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l’Onzième heure de l’Onzième Jour de l’Onzième Mois 12/11/2009

Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris, Leçons Culturelles.
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Plaque Commémorative

Yesterday was Armistice Day, celebrating the cessation of hostilities along the Western Front and essentially ending the first world war. This is a national holiday here, much as Veteran’s Day (as it has come to be known after World War II) is in the States, which translates to a day off for many.

Our main concern not being able to get groceries. Additional supplies were procured in advance and stock-piled in the event of an emergency. The fact that the nearest market was going to open until one-thirty was deliriously exciting. I expected abandoned streets, somber rumination, maybe the distant burst of cannons to mark statistics of history.

There must have been an official event to mark the date, honor the dead and to reflect. Perhaps in the plaza of Hotel de Ville, perhaps by the eternal flame under l’Arc de Triomphe. This supposed reporter could have sought information but, if you’ll kindly remember, he was preparing for a Katrina-style period of depravation and became so preoccupied the thought didn’t occur until the afternoon. My first national holiday and I completely fail to check it out– no wonder they won’t issue me a visa.

America is such a young country, and the west coast is particularly deprived of history in many ways. Boston and Philadelphia feel as though they’ve been transported from another time but there’s very little which could be compared to the age of things in Europe. America also hasn’t enjoyed war on its own soil for generations so there’s a feeling of distance from events. You can visit the museum at Pearl Harbor but Hawaii’s kind of like a foreign place; you can watch re-enactments at Gettysberg but blunderbusses and musketballs recall movies more than something that actually happened.

History is alive here: there’s countless memorials and dedications; there’s bullet holes in buildings. I made the acquaintance of a neighbor, a nice older woman who trolled through her memory for whatever English she could grasp to compensate for my extraordinarily poor French. It was pleasant conversation, and I appreciate her effort to be friendly (although this may have been a cunning prelude to asking us to keep the music down next time I saw her) but the most profound result of our exchange took place after we parted ways. If this woman wasn’t alive during the second world war she undoubtedly was born soon after, growing up in a time and place scarred by immense suffering. I’ve known and spoken with veterans of wars– Vietnam, Korean, Iraq Pt.s 1 & 2– and have glimpsed the damage trapped inside. I can’t imagine growing up in a city once occupied, tanks rolling down the streets and paramilitaries shot down in the sewers.

Crepes avec Nutella

One of the girls’ classmates hosted a crepe party in the late afternoon. This wasn’t to celebrate anything other than a day off school and her boyfriend’s brief sojourn from his studies in England. Between combating the hyperglycemic assault of Nutella and torturing Gustav the Bunny conversation meandered between topics of school and fashion, language and culture. No one thought about the Armistice, no one thought about the veterans, least of all me. Sitting with two bonafide French, already having irritated myself by skipping attempts to explore whatever celebrations could be found in the city, I missed another opportunity for any insight because it only occurred to me later.

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