What an ominous sound that was…
I moved to Paris just two short months ago. People often ask me what brought me here. The short answer is a feeling. The long answer is, well, longer. To give the longer answer requires me to step back in time.
The first time I came to France I had just turned three. My American parents and I had been living as expats in London and decided to visit the French countryside for a calm and relaxing summer vacation. What happened has become family folklore.
Since I was so young, I asked both of my parents to tell me their versions of what happened oh so many years ago.
This is a composite:
My parents had rented a house in a large vineyard in Lorgues, in the Provence region of the south of France. My mother describes it as, “literally medieval, with narrow, winding streets between tall, three- or four-story ancient buildings.”
One night, we went into town for dinner, and we happened to sit next to a friendly Belgian couple and their five-year old daughter. Our parents shared wine and stories while the five-year old and I found a group of five or six other kids, all a bit older than I was, to play with. We ran off for ice cream or something and all ran back. After a quick check-in, we went running off again and came running back. The third time we ran off, everyone came back, except me.
It was starting to get dark. When my parents asked where I had gone, the Belgian girl waved her hand “back there.” It seems I may have taken a left turn when everyone else went right.
Immediately, my parents began canvassing the streets with the Belgian couple. They went “up and down the winding side streets, past teensy shops and knots of old ladies in black, but you were not to be found. Luckily, your parents were not panicking—much.”
My mother: Somehow, word passed through the town like wildfire. French people were walking up and down calling out “Jennifair!” along with the four of us. Someone decided to ring the town bell to gather up the volunteers. A kind woman invited me inside her cave-like but cozy medieval apartment while she called around to see if anybody knew anything. Of course all the talking was done in French but I managed to get the gist of it.
My father: The mairie’s bells began tolling, and what an ominous sound that was! First night in the Midi and the bells are ringing for our lost kid. The immediate impact on the town was incredible: everybody – and I mean everybody- dropped what they were doing and began to help in whatever way they could, running in every direction. It was chillingly dramatic and moving. To this day I’ve never seen such automatic communal action.
My father ran the circuit I had been running in hopes of finding me. A police car pulled up and my father got in. They drove through the town and found a woman who had seen me running carefully about a mile or two outside of town on a country road between farm fields. She collected me and brought me to the only person in town who spoke any English, who then brought me to the police station.
The bells in town stopped ringing and the officer my dad was with received a call that I was safe. They also called my mother to let her know I had been found. Then, I was brought back into town. My mother thinks it may have been in a fire engine.
We, of course, had a very happy family reunion.
My mother: The next time we went into Lorgues, a few days later, every single person we met smiled at us and called a greeting to the legendary “Jennifair,” an honorary Lorguian. You were quite a celebrity. What a great small town. I hope you get to visit there one day.
My father: What’s cool is that whenever we went back to town during shopping hours, it was difficult to pay for some things. Impossible, in fact, at the boulangerie and the ice cream place. You were instantly famous and it was astounding how everyone went out of their way to make you feel at home.
I think it’s this impression of the French I carry with me, even now (mumble-mumble) years later. While my parents had been scared and frantic, I had found fun kids to run around and play with, gone for a long walk and found a nice woman who took me in and gave me snacks. I got driven around in either a police car or a fire engine and was hugged and adored once I got back to town. From then on, everyone greeted me by name and gave me presents.
Who wouldn’t love the French after that?Image credits:
Image 1: with the kind permission of Anglo French Properties Ltd @ www.anglofrenchproperties.com
Images 2 & 3: Photos by Russ Collins