The Ecphorizer

In France on Liberation Day
George Towner

Issue #35 (July 1984)

Why so many veterans can't fit into their uniforms anymore

My favorite hotel in southern France has only six rooms, and the communal toilet is built into a disuse staircase. You open the door to the stairs, walk up three steps, and sit down. But each room contains a tiny kitchen, with a closet full of pots and table service for four. It's a

A Frenchman's mind never strays far from his stomach.

good place to hang out. Room 5, my favorite in this hotel, was converted from the old grenier or storage [quoteright]attic. It opens onto a private rooftop terrace where you can write, eat, sunbathe, or gaze out over the tidy Provencal countryside. I am sitting on that terrace now, typing this article.

The hotel is called La Sousto; it is located in Fayence, about 30 miles inland from San Raphael. Fayerice is a medium-sized village: for instance, it has a bank but no cinema. Nevertheless, it houses eight restaurants, one of which boasts a Michelin rosette. The village is perched on a hillside overlooking a lush valley filled with small farms and vineyards. Seen from below, its red tiled roofs form a splashy patchwork against the green background of cypresses, olive and fig trees.

Like every respectable French village, Fayence contains a monument to its war dead-les enfants de Fayence mort pour la Patrie. The original structure was built in 1919; it is a short granite column, on top of which a stone soldier in an overcoat and pot-helmet surveys the central square. The side plaques list 46 names for World War I. After World War II the monument was still in good shape, so the thrifty French found room on it for the new names. In other villages you can sometimes see yet more names added, for Indochina, Algeria, Chad and Lebanon. The French have gotten quite weary of adding names, and besides they are running out of room on their monuments.

Yesterday, May 8th, was Liberation Day; 39 years ago France was rescued from the Nazis. De Gaulle, Churchill and Eisenhower rode down the Champs Elysees while bands played the Marseillaise, and everybody wept for joy. Yesterday in every French city and village the same ceremony took place. It was a ritual of remembrance for the dead, as well as an opportunity to remind the current generation what happened, who did it, and why. We, who have never seen jack-booted invaders marching through our streets, must exercise our empathy to appreciate the intensity with which these events are recalled here. In mid-morning, people began to gather in the square. Many men wore decorations-medals and combat ribbons pinned to their business suits. Here and there you could see the modest red riband of the Legion of Honor. A local brass band assembled, their instruments shimmering in the sun. Two gendarmes in neat blue uniforms halted traffic through the square. Someone opened the gate in the metal railing that surrounds the monument.

At exactly 11:30, the band struck up a march. A delegation of village officials, the depot des gerbes, unfurled flags for the veterans' organization and the city council. They marched an enormous floral wreath up to the base of the monument. They stepped back and faced the crowd. The band paused and then launched into The Marseillaise. Of all national anthems, ours included, this is certainly the most stirring. It speaks equally of valor and democracy: "Aux armes citoyens!" The band played with gusto. The two gendarrnes saluted; everybody else stood at attention. Afterward the crowd applauded.

Then the head of the veterans' organization stood in front of the monument and motioned everyone closer. The people gathered in a semicircle around him. He reminded them of how the Second World War had touched everybody-not just the soldiers in uniform, but also the Resistance fighters, the people deported to extermination camps, the villagers bombed in their homes. They died, he said, so France itself would survive. It had survived, and would continue to do so. He finished with the formula "Vive la France!" The way he said it was not rabble-rousing, but rather firm and determined. France would live.

The mayor finished with a short address. He emphasized the solemnity of the occasion and its historical background. "Never forget" was his message. Then he ended with the welcome information that the Salle des Fetes was now open.

A Frenchman's mind never strays far from his stomach. It is typical that this day of remembrance should be accompanied by a good drink. The characteristic ceremony is called an aperitif d'honneur-a toast, as it were, to the dead. In the Salle des Fetes one street below the square, tables had been laid out with glasses and bottles. There was pastis the anise-flavored liqueur so beloved of the French; vermouth, both red and white; muscadet wine; and fruit juices for those who were watching their livers. Dishes of local olives and fresh-baked little breadsticks provided munchies. The crowd trooped in and set to.

Meanwhile, the band had established itself at the end of the salle. They played a series of tunes, mostly French, that recalled the war years. Among them was "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue."  I guess it applies to the Tricolour as well as to the Stars and Stripes. As the aperitifs did their job, there was a lot of backslapping and kissing on cheeks. Several couples got up and danced.

Finally the aperitifs ran out and it came to that most sacred period of the day, Lunchtime. The villagers drifted away. In July they would celebrate Bastille Day, the birth of republican France, and in November they would salute the morts from World War I. Is it too much to remember your country three times each year? Not for the French. They have worked hard and sacrificed much for what they have. Keeping it requires a lot of remembering.

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