Whenever I tell this story about my paternal French grandmother, I think of my grandmother herself, of course, but I also remember the many people to whom I’d told it, including a beautiful young Slavic girl named Marianne in 1994, who heard it from me in German at a German course that we were both taking in the German Rhineland. Never before (and seldom since) have I told such a long story in German. (it took about 30 minutes to tell. I’m not sure I could repeat that feat after decades without German practice, so it’s a nice memory to have).
Some of my listeners urged me to write the story down someday. And so here we are at someday. This version is more detailed than the versions that I told so many times off the cuff, off the top of my head.
My paternal Grandmother Georgette was genuinely French. You could hear it in her accent. But seldom would you hear any French words, and never would you hear any stories about her life as a young woman in France. And why not? What was the the big deal? Was her family in Europe suffering from mental health issues? Our family decided that that must be it, and we moved on with our lives. Besides, we didn’t want to bug Grandma about something she obviously didn’t want to discuss.
As for Europe itself, I had been there once before, right after high school, but it never seemed completely real to me – more like an elaborate version of Disney’s Epcot Center, full of actors and entertainers, rather than regular people, like those I knew in America. And so I felt that stories about Europeans whom I didn’t know would never mean as much to me as a story about Americans or Europeans whom I did know. That’s too bad as I missed a lot back then. But then, in the 1970’s, the American public began noticing and valuing our diversity. We all wanted to find the mysteries of our roots, and Grandma’s story, whatever it was, was certainly that.
And that’s where things stood in 1975, after I’d worked and saved for a year so I could spend the summer hoofing it through Europe, carrying a back pack and a saxophone. Maybe I could find Grandma’s old digs and run across a bit of the mystery. It would be like the Alfred Hitchcock tv show but in real life.
At the time, Grandma was living alone in Alameda, California, not far from where I was living in Davis. So before my big European trip, I drove down to interview her.
She told me she was from “Pont de Pany,” a small French village. She wrinkled her forehead in her customary worried way, and pursed her lips the way actors do when attempting a French accent. She said she remembered the first automobile that ever drove through it. Her family lived on a hill behind the village hotel, which should be easy to find.
“Pont de Pany” means the “bridge of Pany.” Grandma didn’t know who or what Pany was, but I made it my personal goal to find that “pont” and cross it. (Since then, I’ve heard that “Pany” comes from the French word for bread — “pain” — and that a famous bread market was once held there long ago. Who knows if it’s true.)
The village is 12.5 miles from the well-known city of Dijon in Eastern France, where all the mustard comes from, which seemed strange, since I don’t remember Grandma cooking anything with mustard in it. I do, however, remember her magnificent custard, carefully cooked in clear custard cups. I found Dijon and Pont de Pany on the map that I had brought along with me.
Both locations were in the department of Cote d’Or, a name which means “Golden Slopes,” after its famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.
“But,” she said, wrinkling her forehead more softly, “I didn’t meet your grandfather there. I met him in Pontarlier”
Pontarlier was a city of about 15,000 in the department of “Doubs” in the Jura Mountains about six miles from Switzerland. We found Pontarlier on the map, too. It’s a long way from Pont de Pany to Pontarlier– about 110 miles.
In Pontarlier, Grandma had worked as a seamstress in a hotel by the train station called “Hotel du Chateau D’eau” ( which means “House of the “Water Tower” or “House of the water fountain”). Would there be a real fountain of water there when I arrived?
My grandfather Charlie was an officer in the U.S. Army. It was World War I, and the army had set up camp a little ways outside of Pontarlier. Grandpa Charlie was in France to assess the forests for the wartime usability of their lumber. He was also highly skilled in clear-cutting forests, a skill that wasn’t widely available in Europe since the forests of Europe were seldom harvested so thoroughly. Grandpa Charlie often had business in town. And in fact, the army often had business at the Hotel du Chateau D’eau, as it was the closest “public house” to the train station.
As for any relatives in France, Grandma’s memory was extremely inconsistent. Sometimes she said she had one relative, sometimes a bunch, but then that they were all gone. Sometimes she said she had a huge related family who lived far away. But they were also dead now. I decided that just finding the locations of her youth would be enough for now. If I found any leads, I could pursue them on a subsequent trip.
My 1975 trip was my first-ever solo trip to Europe. My charter plane took me from the Bay Area to Madrid, and then back to the Bay Area from Paris 10 weeks later. I bought a discount two-month Eurail Railpass plus $1000 in traveler’s checks. That should suffice, shouldn’t it? I didn’t know, really. I wasn’t much used to thinking ahead in analytical detail back then. It seemed a reasonable amount, and if not, I’d just have to adapt. As it turned out, I spent my last money the morning I left for home from Paris. Good estimating !!
During my ten weeks in Europe I would visit Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, England, and Scotland.
I brought the names and addresses of two of my mother’s relatives in Sweden to visit during the trip. I had no names of any relatives from Georgette’s side of the family. Instead I would visit the places where she had lived, and maybe someone there would remember her. After all, wasn’t France small enough for everybody to know everybody?
Cote d’Or and Pont de Pany
After a lot of European adventures, I found myself in Taizé, a religious retreat located a ways south of Pont de Pany. Pont de Pany was closer to Taizé than Pontarlier was, so I decided to investigate Pont de Pany first, and then investigate Pontarlier on my way south through Switzerland to Perugia, Italy, where I planned to visit my college friend Julie. Yes, lots of adventures that summer.
