The Epistle to the Franco-Americans

By Rhea Côté Robbins

The other day I went to France. "I am going home," I told my sixteen-year-old son.
"No, you're not, he argued. How can you be going home to a place where you never lived? he reasoned. You are a tourist, an American," he further countered, stressing on the word, tourist.
"I am going home to France," I emphatically insisted. "I can look at my trip any way I choose, and I feel like I am going home."
He remained incredulous. Secretly, I was incredulous. That I was going home remained a half-truth even to myself, but I did not let on to him how I felt. I have often fantasized in my mind what I would look like to a real French person in France. I often called myself "French" growing up. "What are you?" people would ask me. "French," I would reply. Around age twelve or thirteen I began to doubt my response and I would try to think of exactly what I was. Was I French? Would the French "own" me as one of their own? I doubted that. They would see me as an American. "Américhain," as dad would say it, with much contempt in his voice. It sounded like he was spitting when he said the word. So I had difficulty in explaining what I was growing up. And here I was telling my son I was going home--to France?
Of course I don't mean the France of France in the advertising brochures. I mean, I was going to my France. The one I planned to have some control over, rather than the mythological France that was used as a standard of measure over me and my French language capabilities all my life.
Crossing on the ferry from Dover to Calais, I told my husband it would be very strange to be in a place where you are supposed to speak French. Very strange. That was the first marvel. And the scariest. I take direct responsibility for the condition of my spoken French language. Wherever that is on the language scale. And that has very little to do as a reflection on my parents. They faithfully spoke French to me everyday chez nous. And everyday, I would faithfully respond in English.
Ironically, upon my return, I was asked how my Canadian French fared in being able to communicate in France. I answered that question with a "Fine," but what I should have responded was, "I don't know. I never lived in Canada." I have been called Canadian, but I'm not Canadian either. Just like I'm not French because I never lived in France.
But I was going home. To France. Humph.
On the ferry I met a couple with two children. He was English and she was Belgium. I asked them to explain to me, "cat's eyes," a term I had seen on a road sign while driving down to Dover from London. What took place between us with complete natural warmth, was suggestions on places to visit, encouragement to use my French, advice on how to eat in places other than restaurants and more. We achieved an instant rapport and we only lacked in exchanging our addresses. We both realized the moment was special and she gave us a piece of candy welcoming us to this part of the world. I told her we were going to visit our home towns in France. I could say this because I was armed to the teeth with genealogical records. The closer I got to the truth, I did not want to speak any empty boasts. Or as my brother told me once: "Is there any proof in that pudding?"
The irony of the matter is that I had just enough French language to get me by quite nicely and not enough of the language so that, at times, I did need assistance, thereby greasing the wheels of interaction with the French natives. I recall several incidents which bring to bear the proof that I did have enough language to communicate and open the doors of interchange, but also that there are degrees to knowing. I cannot recall a single incident where I was made to feel less because of the degree of knowing I possessed when I spoke my French. In fact, the opposite was true.
Before leaving for France I wanted to acquaint myself with the question of whether or not a French national character existed. Is it possible to define the French in France? And if so, what connection, if any, would such a typical French person have to me? My husband's great aunt had sent us a book entitled, Glory, written by an American journalist recently assigned in Paris.
What does establishing a national character have to do with going home? I think I needed a safety net to catch me in case I would not recognize anything familiar. I did not want to read the typical tourist books on which restaurant, bar, or hotel to visit, but I wanted to go as deep into the French psyche as I could. I was skeptical while reading Glory, but I was also intrigued with the opportunity to read a book on the modern day French culture and population. I was looking for vestiges between the French of today and myself--a tenth generation product of immigration.
We drove from Calais to Paris in an automobile which we rented in Great Britain. We drove to the Bagnolet district where our hotel was located. We were in a neighborhood with many high rises. Around us were grocery stores, pharmacies, Laundromats, bakeries, and more. We spent time in Paris riding the Métro, acclimating ourselves to the city. While I enjoyed Paris, the people and its sights, it was not the only reason we came here.
When I returned from France I felt as if I had fallen in love with the country and something beyond the feeling that I had gone home. I felt like they had been waiting for me all this time. Or that the spirit of unrest finally came to a place where it could settle long ago left behind, but never forgotten.
