For many years I kept this to myself, nodding sagely when people mentioned some historical event while racking my brain for an anchor, a random detail, something, anything to put it into context. The war. Right. First or second? World or other?
My grandfather fought in one of those wars. There was an old steel helmet in the basement of my grandparents’ house in Toronto, along with other wartime memorabilia. Whenever we heard the story about that helmet – how they used it for everything from washing their socks to cooking their soup – everybody laughed. But to a child, the idea of war and guns and people being killed was simply terrifying. My mother would tell me not to worry – it was all long ago and in a far-away country.
Then one day I moved to a far-away country. And had to reckon with my historically challenged self.
The first time I visited my future parents-in-laws’ home in the suburbs of Paris, I wondered: “Why is their street named after a date?” It was called ‘Rue du 8 mai 1945’.
“End of the war,” explained my husband. I started to nod, then gave up the act and looked at him blankly – if we were going to be married, he might as well know the truth.
“Which one?” I think he believed I was joking.
My shame was complete when we took a trip to Normandy. You cannot visit this part of France without becoming painfully aware of history. War memorials, those endless graveyards of white markers. And beautiful beaches, forever associated with the Allied landings.
I felt terribly guilty when a fellow at the war museum put his arm around me and told me I should feel proud to be Canadian. I nodded and smiled and took refuge in the fact that I hardly spoke any French.
Living in France is a real-life history lesson. Many places are named after historical figures and dates. Every town has a street called Charles de Gaulle or a square called 11 novembre.
Over the years, I’ve soaked up a fair bit of history by osmosis. Vichy is not just a mineral water or wonderful soup but was the name of the collaborationist government under Marshal Pétain. Reims is not just where champagne comes from but where the Germans surrendered. And Evian-les-bains, in our corner of France, is famous not just for its waters but is also where the French signed an end to the war with Algeria in 1962.
I still rely heavily on the Internet for details when vagueness strikes. Also on my husband, who knows his history by heart like a good Frenchman. And who still gets a chuckle out of my historically and geographically challenged moments.
Happy VE Day!