So I took the morning bus from Taizé to Chalon-sur-Saône — about 45 minutes. And from there I took a train to Dijon — about an hour — . I visited Darcy Square (Jardin Darcy), near the train station — It’s a large park full of ponds and fountains, and a smiling statue of a polar bear at the main entrance. I also walked to a nearby youth hostel, where I reserved a bed for the night, and then grabbed another bus out to Pont de Pany itself — about 20 minutes.
By the time I arrived it was around noon. And appropriately, I found the town to be perfect for filming an old “Western” high noon gun duel. The town mostly consisted of one really long straight street mostly devoid of people and traffic. Can you call it “main street” if it’s basically the only street and it’s mostly empty, anyway? Actually it was called Burgundy Street. As I watched, an older woman, wearing a dress and a sweater, despite the warm weather, emerged from an alley carrying a basket of bread, Then she disappeared down another alley, leaving the street mostly empty again.
Houses were tucked right up to the street edge – all of them two stories tall, with thick walls, and painted in dusty colors – mostly a dingy yellow. Rectangular windows had glass panes and also strong wooden shutters to guard against any stray movie bullets. The only thing missing was Clint Eastwood. There was even a niche on the second floor of one house. Painted blue on the inside, it contained a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. A perfect setting for somebody’s Last Rites.
As I strolled along, I passed a small, plain, two-story school building, and then, where the Ouche River passed under Burgundy Street, the street was reinforced with a stone bridge. I had found the “Pont” in “Pont de Pany!! I slipped down the river bank to the base of the bridge . I stood at the edge of the river, surrounded by clumps of green reeds, my mind lost in thoughts. Bright blue darner dragonflies swirled around me in the sunshine, like fluorescent sparkles, echoing my reverie. Had my grandmother once stood at that spot among the reeds admiring the darners and the bridge? And what would she have been meditating about back then? And what could have tempted her to leave such an idyllic setting?
I scrambled back up the slope to Burgundy Street. Parallel to the river was the Burgundy canal, a 150-mile artificial stream with almost 200 locks, one of which ran just in front of Burgundy Street, where the canal dipped beneath a small bridge like how the river goes beneath Pont de Pany. Built for goods transportation, the canal is now mainly used by tourist boats, which are long, and shaped like barges, flat-bottomed, with a cabin, about half the width of the canal so one boat can pass another. They are not numerous — no rush hour traffic here. The tourists often sat on chairs on top of their boat. It was a luxurious life style.
And next to the canal was the “Pont de Pany” Hotel !!! Just like Grandma had said. Then, following her directions, I checked out the hill rising behind the hotel, looking for her old house, but nary a house was to be seen – just a hill full of pines and firs.
Disappointed, I then walked to the other end of the village and out to the countryside where I found fields full of the same invasive plants (including mustards) that I had seen my whole life in California.They stretched out as far as the eye could see, between hills covered with pines and firs.
I then returned to the bus stop for Dijon, and was soon on my way, with a lot to think about. The Burgundy Canal seemed so important to the town. Why hadn’t grandma mentioned it? And had her house on that hill been plowed under? Is that why no housing appeared on that hill?
The next morning I took the train from Dijon to Pontarlier, about two hours, plus a long layover in Besançon. When I arrived at Pontarlier, I remembered Grandma telling me that the hotel was just outside the train station — just look left as you come out of the front entrance. I did that, and son of a gun, Grandma had been accurate — there it was, a two-story building with the name Hotel de la Gare & du Chateau d’Eau firmly emblazoned across the facade just under the eaves of the red-tile roof.
It was located at the spot where one street coming from the train station divides into two, which continue as two streets around each side of the hotel. This Y in the road shaped the hotel property into a triangle. In order to build a wide facade to the building, they’d left a small triangle-shaped yard pointed back at the train station.
This small yard had been surfaced with hard sand. On it, a few of the locals were playing Jeu de Boules, which is one of the most popular games in France. It’s played on any handy surface, from sand to lawn, from asphalt to dirt, from flat to irregular. It’s similar to Bocce. You toss a ping-pong-sized ball onto the surface. The players have heavy metal balls the size of a large grapefruit, which they toss as close as possible to the small ball.
The hotel facade was painted light green with tall wooden window shutters on both stories, which were painted a shiny rich green. All had windows with tall glass, including two first-floor windows which had been fitted with full length glass and converted into doors. I took the door on the right, which had a stained-glass logo on it. The other door was plain.
Behind the front windows was a shallow, wide room that stretched the entire width of the building, but was less than ten feet to the back solid wall. and most of that space was taken by a huge bar made of carved and polished wood. The left end of the bar served as a front desk and the right end, behind the decorated door window, served to draw the locals in for drinks and Jeu de Boules. There was a sink with shelves above it to hold glasses and liquors, and there was a even a small scoreboard, sponsored by a strong flavored liquor called Pastis, for keeping game scores and celebrating after the game.
Did the hotel have a vacancy? Yes they did. It was on the second floor. The proprietor led me up there. And I wondered which room my grandmother might have stayed in. My room was small, with a full-sized bed in a beautiful polished carved wooden frame that took up a third of the floor space, and a matching wooden night stand, small chair and cabinet. The bed was located just by the door, which was handy since the toilet was in a separate room down the hall. There was, however, a sink with a metal bedpan. And I wondered if the toilet would have been installed when grandma was still living there.
