By conservative estimate, Chris and I walked about 13 miles today. We had planned to rent Velib bikes, which can be had at automated kiosks, but the machine did not accept any of my credit cards. Just as well. It was a gorgeous day – sunny, vibrant indigo sky, cool and breezy and perfect for walking.
We started with a short walk to Les Halles and then caught the Metro to the the Arc de Triomphe, which we ascended. As I climbed up, though, I felt myself falling back in time, first a short journey to my own memory,and then a longer one to my father’s days as a young man, when he was decades younger than I am now.
I had climbed this steep, circular staircase before, two years ago, and then, as I gazed out at fabulous Paris, called my father. He had urged me to visit because 68 years ago, in the late summer of 1944, after landing at Normandy in the massive invasion, my Dad approached Paris with the huge Allied liberation force. They could see the Eiffel Tower and savored a few days in Paris before resuming combat — the war would go on for almost another year, before Hitler’s suicide, on April 30, 1945, led to quick resolution of the war in Europe, which here is celebrated on May 8.
(In fact, today, less than a week after this anniversary, wilted flowers can be seen all over Paris at military monuments. I respect those who fight and sacrifice for their country and it is moving to see that people here have not forgotten and keep the faith.)
In any case, as my Dad tells it the long column of tanks and infantry was ordered to clear the roads so the French Army could liberate Paris. It made political sense, but the American GIs in Patton’s 3rd Army were none too happy about this as they had done most of the fighting and dying along the way; at least that was the feeling among the U.S. troops.
However, after the successful campaign to retake Belgium and invade Germany, the U.S. and Soviet forces met at Torgau, the war ended, and the Americans finally had their march through Paris – right under the Arc de Triomphe.
I can imagine my father at age 21 in 1945. He was about the same age as most of the young men on our trip. He and his mates were tough and lean and weary of war. They had seen a lot of combat. They had seen many friends and enemies die. Many suffered wounds and, like my father, were awarded the Purple Heart. They had killed. They had done their duty and were anxious to navigate the peace. After the war, my Dad’s unit was billeted in Paris for a few days and he has never forgotten the walks he and his buddies took through a battered city recovering from Nazi occupation. He remembers watching as women who had romances with German soldiers were dragged into the street and had their heads shaved so their shame would be known to all.
I never tire of hearing my Dad’s stories about the war. It is fair to say I learned to tell a story from him. His war stories are usually funny rather than morose. And I heard many of those stories as a boy on epic walks, (like ours today) – mile upon mile, block upon block, hour upon hour! – through New York City, which we visited often.
In my visits to Paris I have retraced his steps and broken new ground on my own. Always, though, I feel him beside me.
Today, after the Arc, Chris and I walked to, and through, the Boise de Bolougne, and then wound back towards Central Paris, stopping at a small shop for the best Panini I have ever eaten. We carried our food to the Trocadero, where pro Assad protesters sang and chanted. Chris interviewed a young Syrian woman and then we wound back along the Seine, past the Louvre, returning to Les Halles and then to St. Germain.
The strata of history in Paris is amazing. Pock marks made by musket fire at the Ecole Militaire. Grievances ancient and modern. Churches that fairly sigh with the history that has passed before their immense wooden doors. Statues of long-ago saints, martyrs and patriots. Memorials to Lafayette, Marshal Foch, and General DeGaulle; streets and squares named for Patton and Eisenhower and FDR.
The antipathy between the U.S. and French – culminating in the ridiculous “Freedom Fries” incident at the start of the Iraq war – is overrated and overemphasized. Our two nations share a common bond that is embodied in the motto of the French Revolution, which Jefferson helped to ignite after channeling the great French Enlightenment philosophers Locke and Rousseau and Voltaire int0 the Declaration of Independence, the raison d’etre of our own Revolution: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” – Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.
France has seen many upheavals, defeats and resurrections since its bloody Revolution. World War II was likely the most severe test of its survival and its principles. My father played a role – a small role, a soldier’s role — in restoring to France its freedom and culture, which myself and my students now enjoy and marvel at in our wanderings through Paris.