Select Page
Armistice Day – Today We Remember

Armistice Day – Today We Remember

Armistice Day – Today We Remember

Signing Of The Armistice, 11th November 1918 by Maurice Pillard Verneuil

November 11, 1918: After the signing of the Armistice. Foch’s chief of staff Maxime Weygand is second from left. Third from the left is the senior British representative, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Foch is second from the right. On the right is Admiral George Hope. | Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

A Day of Rememberance
For Those Lost
In The Great War

In the early hours of the morning on November 11th, 1918, a small group of men led by Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch met secretly in a train carriage parked in a clearing in the Forest of Compiègne, in northeastern France. Both sides had arrived three days earlier, and the Allies presented the terms of the truce. Foch gave the German delegation 72 hours to accept the agreement that would end The Great War.

At 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns would finally fall silent on the Western Front after more than four years of war. Sadly, more than 11,000 soldiers and civilians were killed or injured in the final hours before the Armistice took effect. In some places, news of the cease-fire took even longer to arrive, and the full demobilization of forces was not complete until 1920. In the end, the conflict claimed 20 million lives – soldiers and civilians, and wounded another 23 million.

In an unbelievable and unfortunate series of events, the war’s end was falsely reported to media outlets abroad four days before the Armistice was actually signed. Headlines announced the peace, and celebrations broke out in the streets as the jubilant news quickly spread. By that evening, the true situation came to light. On the 8th, all the papers could do was attempt to explain the strange circumstances that led to the incredible error. Thankfully, the end of the war was actually near, and the headlines and celebrations resumed just days later.

Paris, November 11th, 1918. Everyone all but went mad on Armistice Day in Paris. Here is part of the crowd which serged about the great streets around the church of the Madeleine, and extending far down Rue Royale to Place de la Concorde. Caption from Catalogue of Official A.E.F. photographs taken by the Signal Corps, U.S.A., |  Source: Library of Congress

“Am I dreaming? I wonder if I am… As soon as I realize how happy I am,
I think of my brother and sister, both victims of the war, and my eyes mist over.”

“More than ever I am convinced that the war is over. The weapons have been put down: they will not be picked up again. I still have much to write, but finally the whir of the shells and the whistling of the bullets are over.”

French soldier Sergeant Major Alfred Roumiguieres, 343rd infantry regiment, upon learning of the Armistice

Northeastern France and Belgium bore the brunt of the battles on the Western front. Near Verdun, where intense shelling raged for over 300 days, more than 500,000 French soldiers perished. Nearly 500 square miles of French countryside remain so contaminated and transfigured that the area is restricted to this day. The French government declared this ‘Zone Rouge’, red zone, too dangerous and too expensive to rebuild after the war. Live shells, barbed wire, and the remnants of war still linger in the cracks and crevices of the former battlefields, intermingled with moss and grass as nature slowly reclaims the cratered surfaces.

Nine villages within the red zone were left wholly decimated. Road signs identify them as ‘village détruit’ – destroyed village. These ghost villages retain their status as official communes and bear testament to the history that unfolded there. They endure as sacred places that ‘died for France’ and serve as a poignant visual reminder of the war.

For France, the toll in human life was staggering; more than 4% of its population lost in just over four years.

  • 1,357,000 Soldiers Killed
  • 4,266,000 Soldiers Wounded
  • 40,000 Civilian Deaths from Military Actions
  • Hundreds of thousands more from Malnourishment & Disease

Looking back through the lens of history, the idealistic reference to WWI as ‘The War to End All Wars’ may seem naive, but it’s not hard to imagine the appeal of the sentiment at the time, and its usefulness in rallying soldiers to war. Ultimately, the Allies had to extend the Armistice of November 1918 multiple times until the war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. Sadly, in just 20 short years, another generation would be on the battlefields of Europe in the deadliest war in human history, WWII.

Tribute To The Fallen: Battle Of The Somme filmed at the THIEPVAL MEMORIAL (Nimrod – Grimethorpe Colliery Band) |  Video by Woutre

After the first anniversary of the WWI cease-fire, Armistice Day became an annual day of remembrance in France. In 1922 it became an official public holiday. Post-WWII, the holiday was expanded to pay tribute to all who served and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for France.

In 1938 the U.S. made Veteran’s Day an official holiday. Britain observed November 11th as Armistice Day from 1919-1945. During WWII, the holiday was renamed Remembrance Sunday and moved to the 2nd Sunday of November.