And laying across the full-sized bed was an emperor-sized bed pillow, the largest that I had ever seen, taking up half the bed space and a foot or two high. It was like a super-fluffy futon. Culture shock.
When I had gotten settled into my room, I returned to the front desk to tell them that my grandmother had once worked at the hotel. I gave them her name and asked if anybody on the current staff had known her. Nobody had. They shrugged their shoulders in that wonderful French way. Well, it had been over fifty years since Grandma had left, so I shouldn’t have felt surprised that nobody knew her, unless they’d had some awfully experienced staff.
I didn’t feel comfortable wandering around inside the building by myself (I might have, if I’d known more French and could have asked more clearly), so I popped outside to inspect the building’s exterior. One could see how the structure had developed over the years by adding brick-shaped two-story buildings, connected to each other around the edges of the property, though I don’t know in what order.
But it would seem that they first added a 2-story building along each of the two side-roads until they hit a cross-street, so from the air, the augmented structure was shaped like a capital U with a flat bottom where the facade was. Then, after that, they built another 2-story building from the left point of the U halfway to the right point. They then finished closing the U with a metal picket fence from the middle to the right point. There on the corner was a gate, allowing access to the large sand-surfaced yard in the middle, no doubt perfect for playing Jeu de Boules,shaded by some trees planted along the fence.
I walked around the neighborhood for a while, trying to imagine my grandmother strolling the same streets. And then I spent the early evening reading a book that I had brought with me. I seemed to have discovered everything about the hotel that I was going to.
But I was surprised the next morning. I had found the toilet, but had not found the shower. When I asked about it I was told that there was none. On the other hand, just four blocks away there was a public shower, where I could come clean at the cost of just a few centimes. I understood the directions, found myself in a first-floor facility divided by gender, where each side had one or two showers, very clean, just like those we’d had in our college dorms back home.
Having come clean, I returned to the hotel, where I’d left my backpack, and soon found myself on the train for Switzerland and Italy.
When I returned to California at the end of my trip, I had a short debriefing session with Grandma. She didn’t have much specific to say about Pont de Pany. I guess her memories were fading.
I mentioned my shower in Pontarlier, four blocks from the hotel, and asked her if those shower facilities had been available when she had lived there. She brightened up and told me that she had never walked so far away from the hotel — four blocks — so how could she know? Fact was, she said, that I had seen more of Pontarlier than she had ever seen, even though she had lived there for several years working in the hotel.
How could she be such an extreme stay-at-home?
The key to that little mystery was the large yard in the middle of the hotel. A market was held there most days, with different merchants and farmers selling a wide variety of wares. Nobody in the hotel ever needed to go out shopping, because everything that they might buy came to them. Grandma was even able to select the different kinds of material that she sewed together to make everything from curtains to clothing. She just needed to remember which day the clothing merchants were coming by. So Grandma never left the hotel at all during the years when she was working there.
During the war, the American army had set up camp a few miles from Pontarlier The soldiers, during their down times, came into town both for shopping and for drinking. Perhaps they had stood buying drinks at the same bar that I had seen. Perhaps they had shopped at the market in the hotel yard. Perhaps they had even set up a local army headquarters within the hotel, if only to collect supply shipments from passing trains. Certainly all of those soldiers had seen more of Pontarlier than Grandma had.
In any case, there was ample opportunity for Grandpa and Grandma to meet and get to know each other.
But that hotel had another function for the army. Because the trains came back and forth from nearby neutral Switzerland, they provided an efficient means of transporting suspected spies that had been caught there and brought into France. Once in Pontarlier they were checked into the closest hotel to the train station, the hotel where Grandma worked. All of the suspect’s clothes and personal items were confiscated and they were locked naked in a room. Now, if they escaped from the room, their nakedness limited their movements, not only because they could be spotted easily, and not only because they might be embarrassed running around town with no clothes on , but also because Pontarlier is the second-highest city in France (2,000 to 4,000 feet elevation), so its weather is often freezing cold.
And this also solved the mystery of the emperor-sized pillow on the bed. It wasn’t meant for one’s head. Probably if I had explored the drawers in the cabinet, I would have found a smaller pillow for that. No, it was meant to cover the lower body to help the sleeper get through those freezing-cold winter nights.
And I thought later that the water fountain in the name Hotel de la Gare & du Chateau d’Eau could have been a publicly available fountain in the hotel’s central yard for watering horses or even for household use.
Grandpa Charlie had gotten a divorce, and so was free to marry Georgette. So they did marry in the Montmartre district of Paris. The plan was to go into business logging hardwoods from West Africa and importing them into France, but it fell through. So instead they had to return to Charlie’s home territory, the Pacific Northwest and Washington state, a much longer distance. Georgette was deathly ill on the boat from sea sickness combined with pregnancy. She often said that if she’d known she would end up in Washington, she probably would not have agreed to marry Charlie. With so many bad memories from the journey to Washington, no wonder she seemed to want to put her life in France completely behind her.
This would be my third solo trip to Europe, mainly to visit old friends and relatives. My charter plane landed in Amsterdam. I visited Holland, both West and East Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and briefly, Luxembourg, in order to take Iceland Air to Iceland, and then a couple days later, from Iceland to Chicago, Columbus and Indianapolis, then from Chicago to Oakland. It was a slightly shorter trip than the 1975 trip, and I was too old to qualify for the cheap Eurail pass, but since I was gainfully employed in a real career job, having to travel in first class luxury proved to be not too much of a hardship.
