No longer an outsider in rural France

For 30 years, my family has been connected to a microdot village in rural France. My mother, a professor of medieval studies, arrived first and bought a cottage. In the pre-Peter Mayle 1980s, my wife and I followed for annual vacations. In 1990, when our daughter was born and we began to restore a long-empty house, we sensed the village's approval: We were three generations of Francophiles.

In recent years, my work as a chef and owner of a small culinary tour company has brought me to France more often. When people think about where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, I will think of this village built on Roman ruins, where I was stranded for a week after the terrorist strikes.

Buisson has about 200 year-round inhabitants. It is too small to support its own cafe, school, or post office. There are no street names or house numbers. When people come into the village, they must ask for directions to the house they want. In our case, they ask for "the Americans." We're the only ones who have ever lived here, if only for a few weeks each year.

The day after the tragedy, a car from Lyon stopped for directions as I hung out my wash. I gave directions. They guessed I was English. No, I corrected them, I am American.

Immediately, four car doors opened and three men and a woman got out. Each shook my hand and hugged me and said, "We are all together in this catastrophe."

In a country where being aloof is considered being polite, this behavior was startling. People in our village have always been courteous, but they are proud farmers who don't show their emotions to foreigners.

In that week, however, I was astounded, grateful, and more than a few times tearful at the kindness and empathy the French showed me. Everyone I know there invited me to dinner or brought me food. They asked after my family's safety in Washington, and expressed their solidarity.

On Sept. 14 at noon, all over France, there were three minutes of silence to commemorate the events of Sept. 11. Church bells tolled, children stood at attention, traffic halted in many towns. Farmworkers paused at the height of the grape harvest.

That evening, Cecile, a little girl in the village the same age as my daughter and one of her summer playmates, knocked at the door. When I answered, she drew up her most earnest face and said: "Monsieur, je suis desolée pour la catastrophe aux Etats Unis. Nous sommes en solidarité." ("I'm sorry about the catastrophe in the United States. We are in solidarity with you.")

She explained that she had told her class about the American in the village and that she would go see me as a delegation of one.

With a daughter Cecile's age, I knew what a brave and kind act that was. I choked up as I thought of my own distant girl. Cecile ran off, probably guessing I was about to hug her. I called out my thanks. She turned and said, "Mais, oui. C'est normal."

Another neighbor, Madame Abran, rapped hard at my door. She is a force to be reckoned with. In a village that can't support a resident priest, she keeps the keys to the church. She has never come to our house before.

A foot shorter and wider than I, she often holds my wrist when speaking to me in the village square to make sure I hear everything she wants to say and that I can't leave a moment earlier.

That evening, she held a flat of peaches, which she thrust at me. "You'll need these," I was told. She asked after my family's safety, told me how sorry she was for the victims, and said we were together in solidarity.

The genuine sorrow of people there and their statements that we are together in this tragedy have altered my relationship with the French forever.

Over the years, my family and I have gained many friends here, but rarely have we been included in any French statement of "we." Now I sense that my family and I are no longer outsiders.

Much more than the skyline of Manhattan has changed. Even here in the French countryside, people knock at my door, buy me drinks in the cafe. Shopkeepers have refused my money. More than generosity, I believe it is a rejection of the tragedy.

While I waited for a flight home, struggling to sort out the shock and horror of recent events and trying to anticipate what would happen next, I was an American certain of the kindness of strangers. Toujours merci.

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