Before I continue to Louisiana and New Mexico…I’d like to take a slight detour back to France for a brief while to look at political tension from the eyes of a 13 year old.
In the 1958 Charles de Gaulle was elected President of France. Before we left for France I don’t recall my parents talking about it but after we arrived from England, I began hearing my parents and their friends talking about de Gaulle and how things seemed to be slowly changing in France and how the Americans were viewed by the French government. As a 13 year old it didn’t make much sense to me and, more importantly, “Gaulism” as my parents began referring to the change in France, didn’t seem to impact me. At least, not at first!
Soon I began to see anti-American graffiti appearing here and there and when I asked my parents why was this happening, they told me that some of the people in the area didn’t like the Americans being there but not to worry too much about it. So, throughout the summer as I wandered through the countryside, exploring the forests, riding the forbidden moped, I began to see more and more anti-American signs and graffiti more frequently, both in town and soon in the countryside where there had been none before. As my parents didn’t seem overly concerned, I no longer discussed it with them.
Then one day in the fall, my parents told me to ride my bide down to the local bakery and bring back a loaf of fresh “French Bread” – the long skinny loaf. Before I left, they admonished me to be careful not to break it on the way back.
It was late afternoon and the bakery was about a 10 minute or so ride from home. A short distance before I arrived at the bakery I saw freshly painted anti-american graffiti on the surrounding buildings where there had been none before. This surprised me but I rode the remaining distance to the bakery, parked the bike and went in to buy the bread. I opened the door and began walking to the counter to ask for the bread. As I went in, the people in the bakery stopped talking and looked at me in a strange way. I had been to the bakery many, many, times during our stay and this had never happened before. Usually when I went in, the baker and his wife would smile at me, ask me how I was, and after I paid, they would always give me a little something extra as a treat. Not today! As I approached the counter, the baker looked at me in a strange manner, handed me the bread, took my payment, and told me to go, right away. There was no extra treat, no smiles from the baker or his wife, just the quiet room and people staring at me.
I left the shop upset at what just happened, put the bread on the bike and rode home. Because I was upset I didn’t tie the bread on properly and it broke on the way home. I knew I would get in trouble for this as my parents like the bread unbroken when it was put on the table. I was almost in tears by the time I rode up to the door. I tried to put my best face on when I went and when they saw the broken bread I expected the worst. My father began to say something, then stopped and asked me what was wrong. I told him what happened, about the fresh graffiti, how everyone went quiet when I went into the shop and how stern the baker and his wife were, and that he told me to go, right away in such a strange manner. My father looked concerned, took the bread from me, thanked me for getting it and then we sat down for dinner. I didn’t hear any more about it but that was the last time I went to the bakery or anywhere else in town by myself.
Exactly when this happened I really don’t know but it must have been in the late summer when I could still ride my bicycle to town and in the country. Soon school started and for the remainder of our time in France until my father died, I didn’t get much of a chance to get around anymore unless it was by a military bus or with my parents or their friends.
It was many years later when I studied European history before I realized what Gaulism was, the tension between the allies when de Gaulle pulled France from NATO, and the regional and world impact that these events and times had.
This incident has always troubled me over the years. It troubles me that political climates at the national level could be so intense, so crazy, that it affects how people act towards children not of their own, who simply happen to be there, completely surprised and scared that this is happening to them. To this day, I do not understand how this can happen to children simply because they are of another nationality.
Next post: Slidell, Louisiana then to Albuquerque, New Mexico.