By this time, my father had moved Grandma Georgette to live with him in Seattle, as she was getting too old to take care of herself. And about that time, I found out that Georgette had indeed been writing to a relative in France for quite awhile, a sister named Therese Couche. And this letter-writing campaign was ongoing.
Since I had plans to visit Europe in 1981, I phoned Grandma at my father’s house in Seattle (long distance — I was living in Castro Valley at the time). I asked her for Therese’s address so I could visit her, which, to my overwhelming surprise, she promptly gave me. I made her repeat it a couple times to be sure. Well, I now had my first goal for the summer’s trip.
The Address I was given was for Montbard, a small city located about fifty miles west of Dijon, on a route a few miles north of Pont de Pany. All three of these towns were located in the Province of Cote d’Or. I had never heard of Montbard before. I thought to write before I went, but I couldn’t write in French, and what if Grandma had gotten the address mixed up, anyway? I remembered how confused she had seemed describing her French family six years before.
After many adventures that summer, I wound up visiting my Swiss friend Gerda for several days in her home in Zug, Switzerland, at times using it as a “home base” for explorations into Southern Germany, even getting as far as the Black Forest, where I did not buy a cuckoo clock.
Early one morning I headed out in that direction again, but changed trains in Neuchâtel, which diverted me from another trip to Germany and put me on the line to Pontarlier and France instead. I took the exact reverse route as I had six years previously. When I reached Pontarlier, there was a change of trains to the French rail system. Owing to Swiss punctuality, the layover was extremely short, and I didn’t want to leave the station to peek at the hotel in case I lost track of time.
When I reached Besançon, the layover was a couple hours, so I wandered about and got my most favorite photo of a group of idle men playing Jeu de Boules on yet another sand surface.
I stopped in Dijon, but it was too late to get a room in the hostel, so I settled down on a bench in the railroad station, dozing and watching the trains come and go. Well, it was August and warm.
And as I lay there, a railroad vision quietly slipped onto one of the tracks across from me. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, sleek and orange, like a low-slung express passenger train except for its extremely long nose that gave it the aura of a powerful predator stalking through the night. And when it silently slid to a stop, the brakes made no noise. No doors opened. Nobody got out. Perhaps they’d all been consumed.
And indeed, it was a powerful creature. It was a super-high speed TGV train, (Train à Grande Vitesse). The TGV system would not open to the public for another couple months. No wonder I had never seen one before. It must have been out for final testing, so no wonder there were no passengers.
The train to Montbard the next morning was the opposite of a high speed TGV. It was small, short, and stubby, shaped like a squarish city bus on train tracks. It was painted red, top and bottom, but off-white in between. It had an articulation between its two cars and a single wide door for passengers to enter and exit. It stopped and started somewhat noisily. Yes, compared to most trains, it was a city bus.
Its route skirted some low hills, and it passed by the north end of the valley that I’d seen from Pont de Pany six years before, according to the map I had. It took around ninety slow and steady minutes to reach Montbard.
Coming into Montbard, I saw a charming city with a population (at that time) of about 7500 (much smaller as I write this) that had grown up around a high hill. About 700 years ago, a castle/fortress was built on top of that hill, but it has been falling apart for the last couple hundred years, so today there’s mainly one tall stone tower left.
The train station was positioned in a curve of the same Burgundy Canal that had gone through Pont de Pany, but here each slanted bank was overlaid by bright green lawn with hockey-puck shaped bushes at regular intervals, connected by thin lines of flowers. It was very decorative, at least on that curve near the train station.
The city really did seem charming, so I began hiking up the roads towards the castle. I had come all this way, but I hesitated, unsure of what people I would find. A little stroll might help me focus my mind on the coming task, what sort of connection might be made. And I still wasn’t confident that Grandma had given me the correct address.
After an hour or so, though, I drifted off the hill and back to the train station. Just outside the station entrance stood a small angular building with “Montbard Tourist Office” printed on it. Well, every city in France had one of these, and if they didn’t, then they’d at least have a helpful city map posted on a board that would help tourists find their destination. Sometimes they had both.
But here was an actual office, so I stepped in. The tourist lady behind the counter spoke perfect English. I asked if they had one of those give-away tourist maps and if she could help me find an address. She did and she would.
Glancing at the address she said, “This is the address?” I assured her it was. “Are you sure you want to go there?” Well, up until that moment I was pretty sure.
At the edge of the giveaway map were train tracks and a street crossing them. Pointing to the crossing and then to the countertop just off the map, she said, “Where you want to go is here, on the other side of the tracks. It’s not on this map. but I can draw you the route on the back of it.” Gosh. My relative Therese apparently lived on the wrong side of the tracks. The tourist lady finished her drawing and pointed me in the direction of the street crossing. I was off. I was glad that I’d gone in the tourist office during business hours, when it was open.
Once I was on the other side of the tracks, the quality of building construction dropped considerably. It really did seem to be the “wrong side of the tracks.” Most of the buildings appeared to be apartment blocks of 2, maybe 3 stories. But most of them appeared to have been uninhabited for quite a while, judging from the fact that sunshine pierced their roofs, and chunks of their walls had fallen out. I stopped in the road to think about this again. I actually entered one building through a large hole torn from the building’s walls, stopping by a dead pigeon. I stood there thinking it through. Did I really want to open what could be a can of worms?
