Avignon, Kent, Paris, and Versailles. Among others. There were even two Popes at one point.

Finally, after centuries of being drafted as common foot soldiers to go assuage a nobleman’s honor over some inane insult or transgression, blindly following a Bishop’s requirement to mount up and head out for yet another Crusade and rid themselves of the evil Muslims who had taken control of the Holy Land[5] in the name of Mohammed, or being taxed into oblivion so the royals will have cool, trendy fashions to wear in court, somebody read a news story in Paris Max about a thing called the American Revolution. And all hell broke loose in France.

Unlike America’s common folk at the time of our revolution, the French peasantry picked up the idea and really ran with it. They started shouting “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” all over the place. Pretty soon, it appeared on banners, hats, and t-shirts, with the blue, white, and red tricolor of the “new” France. People put the tricolor on their hats, and wearing one became quite fashionable. Plus, they were cheap and available simply everywhere.

Folks started disappearing and turning up in the Bastille for years. Lots of the royal family also started to show up in the law courts on a regular basis and spent years in jail or wound up with a one-time appearance at the guillotine.

Even our old ally and George Washington’s favorite “adopted” son, the Marquis de Lafayette, was very cautious after returning home to France when so many of his old chums around the royal court disappeared. What saved him was the role he played in the American Revolution. The French peasantry probably figured that since he was involved in any revolution, he was OK in their book.

A day in the life of the French peasants during Medieval times. So much to do, so little time. (Photo: Internet Image)

I know I have left out tons of detail. There’s so much more than what’s presented here and more to come in a future column. I also know that my frivolity with this subject will rile every European History Professor in Northern Virginia who will no doubt send comments about me missing this important thing or that event.

My point is just that there is much, much more to French history, and as one peels the onion, it is anything but laborious, tedious, and boring. The tough part is getting away from dates, names, and wars, to paint a picture of that whimsical, zany, artsy, contradictory place that is France.

So, stay tuned boys and girls. More fun and excitement will be revealed next time in our Ted Talk.

[1] That ruthless little green owl is really annoying if we miss a day’s practice.

[2] Actually, two to be completely candid. The first Mini we bought for 7000 Euros lasted two days before the check engine light came on, then spent six weeks in the Mini dealership garage/hospital. The mechanic’s diagnosis was one of three problems – none of which he said he could fix. The next “new” used Mini cost 15,000 Euros. By the way, for the record you can’t get a car loan through a bank in France. It’s strictly a cash routine. Now we own two Minis – same color too.

[3] The first two months we had no news from the States. More recently with all the fun and excitement that America is experiencing of late, we’re even more glad we’re here. Maybe we’ll come back for a visit from time to time once the dust settles. The French ask us why we moved to France. We point to cable news networks. The French shake their heads in disbelief and ask, “What is going on over there?”

[4] He was crowned Emperor of the Romans in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 CE. You gotta love a church that has a head cheese named Leo.

[5] Despite centuries of blood, death, and destruction, it is still dubbed the “Holy Land” by tourism offices worldwide. I guess the branding stuck.

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