In the U.S. and U.K., the red poppy is worn to honor war veterans. In France, it’s ‘le bleuet,’ the blue cornflower that adorns lapels and is considered France’s official remembrance flower. Like the poppy, the cornflower is a wildflower that bloomed on the battlefields of France. To the soldiers, it was a symbol of hope and beauty among the horrors of war. Its blue color is a nod to the French Soldiers’ blue uniforms. Today, proceeds from the sale of cloth bleuets go to support Veterans organizations.

A war amputee selling bleuets on the Champs-Élysées, 4 July 1919. | Source: Wikimedia Public Domain

The last surviving French Veteran of WWI, Lazare Ponticelli, passed away in 2008, aged 110. An Italian by birth, he moved to Paris as a young child and found work as a chimney sweep and newspaper boy. When the war broke out in 1914, he lied about his age and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion at age 16. He went on to serve in both the French and Italian armies. After the war, he returned to Paris and became a French citizen. He participated in the annual Armistice Day ceremonies until 2007, a year before his death.

In France today, the Armistice is commemorated annually with solemn ceremonies and military parades across the country. Nearly every commune in France has a war memorial in the city-center listing the names of those who died for France. A minute of silence is observed at 11:00 am, marking the time the cease-fire took effect.

In Paris, the French President pays tribute to George Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France during the Great war, by laying a wreath beneath his statue in the garden of the Petit Palais. A procession continues up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe where a massive French flag hangs from the center of the arch, waving above the Veterans, dignitaries, and spectators gathered to observe the ceremonies. The President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, rekindles the eternal flame, and leads a moment of silence. A review of the troops and a military parade along the Champs Élysées creates a striking display of pageantry and tradition. A solemn evening vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown concludes the day’s events. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, officials canceled the 2020 parade and scaled-back events throughout the country.

November 11th, 2020, Armistice Day Observed in Paris  |  Video by France 24 [English 3:21]

This year, France bestowed its highest honor on World War I Veteran and writer Maurice Genevoix by inducting his remains into the Panthéon on Wednesday. The somber ceremony featured dramatic imagery from the war projected on the Panthéon’s facade and interiors combined with readings from the young soldier’s memoirs from the front. After the war, Genevoix compiled his writings into a book entitled ‘Ceux de 14’, Those of 14. He also went on to spearhead the creation of the Memorial of Verdun in the 1960s. The memorial and military museum pays homage to both the French and German combatants and the civilians lost during the Battle of Verdun.

Excerpt from ‘Neath Verdun by Maurice Genevoix

Wednesday, September 9th, 1914.

“Not a wink of sleep. The noise of the shells hurtling through the air is constantly in my ears, while the acrid and suffocating fumes of explosives haunt my nostrils. Scarcely yet is it midnight before I receive orders to depart. I emerge from the trusses of wheat and rye among which I had ensconced myself. Bits of stalk have slipped down my collar and up my sleeves, and tickle me all over. The night is so dark that we stumble over the stones and irregularities of the ground. We pass very close to some 120’s drawn up behind us; I hear the voices of the artillerymen, but only with difficulty can I distinguish the heavy, sleeping guns.

Rations are distributed en route with no other light than that of a camp lantern which gives forth but a faint glow. The feeble yellow light stains with brown patches the portions of raw meat cut up in the dusty grass of the roadside.

A march across fields, a march of somnambulists, mechanical, legs light as down, heads heavy as lead. It seems to last for hours and hours. And we are always bearing to the left; at day-break, I assure myself, we shall have returned to our point of departure. Little by little the shadows rise, enabling me to recognize the Vauxmarie Road, the wrecked ammunition carts, the dead horses.”

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

– LAURENCE BINYON, ENGLISH POET

Sunlight on the craters and regrown woods on the World War 1 battleground, Vimy Ridge, France | Photo by Tim Gurney Dreamstime.com

2020 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Unknown Soldiers’ burial beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The idea of a memorial for the unidentified fallen was first discussed during the war. After the Armistice, several bills were proposed but progressed no further until September of 1919 when an official plan emerged to bury one of France’s unknown in the Pantheon. There was much disagreement between the government and Veterans groups about the choice of the Pantheon. On November 2nd, 1920, after a fierce media campaign, public pressure convinced the government to change the location to the Arc de Triomphe. Knowing the British planned to inter one of their lost sons into Westminster Abbey on November 11th, the French government moved quickly. In just six days, they officially designated the Arc de Triomphe as the memorial site, approved the funds, and prepared for the arrival of the Unknown Soldier’s remains in Paris.