We drove on the Periphique Sud to leave Paris heading for the Perche region. We left while it was still dark and arrived around 9:00 A.M. in Tourouvre. Jean Gagnon, a common ancestor for both my husband and I, came from the area. We parked our car and I immediately asked a couple for directions to the Musée de L'Histoire le L'Émigration Percherone au Canada for which I saw a sign. They were from Paris and were new to the area. We found the Musée and on a sign we were told to inquire at the Mairie. The couple from Paris, like the angel guardians of going home people, helped us three times in finding our way. Inside the Mairie, a man worked furiously to attend to the individual needs which arose from the waiting clientele. Finally, it was our turn. He took us to the Musée even though it was a Saturday and winter and opened it for us. Eighty families had left this tiny town for Canada over four hundred years ago and here was proof that they once were part of this community. Their leave-taking was noted and recorded. It felt as if no one was surprised that I would come back and make a claim that my relations had once been there.
Besides being more than helpful, the man furnished us with brochures, showed me several books for sale on the history of the people and the area who had left for Canada, and he hand drew us a map to the Gagnonière--the hamlet nearby where Jean and his relations resided. He was very knowledgeable as to where certain families had originated and was insistent on our exploring the area. It was obvious to him why we were there and it was very important to him that we take the time to get to know more about ourselves. We thought we would just park the car and walk around to get a feel for the place and what we found was a deep well-spring of relevance to the meaning going home.
"Did you see our church?" he asked me. He insisted that we go in. I thought the church would be locked up as they are in the U.S. Not so here. When we walked into the old building an old man and a child followed us. The old man knew we were "from away" and he followed us in to ascertain our purpose. What we found on the walls of the church were plaques which listed all the persons who had left for Canada four hundred years ago. The stained glass windows depicted the immigrants leaving.
In the original thought one goes home in one's mind or by one's experience of someplace. Or even in a memory of someplace you've never been to, but upon contact you instantly recognize. What sours the memory is doubt. Doubt that you were ever here to begin with or that anyone you knew or related to was ever there. Doubt that you belong. Or that anyone belongs. For a moment you feel as if you are at one with the environment, but something tells you that you really don't belong and never have. You feel at odds with the moment. And then upon an instant, the tides change in the universal flow of events and the wind and waves blow your way. Or the way in which you began this journey, entering upon your own ancient, distant past, the one you left behind to help settle the New World, is going home. But going home to a place you've never been. Or may never go back to once you've been there to see for your own eyes.
Only the spirit of the journey remains, but the body and the mind remember now as well. Because they have seen and felt what the spirit knew all along. When I went to France, I felt as if I were going home. I doubted myself and then I knew better than to do that. I saw it written in black and white in genealogical records, the names of the towns, the names of the ancestors; but now here I stood in the church where I see the names of those who left for New France on the walls of the church. I felt as if two long missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I could only marvel. The old man and the child symbolized the joining. Where else could old and knowing meet with young and just beginning to know; or the past and the present merging?
When we left the church, we were aware of the knowledge that we came from somewhere. The restlessness within could come to rest upon a memory made fresh. As we drove through the countryside to find the Gagnonière, Mortagne-au-Perche, Réveillon and Dieppe, we were immensely impressed with the seeming once in a lifetime chance to come face to face with your past and present all at once. At Réveillon we inquired at a Café/Bar where we could locate the home of Toussaint Giroux. Where there any Giroux's still in the area I asked. When did your family leave, she replied. Almost foolishly, I said, four centuries ago. The ones who went to Canada, she asked, like it happened last week. Go to a certain farm she said and they will make you a grand welcome. Those are your relations. I was astonished. Toussaint was also commemorated in the church in Réveillon. Those who had left the towns were remembered and they promised to remember those who remained in France by etchings in the stained glass windows. It was a moving experience. I felt as if I had gone home, but not just for myself--for many others as well. It may have taken centuries, but we went home.

First published in Le F.A.R.O.G FORUM, "The Epistle to the Franco-Americans," Vol. 19, No. 2, 1992.

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