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Warmth of French makes up for frosty weather

Last month, my wife, Linda, and I made a bittersweet trip to France. Her father, Robert Keller of Corydon, was killed in action on Nov. 19, 1944, in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France. At his expressed wish, he lies buried at U.S. Military Cemetery near Epinal, France, along with more than 5,000 other Americans who fell liberating Europe.
A French family, the Valentins, have watched over his grave for 64 years. When Linda’s mother died last spring in Bloomington, a month shy of her 93rd birthday, we sought to fulfill her request to have a portion of her ashes spread in France near where Bob lies.
We would have preferred travel in late April or May, but the imminent arrival of two (yes, two) new grandchildren meant it would have to be March. Since we were going to France, we decided to add visits to family and friends.
It has become the fashion in recent years to make disparaging comments about the French. This lack of civility even extended to renaming the french fries in the U.S. Senate dining room ‘freedom fries.’ On the other hand, our contact with the French people over the years has been both delightful and supportive.
Now the French do have a few habits that are a little odd, but then doesn’t everybody? I often find myself in disagreement with French foreign policy, but then I often find myself in disagreement with American foreign policy.
With this in mind, we began our trip with a visit to a cousin who lives in a huge old home over looking the Mayenne River in central France. It is so large and elaborate that it probably rates the title chateau. Portions of the main building date to the 14th century. Time has not been altogether kind to the chateau and its out buildings, and cousin Irene is now beginning an extended effort to modernize and redecorate it so it will become something that can turn a profit. She herself is remodeling the farm manager’s quarters and will live there.
For now, the main house is pretty much as it might have been 220 years ago when the French Revolution was on the horizon. It was pleasant to wake up and open glass doors that led to a small balcony and look down over a timeless landscape and the slow moving river 70 feet below. Breakfast was in a dining room complete with elaborate fireplace and 200-year-old oak paneling. A tiny taste of a long-ago aristocratic world.
We left there and went to Brittany, the western most portion of France poking out into the Atlantic Ocean. Here, we stayed with Poiriers whose daughter Sophie was the first foreign exchange student we had live in our home. We have become good friends with the whole family. Her parents, Marie Terese and Jean Piere, are now retired and live near Sophie, who, along with her partner George, operate a small local bar that caters to fishermen and others seeking a glass or two of wine and a place where ‘everyone knows your name.’
We ate well and attended church on Easter Sunday in a small village, portions of which date to the 1300s. Some of the statues on the outside were so weathered they had the droopy forms of melted wax.
Inside, the walls and floor were of rough-cut stone. The decoration was restrained ‘ a few Biblical statues and a bishop or two and several large carved wooden reliefs of saints. Beginning at the back of the altar, the wall then across the entire ceiling to the back of the church was painted a rich teal blue.
The service began with a processional. A small, gray-bearded priest came in dipping a sprig of palm leaves into holy water and flicking it over the congregation. I caught the spray full in the face as if to rebuke for my non-church attendance back home. At the back of the church, an enthusiastic member pulled three different bell ropes.
Although my lack of knowledge of Catholic ritual combined with my dim comprehension of French to obscure much of the service, I was struck by the simple longevity of belief. For more than 700 years, people have gathered in this building to affirm their belief in God.
The Church has had significant highs and lows. The lows included the Catholic-Protestant religious wars of the 17th century. There was the anti-Catholic hysteria that accompanied the French Revolution when priests were murdered and churches renamed temples of reason. Even today there is a quiet crisis ‘ of the 90 or so people in church only five or six were under 50 years of age. Through it all the Church survives.
Somehow the service also reminded me of the two precepts of Christianity I find most appealing: the forgiveness of sin and the sense of the community of believers.
Finally, it was to Epinal via the TGV, the 200-mph railroad train that fires you across France. There we met a warm welcome from the Valentins and drove the few miles to the carefully maintained American cemetery with its row upon row of crosses interspersed with stars of David all resting in beauty and dignity above the Mosselle River.
We laid our tulips on the still snow-covered grave of Capt. Robert Keller, United States Army. To visit such places is to have a fuller understanding of sacrifice. One of the cemetery employees asked if we would like to help him lower the American flag, signifying the end of the work day. It was a solemn task we were happy to do.
Our last few days were spent eating (more later), walking in the old town and carrying on somewhat disjointed conversations in odd combinations of French and English. In short, I would highly recommend France in March for those who like high winds, rain, sleet, snow and frosty weather. The people are warm enough to make up for it all.
Thanks for reading and good news to you.