An Armistice Day that outshone the others
Another Armistice Day came and went, and renewed my memories of that day in 1966 to savor as special. My doting wife and I were on extended holiday. We were a forenoon's ride out of Paris and came awake in a small town in southwesterly France to face a poached-egg breakfast that was much enjoyed.
Our inn had been that of the aspens, surrounded by those trees and facing the town hall, with our highway to Paris between. It was a husband-and-wife place, he in the kitchen and she elsewhere. As the only guests, we quickly were handed the key to the royal suite. It was our touring custom to spend a few minutes each evening with the journal, to bring it up to date and see that nothing was left out.
"Funny," she said, "all the breakfasts we've had in Europe, and we haven't seen a dropped egg." A dropped egg is what you get Down East instead of a poached egg. In Canada it is an oeuf poche, but we had long since learned that France hasn't kept abreast of Canadian talk. "I'll see what I can do," I promised. "I suppose they just don't poach eggs in Europe."
At suppertime, our host and hostess welcomed us merrily, and he retired to his kitchen. Madame was not sure she understood about a poached egg, so she called back her husband who said of course he could make poached eggs, and we would have some for breakfast.
So we awoke to our poached-egg breakfast, and it was Nov. 10, 1966. As we ate our poached eggs (on zwieback!), across the highway in the town-hall parking lot we could see activity by a squad of soldiers. A machine gun was set up on a tripod so it commanded the very window whereat we sat. I beg you to consider well our situation.
While the husband beamed from his kitchen door, his good wife asked if our eggs were as desired, and saying nothing about the zwieback we asked why hostilities seemed to be shaping up across the way. Very simple. Tomorrow would be Armistice Day, and M. le President de Gaulle, whose home was down the road, would be coming this way to be in Paris for his speech under the Arc de Triomphe. Security was tight. Would we have the pruneaux?
General de Gaulle was prompt, and his official caravan moved along shortly. Allowing a discreet 10 minutes, we fell in behind and in lesser splendor drove our VW Beetle to Paris. We thus came to The City of Light with full military protection, finding a squad of soldiers with a loaded machine gun on a tripod 50 meters apart all the way. We were hoping we might be held up and frisked on suspicion, but we were not.
We arrived by the avenue of the Grand Army, as did M. de Gaulle, drove once around the magnificent monument, and found our hotel a few doors down the Avenue Carnot. We weren't more than a two-minute walk from the arch. The clerk said he expected us and handed over some letters from home. I told my companion that President de Gaulle had alerted the hotel that we were on the way. To which she responded, "All this, and Paris, and poached eggs, all in one day!"
So we were in Paris on Armistice Day, and stood close to the patriotic exercises. It was the most stirring event of its kind in my life.
In our wanderings, we'd already been to the crossroad where the railway car of the armistice signing is forever under cover on a siding. Almost lost in the bushes, the place was not loudly advertised, and the area sat in silence. We were alone while we were there.
The perimeter of the Arc de Triomphe was equally silent that Armistice Day morning when we walked up to it, but thousands of people were standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the program. There would be a parade up the Avenue of the Elysian Fields. The circle of the arch had been closed, and the parade would stand in wait until after the exercises under the arch. The unknown soldier of France is under the arch; this morning his sepulcher was under a mountain of gladioli. Over him flew a magnificently huge Tricoleur, gently moving in the most languid air.
THE parade arrived. Directly ahead of us and in order on the circle pavement, a hundred men on horseback stood motionless until the last note of "The Marseillaise." Next, to our left, were the cadets of St. Cyr, polished beyond belief, each with his wooden parade gun, and all standing equally still. President de Gaulle, whom we'd last seen from our hotel window, arrived standing at attention in a Jeep, his polished chauffeur careful about jiggles and bumps.
There was not a sound from the crowd. Utter silence until the steel of the horses' hooves intruded, and then silence again as the cavalry assumed its pose. De Gaulle was a huge man, awesome in height in the stubby Jeep, and his good voice was amplified to fill the area. The vast flag moved almost not at all a few inches above his brow. Vive la France!
The few steps from our lodgings were the same few steps going back, and as traffic on the Avenue Carnot was never brisk, we had left our Bug parked by the front door. But the busiest traffic in Paris is in the toile, and as we left the circle around the arch it had resumed its frantic surge where, moments before, thousands of us had stood in rapt regard for the blessed peace that Armistice Day promises. All this is not forgotten one whit. Have you ever eaten a dropped egg on zwieback?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society