Well, in the end I wasn’t going to travel thousands of miles and then chicken out at the last minute. I found the building with the address I’d been given and was relieved to find it intact and inhabited, a two-story apartment block that seemed pretty well kept up. The apartment that I wanted was on the second floor, right up a flight of cement stairs with a metal railing. I climbed the staircase, walked along a cement walkway to the door, and knocked. The door opened.
Behind the door was a short elderly woman whose face shared so many features with my own grandmother’s. I said something like, “Therese? Je suis Paul.”
She lifted her hands in the air, and shouted, “Quelle surprise! Quelle surprise!” She motioned me inside. It was a small, neat home, and along the side wall was a fireplace. And like in so many homes, pictures were set atop the mantle. And one of those was a recent photo of my sister, a photo that I myself had taken!! How had it gotten there? Well, Grandma must have sent it. Had she also advised Therese that I was coming?
Therese certainly knew a lot about her American family, even as we knew basically nothing about her.
She let me know that she would phone up her son (so she had a son!) but there was only one telephone in the apartment block, and it was on the ground floor, presumably in the manager’s home. She’d be right back. And she disappeared down the stairs. Not long after, she returned, and soon her son Serge drove up in a white hatchback. He was a thin middle aged man, very fit, a bit younger than my father, with whom he shared so many facial features, including a balding head! Unfortunately, between the three of us, nobody but me spoke English, but we somehow communicated anyway.
I grabbed my backpack and descended the stairs to Serge’s hatchback, and we drove off to his house.
And what exactly was this neighborhood of apartments where Therese was living? It was housing provided by the railroad for former employees who had retired. Therese seemed to be alone, so her husband, Mr. Couche, the railroad employee, must have died. Many of the buildings had been allowed to fall into disrepair because they were no longer needed. Their inhabitant were gone, one way or another. Presumably more recent (and still living) retirees would be supported in a different manner. And as I write this, years later, all those apartment buildings have been cleared away and replaced by other types of housing and offices.
Serge’s home was set in a small village less than three miles from Montbard, a little ways further along the omnipresent Burgundy Canal. It’s called St. Remy (It is not the St. Remy with the mental hospital made famous by Vincent Van Gogh). It’s had a stable population of about 850 since the 1950’s. Most of those people lived on the other side of the canal from Serge, though. And near the bridge over the canal was the city hall with a placard announcing events. And near the next bridge up the canal, in the adjoining village of Buffon, was a large sand-surfaced area with men playing Jeu de Boules because . . . of course there was.
Serge’s house was compact, white-washed, and tile-roofed. It practically screamed out “Mediterranean climate.”
It was a two-story building that seemed more Italian than French. It was set into the the hillside that rose behind it. And on that hillside, behind and above the house, was a garden with every sort of vegetable growing there. Most of them would end up on their dinner table.
A path and stairs led back down to a front yard perfect for summer picnics – a lawn, lots of flowering bushes, a shade tree, a metal table, and other lawn furniture. There was even a garden dwarf.
Moths, slipping through the air like hummingbirds, sipped nectar from the flowers as we made ourselves comfortable.
To the side of the lawn was a detached garage for the car, and the whole assemblage was hidden from the view of passersby by an old traditional two-story house placed right at the edge of the road, which blocked the view of most of the yard. Well, a bit of privacy is nice, though rarely did either cars or foot traffic ever come up that street. Countryside living at its best.
Serge worked as a mechanic in a factory at the edge of Montbard (I believe they manufactured piping) And I met Serge’s wife Jeanine who worked in a different factory at the edge of St. Remy. They made plastic artificial flowers. She had a generous aura about her.
Two middle-school aged kids were part of this family – a boy named Hervé, and a girl named Lisa. I would see Hervé in all future visits, but Lisa I never saw again after that summer. Actually, these kids belonged to Jeanine’s relatives, but the Couches were raising them. Indeed, it would turn out that the Couches had a great commitment to helping raise other people’s children.
In fact, they had a commitment to all ages of the family. Jeanine’s brother Olvé, wedded to tobacco and his pipe, lived in the traditional house by the road. During World War II, he had been a French soldier, captured by the Germans and locked in a prison camp. So of necessity he had had to learn some of the German words that were being thrown at him — words like “schlafen (sleep)” and “essen (eat)” After he found out that I was studying German, I heard such prison words from him every time he came around.
And just as I thought all this family stuff was getting sorted out, Serge’s older brother Michel drove up in his white Citroën station wagon, the kind with the famous air-and-oil suspension (the self-leveling hydro-pneumatic suspension).
He had brought along his wife Yvonne. Goodness, how many relatives were there? Michel was a bit pudgier than Serge, but still shared many of the same facial features as my dad, including the balding head. Yvonne was the quiet sort, with graying hair.
Michel had recently retired, but he had worked for the phone company as an electrician, driving all over the country to fix or install equipment. Best of all, he had spent a year working in Australia, where he had picked up quite a bit of English and remembered it decades later. At last, I could get more of my questions answered.
The two brothers formed a quick huddle, to decide whom I would stay with and in what order.I would first stay with Serge for a couple days, and then go to Michel’s townhouse in Montbard.
