With Dijon and de Gaulle in Mind
THE scholarly analysis in this space, back in May, of television's advertising inanities caused several readers to assure me the Dijon mustard people do a good job and merit praise for bright originality. I hadn't seen a Dijon mustard commercial, but now I have, and it made me think of President Charles Andr'e Joseph Marie de Gaulle as he looked on Armistice Day in Paris back in 1966. My wife and I had stayed the night of Nov. 9 in a small-town hotel just a day's ride south of Paris, and the peace and serenity of evensong had changed overnight to a sort of military invasion. We awoke to look across the road at the town hall where soldiers were deploying gunnery at a great rate. The proprietor and his wife weren't sure what was going on, but would tell us if they found out.
As happened often on our visit to Europe, we had found another hotel that belonged to us. Mme. Larousse had welcomed us, given us the best room, and told us the windows were open because the floor was newly varnished. Even so, the varnish and we slept without any intrusion by the flowers persisting into autumn among the linden trees that surround the Hotel des Tilleurs.
Mme. Larousse had no English, but at suppertime fetched in her husband, who was chief of the kitchen, and he said that as a boy he had worked in a restaurant in California a short time and had since forgotten all but a smattering. He was shy with this smattering, but brightened when my wife asked him if he could manage a poached egg on toast. She explained in slowly modulated shouts, which is her method of making herself understood in far places, that she had adjusted to the ways of other countries, but that she had hankered for some time, now, for a plain Yankee ``dropped'' egg on toast. M. Larousse nodded readily and promised poached eggs for breakfast.
During the night the army moved in, and the scene in the town hall parking lot suggested that perhaps Hollywood was about to film the storming of Ratisbon.
M. Larousse met us at the dining room door and helped milady to her chair, saying he had no idea why we were being attacked. He promised poached eggs toot-de-sweet. The eggs were a bit of a disappointment. They were poached, all right, but he had used zwieback for the underpinning, which was novel and unexpected. We polished off his special effort and assured him it was delicious.
As to the general and president, M. de Gaulle, we learned shortly that he was to travel from his home to Paris by the same route that we would take, so he would be at the Arch of Triumph on Armistice Day for his speech. The soldiery was customary precaution for his safety.
As we set out for Paris, we could see that everything was in good shape. Every 100 meters two or three soldiers stood at ease by a machine gun mounted on a tripod, and every kilometer or so a communications van stood ready. Although the soldiers paid no attention to us as we drove along, it was comforting to realize we had the same security as His Excellency. We arrived in Paris without incident.
On Armistice Day morning, we breakfasted early and walked the short distance to the great circle of the Arch, which had been closed to traffic and made ready for the exercises. As the hour of 11 approached, we were joined by thousands who stood along the broad sidewalks in utter silence. Then the area between the sidewalks and the Arch of Triumph began to fill with the units of the parade.
Just before us was a regiment of horses, and to the left the cadets of St. Cyr - it was a tossup as to which unit was better trained. Upon this precise instant, de Gaulle arrived, standing in his official army vehicle, hand at salute. Stiff as a stake, he seemed confident that his driver would find no bump to dislodge his posture. He was driven under the arch, and after a band played he delivered his oration. Then the parade re-formed to pass down the great avenue of the Elysian Fields. Vive la France!
It was a most moving experience for us, and after the silent thousands had left we lingered and walked through the tunnel to the arch, where the perpetual flame burns for the unknown soldier and flowers were strewn. Among the honor guard standing at attention were some members of the American Legion, something we hadn't expected but we were pleased.
So the Dijon mustard put me in mind of all this. When we left the Hotel des Tilleurs that morning. Mme. Larousse said au revoir. She had her husband come to translate. They had enjoyed our visit, and would remember the poached eggs, and she wanted us to have a small gift. She handed me a fancy jar of Dijon mustard with a red bow attached. In recollection of the delightful Hotel des Tilleurs, the soldiers, and President de Gaulle, we keep it, unopened, on our mantel.