On the eve of the Armistice’s second anniversary, at the Citadel of Verdun, a young infantryman was tasked with choosing from eight unidentified coffins from eight symbolic battles of the war. He added the digits of his infantry unit 132 to arrive at the number six, thereby deciding which soldier’s remains would travel to Paris aboard a private train later that evening. The next day, a procession carried his body first to the Pantheon, then on to Arc de Triomphe, where he remained in a chapel within the arch until construction of the memorial tomb we see today was completed the following January.

Ceremonies of November 11, 1920, the decorated chariot carrying Gambetta’s heart and the cannon carrying the coffin of the unknown soldier in front of the Arc de Triomphe | Source gallica.bnf.fr

This year, to commemorate the centenary of the Unknown Soldier’s procession from Verdun to Paris, a group of French soldiers retraced the 1920 route on foot, running over 300km while carrying the remembrance torch to the Tomb of the Unknown.

Today we remember. We remember the Armistice that ended WWI, we pay tribute to the fallen, and we honor all of the Veterans who served and sacrificed throughout our history so we may continue to live free.

N’oublion jamais.

Let us never forget.

VISIT

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triumph, Paris

Musée de l’Armée, Museum of the Army, Paris

Musée de l’Armistice
Museum of the Armistice, Compiègne, France

Mémorial de Verdun
Memorial of Verdun, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, France

 

WATCH

LISTEN

Verdun! On ne passe pas! In French with English subtitles.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Curious about what your French adventure could look like?

Who Could Have Imagined?

Who Could Have Imagined?

Who Could Have Imagined?

Photo By Wieslaw Jarek

August 2017: Taking in the view of Notre Dame from the Quai d’Orléans on the Île Saint-Louis.

Taking in the view of Notre Dame from the Quai d’Orléans on the Île Saint-Louis, August 2017 |  Photo by Kristin Blakeman

It was one of those indelible moments that enter the permafrost of memory.

It was just after 11:00 am in Chicago when the first notification popped up on my phone. Notre Dame de Paris was ablaze.

A day earlier, I’d spoken with clients visiting Paris who were considering going to Notre Dame. I wondered if they had made it–hoping they had. It had only been 30 minutes since the first report of the fire lit up phones across the globe, but from the earliest photos, my heart sank, knowing the damage would be significant, if not catastrophic.

The images coming from Paris were heart-rending. The gasp when the spire fell was palpable. As the world watched and prayed, the pompiers of Paris courageously battled to save the cathedral and the historic heart of the Île de la Cité.

I visited Paris a week after the fire and seemed to find myself everywhere except within view of Notre Dame. I wasn’t ready to see her–afraid it would be worse than the pictures I’d seen on TV. 

Two weeks later, on my final day in Paris, I took the same farewell lap I always do, saying ‘until next time’ to some of my favorite places. I crossed the Rue de Rivoli where it spills into the frenetic Place de la Concorde until I reached the relative calm of the Jardin des Tuileries. I followed the dusty, butter-colored paths of crushed limestone up the central axis, under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, past I.M. Pei’s iconic Pyramid, and beyond into the Renaissance heart of the Louvre, the Cour Carrée.

“The wonderful cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the greatest achievements of European civilization, was on fire. The sight dazed and disturbed us profoundly. I was on the edge of tears. Something priceless was dying in front of our eyes. The feeling was bewildering, as if the earth was shaking.”

– KEN FOLLETT, BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH

Turning eastward, I passed through the stone archway that perfectly frames the dome of the Institut de France on the opposite bank of the river. Low clouds cast that distinctly Parisian shade of grey across the facades of zinc, slate, and stone, reflecting in the dark surface of the Seine as I crossed the Pont des Arts bridge. Along the left bank I passed the green-wooden stalls of the bouquinistes. Clusters of tourists with arms stretched above their heads tried to capture photos of the cathedral–now roofless and exposed to the elements. It had been just three weeks since the fire, yet work on the massive restoration effort was already underway. 

April 2019: Notre Dame after the fire, from the Quai de Montebello.  |  Photo by Radu Razvan Gheorghe

I crossed the Pont de l’Archevêché linking the Rive Gauche and the Île de la Cité, navigating the newly restricted areas until I found a spot on the eastern tip of the island to pause and take in the scene. As I took out my phone to capture a photo of my own, a man I hadn’t noticed on the sidewalk behind me started playing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on his guitar. It was surreal and poignant. While the scene felt broken, the music offered a hopeful reminder that all was not lost.

