The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to America in 1886. My first concert tour with The Boeing Employees Choir was 100 years later, in 1986. At the invitation of the Seattle Sister City of Nantes, we met the French people, and I am forever changed.
We performed a lovely concert for a full house in the Cathédrale Saint Pierre et Saint Paul, and the next day (I think) we were taking a touristy dinner boat ride to see the beautiful homes along the river. The boat full, with about 350 mostly French people. The choir was in the main room. As we almost always did, we sat at our tables and sang. For our first song, we started singing “Le Chevaliers de la Table Ronde” (The knights of the Round Table), of which we had learned the chorus and one verse earlier that day. We were so proud of ourselves.
Wow, every person on the boat joined in with hearty voices, going on to sing all nine or so verses, which we mumbled along with. It was such fun! Everyone applauded afterwards. So, we who love applause, sang one of our rousing American spirituals. They loved it and applauded heartily. Then, all of them sang a French folk song that was charming and beautiful. We were delighted, and there was more applause. We took turns singing more songs for much of the evening.
Dinner had included wine, and I mention this only to explain the crazy thing I did next. As conductor, I asked our choir to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” So we stood, and in a confined space with over 300 fiercely patriotic French people, we sang the American national anthem, having no clue how it might be received in a foreign country.
To our astonishment, everyone on the boat stood up, gathered the candles from their tables, and held them over their heads in a salute that stuns me still to this day. In fact, it was difficult to sing because of the lumps in our throats. Afterwards, they put their candles down and everyone applauded. Immediately, someone started “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, so we Americans stood and held our candles high over our heads.
When we got back to the dock, we were immediately surrounded. Many people, little children to old people, gave us two kisses on each cheek. Some spoke in French, or Hungarian, assuming we understood their words, but it was OK; we understood their faces and their voices. Some said they had been to America or had relatives who lived there. And I may have heard someone say, “My cousin lives in Cleveland. Do you know him?” Maybe not.
On that same tour, in fact, on the Fourth of July, we visited the cemetery near the Normandy Beaches, where thousands of American and British soldiers lie in graves marked with crosses, stars of David, and Islamic crescents. Every one of them died to free Europe on D-Day, which marked the beginning of the end for Nazi terrorist rule in Europe.
A small chapel on the memorial grounds had the history of the D-Day invasion covering the walls. We read the history in reverent silence, and just before we left, we sang our national anthem. It was extremely difficult to sing that song, on that day, in that place. When the song ended, we quietly turned to leave, and surrounding the door outside the chapel, discovered a group of French school children on a class visit to the memorial. They were standing in quiet reverence, and parted to let us pass. As we were leaving, several of them said, “Merci, America.”
Since then, my wife and I have been to Europe numerous times, and have always tried to make sure that France, and especially Paris, is in the plan. On our last visit, we had taken a bike tour along the Loire valley with a bunch of old people (us); biking from castle to castle, with evenings spent in lovely country inns. Our trip ended with several days in Paris in a hotel room with a terrible bed.
No worries, there is always breakfast. This is probably our most treasured morning pastime anywhere in France. First, we walk down the street to find a patisserie where we buy two of the most yummy croissants in the world. That is, if we can resist buying two of some other of the best pastries in the world. Then, we walk further down the street to find a café, and if the weather is warm, a sidewalk café. As we walk in, I call out,”Deux grands cafés au lait , s’il vous plaît!” It makes me feel so French.
When the waiter sees our little bag of pastries on the table, as a common courtesy when brings our coffees, he also brings plates for our pastries.
I only know two complete sentences in French that aren’t in a song. Most of my French consists of two or three words at a time, and they aren’t always the syntactically best choices. But because I try to at least pronounce them correctly, I am always forgiven. The other sentence that gets a lot of exercise on my visits to France is “Pardon, je ne parle pas français,” which means, “Sorry, I don’t speak French.” If I get the pronunciation just right, they are confused as to what they should say next, and in what language. But because I care and I try, I am forgiven.
On that trip, the highlight of our last night was a lovely dinner at a sidewalk restaurant near Montmartre. Just before my last bite, I stopped to enjoy the evening, my wife, and the atmosphere in Paris. Suddenly, the waiter swooped by and tried to take my plate. “Non fini,” I said very quickly. He nodded and went his way. Later, he came back, motioned to my plate as if to ask if I am now finished.
I nodded, and said, “Je fini.” Which means, “I am finished” in my oddly characteristic two-word syntax.
He looked a little surprised, smiled and said, “Monsieur, you have just told me you are dead!”
I laughed so hard I almost slid under the table. “Ah! C’est fini!” I babbled through my laughter, which means “IT is finished,” a far more appropriate response even with only two words.
Yes, I love France, and especially Paris. I am grateful that the people have forgiven me for so many faux pas. Today, in November, 2015, when so many died in Paris from terrorist attacks, my wish for France and for the world, is that peace, joy, grace, and yes, even forgiveness, spread across the planet and deep into the hearts of all its people.