“Why don’t you come and spend a few days with my parents and me in our summer house outside Paris, Gene? We would love to have you. We can visit Versailles. It’s near our home.”
Genevieve Marie, or Jenny as we called her, spoke to me in her soft French accent and it was an invitation I simply could not refuse. She was a woman of about forty, with streaks of grey in her dark hair. She told me she was certain she would never be married and was now dedicating her life to teaching business law in Paris and to taking care of her elderly parents. We had met at a Business Teachers Conference in Mainz, West Germany and she was suggesting that I take a few days to drive from the Rhein across France and then spend a few days with her family.
The French have a reputation for being arrogant. The trouble is, they have good reason to be. The cuisine, the art, the fashion and the wines are all among the best in the world. So, at Jenny’s suggestion, I took my time and drove my leased Renault Wagon from our conference in Germany across some of the most beautiful countryside in France on my way meet Jenny and her parents in their summer home. I stopped at Epernay in the Alsace region and attended a folk festival. I watched the villagers do their folk dancing and sampled their excellent white wines. I drove to Reims, home of Joan of Arc but more famous for its champagne. While there, I visited the wine cellars of Pieper Heidesek and Mumms. All across France, the countryside in August looked like a painting by Gauguin. I drove around the outskirts of Paris avoiding the infamous Paris traffic and found Jenny’s village of Neauphle-le Chateau on the Western outskirts.
Her parents were expecting me and all three members of the Marie family came out of their storybook house to greet me. Their summer home was on a street with several similar country homes. Each had a long back yard with plenty of room for growing flowers and vegetables. Her father was ninety but was still clear-eyed and crisp in his conversation. Her mother was in her eighties but still retained that special European charm. That night, Jenny and Mrs. Marie prepared our meal. It consisted of a veal dish with a tasty sauce, fresh salad and vegetables and, of course, French bread. Most of the vegetables were grown in the backyard. Monsieur Marie went down to his cellar and brought up a dusty bottle of cherished Bordeaux. One night, we had Medoc and the next night, we had a Saint Estephe. He explained to me that the St. Estephe was drier because it came from the cooler northern region of Bordeaux. For our dessert, we had half a cantaloupe with the center hollowed out and filled with port wine.
Even more interesting than the food, however, was the conversation that first evening. Monsieur Marie had been a French resistance fighter and had been taken prisoner by the Germans. And unlike many Frenchmen of the De Gaulle period, he had strong affection for Americans. Although Jenny had to interpret most of our conversation, he knew the words to many American songs and we would sing them together. As the evening wore on, he said, “Did I tell you already about our neighbor?” “Yes, tell him father”, Jenny prodded.
He pointed through the wall to the house next door. “Several months ago” he began, “a mysterious, man from the Middle East rented that house. He was some sort of holy man. Because both houses have long backyards with only a small fence between, I would see him everyday while I was in the garden watering my plants. He always wore his long black robes, carried beads in his hands and was always gazing off into the distance with a preoccupied scowl on his forehead.”
“After a few weeks of nodding at each other”, Mr. Marie continued, “the holy man began talking to me. We talked about the weather, my flowers, and the flowers in his garden, and occasionally, about French politics. I was surprised to find out how anti-American he was. Because I like Americans, I always changed the subject back to flowers whenever he started mentioning Americans. When either Mrs. Marie or Jenny was with me, he never greeted either of them nor gave them any eye contact at all. We presumed that perhaps his religion did not allow him to set eyes upon another man’s woman.”
“A few days before he moved out, some large black cars would stop in front of his house and men would rush in and out. Then one morning, Jenny anxiously called me to the window and pointed to the lawn on our neighbor’s house. The yard was filled with reporters and television cameras. We read the papers that day. We then knew what all the fuss was about. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, our neighbor, was being allowed to return to Iran from his exile in Paris.” The Shah had been deposed and the Ayatollah was about to become the supreme leader of Iran.