I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot in recent weeks, knowing the anniversary was near. I remember, in the days after the fire thinking how quickly things can change–how devastating loss can make us feel as though things will never be the same as we grieve and long for ‘the way things were’ before a disaster. 

Who could have imagined that in an instant Notre Dame would be, once again, forever changed? La forêt (the forest), the 12th-century roof timbers, the medieval lead roof, and la flèche, the spire added during the 19th-century restoration by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, all lost in under 5 hours. Priceless, irreplaceable treasures of history and heritage extinct in the blink of an eye. Thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters and officials, the towers still stand, and precious artworks and religious relics, including the crown of thorns, were saved from the flames. Perhaps most miraculously, there was no loss of life in the blaze.

“When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door.”

– VICTOR HUGO, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

Ironwork detail on the entry doors of Notre Dame de Paris.  |  Photo by Svetlana Day

In the days and weeks after the fire, historians reminded us that this fire was far from the first traumatic event Notre Dame had withstood since the laying of her foundation stones more than 860 years ago. The French Revolution claimed both tower’s bells for cannon. In 1793, when Catholic churches throughout France were closed–she remained open, but under a new name, The Temple of Reason. Through wars, revolution, occupation, and the fire of 2019, she endured–her body altered but still standing.

In the days ahead of the Notre Dame fire, who could have imagined the events to come? A year later, who could have imagined how quickly and even more dramatically, the world could have changed once again? As we face a new challenge, unlike anything many of us alive today have ever experienced, I find myself reflecting on Notre Dame. When uncertainty and fear swirl, it is easy to feel lost as our eyes and hearts try to keep up and process the scenes before us. Unimaginable new realities that only days and weeks ago, a year ago, were the stuff of sci-fi movies and Orwellian novels.

While experts and politicians disagreed over how long it would take to reopen her doors to the faithful and tourists, I wondered if I would ever be able to set foot inside her walls again–if my eight-year-old daughter would in her lifetime? I felt sad for those who had not yet made it to Paris to see her, to sit in awe in one of the thousands of tiny wooden chairs arranged in neat rows below her vaulted ceiling.

Interior of Notre Dame de Paris before the fire.  |  Photo by Yorgy67

Just a month ago, I was packing for another trip to Paris, only a few days before flights became erratic, and travel warnings increased as countries grappled with containing COVID-19. By March 7th, we decided it was best to cancel and not risk the travel uncertainties or, worse, bringing Coronavirus back home with us.

At that point, in early March, our summer 2020 trip to France still seemed entirely plausible. News reports predicted that things should be mostly ‘back to normal’ by the end of June. As I write this on April 14th, the end of June now seems unlikely, and my thoughts have turned to our home in Southwest France sitting empty and feeling so very far away. Sometimes I wonder when we will walk through its doors again and return to meeting friends for an apéro on the Place du Château. I wonder how changed the town will look, and if our two little haunts, L’Alambic and La Comédie, will survive or remain shuttered.

None of us can say with any certainty what we will lose during this time. Right now, many of us are watching events unfold from the safety of our homes just as Parisians watched Notre Dame burn from the banks of the Seine. We are praying and hoping while the most courageous among us walk into the flames to try and save all that we hold sacred. We rally at each small sign of progress, feeling one step closer to victory. But the fire we are facing today is enormous and unpredictable. It will not retreat in hours–we will not understand the devastation by morning. It will take many months of sacrifice and perseverance to overcome. How we emerge in the aftermath is still unknown. We must steel our resolve, and above all, have faith that we will come through this resilient like Notre Dame herself.

The world will undoubtedly look different after the smoke has finally cleared. Some losses will be devastating, total, and permanent. Rebuilding will be a long, slow, and expensive journey. We will grow weary of the difficult tasks at hand and long to return to gentler times. When we feel fatigued, we must remember the generations of laborers who continued to build Notre Dame, knowing they would never see her completed and look to her enduring presence, as the visible proof that we, too, will come through this.

VISIT

MUSEUM: La Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine

This museum of architecture & heritage opened in 1882 after an initiative by Viollet-le-duc, the celebrated architect in charge of the 19th century restoration of Notre Dame.

The collection in the museum’s Galerie des moulages, features a wonderful collection of architectural models of the cathedral, the 19th c. spire, sculptures and architectural drawings.

