Welcome to France
June 5 2012
Here I am again in France. Actually, I arrived Sunday at 7 am, and took the
bus to Paris, where I used a free night I had at any Hyatt in the world for
the Park Hyatt in Paris. The one right next to Cartier. The one that costs
$850 per night - for those actually willing to pay $850 per night for a room
in a hotel. I'll lay odds that those people do not take the bus from Charles
de Gaulle airport and walk the two city blocks to the hotel themselves.
But it didn't stop me from waltzing up with 75 pounds of luggage and
recording equipment in tow. The new roller bags make this an absolute joy. I
could have pulled the whole getup with two fingers, it rolled so smoothly
Of course, with the French Open and summer tourist season in swing, no rooms
were available at 8 am. After breakfast by a roaring fireplace ($30 for a
glass of milk and some yoghurt) I was escorted to the spa. It was just
seconds after a soak in the mineral hot spa that I found myself wrapped in a
fat robe on an overstuffed lounge chair groggily opening my eyes to see a
clock with both hands at 1200 high.
The gentleman at the front desk did not hand me my room key, instead he
escorted me to my room and showed me where the safe, complimentary Evian,
and electronic shade openers were. My bags had already been delivered. I was
somewhat confused whether I should tip or not. He wasn't a bellboy and we
were in France, and frankly, the $30 for breakfast had killed my budget for
the day. Some of the hotel-motels I normally frequent with our non-profit
budget have cop cars parked ass-in to the front door. They had not prepared
me for this experience.
After a short nap on the 1000-count sheets I grabbed my my video-camera and
walked to the regional train station a short two blocks away. On the way
passing the glorious Opera I saw not only homeless, but entire families
complete with matresses camped out in the sidewalks, Calcutta-style. As
jaded as one gets in America to the homeless, I couldn't help but be
shocked, especially after all the flak we take from the Europeans on our
social programs. Now I was in the heart of France, which has just elected a
socialist president, and walking through the one of the poshest shopping
districts in the world. Did I just hear someone say, "Let them eat cake"!?
It must have been my imagination running wild.
Going down five levels ever deeper into the less-than-pristine underground
(ineffective signs forbidding urinating in public placed strategically
throughout), I boarded a spectacularly filthy regional train bound for the
suburbs. Two stops before my destination a disheveled and un-showered
specimen sat himself down directly across from me and leered steadily. Mind
you, I am no slim, young, innocent flower, and haven't been for 20 years or
more. When ignoring him didn't work, I got up and relocated.
Unfortunately, that didn't deter him. He followed me when I detrained,
offering suggestions about what we could do in the park down the way. When
putting up the hand, and a few well-chosen words did not have the desired
effect, I ducked into an open store and finally lost him.
After buying a bottle of Bordeaux as a gift, I found the rental house where
a party of Americans on a three-week European tour was temporarily lodging.
This delightful group included two WW2 veterans and children and
grandchildren of others, all from the 70th Infantry Division, the
Trailblazers, who fought in Alsace-Lorraine and Saarbrucken at the end of war. I came to meet Dale, whom I had already interviewed on the phone,
and Vern, whom I interviewed while dinner was being cooked by the gang. Of
course their combat stories interested me (Dale had lost a leg to a shell
from his own unit while being taken prisoner by the Germans, and a German
soldier had saved his life. Vern was a medic). But what led me to them wastheir unusual story of reconciliation with their former adversaries, the 5th
SS Nord Mountain Division, known as the Black Edelweiss.
They had found each other in the 70's. After the Trailblazers checked with
the appropriate US government officials to ensure no atrocities had been
committed by this Waffen-SS unit, they welcomed the Germans to their
reunions. The welcome was whole-heartedly reciprocated.
In the 80's, Ronald Reagan visited Germany, and the itinerary included a
visit to Bitburg cemetery, where many Wehrmacht soldiers are buried. Bitburg
also is the final resting place of a handful of young Waffen-SS killed at
the very end of the war, when children were being thrown into the line. When
certain groups found out Reagan and Kohl would be visiting a cemetery that
included these few graves of Waffen-SS, the uproar in the media was
Not only did these groups try to derail the visit, to the enormous pain of
the residents of Bitburg, who 40 years on finally wanted to publicly
acknowledge and honor their war dead, but they also discovered the
Trailblazer tie to the Black Edelweiss. They applied pressure and heaped the
Trailblazers with condemnation.
In the end, Reagan added a trip to a death camp to his itinerary, but would
not be deterred from visiting Bitburg.
And the quiet and modest Trailblazers? Well, they figured as combat veterans
it was no one else's business what they did, and they wouldn't let anyone
stop them from meeting with their honorable former adversaries.
On my quest to understand reconciliation between enemies and between
civilians and veterans, it was a story I needed to capture.
After an astoundingly good night's sleep back in luxury central followed by
a glorious soak in a marble bath, I took the bus back to CDG, and rented a
tiny Peugeot for the trip to Normandy. My mission: to lay flowers on the
graves of Robert Sweatt's crewmembers who did not survive the January 7
Underway I witnessed multiple failures by French drivers to show courtesy to
their fellow countrymen on the road. To be honest, as an American, we cannot
claim innocence in this area.
However, when my lane ended due to road construction, and all the cars in
front of me had successfully merged, I found myself completely shut out by a
van of three plumbers from Bayeux. I patiently inched forward as the stop
and go traffic moved forward, but no matter how much I politely persisted,
they refused to let me in. I know I should have dropped back and ignored the
slight, but it just felt so rude that these three Frenchmen would not makeway for a lady just taking her turn.
In response, I flashed a very unladylike internationally-known hand gesture
and pulled in front of the car in front of them, where there was an enormous
gap. Of course I shouldn't have, but I simply couldn't help myself.
This did not sit well with the Frenchmen, who insisted on communicating
their displeasure at the first opportunity. When the road returned to two
lanes and they could, they pulled alongside me and displayed a wide variety
of French non-verbal communication followed by a move to swerve me off the
side of the road. I was in a miniscule two-door Peugeot, they were in a
Yet it is not so easy to scare an American driver, especially one trained in
Southern California defensive driving tactics. I ignored their ridiculous
attempt to intimidate me and actually laughed out loud when they finally
moved on, and I saw a stream of paper flapping out of the rear of their vehicle, like toilet paper stuck to their shoe.
Later, when I thought of all the Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who
died and were wounded while liberating France, I had some hard moments and
my thoughts were not at all amusing. But three plumbers from Bayeux hardly
represent the whole French population.
Today is bound to be filled with welcoming French and I'm sure I'll have
wonderful stories to tell you soon.
In everlasting optimism,