I’ve been thinking about France a lot this past week. My recent trip there was a delight. France can’t help but strike the American traveler as an entire country of epicures. The food is “insane,” in the way my high school daughter uses the word, that is to say, superb beyond imagining. The countryside is beautiful. On my last day in France, I was standing in front of my country inn in a small town on the edge of the Brocéliande Forest (the home of the wizard Merlin, according to local Celtic legend). I was waiting impatiently for the taxi to take me to the airport in Rennes for my flight to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. It was 5 am, the air was cold but still, the silence broken only by the occasional snuffling of a cow or goat. The roosters weren’t even up yet, and I remember thinking about that famous quote by writer Marcel Dion about “la France profonde”–“deep France” he called it, a place eternal and unchanging, operating on its own internal logic and all but impenetrable to the outsider.
Indeed, standing there in the silence, pacing back and forth and wondering whether I would make it to Rennes in time, already worried about my connection to Paris and thence to Dallas-Fort Worth, I felt like some ridiculous stereotyped cliché of the “modern man,” disconnected from nature, paranoid (but with good reason, I thought), and so wedded to his timetable and his iPhone and his Blackberry that he no longer knew how to live like a normal human being. I had become a typically cranky character in a thousand twentieth-century novels. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I was feeling “unstuck in time.”
Something else had happened during my trip, moreover, to make my sense of disorientation even more complete. The day before, I had taken my daily walk through the tiny town where I was staying. Paimpont, it was called. It’s like a postcard. An ancient archway opens onto the main street which takes you to the town square. There you see the inevitable memorial to the soldiers killed in “the war.” Name after name after name. A huge list, indeed, so many that it is impossible to imagine them all living in such a small town. You notice something else: the same surnames listed over and over again. Father and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers and cousins. The male line of entire families carried off by the same murderous sequence of events.
I’m a World War II guy. For me, “the war” can only mean one thing, and I know that the same is true for most Americans. The war that I study is the greatest, bloodiest, baddest military conflict of all time. The “big one.” A “crusade in Europe.” A war of “retribution” against Japan. Massive battles raging from Australia to the Arctic. Unprecedented destruction. Absolute victory.
But I keep thinking about my walk through Paimpont. The monument that I saw there had nothing to do with World War II. My greatest war of all time had hardly touched this little town. As far as the locals in deep France are concerned, World War I is, and always will be, the big one. It was the Great War, as they called it at the time, that had shaken their lives, killed them in shocking numbers, and left even the survivors brutalized.
The older I get, the more I realize that there is no such thing as history. There are only “histories”–and all them are equally valid.
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