Location: 16th Arrondissement1 place du Trocadéro et du 11 novembre
Métro: Line 9, Iéna or Trocadéro
Line 6, Trocadéro

Museum Website

CLOSED: Notre Dame Cathedral & Crypte archéologique

Due to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in April of 2019, the Cathedral and the Crypte archéologique remain closed to visitors. A re-opening date has not yet been announced.

READ

Notre Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals by Ken Follett

Notre Dame: The Soul of France by Agnes Poirier

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Science Magazine | Scientists are leading Notre Dame’s restoration—and probing mysteries laid bare by its devastating fire

The Guardian | Our Lady of Paris a history of Notre Dame Cathedral

WATCH

LISTEN

A Playlist For Celebrating Notre Dame Cathedral's Musical Impact

by Peter O'Dowd | Here & Now

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with bespoke travel experiences and relocation services. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Ready to plan your perfect-for-you French adventure?

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Maiden Voyage: Adventures in the Land of Wine and Cheese

Versailles, July 1995, Personal photo from our first trip to France.

Rouen Cathedral, France 1995.

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France. With a recent Lyme disease diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. It was the summer of 1995, and Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, protests over France’s nuclear testing in the Pacific, and bomb threats by The Armed Islamic Group, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

Armed with a copy of Rick Steve’s latest guide book and tips from a French teacher-friend, my mom had carefully planned every detail of our itinerary. With our traveler’s cheques and pocket dictionary in hand, we boarded for Paris. Our promising start lasted precisely the duration of our flight from Minneapolis. From the moment we stepped off the plane in Paris, we were as dazed and confused as Dorothy and Toto arriving in OZ.

My brain raced, trying to keep up with the conversations happening all around us, picking out only a handful of words here and there. The pace was dizzying and so very far from the carefully practiced phrases of the classroom. All those semesters of French seemed to evaporate in the Parisian heat and suddenly felt as useless as a TGV ticket on the Metro.

Château de Fountainebleau, Summer 1995, Personal Photo

The journey from Charles de Gaulle airport to our Paris hotel seemed far more ambitious than the flight we had just made across the Atlantic. After retrieving our luggage, locating the train station, determining which tickets were necessary from the myriad of lines and choices, we schlepped our bags on and off three Metro lines. We eventually surfaced in a quiet corner of the 16th arrondissement, supposedly very near to our hotel. Honestly, it had looked quite close on the map we had obtained before leaving the states, but we soon realized the actual distance was a bit further than we had anticipated. Despite it being the middle of the day, almost everything appeared to be closed. By the time we reached our hotel, we were sweaty and exhausted, looking rather more like we had just swum the Atlantic than flown over it in air-conditioned comfort.

The little Parisian hotel we had booked was far more shabby than chic. As is not uncommon in small Parisian hotels, even today, it required yet another hike up three flights of narrow winding stairs. The small, plainly decorated room that greeted us had a single window overlooking a tiny interior courtyard that offered neither light nor air to the room’s dim, stuffy interior. When we inquired about a fan, the young man at the desk shrugged apologetically while an older man, who we took to be the proprietor, fiddled with a table in the adjacent breakfast area. Without looking up from his task, he made a sweeping gesture in our general direction mumbling something about opening a window.

We spent 5 nights in that hotel, often sleeping with dampened towels draped over ourselves in a desperate attempt to escape the heat and sleep for a few hours before venturing out again. With daily temps pushing 100 degrees, we cooled off by eating lots of ice cream and learned that finding even a single, random ice cube in your Coca-Cola was a genuine cause for celebration.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.”

G. K. Chesterson

Dinner on our first night in Paris consisted of Chinese take-out from a tiny place on the corner, which appeared to be the only spot open. Tired and hungry after a long day of travel, we pointed and smiled and nodded as we ordered at the counter from a cheerful couple who didn’t seem to notice, or mind, our limited vocabulary.

I wish I could say things improved from there–that we strolled along the Seine and took in the stunning museums, gardens, and gothic cathedrals of Paris. We did, and it was thrilling! Less so was being evacuated from the world’s largest art museum only moments after finding Mona due to another bomb threat. Unfortunately, the museum remained closed for the rest of the day, and with an already full itinerary, we were unable to return.

We got lost–a lot–and usually while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” My mom refused to use the coin-operated Sanisettes scattered around Paris, too afraid the automated door would malfunction, leaving her locked inside.

 

In Paris on my first trip to France in July 1995.

“Eventually, my eyes were opened, and I really understood nature. I learned to love at the same time.”

