It was 1988. I was 14 years old when I got the chance to go to France with my sister (who is older than me). I will skip the excitement of flying alone in a plane - no parents, no big sister - alone. It was awesome!
I landed in Orly - the only time I ever flew through that airport. All other flights came through Charles-de-Gaulle (one of its 3 terminals). My sister (who had flown earlier) picked up there and we were off to the RER for Paris. I remember being very tired and wanting to sleep.
Within that first day, I got to do things that would change my life.
We were lodged in Paris by some friends of my parents whom I had met before. It was a rude awakening for me to realize that they did not understand everything I said, with my "typical" Montrealer's accent. Their appartment which was tight and cramped but very homely reminded me a little of Ray Bradbury's office. It was awesome. But the thing I thought was the greatest was their many swords and weapons hanging over doors and on their walls. My young gamer mind was already blown. And I'd been in France for less than 4 hours! Could this get any better?
I was taken to a restaurant I would go again years later and discover another love of my life - calvados - but that is a WHOLE other post. Anyway I discovered what French cuisine was all about. Love it. Still salivate at the endless stream of terrines that passed before me.
The gentleman where we stayed in Paris - whose name was Fernand - blew my mind by taking me to the side of a church, St-Sulpice, and pointed out a number of chips in the stones. He asked me "do you know what those are?" I looked at them. I'd seen similar chips on buildings in Montreal - my high school dates from the 19th century - so I answered "Yes, its rain and pollution we have on my school."
His eyes grew dark and he pointed out "Why would they only reach this height?" (he pointed out that the chips only reached up to about 6 feet/2m). I was stumped. Then he replied "it's here that the Germans shot resistance fighters with a machinegun they would set over there.
Until that time, history had always been something that happened "somewhere else". But this. But this was real. It happened here. He was a witness to these things. He would go on to tell me a number of stories about the war. Stories that were burned into my mind. It was like listening to one's grandfather (both mine had passed away by then) telling you about things he lived. First hand. I was riveted about his stories of smuggling vegetables and food from under the nose of the Germans. Stories of being stopped outside school and forced to present his papers. Stories of playing spies and passing false papers to people to lure the Germans away from the real spies (he would not admit it might just have been part of the game). Stories of listening to General De Gaulle's broadcast from England. Stories of running to see the Allied tanks roll into Paris.
His storytelling ways - very French by the way - included wild gestures and acting out the Germans clanking their boots. As I said I was riveted. I had never met someone who would tell stories quite like him. My uncle was a great storyteller, but he was not as animated.
Even when he would remain still, his voice was the best tool there was. He would whisper. Then bellow. They dart his eyes around. Then his hands would explode from under the table.
Although completely unrelated to gaming, this meeting, these stories, and the movement he had, I must admit are now part of my storytelling arsenal. I just wish I could
To this day, I consider the two of them, to be grandparent-types to me. Our firstborne - Josiane - bears her name (she passed away shortly before our daughter was borne).
One year later...
It was 1988. One year later would be the bi-centennial of the taking of the Bastille. Paris was cleaning itself up nicely. A lot of public works were ongoing but I did not mind. I got to discover so many things. Having had the "revelation of St-Sulpice" I breathed in the history all around me. It was no longer something I read about. It was something that had soaked through the walls, the streets, the air, the island, the river, in short, into everything.
With everything talking about the Bastille, I got drawn into the study of that conflict. As a proponent of Quebec separation, the idea of Revolution appealed to me. The many stages of it, the characters, all formed in my young mind an idea. First romantic, then tragic. I got me to think about such ideas, and how dangerous they are. I would read a lot about it in the years that followed, in fact, one of the book on this list deals with the French Revolution!
Being able to read about everything and then go to places like the Conciergerie - where Marie-Antoinette was held prisoner. Wow.
The rest of the trip
During that two week trip, we spent a few days in Paris, Avignon, St-Tropez, Nice, Strasbourg and finally back to Paris. I have since returned everywhere but Strasbourg but I do plan on returning one day.
Thinking back on that trip and how much things have changed is amazing. I had no credit cards (I was 14!), so I had to use traveller's checks for fund. There were no ATMs. No cellphones.
Oh! And I did not know any gamers in France - unlike now!
My travel companion
My sister knew that I was very interested in these things, but she often had to pull me away from looking at everything. I would've spend a week in the Louvres.
We got to see a lot of Paris. My sister was a tireless traveler and we went to all of the must-see sights. Later I would lament not having been to Versailles, but I would head there as soon as I would land in Paris 10 years later. To this day, whenever I travel to a new place - particularly in Europe - I plan out my itinerary and walk for hours. From here to there. European cities - and a few places in the East of the US (New York and Washington DC come to mind) have everything so closeby that you can - and should - walk the land.
She endured long times of me reading while listening to my walkman.
The trip was also the site of my first ever drunken event. We had stopped at a small hole in the wall place in Avignon. We were eating some crepe dish and we ordered a pitched warm cider, served in a wooden pitcher with wooden cups. What we didn't know was that it was hard cider. She realized I'd been downing the cider as I ordered the third pitcher. By then, I was quite "Happy". Of course my 14 year old frame was quite large, but still I had no idea.
We then went to do our laundry and I forgot a dark blue hankerchief in the pile of white. When it came out, our whites were now powder blue. I'm surprised she didn't kill me right then and there. Maybe she is still plotting her revenge...
While I did not do any gaming, I did manage to purchase a few gaming items. I bought "Encyclopedie Galactique, Volume 1", never managed to buy the second and I did not have the money to buy it at the time. The games was out of print when I returned to France two years later. I also bought "Avant Charlemagne", a game that is set in the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and the Rise of Charlemagne. Finally, I bought a small adventure for Empire Galactique called "Le Cas de l'ambassadeur trop bien protege" (The case of the over-protected Ambassador). A great murder mystery plot. I ran it as a story using Rifts and later, Star Trek TNG. The plot is so good that even modern gamers would be hard-pressed to figure it out with just a glance.
All of these books have been in my gaming library (the small adventure book has been replaced by "Frontieres de L'empire" the compilation of adventures I bought years later second-handed for 4$). Love the art and use them as inspiration.
That trip got me really fired up and excited about history - and French history in particular. My own family (my mother did some research) comes from the Poitou-Vendee, and that's for both sides.
I would return to France two years later, in 1990 and have another great time - though for different reasons.