And then, the celebration. We moved the picnic table next to the garage, where the wall was made from stone. A countertop, cabinets and a small oven/stove completed the Picnic food preparation setup. But behind the wall and a curtain was a small hidden wine cellar. And I was asked to pop in there to admire the stock and choose some bottles to enjoy.
But since I rarely drink alcohol I was in a bit of a spot. The Cote d’Or (golden slopes) is world famous for its wines, so I could only assume that some of their best examples were in that cellar, so politeness required that I try some and enjoy it. I deferred to their judgment in the particular choice of wine, and I drank as much as I could, from more than one bottle, and managed to stay fairly sober while praising every mouthful.
Eventually, Michel headed back home, a spare bed was found for me in the house, and I settled in for a good night’s sleep.
The next day, we spent time strolling around St. Remy. I also toured Serge’s house. The living room had one of the busiest wallpapers I’ve ever seen. Curved lines, vaguely resembling brown and grey flowers, crowded the surface. Dark dots were scattered over the curves.
There were lots of photos hanging on the wall, and I tried to learn the people in them. Jeanine was particularly assertive at teaching me. There were also various souvenirs, including paintings on black velvet. Viva Elvis! Also, there was a cabinet full of souvenir cups and statuettes.
As supper time approached, we all (Including Olvé) jumped into the hatchback to drive to Buffon, the next town over, to eat at the Restaurant Marrionnier. I don’t remember exactly what we had, except for a heaping platterful of the most delicious sliced tomatoes I have ever encountered.
Sometime during that meal, or shortly afterwards, we started talking about grandma, and Serge ventured that he wished he could talk to her, even if she was in America. I told him that she was living with my dad in Seattle, and Dad had a telephone. Furthermore, I had brought Dad’s phone number with me. Serge could just call her up. It would be late morning in Seattle.
Well, it was like a flash bulb had gone off in his head. It had never occurred to him to just call her. We took the hatchback home and hopped out into that very same living room with the impossibly busy wallpaper, which, in all the excitement, seemed an absolutely appropriate design . Serge took the handset, and there was a simple extension speaker attached to it that allowed Jeanine to hear the conversation, too. Smiles lit up the room, and they kept shouting, “Historique! Historique!.”
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Dad had apparently gone out for the morning, because Grandma was the only one home when the Couche’s call came. When she herself answered the phone, they practically melted in excitement.
I was also overjoyed, that I could help them make this connection. I was also impressed. Grandma had left France sixty years before, and had seldom used French ever since – she just wrote the occasional letter, and she might have had one friend who spoke French with her on rare occasions. Yet, after all that time, with no warm-up, she could easily hold a conversation in French with Serge and Jeanine. It just goes to show how permanent one’s native language abilities are.
Tour of Cote d’Or
I’ve mentioned the name Buffon a couple times. You’d see it a lot more than that if you ever went to Montbard, because he is their favorite son. Born in Montbard about three hundred years ago, he became a naturalist and mathematician, one of the most influential biologists in the days before Darwin. He hung out at Montbard castle and in more recent times, even had a crater on the moon named after him.
So when Michel retired, the three-story town house that he acquired had to be located in the heart of town, in Buffon Square, which contained a life-sized bronze statue of the great naturalist himself, circled by a small lawn and flowers. And next to this townhouse was the Buffon Pharmacy where, as Michel got older, he could easily obtain any medicines that he might need. And it’s to that townhouse that we came to next. And across the square was a large building that at times served as a school, at times a museum, and perhaps also as a residence for Buffon himself – the Buffon chateau. In fact, I believe Michel attended school there as a boy.
I was given the room facing the square from the second story, , where I could look out on all this and admire it. The bed in that room had the most pliable mattress of any I’ve ever tried. If one sat on it, it seemed to sink to the floor. But I was still young at the time, so I was able to sleep on it without back problems.
We strolled up the street from the townhouse to find a large building that could have served as a barn back when the city was not so dense. The door was a true barn door, that slid open. It had a huge interior space and the roof was held up by magnificent rough-cut logs.
Michel used this warehouse-sized space for one of his hobbies — collecting and restoring old U.S. army vehicles. They had been left all over France at the end of World War II, as it cost too much to bring them back to America, and they mostly looked like they’d been through a war, anyway. Michel’s barn building housed an army personnel carrier and a large jeep, which he tinkered with from time to time. Every so often, hobbyists like him took part in a parade (in Roen?) to show off their vehicles and swap restoration stories.
Before he had moved into the core of Montbard, Michel had lived in a large house in a wooded area just outside of town. He was having it refurbished preparatory to selling it, so we hopped in his Citroën to check on the progress. Parked nearby was his “caravan,” (otherwise known as a small house trailer), in which he had lived for about half the year as he traveled from place to place all over the country for his work.
And then, it turned out that Michel had a son named Joel. There were just more and more Couches all the time! We headed out to Joel’s home. He was a thirty-something guy who lived in a two-story town house with his wife Françoise and his two little kids, Philippe and Caroline. He was a policeman, who had spent a few years policing in French Guiana, so he had a lot of South American memorabilia and a large collection of guns, which he was very proud of. I guess, since he was a policeman, he had access to more guns than most people did – his were the only guns I ever saw in private hands in all the times that I would tour France.
And his wife had a fine collection of small china dishes, like Jeanine had. Their wallpaper was not quite as busy as Serge’s, since it had a pattern of short straight lines rather than long swirls. Both papers had dots, though.