– CLAUDE MONET

Nymphéas, 1906 by Claude Monet, Art Institute of Chicago, Image in the Public Domain

The day we visited Versailles, it was so hot they were handing out bottles of water at the entrance, trying to prevent tourists from passing out with heat-stroke. We gratefully accepted as we followed the throngs of visitors through room-after-stifling-room of The Sun King’s royal residence. While gazing up at one gilded ceiling or another, I clumsily dropped my water and suddenly found myself surrounded by grimacing security guards who had heard the plastic bottle splat on Louis’ 17th-century oak floor. I awkwardly mumbled my apologies, doing my best to wipe up the water with my hand before hastily moving on.

After enjoying the treasures of Versailles, we boarded the train to return to our hotel only to find everyone quickly disembarking after an indiscernible announcement over the loudspeaker. We decided it was best to follow suit and soon found ourselves dumped out into the street along with everyone else, somewhere between Versailles and our hotel. The trains, it appeared, were suspended due to new threats. Thankfully, it was a lovely evening for a very long walk and more Chinese take-out when we finally made it back to our hotel. After a terrifying lunchtime encounter with a beady-eyed crustacean-encrusted salad, we decided egg rolls and orange chicken sounded like the safer choice.

Another evening, after a full day of sightseeing, we discovered a tasty and affordable roast chicken and vegetable plate at a Brasserie with a pretty view onto the Place du Trocadéro. As Trocadéro was our final Metro transfer on our evening return to our hotel, we made it our dinner stop on more than one night, happy to have something familiar and recognizable.

Claude Monet’s home at Giverny, France, Summer 1995, Photo by Kristin Blakeman

We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, Versailles, Fontainebleau. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

A few days later, while visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a musty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour earlier had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside. After looking at each other in disbelief and exchanging a few shrugs, the Frenchman, clearly incensed, put his shoulder to the door and forced it open. I will admit we were relieved to be sprung after briefly facing the prospect of spending the night in that dusty tower.

Later that evening, when my mom felt feverish, I asked at the front desk for a nearby pharmacy. The proprietor seemed convinced it was an ambulance we needed. After assuring him the American woman in Chambre 12 was not going to die in his hotel and that all I wanted was a thermometer, he finally set down the phone, pointing me in the direction of a pharmacy.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly different than the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre sandwiches, and Chinese take-out.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we had a marvelous time. Had everything gone perfectly, it would not have been nearly as memorable. We still get a good laugh remembering our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Curious about what your French adventure could look like?

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Hugo, Hepburn And The Frenchman In My Parent’s Basement

Quasimodo sauvant la Esmeralda des mains de ses bourreaux  |  Oil on Canvas by Elisa Victorine Henry (1790 – 1873)  |  In the collection at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris.

The French Conversation Manual I found in my parent’s basement that first piqued my interest in learning French. | Photo © Kristin Blakeman

My fascination with the French language began in the basement of my childhood home, where my dad’s turntable and record collection lived. Thumbing over the album spines, I’d tip my head sideways, trying to read the titles, pausing to pull out anything that looked interesting. Hidden among the volumes of Chopin, Satchmo, and Miles Davis, was a blue and white striped LP jacket and matching French Conversation Manual. Curious, I carefully slid the record from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable until the cheerful music of the introduction crackled through the speakers. I was soon following along as the male voice said, “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?” then paused, giving me time to repeat it before moving on to the next expression. Before long, I was carrying on both sides of the conversation between myself and the imaginary French waiter in my parent’s basement.

Growing up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, my exposure to French culture was limited to singing “Frère Jacques” in Kindergarten and watching Warner Brother’s sappy, sentimental Romeo, Pepé le Pew, on Saturday mornings. My knowledge of French cuisine included the midwest supper club staple “French” dressing and the thick, spongy, grocery store loaves of  “French” bread.

I discovered Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1982 Hallmark Hall of Fame version starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Quasimodo, Derek Jacobi as Dom Frollo, and Lesley-Anne Down as Esmeralda. Admittedly, it is one of the worst productions of the classic tale, without a single scene filmed in Paris, let alone France. Nonetheless it captivated my eight-year-old imagination. Seeing Audrey Hepburn glide down the Louvre’s staircase in Funny Face, and watching Julia Ormond return transformed by Paris in the 80s remake of Sabrina further increased my infatuation with France.

