Saturday, December 22, 2012

Joyeux Noël and a Happy New Year to all!

A note to my readers:

I do not often post the same story twice. 

This week's story remains a favorite of mine, and I have decided to publish it again, just a few days before Christmas. 

Following tragic recent events, we all need to focus on the positive, and the good that is everywhere around us. We all need - and want - to be inspired.

My respect for the great man featured in this story is undiminished. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Thank you for following the blog this year. Thank you for your weekly visits; your comments; most importantly, thank you for your friendship. I am a lucky French Girl!

L'Abbé Pierre, the reluctant French icon 
(originally published on December 20, 2011)

'Tis the season of giving...
(photo from

Buried knee-deep in wrapping paper; shoved over by frustrated crowds at the local mall; defeated by piles of greeting cards that had to be sent yesterday; many might forget that the Holiday season is not just about shopping, wrapping or ticking things off an endless to-do list. For when they say "''Tis the season of giving," surely, they mean more than: "You-have-to-snatch-the-iPhone4s-and-don't-miss-Macy's-umpteenth-One-Day-Sale." Not to  worry: Americans are a generous bunch, and this year, many will take time out of their frenzied schedule to help out at a local charity; volunteering at their kids' schools; making donations to causes dear to their heart. They will also remember to be grateful for their relatives and friends and will celebrate the Holidays in style, as they should. 

Today, I would like to tell you the story of a man who embodied Giving. France knows him as "l'Abbé Pierre." His face (the grey hair and beard, the big glasses, the béret,) and silhouette (the long, black cape, the heavy shoes, the cane,) are so familiar to my countrymen that a picture of l'Abbé Pierre hardly needs a caption. During his long life, he remained one of France's most unlikely, and yet most beloved public figures, topping popularity polls year after year, until his death, in January 2007.

La Fresque des Lyonnais (the famous Lyonnais fresco)
 Lyon,  France

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007) was born Henri Marie Joseph Grouès, in Lyon, to a well-heeled bourgeois family of eight children. His father had a strong social conscience and introduced Henri to charity work at a very young age. A devout catholic, Henri was determined to become a missionary. He attended a Jesuit school, and later renounced his inheritance to join a Franciscan monastery. He was ordained priest in 1938. Strict monastic life did not agree with him (he was plagued with health issues,) and he eventually left the monastery.

World War II broke out in 1939. He was mobilised as an NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) but contracted pleurisy while training in Alsace. When France fell, he became vicar of the Grenoble cathedral. Throughout the war, he would take enormous risks to help others; enabling Jews and other politically persecuted to escape to Switzerland; joining the French Résistance where he operated under several code names including the now-famous "Abbé Pierre;" founding a clandestine newspaper; stealing clothing from warehouses for the poor and the Résistance. He was arrested in 1944 but managed to escape and joined General Charles de Gaulle and the Free French Forces in Algiers. He continued fighting and received top French military honors at the end of the war.

A young Abbé Pierre listens to a speech by General de Gaulle in 1946

The war experience would mark him for life: From then on, he engaged himself to protect fundamental human rights and to fight for the causes he believed in. If legal means were not an option, then civil disobedience was all right too. 

He also knew how to use his reputation and growing fame, and his connections to politicians to further his cause, lecturing formidable French leader General de Gaulle, in January 1945 on the need for milk to feed babies!

Impatient, stubborn, unruly and outspoken, l'Abbé Pierre was soon to become a major influence in French society, an indefatigable fighter who led a life-long crusade against poverty and homelessness. His tactical weapons: Prayer, provocation, charity work and political action. 

After the war, L'Abbé Pierre was convinced to join the French Parliament where he worked as a député (representative,) from 1945 to 1951, but he quickly understood that he would be most efficient fighting misery in the street.

In 1949, using his lawmaker's indemnities after he had left the Parliament, he started a community outside of Paris to help the neediest members of society. He named the center "Emmaus," a town mentioned in the Gospel. His early "companions" were a motley crew of down-on-their-luck individuals. With them, he came up with the idea of a working community; organizing rag-picking and recycling of household goods to finance the construction of shelters for the homeless, often without construction permits. This was a far cry from traditional charity, as it encouraged the poor to fend for themselves. To those who had nothing, he brought not merely relief, but also purpose and hope. When money ran out, l'Abbé Pierre did not hesitate to take part in a TV game show to raise funds. Celebrities like Charlie Chaplin started supporting the movement as Emmaus grew steadily, first in France (where it is today one the largest NGOs,) then internationally after 1971 with the creation of Emmaus International.

People are needed to take up the challenge, strong people, who proclaim the truth, throw it in people's faces, and do what they can with their own two hands.
- L'Abbé Pierre.