And there was a spiral staircase, right in the middle of the living room, that led from the ground floor to the next floor. I’d never seen anything like it outside of a fire house. It seemed elegant, like something in a Marilyn Monroe movie.
Joel also had an assemblage of fine wines, and once again I had to drink more than I was used to, and once again I was able to drink without falling over.
Several miles north of Montbard flows the Seine River, the same Seine that flows through Paris. And at one spot by the Seine, three small villages abut each other, such that it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other leaves off. These villages are Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine, Chatillon-sur-Seine, and Vix. They are actually world famous for the archeological relics found in the area, such as the “Vix Grave,” the grave of a Celtic princess from 2500 years ago.
They are also famous in my family because Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine is where my grandmother is actually from. And no, she wasn’t an archeological relic.
So at one point in my visit to Michel, he and I and Yvonne hopped in the Citroën and headed up north through lightly rolling hills with huge grain fields, to find Grandma’s first home. Her father worked for the railroad as a crossing guard of sorts They lived in a house by a railroad crossing, and it was the father’s task to make sure the gate was lowered when a train was coming. He might have performed other tasks as well.
Well, we went to such a house in Sainte-Colombe-sur-Seine and it looked pretty comfortable. There were actually two two-story buildings on the property surrounded by a metal picket fence. They were surrounded by lawn, perfect for croquet, or rather, Jeu de Boules. There were several railroad crossings in the area, and I wasn’t sure if Grandma had lived at this one, or another. But Michel said he’d show me for absolute sure one where she’d actually lived, but only the foundation was left. It was still in Sainte Colombe, though on the edge of town.
It was on a small spar track – just one track, and weeds were growing up around and within it, but one could still make out the foundation. The crossing was where it had always been, and the track appeared to still be in use, so a whole other house had been constructed nearby, probably to replace the old building.
We found a more picturesque part of town, next to the Seine, where we took commemorative snapshots.
Moulin des Isles
And then Michel mentioned Pont de Pany. He knew it well because as a young boy he would spend summers there with his grandparents. They lived at a site called Moulin des Isles, which means “Mill of the Islands.” So we set out driving back south through more of those huge fields and rolling hills.
When we reached Pont de Pany, we stopped exactly where I had stopped six years earlier — by the stone bridge over the Ouche River, near the old school house. I could not resist taking a photo from the exact same spot where I’d stood back then. Well, it was almost the exact spot – the water level was higher this year, so the exact spot was covered in water and reeds. The reeds were happy, though.
The Burgundy Canal was nearby, as well as the old hotel. I hoped we’d find the house that Grandma had referred to years ago, the one behind the hotel on the hill.
We hopped in the car and started off. We did go behind the hotel, but not in the direction I had expected. We took a dirt road that began where the Burgundy Canal flowed under Burgundy Street. Instead of driving by the hotel, we followed the canal on that dirt road for about half a mile to reach a complex of buildings, again next to the canal.
So this was Moulin des Isles!! Well, it certainly was located behind the hotel – about a half mile behind. And it was located behind a low rise, though not behind the higher hill adjacent to the hotel. It’s easy to see how Grandma could have made this small navigational error decades after leaving France.
Moulin des Isles proved to be not just a home, but a complex of maybe ten buildings, including warehouses, a garage, and who knows what else. At the time it seemed owned by a natural gas company. Michel knocked on the door of the house. A young pregnant woman answered. Once Michel explained who we were, she granted us entry to wherever we wanted to go on the property
So I got lots of photos, including inside the house, which had a fireplace very much like the one in Therese’s apartment. I even got a photo of Michel standing proudly in front of a small garden which he had worked on as a body.
I walked outside the compound to where Yvonne had set herself down on the grass that bordered the canal. A little ways further, a couple fishermen were waiting for a bite, and behind them floated a canal boat. Tall trees also lined the canal route. A dappled light filtered through their thick foliage.
It was one of the most peaceful and quiet scenes that could ever be imagined. I imagined that any one growing up or living in such a peaceful atmosphere would benefit in both physical and mental health. I was glad that the young Michel had been able to share in it.
Well, time was getting short against my impending departure date from Europe. All my essential goals had been achieved. Michel fetched his mother Therese so we could all spend some time together, and I took my favorite photo of her as she sat in Michel’s townhouse. And as I directed my lens towards her, and noted her friendly face smiling back at me, I kept wondering why we hadn’t always known about them, these Couches, the way that we knew about so many of my mother’s relatives in Sweden and Finland.
About four miles from Montbard stands a Cistercian abbey which became a UNESCO world heritage site the same year that I was visiting. The abbey had been founded about a thousand years ago and was finished a hundred years later. It’s lost a couple of structures over the millennia, but basically it’s been there the whole time. And now we would be there, too.
From the outside, the stone buildings were all barn-shaped, but on the inside a variety of arches held up the tile roofs. The most beautiful arches surrounded the cloister It seemed magical that a structure so old and famous was located just down the road from the little towns where the Couches were living.
But then, not much further away, was something twice as old and many times as famous. . . . Alesia!
Alesia was a mountain town where the final battle between Julius Caesar and the Celts (the Gauls) took place in 52 B.C. . The Gauls were led by Vercingétorix. Uniting those famously independent and fractious Celts had not been easy for Vercingétorix. The task took years. In the end, Caesar pushed them all up the mountain and lay siege to it, encircling the whole mountain, similarly to how the later Romans would encircle the Jews on Masada.
