A few days after we knew we had housing in Etain, France, my father arrived in an enormous American car, a green mercury. When he parked the car in front of my grandparents’s house at 5 Minute Drive, Hayes, Middlesex, it was so wide it seemed to take almost half of the street. By the time my father had arrived my mother had already had everything packed and we all helped load the car for our departure the next day. That night I was so excited about going to France that I could hardly sleep.
The morning finally arrived but our departure was delayed to late afternoon, Finally, goodbyes were said, we all got in the car and my father began the drive to Dover to catch the channel ferry to Calais, France.
It must have been winter when we finally left as it was soon dark and there was nothing to see outside the car window. It was a dark, cloudy night with no moonlight visible. I remember this very vividly as when we were going down the dark road, the car’s headlights suddenly went out and just like that we the were driving in almost complete darkness. My father slowed down, gradually pulled over to the side of the road, took out the flashlight and tried to understand why the headlights went out. He was unsuccessful but decided to press on to Dover as we weren’t too far away and a ferry to catch. He made me sit in the middle of the front seat, gave me a flashlight, told me to keep it shining in front of the car at all times, and then started driving down the dark road with only a flashlight to guide the way. I remember sitting bolt upright with my chest against the dash board with a death grip on that flashlight to keep the meager pool of light in front of the car as we drove along. I don’t know how long we drove this way but it felt like hours before we finally reached Dover and it’s lit streets. The flashlight was no longer necessary and soon we were at the dock and waited our turn to drive onto the ferry.
Finally we drove onto the ferry and soon after, the ferry departed for Calais. The channel crossing was choppy and about a hour later we began to see lights ahead and I realized it was Calais. It seemed forever before the ferry docked and longer still before it was our turn to offload. I could barely contain my excitement as the car drove off the ferry and my father began driving through the city. As we drove through Calais I was fascinated with the buildings, all the signs in French, how the people looked as they walked along the narrow streets. Everything seemed different from England and I wonder if it would look this way when we finally reached Etain.
My father finally stopped at the outskirts of Calais and booked a room for the night. It had been a long day and we were all hungry so my parents decided we would have dinner before we unloaded the car. As we entered the restaurant there were wonderful smells from the kitchen which made us even more hungry. My father ordered and soon the food arrived. The first thing I saw was this huge platter of the thinest, most golden french fries I had ever seen, and they were absolutely delicious, It seemed that my brothers and I couldn’t get enough of them. As we were eating, my father said they were called “Pommes Frites” in France, not french fries. The only other dish I remember of that meal was the French onion soup my parents had. I tried some with some hesitation and immediately liked it. This was in early 1959 and the next time I had French onion soup was 1977 in Berlin, Germany and it was just as delicious. It is still one of my favorite soups!
The next day my Father found a garage that could fix the headlight problem and sometime in the afternoon we were on our way again, this time with headlights that worked. At some point in the evening we drove through Paris and I had never seen a city so big, so bright, and so many sights to see as we drove along. Paris was completely different from Calais, there were lights everywhere I looked, people walking on the sidewalks – it seemed the city was alive. As we drove through the brightly lit streets, we passed by both new and old buildings, wide and narrow streets, and we could see the Eiffel Tower lit up in the distance. It seemed we drove and drove forever before Paris was behind us. Finally I went to sleep and at some point we were in Etain.
Next post – my nine months in Etain and Verdun.