1954: Laying the first stone of a new Emmaus-sponsored shelter
L'Abbé Pierre and the first Emmaus companions

But it is during the exceptionally cold winter of 1954 that L'Abbé Pierre became a living legend. An indignant Abbé issued a radio appeal on behalf of 5 million homeless people after a baby froze to death, and after a woman died on a Paris boulevard clutching her eviction notice in her frozen hand. In his famous speech, he challenged the French to heed their moral duty. The opening words caught everyone's attention: "My friends, come help... A woman froze to death tonight at 3:00am..." The French - no doubt remembering the privations endured during the war - listened, and donations poured in: Money, blankets, clothing, even jewelry and fur coats! My mother-in-law, who was a young girl at the time, remembers listening to the radio address with her family and walking down to the nearest temporary shelter with clothing and blankets. 

Throughout his life, l'Abbé Pierre used the power of the media
 to further his cause

The following morning, the press wrote of an "uprising of kindness" (insurrection de la bonté.) Over the next few weeks, donations were sorted out and distributed all over France, often through the emerging network of Emmaus communities where the homeless were given food and shelter. Emmaus volunteers were former homeless people who had learned to depend for survival on their own efforts, reselling refurbished furniture, books and scraps. L'Abbé Pierre was everywhere, delivering rousing speeches; visiting politicians to push for new legislation to forbid landlords from evicting tenants during winter months; holding the hands of women and children while visiting shelters. As a result of his tireless campaigning, the French government finally undertook a large program of housing reconstruction. 

Leaving the Elysée Palace after meeting with the French President (1954)

Years went by. L'Abbé Pierre did not slow down, always prompt to denounce injustice, not only in France but in the rest of the world where he was often seen with international leaders. Even when he turned down the Legion of Honor and other prestigious awards to protest the lack of official efforts towards the poor, he also understood the need to rub shoulders with politicians to get results. 

Always frank and often controversial, he wrote books about various topics, publicly disagreeing with Pope John Paul II on the issues of priest celibacy, the union of gay couples, the use of contraception, or the ordination of women as priests. 

There was controversy. There was media lynching when l'Abbé made unpopular choices, but the French public [a notoriously tough crowd] remained faithful to him. Then came old age, and failing health, and l'Abbé progressively retired out of the public eye. But there was always one more injustice, one more cause worth fighting for. So he would call the media; meet with officials; show up at the French Parliament, where the frail man would speak up from his wheelchair, his voice weak, but his commitment undiminished. At the end of his life, he accepted a few honors -reluctantly- and respectful crowds came to see him.

Finally accepting the prestigious Legion of Honor
awarded by President Chirac in 2001
L'Abbé Pierre meets l'Abbé Pierre in 2005

It was finally time for the man President Chirac called: "A great figure, a conscience, an incarnation of goodness," to take his final bow. He died after a long illness, at the age of 94. Statesmen, celebrities, companions of Emmaus and the French public attended his funeral celebrated at Notre-Dame cathedral, on January 26, 2007. L'Abbé's companions were placed at the front of the congregation, according to his last wishes. His iconic béret, cape and cane lay on top of the coffin during the funeral service.

A big funeral for a man who aspired to a simple, monastic life

Henri Grouès - l'Abbé Pierre - rests in a small cemetery in Esteville, a small village North of Rouen, in Normandy. At peace at last, (one would hope,) he is in good company, surrounded by several of his early companions and friends. At his request, his grave is anonymous, but it is easy to find, thanks to all the flowers left by visitors. 

L'Abbé Pierre (1912-2007): French patriot, human being. Led a life of action and service and knew a thing or two about giving.  

Adieu, l'Abbé. On t'aimait bien.
So long, l'Abbé. We liked you.

A bientôt, et Joyeux Noël, mes amis!


To learn more about l'Abbé Pierre's inspiring life, watch this excellent documentary (3 video clips.) 

You may also rent the 1989 movie "Hiver 1954: L'Abbé Pierre" ["Winter 1954: L'Abbe Pierre"] with Lambert Wilson. 

Finally, a full English translation of the 1954 speech can be found here  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Noël à Paris... Memories of [Parisian] Christmas past

Champs-Elysées, Paris

Les Noëls se suivent mais ne se ressemblent pas... (Christmas celebrations pass by, yet each one is different...)

Our family moved to Seattle in 1996, and slowly but surely, we settled into our new lives; building a career (le Husband) or a small business (Moi;) making friends; exploring the Pacific Northwest - on land or on the water - and finally welcoming "Junior," our bona-fide American son. Houses have come and gone. So have good friends, as many expat families moved back home after a few years. 

One tradition has remained: We have been fortunate to fly home once a year, without fail, for the last 16 years. This has always been very important to me, especially after Junior was born. He may live 8,000 miles away from his grandparents and the rest of the family: I was determined he would know them; spend quality time with them; and be able to communicate in French with them. And he does.

The first of many international trips...
Junior, 11 months.

Over the years, Junior has been exposed to the French (and the European) way of life. He understands it, and, at age 13, is already a keen observer of cultural and linguistic differences. His comments on French or American idiosyncrasies are often spot on, and entertaining.

The big challenge we face every year is to decide whether we should schedule our visit to France in the summer or at Christmas time. The Holidays are a special time of the year to be with family, and it has always felt a bit strange to be away from them then, as we were vacationing in a corner of the United States or British Columbia, or in sunny locales like Hawaii. It has been a juggling act, but we have made it work, I think, alternating the best we could. 