When Vercingétorix realized there was no escape for himself, he surrendered to Caesar in person, throwing his weapons down at Caesar’s feet, hoping that more of his soldiers would be spared. He was taken to Rome where he languished in prison for five years, and then was ceremonially executed after a triumphal parade.
This battle was one of the most significant milestones in forming the Roman Empire. Caesar himself wrote about it. And here I was driving up the very same mountain with Herve, Serge and Michel.
At the top is a 25-foot tall monument/statue of Vercingétorix himself, commissioned by Napoleon III from the sculptor Aimé Millet and set up in 1865.The great chieftain stares out and across the countryside, no doubt gauging how he might deal with the Romans below. We got out a pair of binoculars and spotted landmarks in the valley below.
Off to one side was a Gallo-Roman amphitheater that had presumably been there since the Roman Empire (?). There were no steps or seats, and trees grew through the audience area. The stage was comprised of packed dirt, enclosed by a stone wall. It seemed a perfect place to play Jeu de Boules but unfortunately we’d left our equipment at home.
Eventually it was time to go home, and time for me to take the train the next day to Luxembourg, and from there, out of Europe. With me I took several boxes of a licorice candy that’s a specialty of the region, and a large bouquet of artificial flowers for Grandma from the factory where Jeanine worked.
I really felt blessed to have such wonderful relatives and I intended to visit them again as soon as I could.
Postlude – 1991
I visited my dad when I returned to America from my 1981 Europe Trip, and I made sure that he understood who these French relatives were, and that they were not even a little bit crazy. I knew that he would like them, too. He kind of dragged his feet about actually going to France to meet them, though. Well, Dad was not known for taking adventurous journeys. On the other hand, he did start studying French.
Meanwhile, I visited the Couches in France in 1984 and again in 1990. Yep. They were just as wonderful each time. By that time Grandma was staying in an old folks home because she required more care than she could receive living with Dad. And my dad was still dragging his feet about going to France. But then, in 1991, he decided to go. And I found out why he had been putting it off.
Grandma had an old desk which she had left with my father. She kept some of her personal papers in that desk, one of which was an envelope upon which she had written, “Only open this envelope when I am gone.” Normally Dad would not open such an envelope, but now he was going to France and he got to thinking maybe there was something in that envelope that he ought to know, something that maybe the people in Montbard might know already. So he opened the envelope.
And he found out that Therese was not Grandma’s sister after all, but her daughter. A man in Pont de Pany had gotten her pregnant at the age of thirteen, whether through force or not, I don’t know. I do know that when her father found out about it, he went to fetch his shotgun. But Grandma begged him not to kill the guy. He put his shotgun away and in the next year, when Grandma was 14, Therese was born. But how would she be raised? Grandma’s parents were willing to raise her, but Grandma had to take responsibility, too. Specifically she had to get some job training and start earning money towards Therese’s support.
There was a skilled seamstress in Pont de Pany, whom Grandma studied with. But there wasn’t much extra work in Pont d’Pany. It was just too small a town. So where else could she work? Pont de Pany had a tradition as a military retreat, so perhaps she used some military connections there to locate Pontarlier, which also had a military tradition.
So Grandma moved up to Pontarlier to make money. She was hired by the hotel, the beginning of an employment spanning many years. She regularly sent money for Therese back to her parents in Pont de Pany. Did people in town know that Therese was not their daughter? I don’t know, but certainly the people in Pontarlier wouldn’t know , so it was a way that Grandma wouldn’t have to face what she (and French society at that time) may have felt was her shameful behavior.
Even after she moved to America this attitude of secrecy continued. In World War II, the Cote d’Or was captured by the Germans, and supply chains were disrupted. So Grandma sent clothes to the family, probably Dad’s old knock-offs, but customized by her seamstress skills. She probably sent other supplies or foods as well. But when the war was over, and Michel wrote to Grandma that he wanted to come to America, she wrote back and told him not to come.
I can still hear Michel’s hurt voice asking me why? And I had no answer for him. But now I know that she was still running from what she felt was her shame. If Michel had come, her secret would have become common knowledge. But now it’s too late to tell Michel this explanation for her refusal. Perhaps it’s better he not know it, anyway. I wonder if he asked Dad about it when Dad finally came to Montbard.
But such feelings of shame were dealt with in America society back in the 1960’s People back then realized that children born out of wedlock were to be celebrated, just like any other child. As it was, the old feelings of shame kept our American family from valuing an entire French wing of the family.
Dad’s trip to France lasted six or eight weeks, and he loved it. He rented a car and drove all over France and shared meals with all the family members.
However he was very frustrated by his inability to communicate in French, so in later years he never returned. He did keep up a correspondence with some of them, such as Philippe Couche, but eventually that communication dropped off. But the Couches sure did take to him.
Every time I found myself in Montbard, Jeanine would loudly inquire, “Comment va Fred ?” (How is Fred?) and then she’d say it again out of pure pleasure. And every time she did that I felt happy that I had enabled them to fix that broken connection, that they valued as much as I did.
All the same, though, it reminded me that we could have known these Couches for decades longer than we actually had. I don’t really blame Grandma, though. That was the way people felt back then. I’m just glad for the time that we did have to get to know them.