Henri's Bench

Bourg-en-Bresse Travel Blog

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            The bench was perfect--small, quiet and empty. Its auspiciousness was exactly what I needed to eat my croissant avec du fromage.   It sat surrounding a fountain in the center of town.  I sat while the Church of Notre Dame stood solemnly to my back and noticed I was the only person around--fine by me. I had been in Bourg-en-Bresse, France for an hour and welcomed the chance to shed the backpack that marked me as much a tourist as there ever was. 

            I pulled out my lunch and a journal and began to alternate between eating and writing.  In between bites and strokes I listened to the sounds of the city--the church bells, the cars motoring a few blocks away and laughter of the girls heading into the cinema to see the latest Harry Potter movie.  What I didn’t hear, was the shuffle of feet of the elderly man who was now sitting next to me.  Despite being the middle of July, he was dressed in long pants, an argyle sweater and a fedora.  I gave a polite nod and went back to my writing.  He sat there, complacent for a few minutes, before breaking the silence.

            “American,” he asked?

            “Yes,” I replied, “I’m here for the Tour de France.”

            “Thank you,” he said, “for liberating us over 60 years ago.”

            Then his story began…

            His name was Henri.

  He was a 15 year old growing up in Paris when the War broke out in 1939.  Despite Germany’s successful invasion of Poland, being a naïve teenager, he assumed France and England would be too powerful for Germany to overtake. He definitely didn’t see the French Army falling as quickly as they did to the Germans in 1940.

            His family was Catholic and didn’t worry about the stories they had heard of their Jewish counterparts.  His father owned a small bakery and his mother stayed at home with her three boys.  For two years, his family was able to go on as if all was normal.  They turned a blind eye to the German-influenced Vichy Government.  They felt that as long as they remained inconspicuous, they could stay under the radar. 

            Yet, he wasn’t oblivious to the happenings around him.  Even before 1940, his Jewish classmates and families were fleeing France for the likes of the United States or anywhere else that was as far away from Germany as possible.  As the German occupation droned on, laws were being passed to limit the rights of the Jewish people and in some cases, remove their French citizenship.   It was getting harder to live like it was still 1938. 

            In 1942, reality came. He lived just a few blocks from a stadium called the Vélodrome d'Hiver .  In July of 1942, the French rounded up Jewish families throughout Paris and moved them to the Stadium.  They eventually were transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  At first, no one knew what had gone in the early hours of the roundup, but leaks occurred and rumours spread of what had happened.  Henri was bothered about how he could live so close to such atrocities, but be completely unaware of the doings of his own puppet government. 

            At 18, he finally accepted that things weren’t fine and normal.  Spurred on by the roundup so close to home, he joined the underground resistance.  He had quietly voiced his concern to a friend of his who worked for his father, who happened to have been an active member of the resistance for the past year. This friend got Henri involved in the underground world of Paris.

  For a little over a year he used coded-poetry to spread anti-Nazi propaganda. 

            In June of 1944, the Allied forces invaded Normandy, followed by the invasion and liberation of Southern France and finally, the liberation of Paris in August.  He recalled his admiration for the American and British forces that moved through his city.  He felt that the parades weren’t enough to voice his admiration, and that when given the chance he would voice his thanks the rest of his life. 

            Henri finished his story and before I could take the chance to ask questions, he thanked me again and said he must head on home.  He stood from the bench, shook my hand and bid me adieu.  As quietly as he came, he had left.  I sat on the bench and immediately wrote all I could remember down. 

            Finally, two hours after I had sat down, I packed up my things and left.  As I walked away, I turned back to look at the bench.  What started as a quiet place to eat had turned into 60 years of history voiced by one man.  It was no longer just a bench to me, but a window into the past that I hoped others would be able to look through.   

Note:  I had to look up some of the specific dates and details when I hit up an internet cafe after listening to this guy.

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So it turns out that there were benefits to sitting on a fence for 8 hours over 2 days in Pamplona--the random people you befriended. So yeah, the second day of the running of the bulls found me sitting next to 2 girls who go to Purdue and were doing a program in Lyon over the summer and would be heading to Bourg-en-Bresse the same day as I to watch a leg of the Tour. After 4 hours of rail time, we exchanged info after the run.

Fast forward. I go from Pamplona to San Sebastian, Spain. I figured, get there and then figure out how to get to Lyon. So on a Wednesday evening I get to Hendaye Spain/France--seriously, I still have no idea what country I was in.
Things were in French, things were in Spanish and I spoke English. Perfect! Anywho, I think I was in the French version of Hendaye, just across the border from the Spanish version. I took the train w/Evan, who I was in San Sebastian with. He was heading to Paris. He got a ticket for the last train out that night and I got a ticket to Lyon for first thing in the morning. I figure that I can just crash in the train station. Well, nope, that was not to be. As Evan's train to Paris was boarding, a train station guy comes over and asks if I'm supposed to be on the train and I tell him, "No, I'm on the 8 am to Lyon." He then let's me know that I can't sleep there and there really aren't too many options for someplace to crash that night.
So what do I do? I go and change my ticket to go to Bourg-en-Bresse via Paris that night. That pretty much meant I had to pay 30 Euro more. I didn't want to, but after 7 days of sleeping outside, I was not willing to find someplace to crash at 11 o'clock at night in a city in which I didn't even know what country I was in, all by myself. So I hop on the train with the hopes of sleeping some so that when I got to Paris at the butt-crack of dawn, I would be conscious enough to navigate my way from Gare Nord to Gare Lyon via the Metro. From there, I would have a short jaunt to Bourg-en-Bresse.

Fast forward again, I survive the train ride and get to BEB. I know absolutely nothing about this town other than that the Tour is supposed to be coming through and that it's not far from Lyon.
As soon as I step out of the train station, I fell in love. It's a quiet city of about 30,000. It's steeped in old buildings, churches, squares and really, really nice people. I stuck out w/my backpack on, but no one really gave it much of a thought since they knew I was there b/c of the Tour. I headed right into town and followed the signs to the tourist office. The guy there was great--he had spent a year as an exchange student somewhere in Minnesota during high school, so he was familiar w/Wisconsin and we talked for quite awhile. He gave me every thing I needed to know about the Tour's schedule and pointed me in the direction of a place to get some food and enjoy my time in BEB.

I spent my day walking around, talking to locals who had many a question about me and my backpack and hanging out in a park along a river writing in my journal.

I sucked it up that night and slept in the cheapest hotel in the city. Since I haven't had a reason to use the French I learned in HS, College and on my own, I was rusty. I get to this hotel, manage to get the last room available and have the non-english speaking front desk guy show me to my room. On the way, he points out the shower and the toilet in the hallway. My room has a bathtub but I gathered I was supposed to use the shower in the hallway. So I settle in, turn on some volleyball and decide to wash some clothes by hand. I ran a little water in the bathtub to soak some clothes and did a majority of washing in the sink. Then my phone starts ringing. I thought about answering it, but then realized, "Wait a minute, I'm not going to understand a word being said, so why put myself through it." So I don't answer it. 5 minutes later it rings again. I stick to the same philosophy and continue washing my clothes. I wonder if the bathtub filled w/water is leaking into the room below or something, but I figured that if something that wrong was happening, they would come to the room. No one did, and I went about my business.

The next morning, the day of the Tour, I check out, find an internet cafe and make plans to meet up w/Libby and Jess, whom I met in Pamplona.

I was ready for sport 3 of 4 on my trip!
photo by: Cho