It is 9:30 PM, and I am standing at the agreed upon meeting place in the 15th arrondissement, wondering if I really want to go through with this. It is chilly, and I am loathe to set my backpack on the wet sidewalk as the residents of this inconspicuous neighborhood walk past me on their way home to a cozy apartment and a warm bed. I try not to look threatening and suspicious as I linger in the shadows in front of what I think is the correct apartment, wondering whether I really want to go through with this, when my phone buzzes in my pocket.
“I hadn’t anticipated such a traffic jam, so I don’t think I’m going to make it by 10:00 and probably not by 10:30 either!”
I stare at the screen in disbelief.
It is Perceval, my friend Timothé’s brother whom I have never met before but who is supposed to be taking me and an undisclosed number of other friends from Paris to Delut, where Timothé is waiting for us. When Tim invited me to visit his parents’ house in Lorraine for the weekend, I thought it would be a nice getaway from the city to see another region of France, but considering that I have no idea what is going on and that his brother is already almost two hours behind schedule, I am feeling decidedly annoyed by this turn of events.
I weigh my options. It’s a three-hour drive to Lorraine from Paris, and I’m suddenly very reluctant to stick around for another hour in the dark, but I know that if I go back to my apartment, I won’t leave again.
Well, I’m not very well going to stand here and wait for a fourth text message saying he won’t arrive until 11:00. Clearly, somebody has not planned this well, at all, and I was not planning on leaving Paris at the crack of midnight.
This is awkward, but more to the point, this is irritating.
I summon my resolve and call Timothé explaining that I’m already here, but that I think I’m just going to go home since it doesn’t seem to be working out. Regretfully, of course.
But Timothé sounds disappointed. “Ok, but it’s a chance to see a bit of countryside, so…”
Ugh. I hate having to do this.
But suddenly, he starts proffering more information– it’s about time– explaining that his other brother who lives at the aforementioned apartment should be there.
I hang up, debating how obligated I am to stick this out, now. But then I remember my GISHWHES photo submission with the carpe diem sign, and something tells me to be flexible and carpe the noctem instead. So, I enter the apartment courtyard and walk up the steps, where Tim’s older brother and his wife graciously welcome me into their tiny apartment.
I give them the usual spiel about working at the embassy, and presently, a tall, demure brunette arrives with her own backpack in tow. There is something vaguely familiar about her, and then I remember that I met Maïté at the Louvre a couple of weeks earlier during a group outing with Timothé and some of his friends. She is soon joined by Faustine, a bright little bundle of French politeness.
Not long afterward, Perceval finally arrives, having been delayed during his drive up to Paris from Clermont-Ferrand in the center of France. Slightly younger than Timothé and with a military crew cut, he pauses only briefly to eat a couple bites before we’re all headed out the door into the drizzle. It takes a while to locate the car, which– as is always the case in Paris– is parked a couple of blocks away. Soon enough, we’re on our way out of the capital and onto the dark ribbon of the A4, heading toward eastern France.
By this point, it is about 11:00 P.M., so most of us fall asleep during the uneventful drive, broken only occasionally by the blindingly bright lights of the tollbooths along the autoroute. Eventually, we arrive at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I glance at my phone, which cheerily informs me that it is 3:00 in the morning. Fortunately, Timothé is waiting in the warm glow of the open door, and as we head upstairs, I am pleased to find myself appointed with a queen-sized bed in a spacious heated bedroom all to myself, a step up from my cramped, chilly apartment in Paris.
The next morning dawns grey and wet, but in the light of day, I find myself in a charming country house deep in the heart of the Lorraine countryside. The childhood home of Tim’s father, the house served as a vacation home during Tim’s childhood, even though he grew up near Toulouse, far to the southwest.
With its enormous backyard, outer wall, and servants’ quarters, this home feels like a veritable mansion compared to my crowded quarters in Paris. As we explore the pigeonnier (the pigeon house) in the corner of the yard, now empty save for a bit of dilapidated furniture and cobwebs, Timothé explains rather excitedly that the house was built in 1776, the same year as my country’s revolution. Supposedly, there are some WWII-era American rations somewhere in the attic from when our soldiers took refuge in the house during the war, but they’ve been misplaced, much to my chagrin. Returning to the large living room with its roaring fireplace and solid, wooden floor, I can’t help but be reminded of the La Madeleine restaurants I’ve visited back in the States, but this time, it’s for real.
Tim wants to show us the countryside, so despite the rain, we pile into the small car and set off along winding country lanes to the various villages in the surrounding area. I can’t help but think that it’s not so different from driving through the Texas countryside on my way to and from college, but everything here is softer and greener, and there are small mountains in the distance. We stop in a tiny village to look at a church built in the thirteenth century before heading on to the forests of Verdun, where you can still see the trenches, command posts, and bomb holes from World War I.
Tim tells me that there are even areas where it is forbidden to walk because there are still unexploded bomb shells in the forest even now, almost a century after the war.
The history in this land is palpable. Not to mention that today is November 11, Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918. Everywhere I look, there is a cemetery, or a memorial, or the abandoned ruins of a long-destroyed village. As I look at pictures of the horrors of World War I at the Verdun Ossuary, I can’t help but feel grateful that I have not been witness to such a hellish age in person– only across the centuries in photographs. As tranquil and picturesque as this country is today, it is impossible to forget that it is an ancient land marked by violence. Happily, after millennia of fighting in this contested region between France and Germany, the two European nations have achieved a peace long feared impossible. As I look east across the battle-scarred hills, it is hard to imagine our Germanic neighbors of today crossing that border in tanks and bombers. Hopefully, the only thing crossing, unhindered, between France and Germany will be cars and TGVs and ICEs.
The day is coming to a close as we drive back to the house, and all around us, crimson-kissed clouds are drifting like smoke while the setting sun glows like the fire of cannons beyond the hills. Yet there is no thunder, no refugees, no wreckage strewn along the road. Now, all is quiet and still, as the French countryside should be, and I consider myself blessed once again to have visited a new and beautiful part of this country I love.