19 January 2010

Metz: an old man's stories

After yet another day of battling the winter blues, I refused to surrender to the temptation of a nap, and dragged myself out of the apartment.  The last thing I want is to spend my future regretting not making the most of every moment in France when I had the chance.  

So off I went, exploring some lesser travelled streets of Metz, crossing the Esplanade, and finally arriving in the area of the Arsenal (a concert venue and art gallery), Saint Pierre aux Nonnains (oldest church in France dating from the 4th century), and the Chappelle des Templiers (chapel of the knights Templar dating from the 12th century). This area has long intrigued me, and I love wandering here.  I approached the charming, octagonal Templar chapel, hoping to have another glimpse of the frescoes inside, but as usual, it was locked.  I've only ever been inside once, and every subsequent visit, it's been closed to visitors.  I gave one last hopeful tug, only to be interrupted by a gruff voice.  

"Elle est fermée." an old gentlemen approached, his black Scottish terrier racing ahead to greet me. He wore a long trench coat and the brown leather flat cap that elderly European men tend to wear. He walked up quite close to me, suspicious of what I was up to. 

"Yes, I know it's closed, I was just hoping to see the frescoes-" I replied.

Noting my accent, he asked me where I was from, and what I was doing in Metz.  I started to reply, but he seemed distracted, and cut me off.  "You know, I was married in this church," he said, gesturing towards the Templar chapel."  He went on to recount the story of how his fiancée had agreed to wed him on the following conditions: First, that the pair would marry in the Templar chapel and nowhere else.  Second, the Franciscan monks from the nearby Saint-Croix would sing Gregorian chants for the ceremony.  Her demands were simple. No chapel, no Franciscans, no marriage.

He went on to elaborate the great lengths he went to petition to wed in the chapel, and how when the aging monks refused to sing anywhere but their abby, he implored the bishop of Metz himself.  Eventually, the stars aligned, a fantasy became a reality, and a fiancée became a wife. He fumbled in his wallet to produce a crumpled photo of their son, a professional ballet dancer in full costume.  He asked me my age, as if he was considering me as a potential wife for his son.  When I told him, he furrowed his brow, but said "That's okay, my wife is quite a bit younger than me." He then explained that he feared the ballet dancing would render his son homosexual.  "Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that grandkids would be nice." he added.  I nodded politely, trying not to giggle.

Arnaud led me to a plaque with the history of the Templar chapel, and read it to me, very slowly, as though each word was of the greatest importance.  He then suggested I ask the Mairie for permission to access the chapel, but rolled his eyes as he lamented the right leaning local government of Metz.  "Their solution is to lock everything up, but that won't keep the hoodlums away," he said, pointing to some splintered glass where a plexiglass door used to seal the chapel.  He believed that locking monuments only encouraged trouble, and that the true solution was to open them to the rightful owners, every citizen of Metz.

He then swept his arm in a grand gesture, drawing my eyes to the buildings that surrounded us. He began to recount his experiences as a young soldier, who had lied about his age in order to serve.  Pointing to the Arsenal, he explained that it was a workshop during World War II, that that building just over there was army barracks, and that he dined with a general in that building just there, and that the Nazis marched through just beyond there when the third Reich took Metz after the Battle of France in 1940.  

He described the moment he learned of the German occupation of his hometown.  Another soldier had asked him where he was from, and when he replied "Metz," the soldier said "So, Germany then?" "No!" Arnaud shouted. "France!" His companion persisted, "Not anymore."

"But even though the citizens were forced to speak German here, they were always French.  We never stopped being French."

His voice broke as he quoted this 70 year old exchange.  His eyes flooding with tears but never leaving mine, he paused. "Çava, Monsieur?" I whispered gently, not quite knowing what to do with this unsolicited narration, which even after so much time was obviously emotionally draining to this elderly man.  I had not asked for him to speak to me of the war, but this was possibly therapeutic, and I considered myself lucky to receive this treasure of a story.  I only regretted not having a better grasp of French to do his story justice.  

It was my duty and privilege to listen.

He continued, plaintively, slowly.  I was amazed that I understood practically everything he was saying, and I was able to figure out other words based on context.  His uncle served in Normandy, and narrowly escaped with his life.  He joined his uncle there, and described his first time parachuting from a plane.  It was at Normandy that he would meet and dine with future president of the United States Ike Eisenhower.  

