Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wanting to see it

For a second time we have spent a vacation in the French countryside of the Dordogne region.  Small bastide towns, castles dating back centuries, caves, wine country and miles upon miles of beautiful scenery make this part of France a wonderful spot to be in.

Not to mention the food, the birthplace of Foie Gras and truffles as well as national French delights (croissants anyone) make Dordogne a feast for all the senses.

And don't even get me started on the wines.

Two years ago when we went I was all obsessed with the wines of Bordeaux and the creme de la creme, St. Emilion Grand Cru.  Good wines definitely but honestly a bit too heavy for my taste.  This time around we focused on wines produced in the Dordogne region itself which are lighter, Leo fell in love with Monbazilliac, a semi sweet white wine that the French drink as an aperitif or as a dessert wine.  And I developed a penchant for Pecharmant, a blend of cabernet, cab franc and Malbec wines.  I drank Malbec rose every day for lunch and it was heaven.  We decided not to go crazy buying wines this time so we brought back a modest two cases (12 bottles), considering two years ago we brought over 100 bottles back and we don't really have the proper room to store them (now I wish we had a basement), we were very restrained this time.

As I mentioned before, I love spending time in France but it also haunts me since it is the birthplace of my father, the country where he spent his most formative years, the majority of which being refugees, hiding in Vichy France, living with unimaginable fear.  That time and what he experienced in France shaped the man he was to become,  therefore I feel this strange longing to walk a little in his footsteps.

During our vacation we took a side trip to the city of Cahors in the midi-Pyrenees region, about 2.5 hours away from where we were staying.  My dad, aunt and grandparents spent 6 weeks in Cahors during the war.  When the Germans attacked France they lived in Cuise-la-Motte, a small town in the northern part of France.  They were bombed out of their house and spent a few days in the woods with other families and my grandparents decided to travel south and try to get out of France via the Pyrenees mountains, go into Spain, into Portugal and try to get a boat to the United States from Portugal.  They set off on bicycles, my dad riding on the back of my grandfather's bicycle and my aunt on the back of my grandmother's.  They rode mostly in the night when the roads were less crowded and my grandfather felt there was less danger, although it was still risky.  France is a hilly terrain and outside of the major cities there were not yet a lot of paved roads, so the riding must have been treacherous and with two small children in tow and heavy packs on their backs, the journey was slow going.  They had money and gold sent to them by my grandfather's brother who had a flourishing furniture business in Fredericktown, Pennsylvania.  They took shelter in small villages and unlike a lot of other refugees, were able to pay for meals and shelter along the way.  My dad, who was all of 6 years old told me that my grandfather taped his and my aunt's mouths shut on the bicycles so that in case they cried out in their sleep, they would not attract attention.

It took several weeks but they finally reached Cahors and there they stopped and they rented a one room apartment to rest and get their bearings.  My grandfather went out and started inquiring about the best route to Spain through the mountains and he learned that the trip was very dangerous, that many French refugees trying to escape France were killed by Spanish robbers for their valuables.  After discussing the situation with my grandmother, they decided it was too risky to try and escape and that they were better off trying to live quietly somewhere in Vichy, France which was, at least on paper, not directly controlled by the Germans.  My grandfather took some of the gold sent to him by his brother and bought false identity papers which protected them from immediately being identified as Jewish and he made arrangements to move out from the city.  My grandfather went to university in Toulouse, a larger city a few hours away from Cahors.  He traveled to Toulouse by train and met up with a former professor and friend to get some advice.  The professor agreed with him that their best chance was to live in obscurity somewhere, in a small village.  His friend offered him the use of his late parents home in Vacquiers, a small village outside of Toulouse.  So they ended up settling there and living out the war years and my grandfather donated gold to the Church in Vaquiers, next door to their home and the Priest, whom my grandfather befriended,  looked out for them and even hid them in the Church for a few days later in the war when the Nazis entered Vacquiers.