Kay Thompson, Fred Astaire, and Audrey Hepburn in a publicity photo from the Paramount Pictures 1957 film Funny Face.  |  Public Domain

Un, deux, trois…

Middle school brought my first opportunity to study French formally. My instructor, Madame S., a tall, slender blonde, was always fashionably dressed in heels, a stylishly tied scarf, and perfume in a time and place where most of our fashion sense came from last season’s JCPenney catalog. She also must have had the patience of a saint to try and teach the nuances of French “U’s” and elegantly rolled “R’s” to a class of giggly, awkward adolescents with too-large glasses and braces, who were quite regularly still tripping on their shoelaces. All the baguette in Paris would not have been enough to make grenouille roll trippingly off our midwestern tongues, no matter how wide-eyed and well-intentioned we were.

I found myself utterly enchanted by the language. Soon it was French Forensics (who knew this was even a thing?!) and French Summer Camp. When I headed to college, I received a semester’s worth of retroactive credits by testing into 3rd year French. Don’t ever let anyone tell you high school French is a waste of time that will never do anything for you! Nearly 30 years later, I’m still waiting for a similar dividend on my single painful year of calculus.

Unfortunately, my college professor lacked both the style and personality of my earlier French teachers. His visible contempt for our clumsy pronunciation and constant reprimands quickly eroded my enthusiasm. Any satisfaction I found in making it through Maupassant’s Bel-Ami disappeared faster than I could say “un cafe, s’il vous plait.”

“The French, it seems to me, strike a happy balance between intimacy and reserve. Some of this must be helped by the language, which lends itself to graceful expression even when dealing with fairly basic subjects…. And there’s that famously elegant subtitle from a classic Western.
COWBOY: “Gimme a shot of red-eye.”
SUBTITLE: “Un Dubonnet, s’il vous plait.”
No wonder French was the language of diplomacy for all those years.

– Peter Mayle, Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France

Prêt à Voyager | Ready to Travel

After completing my B.A. in Communication Arts, my mom and I prepared to depart for our first trip to France in the summer of 1995. With a recent Lyme’s diagnosis, she wasn’t feeling her best. To complicate things further, Europe was in the throes of a record-breaking heatwave, protests were popping up over France’s continued nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and the Armed Islamic Group was targeting public transport systems. Despite the sultry temps, a tick-borne illness, civil unrest, and bomb threats, we set out undeterred, not wanting to miss our long-awaited trip.

You can read the full story of our trip here, but suffice it to say, next to nothing went as planned. From the moment we arrived, and despite our very best efforts to avoid them, we managed to make every first-timer-in-France mistake in the book. The next two weeks were a series of misadventures ranging from absurd to comical.

Our tiny hotel was far more shabby than chic and insufferably hot. During our 5 days in Paris, we ate the same Chinese takeout at least three times. Due to bomb threats, we were evacuated from the Louvre after only 20 minutes inside. Two days later, we were abruptly shooed off our return train from Versailles somewhere between the palace and our hotel.

We got lost–a lot–and often while searching for the rare and elusive public “toilettes.” We tried to see and do it all, cramming as much into our two-week vacation as we had into our bulging suitcases. We got around on foot and by train. After mistakenly boarding a clattering TER train with its hard plastic seats and half-open windows, we quickly learned the critical distinction between the faster regional trains and the local variety that meander through every hamlet and pause at each whistle-stop on the line.

When I inquired about the location of a pharmacy in Rouen, our hotelier seemed insistent that we instead needed the paramedics. He finally set the phone down after I repeatedly assured him that the American woman in Chambre 12 was not about to die in his hotel.

While visiting the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo, we found ourselves locked in a tower that housed a dusty maritime museum. The woman who’d collected our entrance fee not an hour before had, apparently, decided to close up early, leaving us and a French couple locked inside.

After failing to find favor with French cuisine, sudden evacuations, an unexpected incarceration, and five sweltering nights in that tiny Parisian hotel, France felt decidedly more like hell that the chic paradise of our dreams. I’m sure there were moments in the restless delirium between jetlag and heat stroke when we would have happily traded in our tacky American tennis shoes for a pair of magical ruby slippers to transport ourselves home. Fortunately, we persisted, sustained by croissants, jambon-beurre, and Chinese takeout.

Despite the setbacks and missteps during that first trip, we ended up having a marvelous, and very memorable time. We still get a good laugh recollecting our adventures. Little did we know then that more than 20 years later, we would begin another chapter of adventures together in France.

Paris, July 1995 on my first trip to France.

