Blessed by embracing two cultures

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Early on, I learned something of life's complexity. At elementary school in New York City I was taught by Anglophiles, and at home influenced by my Francophile mother.

Many of the teachers at school – we called them masters – were English. They were strict. Throughout the day I would respond, "Yes, sir." "No, sir." So much so, that when conversing with Mother at home, at times I would call her "sir." (Lest the reader think I was well-behaved and compliant, both at school and at home I responded politely before doing whatever pleased me.)

At school we read English poetry, performed Shakespeare's plays, ate shepherd's pie, played soccer instead of football, and sang with fervor "Men of Harlech." The version we sang concluded:

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Comrades, keep close order!

Ever they shall rue the day.

They ventured o'er the border!

Now the Saxon flees before us;

Victory's banner floateth o'er us!

Raise the loud, exulting chorus,

'Britain wins the field!'

There, I should add, I received a splendid education in the English language, both written and spoken.

At home, Mother did not dislike the English, but the French and Russians have historical and emotional ties, and mother was Russian-born. So excellent was her French, she lectured at the Sorbonne on international relations. I felt proud when Parisians praised her French, for she spoke, I was told, in the classical manner.

I studied English history at school. The French monarchy was not well-regarded, nor was Napoleon.

French history only became a part of my life when I visited Paris and the palaces and castles along the Loire Valley. Then I changed my allegiance from the English Henrys to King Henry IV of France who sought, during the Wars of Religion, to unite a divided people – much as Lincoln did in his time. "I am a shepherd King," Henry said, "who will not shed the blood of his sheep, but seek to bring them together with kindness."

The passage of years has led me to embrace both cultures.

Thus, years later, I was returning from the west of England, where I had worked in a bookshop. As the train pulled into London's Paddington Station, a woman sharing the compartment leaned over to ask, "Are you in the Guards?" This remains a high point of my life. I smiled and departed without speaking, lest my accent betray me.

Around the same time I came upon Michel de Montaigne, a joy of French literature – of all literature – and Hector Berlioz's glorious opera, "Les Troyens."

Looking back, I realize there are distinct advantages in being taught by English masters and having a Francophile mother.

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