This year, we will not be flying home to Paris for the Holidays, but Paris is coming to us. Le Husband's mom (my readers will remember Mutti,) will be landing at Seatac airport in a few days. Junior and his parents will be happy to share an American Christmas with her in the Pacific Northwest. 

It will be fun, and fast paced; just like the Holidays in Paris. Different too. We will miss the rest of the family. We will miss Paris at Christmas time. Amazing how much I remembered, as I browsed through old photos this week...

Noël à Paris... There is quality time spent with family. Two sets of grand-parents. My brother's family (and for Junior, cousins.) There are long conversations, punctuated with laughter. There are serious moments, as we catch up, exchanging information about relatives and friends. There are heated arguments - this would not be a [Mediterranean] family without them - as we try to plan the days ahead, agreeing on a place to meet, on things to do while cramming four adults and a young child in a 700 square foot apartment. Good times.

Part of the family...
La Fournaise restaurant, Chatou.

Getting spoiled in Mamie Lyne's kitchen...
and learning that not everyone lives in a spacious suburban home 
Getting spoiled, always, chez Mamie Mutti and Papy J.P.
Relaxing and watching French cartoons with Papy Zinzin...

Noël à Paris... Hanging out with les cousins and - for years - wearing matching sweaters, hand knit by Mamie Lyne...

Noël à Paris... Enjoying long, leisurely meals, in elegant or more relaxed settings, sharing animated conversation and French culinary delights...

Mutti's Rôti de porc aux pruneaux (served with chestnuts) 

Jolie table de Noël...

Foie gras

Mamie Lyne's Oreillettes (beignets)
Papy Zinzin's "Escargots":  For dessert,
or whenever Papy Zinzin feels like having them...

(photographer unknown)
Papy Zinzin's (chilled) Pyrénéens... A French Christmas classic

And, bien sûr, une coupe of everyone's favorite drink...

Noël à Paris... For Junior, experiencing Paris like a young Parisian...

Special exhibits in *cool* century old museums...

Museum of Natural History

... Après-midi au Cirque d'Hiver... Winter afternoon at the circus...

Cirque d'Hiver Bouglione

A traditional French circus: The traveling Pinder circus

... Eating Barbe-à-Papa (cotton candy,) crêpes, and the traditional galette des rois (Kings' cake.) 

... Spinning for hours on les manèges (carousels,) available in many neighborhoods...

... Navigating le Métro like a pro; climbing to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower and learning about Parisian landmarks from the top of "la Dame de Fer," (the Iron Lady.)

With Papy Zinzin and Mamie Lyne

Show 'them tourists how it's done, Junior!
"That's one big city!"

Noël à Paris... Finally, le Réveillon (Christmas Eve,) arrives. The family has gathered at my parents' and celebrates early so little children can go to bed before midnight. My brother's family will be off at the crack of dawn, to celebrate Christmas day with his wife's relatives in Nantes, 250 miles away from Paris. 

After the traditional meal, the children get excited. "When will He arrive? Will we get to see Him this year?," they ask. Le Père Noël. Santa Claus. "You need to look for Him outside, so you can welcome Him when he shows up." the grown-ups reply. My parents' apartment is on the fourth floor of the building, and my brother takes the children downstairs, in the cold Paris night, where they are told to be on the lookout for le Père Noël. Off they go, in their PJs and slippers, bundled up in their warm coats. 

Meanwhile, in the apartment, the adults scramble furiously to pull out of the three closets all the beautiful Christmas gifts, kept out of little prying eyes for days. Panique. Mayhem. We rush to arrange the gifts around le petit sapin (Christmas tree,) before the children return. 

After a few minutes, we hear them. Excited voices. The sound of little feet running out of the elevator. They come banging on the apartment door. We let them in. The children are out of breath, and seem disappointed. "We missed him. We did not see him. Has He been up here?" Then they hear my father's voice, out on the small balcony: "Merci, Père Noël! A l'année prochaine! N'oubliez pas votre biscuit!" (Thank you Santa. See you next year. Don't forget your cookie!) The children's faces drop for a few seconds. They missed Him. Then they light up again. They get it: Santa is gone, but he must have left something behind... They push each other to get to the tree... and they see them, the beautiful packages. The distribution starts; children pass the gifts around, until everyone has received at least one. At long last, they go for it, and all we hear is giggling; excited voices; the sound of little hands tearing paper. 

"This one's for you, Mamie Lyne!"

Noël à Paris... There is nothing quite like it. Famille, Paris, la Belle France; as always, it won't be the same without you... 

Joyeux Noël! Joyeux Noël to all! 

A Bientôt.

Tuileries Gardens, from the Ferris Wheel
La Seine

Le Grand Palais

La Dame de Fer dans le brouillard
(Eiffel Tower in the fog) 

Eiffel Tower - Alexander III bridge

All photos, except otherwise noted, property of American Frog Photography.
Please do not reprint, copy, Pin, without permission.

French Girl in Seattle