The night before we left, everyone got together for a final group dinner. Before long, as always happens at such functions, conversation wound around to our thoughts about leaving France. Some of us avions hâte (“had haste”) to return to the States; others were more saddened that it had come to an end. At one point, someone asked, “What will you miss most about France?” Although I said nothing at the time, my answer was definitely “the people”. As I have said before, I believe that learning a foreign language is all about learning to listen—decoding others’ ways of speaking, if you will. This trip only confirmed my beliefs, as I listened to some incredibly interesting people during my time in the country. Their stories amaze me and made me grateful for the professors over the years that have taught me how to listen to French.
One such story came from Madame D, whom we met at the Museum of Resistance and Deportation. Mme D was not even a teenager when World War II broke out, but she became a Resistance fighter in Lyon. She was raised speaking both French and German because her father believed that World War I wasn’t over, and if the Germans came back, he wanted his family to be prepared. Whenever they complained that other families didn’t have to learn other languages, he replied, “Il faut parler la langue de l’ennemi” (“It’s imperative to speak the language of the enemy”). But it wasn’t just at home that she learned how to fight the Germans: at school she was taught that France was the most beautiful, most intelligent, most strategic country on the planet. If she and her classmates stayed in school and then used their knowledge as employees of the State, they would make France a formidable opponent for Germany.
With such patriotic and idealistic talk swirling constantly around her head, it’s no surprise that Mme D began believing it. When Hitler and Pétain signed the armistice on 22 June 1940, 12-year-old Mme D (at that time, Mademoiselle D) was already looking for a way to fight the Germans. She didn’t have to look long before she was given a task: Libération-Sud, a Resistance group in Lyon, gave her clandestine newspapers to distribute every evening. Each morning, Mlle D went to school like every other 12-year-old girl in her country, innocent as a butterfly. When school let out, she rode her bike to the secret headquarters of Libération-Sud to collect an armful of newspapers, which she distributed swiftly to other members of the Resistance group, a vital cog in the greater communication machine. This 12-year-old girl was willing to put herself in risk of death every afternoon because she loved her country and believed in its potential for victory.
We U.Va. students were floored as we listened to Mme D’s tales of bravery. She didn’t tell them in a proud way; she didn’t even seem emotionally affected by the words coming out of her mouth. I found myself wondering, Would I have been willing to do what she did? Would my students be willing to go to such great lengths for freedom and country? Is this woman extraordinary for answering the call of duty, or would most of us do the same in her shoes? I have to admit, I don’t really know the answers to any of those questions. But I do know that people her age often have much more patriotism, regardless their native land, than those my age and younger. Why is that? Have we become spoiled in our less war-torn era? Are we only willing to do that which increases our own social or economic statuses? Have we simply become too angry about the decline of the global economy? Is the crevasse between the political parties eroding our love of country? Why don’t we put our hands over our hearts when we hear the anthem? Why do we only think about our country during national elections, heated political discussions, or while watching Harrison Ford action thrillers?
Not that the situation in France is any better. On Bastille Day, as I was enjoying a fireworks show at one of the grad students’ apartments, someone asked my theatre professor whether she was feeling especially patriotic. She said, “Absolutely not. Today everyone gets drunk, lights fireworks, and sings ‘La Marseillaise’ [the French national anthem]. That’s all. And that’s such a violent, xenophobic song. None of these things inspire patriotism in me. Besides, the fireworks aren’t even good tonight.” N, one of the grad students, said that he had heard several other French people answer his question similarly. Somewhere between the Mme D generation and the Professor B generation (the two women are about 40 years different in age), the patriotism evaporated.
Of course, the fierce nationalism that brought on World War II is to be avoided at all costs. No country is inherently better or more valuable than another, and that’s important to remember lest we start feeling too sure of ourselves. And a more peaceful world is certainly a goal worth working toward. However, what country can withstand national trials and hardships without a basic love of homeland? Can we survive without patriotism?