Cahors was an important stop on their journey, it was a turning point, had they not stopped there they  maybe would have been killed trying to get to Spain, so I wanted to go there.

Driving there and through the entire Dordogne valley I couldn't help but notice the similarities between this part of France and the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up.  Rivers creating winding, hilly country single lane roads, trees as far as the eye can see, a smattering of houses, mostly old, some beautifully maintained, others having seen their better days decades before.  Old tires and buckets being used as flower pots.  Small sheds and houses dotting the roadways with faded billboards advertising a nearby restaurant, grocery store or attraction.  The beauty of the rivers with people swimming or boating in small canoes.

I have to admit that I was lost in a reverie every time we got in the car.  I took in the scenery but in my mind's eye, I was driving along the Monongahela River of my youth and remembering the summers I spent on that river, boating with friends, swimming, laying in the sun.  The days, months and years spent in our furniture store in Fredericktown on the banks of the Monongahela, the beauty of Southwestern Pennsylvania, so similar to that of the French countryside.  I was imagining how my dad, aunt and grandparents must have felt as new immigrants to Fredericktown, in their rented house on the banks of the Mon.  They didn't speak the language and were in this strange place, with a strange culture (there were no pain-au-chocolates in Fredericktown), but part of them must have felt at home in this small town on the edge of a riverbank with trees and hills as far as the eye could see.

I have no idea where they stayed in Cahors so we just went to the center of town and walked around and took in the town square, it was market day so there was a lot of activity.  We spent a lot of time in the shade near the merry go round where Maya rode and rode and rode, switching from horse, to spinning car, to swing.  Maya, being young for her age still loves the merry go round and France is a haven for her since they have them in practically every town.

My dad was a lot of things, he was brilliant, charming, funny, engaging but he was also dark, angry and embittered.  Most of all he was mysterious.  My dad raised me and certainly was a profound influence on me, I spent a lot of time with him growing up and lived with him exclusively after my parents' divorce.  But in so many ways there is still a lot I didn't understand about him and I certainly wasn't able to help him.  I understand that and accept it but of course I wish I could have helped him.  

Eight years on from his suicide there are still questions that I will never be able to answer.  And I think maybe that is why I am drawn to France, that perhaps the simple act of walking in or even near his footsteps,  being submerged in the country, language and culture of his birth somehow makes me feel more connected to him and gives me peace in accepting all the unanswered questions he left behind.

My dad had loving, caring parents but his childhood was wrought with fear and that stayed with him for life.  I remember once finding a box of canned food under his bed in our house in California, PA.  I asked him what it was doing there, he told me that he couldn't sleep without it there.  When I asked him why, he got a faraway look in his eyes and he simply said, "I hope that you will never have to learn what fear is." It wasn't the answer I was looking for or an explanation, but I walked away from that conversation knowing that he knew something truly terrible.  

Seeing Maya on that merry go round in Cahors feels like some kind of full circle.  Here she was, my daughter, my dad's granddaughter, in the same city where he had been, not living in fear, but smiling and laughing, running, cavorting, and enjoying herself.


Something just feels right about that.


  1. A good friend of my grandmother's, spent the war in the forests with partisans, some of whom would have happily killed him for being a Jew if he didn't have the medical training they needed from him. I met him years ago, he was a brilliant, charming man. He committed suicide about 10 years ago, not before writing a book of his experiences. He wasn't ill, and left a letter blaming his wife, but after reading his book, I'm sure something of the fear had to still be with him. He described the first Nazi "Aktions" in his town, in detail. He escaped the ghetto, and joined the partisans to stay alive. They type of PTSD survivors suffer wasn't known at the time, and rarely treated. Those still alive probably carry it with them still.

  2. Thank you for sharing a piece of your history. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people to live through the terrors of that time. To terrible for words. I have spent time in Poland and the Czech Republic and it was also during the time that Schindlers List appeared on circuit. We took in a lot of history and I will never forget the experience.
    On a lighter note, I had Malbec from Argentina two nights ago! :)