“The world is a book – with each step we open a page.”

– Alphonse de Lamartine

Giverny 1995. Photo © Kristin Blakeman

Bébé Changes Everything

When I returned home after our trip in ’95, life resumed. As I began my career in graphic design, French and France moved to the back burner, remaining there for the next 18 years. While looking at pre-school options for my daughter Madeleine, a local French immersion program caught my attention. The idea of an immersive learning experience from native speakers at such a young age intrigued me and rekindled my own interest in French. Before long, I had enrolled in classes as well, hoping I’d find the return to French after a 20-year hiatus as familiar as riding a bike. In some ways, it was. In others, I felt every bit like a squeaky antique that had been gathering dust in the garage for 2 decades. With a little practice, I was thoroughly enjoying reacquainting myself with the language that had so captivated me years before. Watching my daughter soak it up only added to the fun and fueled my motivation to keep going.

Mimi outside her French immersion school in 2016.

Cousin Love, Summer 2018

Mimi on the steps of Nana’s new house, 2017.

Retirement & Rekindled Dreams

In 2016 my mom decided to follow her dream of retiring abroad. During her 37-year teaching career, she had spent many summers traveling in Europe. With retirement came new opportunities to travel, and with grandchildren in The Netherlands and the U.S., she hoped to find a European home to split her time between the two continents. We spent five weeks exploring southwestern France in search of areas that might suit her.

By early 2017 we’d scoured the region and fallen in love with a home in the center of La Tour Blanche, a quiet hamlet with a romantic name in the Dordogne. Unfortunately, it turned out the siblings who had inherited the house had decided they weren’t quite ready to part with it after all. They took it off the market after leading us on for several weeks. Disappointed, we waited, hoping they would change their mind or put it back on the market. When they didn’t, we returned to a house we had seen on a whim in a small town on the Charente river near Cognac.

The home, originally built by a neighboring mill owner, checked all the boxes in terms of size and location. It was big enough to comfortably host visiting friends and family with a pleasant private garden at the back. The town had a daily market, shops, and restaurants all accessible on foot. It felt authentically French, but with a comforting smattering of Anglophones from around the world. We even discovered a few other Americans who had been similarly charmed by the area’s rolling green countryside and laid-back lifestyle. Most importantly, it was on the train line with daily TGV service from Paris, making it possible to get from Chicago to our corner of France in under a day.

The stone house had character, good bones, and an abundance of potential. In other words, it was a fixer-upper. Having been unoccupied for at least five years, it was more than a bit musty. From the look of things, it hadn’t had an update in at least 60 years. I counted 14 different wallpaper patterns and at least twice as many varieties of spiders, which I soon learned is to be expected in old stone houses.

As is common in vacant homes in France, the property was devoid of appliances, heat, and electricity. During our first viewing, the estate agent opened the shutters to illuminate the interior. Even on a frigid, gray January day, the huge windows flooded the rooms with light revealing the little details that one by one reeled us in.

The classic center hall retained its terrazzo floor, wood paneling, and huge double doors at the front and back. The salon and dining room with their nearly three-meter ceilings had lovely original plaster ceiling rosettes and floor-to-ceiling faux-bois doors that folded open making one large room. A walnut staircase with its faceted crystal finial gracefully spiraled up to the third-floor attic. The single enormous bathroom was spacious enough to divide it into three full baths giving each of the upstairs bedrooms a private bathroom–an American style creature comfort that is difficult to come by in France. A former office with a small passage connecting it to the kitchen provided a perfect opportunity for a ground floor bedroom and bathroom.

Compared to Chicago’s pricey real estate market, the asking price seemed like a relative bargain, even with the improvements required to bring it up-to-date. With a house, a contractor, a long wish list, and a healthy dose of blissful ignorance about the project we were about to undertake, we took the plunge and started the next chapter of our French adventure.

Of course, there were the typical hiccups, delays, and surprises that accompany any renovation no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. That first summer, our extended family of three generations–four adults and four kids under six–camped out on Ikea beds and couches in the ground floor rooms while construction continued around us. By the following summer, we were able to move upstairs and settle in further, adding curtains, more furniture, and decorating with our latest brocante (flea market) finds. In 2019 we welcomed more friends and family, finally able to relax into the familiar rhythms of summer without the chaos of construction.

Our French Fixer Upper, June 2017.

Looking for treasure under the layers of wallpaper.

14 Varieties of Wallpaper!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

Curious about what your French adventure could look like?