The landscape in this particular area hasn't changed much, since he explained the significance of every surrounding building.  It came alive before me, in my head, I heard the resonant, metallic clanging from the workshop, the rhythmic footsteps of soldiers in formation, the sounds of war, of death, of eventual victory.  When he described the casualties of the American liberators of Metz, he again broke down in tears.  What was only a tranquil area of beauty to me suddenly took on all the meaning in the world.  

Eventually, dark fell, and the temperature followed suit.  He asked where I lived, and as it turns out, he lives in my direction, so we continued our walk together towards the train station. However, his rowdy terrier had other plans, bounding away, waiting until his master was just within reach with the leash, and frolicking away again, barking as though he was laughing at the plight of his poor master.  With the aid of some amused university students, we were able to corral the dog and secure him.  As we continued our walk, he'd would stop every few meters to point out a new feature I had never noticed about Metz.  Periodically he'd drop one of his gloves, and wouldn't have noticed had I not picked them up.  He seemed oblivious to the cold, even as my teeth chattered, his jacket was unzipped and he removed his hat.  

We stopped before the governor's mansion, a place he had the honor of dining multiple times.
Tonight, there was a dinner taking place there, and he greeted by name several of the well-dressed guests walking in.  I gathered that he and his wife are fairly known in Metz.  Finally we passed the old granary and a beautiful home that he wished he could have bought his wife.  He stared at it wistfully before naming all the people who used to reside here and there, most of whom were prominent during the war.

After nearly two hours, I was so freezing that I told him that I was sorry, but I simply had to go indoors to warm up.  The terrier seemed to look at me gratefully, as though he too had been suffering in the weather. He seemed surprised to see me shivering, and remarked that being at war taught him a whole new meaning of the word cold, and that he never notices the weather anymore.  He instructed me to stamp my feet to encourage blood flow into my numb toes, and we marched toward the train station.  Inside, we warmed up inside the bookstore, and he pointed out the section dedicated to the history of Metz.

At long last, Arnaud, as he finally introduced himself, glanced at his watch and said it was time to get back to his wife.  I expressed my gratitude for sharing his stories with me, and that I was very pleased to meet him. 

"Well, I'd love to invite you to dinner at our place..." Arnaud said, and immediately my mind was imagining my new adopted French grandparents and the memorable times we would be sharing in the near future over good food and wine... "But," he paused, a gleeful spark in his eye, "my wife, you see, she's a very jealous woman."

Bewildered and thinking I'd misheard him, I replayed his words in my head, and he continued, "But if you ever wanted to meet again, without her knowing, I walk my dog here at this time every day.  It can be our secret." Arnaud winked.

And off he went, with perhaps a little more spring in his step than before, leaving me not knowing whether to laugh or let my mouth hang open in shock.

Just as he said, he'd never stopped being French during the occupation. Why on earth should he stop now at 85 years old?


  1. Brilliant. Arnaud sounded like quite the charmer, and what an amazing adventure to have.

    I guess your boyfriend should be jealous too, then? :)

  2. That's an amazing story, and so much more interesting than the encounters I've had with old men over here.

  3. There are no words to describe this story. It sounds like something out of a book or a film. How wonderful!

  4. Wow what an amazing story - *that's* why we travel, right?

  5. Jamie, you realize, of course, that this blog is so beautifully writen that it should be published upon your return home.You'll need to chose an actress to play your part in the movie version. Mom

  6. What an amazingly incredible and touching encounter! Despite whatever he might have in mind, you should definitely go walking with him again!

  7. A beautiful story!! We are so much more alike than some would want us to believe.


  8. i like your blog jamie ! it's like a book as someone said before me. i live in france and travell alot but every time i have to leave a country and people i have visited, i feel so sad. it would be so good if we can have the family, friends, neighbours.... every body we know all together ! that's my dream i know it's impossible... bonne continuation en france.

  9. This a truly beautiful story told in a very touching and caring manor. You have preserved this story not only for Arnaud and yourself but for all to read and enjoy.


Related Posts with Thumbnails