By tradition, in France, two minutes of silence are respected at 11 am, the 11th day of the 11th month: it is at this time that the armistice was implemented. Listen to this sentence in French, just below.
JOUR DE L'ARMISTICE
: also known as Le Jour du Souvenir, and Veterans Day, November 11th is an official day to remember those who sacrificed their lives in WWI and other wars
En France, il est traditionnellement respecté deux minutes de silence à 11 h, le 11e jour du 11e mois : c'est à ce moment que l'armistice a été rendu effectif. -Wikipedia
A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE
by Kristi Espinasse
The following story may seem an unusual rememembrance, on Veterans Day, until you read to the end.
In the winter of 2001, I left work at the vineyard each night to drive myself to driving school, careful to take the back roads and to park several blocks from the Auto-École Rivière. Though I had driven for ten years in the States, and another six in France, I had failed to exchange my Arizona driver's license for a French one, having had two years to do so. Time and again, Jean-Marc assured me that I had the right to drive in France (convinced that my AAA International Driving Permit was enough, never mind the expiration date), until one day he realized that his wife was driving without insurance (!!!); that is, should she get into an accident, the insurance contract would be void ($$$) without her having a French permis de conduire.
Having spent weeknights at driving school, attending class with would-be motorists half my age, and having finally passed l'épreuve théorique, or written exam, in the town of Fréjus, I would soon be navigating the streets of Draguignan... with a stone-faced inspecteur seated beside me.
On exam day, I shared the test vehicle with a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old who had just been ordered to pull over and get out. "Out! You are a danger to yourself and to others!" the inspecteur shouted. Seated in the back of the car, waiting my turn, I tried to understand just what my unfortunate classmate had done wrong, but was jolted out of my pensées when the inspector resumed his tirade.
"FAILED!" the inspecteur barked. He shouted a few more insults before the French kid got into the back of the car, at which point I was ordered into the driver's seat: "A vous, madame!"
"Allez-y!" the inspecteur commanded, checking his watch. I said a prayer to Saint Christopher, patron saint of safe travel (not knowing who the saint was for driver's-exam scoring), put on the left-turn signal, and drove out of the quiet neighborhood into the chaotic streets of Draguignan at rush hour.
"You don't need to be so obvious!" the inspector snapped when I threw my chin left after turn-signaling. Moments ago I'd signaled a right turn and thrown my chin over my right shoulder for good measure. We had been warned in driving school to exaggerate our gestures during testing to show the inspecteur that we were aware of those dangerous "angles morts" or blind spots. "Et les vitesses!" the inspector grumbled after I'd ground the gears once again. "Oh, but aren't cars automatic in America?!" he snickered.
Though I had been stick-shifting for sixteen years, seated next to the inspecteur I felt like I was operating a vehicle for the first time. Having completed the twenty-minute parcours through the center of Draguignan, where the unpredictable French pedestrian is king and capable of jumping from sidewalk to street center in the blink of an eye, I followed the inspecteur's instructions, pulling up in front of the American cemetery, which seemed like a bad omen to me. The inspecteur sat silently, filling out paperwork, before announcing it was time to check my vision. He ordered me to read the sign across the street. Squinting my eyes, I began:
"World War II Rhone American Cemetery and Memor...".
Before I had even finished reading, the inspector scribbled something across the page, tore off the sheet, and mumbled "Félicitations."
Ornery as he was, I had the urge to throw my arms around the inspecteur and plant a kiss beside his angry brow; only, the commandant was no longer facing me, but looking out over the quiet green fields dotted white with courage, lost in another place and time.
Books about the war in France...by our readers! If your French war-related book isn't mentioned, remind me and I'm happy to add it to the list
La Réunion: Finding Gilbert by Diane Covington-Carter
Alan's Letters, by Nancy Rial
Your name is Renée: Ruth Kapp Hartz's story as a Hidden Child in Nazi-Occupied France
Auto-École Rivière = Riviera Driving School
le permis (m) de conduire = driver's license
l'inspecteur (l'inspectrice) = inspector
la pensée = thought
A vous, madame = Your turn, Madam
Et les vitesses! = And the gears!
le parcours = driving route
les félicitations (fpl) = congratulations
le commandant = captain
It is soon to be 11 a.m. and Smokey and I are on our way down to the beach, to join others in a few moments of silence. Feel free to share something about Le Jour du Souvenir or Veterans Day, in the comments below.
Meet Jean-Marc and our son Max in Texas and in Portland.
Houston, TX : December 13th at 7 PM
Nous n'oublierons jamais. We will not forget.
Back, now, from the beach. Smokey and I were seated on a bench, waiting for the 11th hour when a man walked into this very scene. A newsboy cap on his head, scraggly hair sticking out, and a fuzzy salt and pepper beard, he stood beside that tree and began to stare out to sea. His face was puffy and his eyes were glazed. I thought, He, too, must be observing Remembrance Day.
I had the urge to say something to him. Instead, I looked around to see if others had paused, as it was now exactly 11 a.m. There was a woman in the sea doing aerobics. A couple jogging by with their dog. A kid on a skateboard whirled by, right between the sad looking man and I. The man's seaward gaze broke. No, he, like the others, is thinking of something else, I thought.
Another moment later, a woman appeared a few meters away and the man turned and walked toward her. That's when the tears broke. He wiped his eyes on the back of each shirt sleeve. He had spent his moment of silence alone, as planned, and returned now to his companion.
Thank you for the time you've spent reading my column. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next story, please know that ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue doing what I love most: sharing these missives from France. Your support is vivement apprécié! Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment! Kristi