Friday, January 7, 2011

My First Americans


pen and watercolor

Some stories are easy to tell while others are not. Reasons are often complex and, seemingly, as numerous as the stars in the sky. This story should be straightforward but it isn’t. Over time, it has taken on layers of meaning, becoming increasingly textured and rich, like a good painting. In the telling, every nuance matters because now I realize that it was a defining moment in my life.

The time is my middle childhood. The setting was a park in the suburbs of Paris, le Bois de Boulogne. From the bare trees and dead leaves of my memory, I would say we were just going into or pulling out of winter.

When I say park, you may think of a well designed National or even State Park complete with rangers on trails, pine cones and the scent of fir trees, sightings of mountain goats and warnings of bears. No, this was a deciduous forest. It was surrounded on all sides by habitations of men; there were no evergreens, no bears, no mountains. It was a respite from buildings and roads perhaps but it was not really another world. I never remember seeing wildlife save birds in trees or the occasional hare, there was no expansive wilderness to be held in awe. Neither were there inviting clearings with barbecue pits and picnic tables, there were no restrooms, no helpful trail markers, no hiking plans. It was undeveloped and tame at the same time.

I do not remember the occasion for our gathering but a birthday, mine or my sister’s, may well have been the impetus. Maybe that is what makes this story so hard to tell. 

You see France was my mother’s country. She was, after all, French and had resorted there again with the two of us and her Dutch companion after her divorce from my father some years before. My father, on the other hand, was Dutch. In the Europe of that day, different countries were different worlds. Undoubtedly widened by the divorce, the chasm between the two countries had become impassable to me. I never saw my mother again in Holland after that. She had apparently never liked it much and had completely reverted to her French roots, Dutch companion notwithstanding; he, for his part, seemed eager to cross the border and follow her over into the French way of life. 

I did see my father in France many times after that when he would pick us up for visitation and in spite of our adoration for him, that was often how it felt: an artificially designated time, legally instituted and required. It took years before I would understand what it all meant to him.  While he spoke French with ease, he did so without regard for grammar or pronunciation. I did always admire his pluck as he spoke street German, English and Italian the same way:  serviceably but not artfully.  What I admired about him was that he seemed to know no fear, French sensibilities would just have to fend for themselves. True, he was able to communicate but to my young mind it always seemed to underline the fact that he did not belong there.

My father had remarried and begun a new family. By this time, I had two new brothers to play with during those visitations. All were present that day at the park. We must have had a fairly typical picnic of sandwiches for I do not remember it. Camping was the normal way to spend a holiday for us everyday Europeans; it had been honed to a science of tents, fold out chairs, a burner, tea, bread and packaged soup. This picnic was a well organized mini camping trip, minus the chairs, the burner and the tent: a simple blanket marked our grounds. If we had a ball or badminton rackets I do not remember it. We children were mostly left to our own devices when we were not eating, going to school or sleeping and in that sense we were perfectly normal for our day.

As it happened, we had neighbors in the park that day, which, in itself was not unusual; what was extraordinary is that these were not Europeans. How did I know that? Well it was obvious, anyone would have known: first of all they were beefier than the rest of us, their clothes seemed more casual too, a bit looser perhaps. They were clearly of African origin but these, I was certain, were no Africans: again, they were beefier. It reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the Beach Boys. There was that same charming ease in their demeanor, they were relaxed, as if they weren’t trying to impress anyone. I believe it was my father who explained they were Americans. I later realized that my father had met Americans as a lad, when they came to liberate his country from the Nazis.  It was an American who gave my father his first chocolate bar. He has never forgotten them, he remains grateful to this day. At that time, I knew none of that. For me, that day in the park, it was love at first sight.

To complete the picture was the fact that they had what I later came to know as the sine qua non of American outdoor eating: a Barbecue. I was mesmerized. This was not some little contraption close to the ground as what my mother brought out with burning coals for occasional brochettes, no, this thing stood on its own legs and big flames came licking up through the grill at what appeared to be gigantic (I was a child) slabs of meat. I know I stared. The man whom I considered to be the patriarch of the group was standing watch, turning the meat over and waiting.

The others were either lying down or standing around in groups; many had brown bottles in their hands. I was captivated and had to find a way to get closer. I asked my father to teach me the English phrase I hoped would let me in. He told me and, repeating the phrase in my head, I cautiously made my way over to my patriarch, half expecting a dissuading frown. There was none so I tried my first English phrase ever: "may I watch the fire?"

By my childhood reckoning and not in physical terms but relational ones, his arms flew wide open. Not only could I watch the fire but my siblings and I were all given to share in the feast. His generosity was almost overwhelming. I don’t remember the food nearly as much as I remember the kindness. I stayed with him until we left.

As I was observing the group I noticed one man, he was lying on the grassy slope and seemed asleep but I didn’t think it was possible to sleep with all the goings on. I asked the patriarch about the man on the grass, how I don’t know, I’ve often wondered since, perhaps he spoke enough French. He turned back to look at his friend then slowly resumed his grilling duties in silence: “ he misses home” he finally said without lifting his eyes...

I immediately felt sorry for the man, why couldn’t he go home? I was also concerned because something seemed terribly wrong. I had been intensely homesick for Holland since arriving in France but had never found sleeping to take that ache away. I was worried he would wake up just as sad.

I fell in love with those Americans that day. The sorrow of the one man and the way the others bore him along only confirmed to me these people were real, flesh and blood and vulnerable like myself; it made me sad but did not repel me. I knew sadness. What I never forgot was their largesse (a good French word denoting the big giving swing of an opening arm); I never forgot their easy going ways, the utter lack of pretension. My heart was indelibly marked that day. 

Later on, in my teenage years, learning English became a goal and my determination may well have been fueled by that first unforgettable meeting. What I didn't know, is that I would in time become one of them. Oh Happy Day.

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