Monday, July 20, 2009


The Pyrenees Mountains are home
to the Basques of France and Spain.
The night before Apollo 11 launched into space, David Brinkley, host of the NBC Evening News, remarked, "If this (the moon landing) is not a permanent and enduring event in history, then nothing is."
Most of us oldsters remember vividly where we were when we learned of momentous historical events like John Kennedy being shot (9th grade algebra class). Do you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon on July 20, 1969? (OMG - 40 years ago today!) As for me, I was in France!
On July 14, 1969, two friends and I arrived in Pau. Tired and worn out after traveling via Eurailpass to this southwestern French city, we discovered it was Bastille Day. We were definitely re-energized by the feasting and fireworks celebrating the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789.
Just six days later, these same French celebrants happily joined in observing a historic event for us Americans (and the entire world) - the landing on the moon of Apollo 11 (or as it was known there, Apollo Onze).

Our first glimpse of the chateau, on Bastille night.
We came to Pau so I and fellow French student Jo could attend school at the Summer Universite de Bourdeaux et Toulouse. Mitch (Michelle), another UND student, stayed in Pau with us for a few days before boarding a train to her school in Germany. We were window shopping downtown one day when we began to be harassed by several French youths.
The little old shop owner shooed them away ("Nasty boys" seemed to be what she was saying) and invited us "petites Americaines" in for some Jurancon wine, the region's famous sweet white wine. She got us just tipsy enough so that we were giggling and lagging behind the group when we later toured the chateau, birthplace of King Henri IV (Henri de Bourbon, who promised the French "a chicken in the pot every Sunday"). Legend has it that Henri was christened with Jurancon, and we were certainly "baptized" with it that day.
The momentous moon landing happened just a few days after school began. I can't remember whether we saw TV coverage at the school, or in some restaurant/bar. I do remember, however, that the newspaper headline read "Ils sont sur la lune!" (They are on the moon.)
We had continued to visit Madame at her shop. (How I wish I could remember her name, but my travel journal - and that French newspaper - were lost when my home burned.) The day after the moon landing, we dropped by the shop. Madame and her friend - equally ancient and tiny - were discussing the merits of the American astronauts. "I like Neil Armstrong", said Madame, but she (pointing to her friend) LOVES Buzz Aldrin!"

Le Boulevard des Pyrenees, the best view in town
So that's my moon landing memory. Reminiscing about it reminded me of our days in France. I had never heard of Pau until the spring before when Jo and I, having won language scholarships, were choosing a university to attend. (Not everyone goes to the Sorbonne!)
Jo, Mitch and I traveled around Europe and other parts of France before landing in Pau. It was a wonderful place - Mediterranean, semi-tropical, with lots of palm trees and a magnificent view of the nearby Pyrenees Mountains. The entire time we were there, the air was permeated with the scent of flowers. I'm not sure what they were, but they were heavenly. That scent, and the smell of diesel (which I love) are definite sense memories of riding the bus to school every morning.
Pau, located in Basque country (I'd never heard of the Basques either) is a city located on two levels. The two are joined by a funiculaire (a funicular - or inclined - railway, on which tram cars on rails move up and down steep slopes or cliffs.)
Le Bon Roi Henri
After riding the funiculaire, Mitch, Jo and I met some sightseeing French sailors. It was all very innocent - just talking - but one, Daniel, gave me the red pompom from his hat. I kept it until I lost it in the fire as well.
The city of Pau may have been balmy and pleasant, but the accommodations were smelly and unpleasant. The university classes were held at the local boys' school, L'Ecole Normale. The bathrooms had no toilets, just impressions on the floor for feet. Yeah, we didn't go to the bathroom while we were at the school.
The girls stayed at a building that housed female teachers during the regular school year. We had little cubicles for rooms, with curtains drawn across the doors. The showers were cold and there were bedbugs in the beds. We always slept on top of the covers.
The meals at the school were generally awful too, especially the day I found a worm crawling across my slice of meat. There were two bottles of wine on each table, noon and evening. I had just turned 20 a few weeks before arriving at Pau - and had only sampled some beer in Germany and a bit of wine in France - but found myself drinking wine at every meal to wash down the nasty food (the only good menu item was pommes frites - French fries).

The pompoms on French sailors' hats
are interchangeable and held on with brass fasteners!

We had taken written placement exams our first day, and I was placed in the superior level, though I had taken less French than Jo. I was so lost in my classes, and hated them, especially my pronunciation class. A she-ogre with bad breath was always hissing in my ear, "Ca ne march pas! Ca ne march pas!" which I took to mean, "You really suck at pronunciation."
I finally asked to move to the moyen, or middle level. Even though the administrators told me I was too "modiste", they let me transfer, and thereafter I was much happier studying with Jo and the other students. However, Jo and I and our pals always skipped the boring afternoon lyceum programs. Instead, we explored the city - the shops, the supermarket, the swimming pool - and I think we probably learned a lot more French that way. We also ate a lot of sandwiches de jambon (ham) and drank a lot of warm Cokes.
It's been 40 years since I was in France and man first landed on the moon. So when will the first woman land on the moon? Oh, that's right, there's always been a lady on the moon.

Beautiful Pau

NOTE: I wrote this post last Thursday, before Walter Cronkite died. I vividly remember his superior coverage of America's first early ventures into space (and other momentous events, such as the assassination of JFK). He truly was "the most trusted man in America." Goodnight and Goodbye, Mr. Cronkite.
"And that's the way it is," Monday, July 20, 2009.


Annie Jeffries said...

I was backpacking in the Three Sisters wilderness in Oregon. I didn't even know it had happened until I was back in the world again.

Lauralee Beth said...

Hello, just found your blog and I really like it. You've got a lot of really beautiful art on here, I think. Feel free to come check out my little artsy blog if you'd like.

Sid Brechin said...

I was exactly half way through my first full time Army Course as a Cadet 3 weeks down 3 to go. We were all ( 1500 of us ) offered the chance to watch it on a couple of dozen tv sets in the main drill hall. I was one of very few who elected to get to bed early as the next day would be normal training and I was pretty sure it would be rebroadcast. It lead to a view that has lasted my life. If it is important it will become history. If not your only taking time from your life to watch some else's Idea of news.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

We lived in WI and were waiting for our third child to be born. Don rushed over to watch it on his aunt's color tv - only to find out it was broadcast in black and white. Fun memories of that time.

Mary said...

I was living in northern Massachusetts with little kids and very homesick. DH worked in Boston and was always late coming home, however I remember he was there when we turned the telly on and heard the exciting news.

Great post about your French experience Julie. A shame the living conditions were so poor. You do need to return and see it again from nice hotels....I hope you can.

Loved the photos of Kristen's birthdays through the years - you were a lovely young mother. You are still such a talented writer - thanks for sharing your life and times.
Hugs - Mary.

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

Hmmm..I was VERY pregnant with my son, Andy who got married and who we had traveled to see get married, but you know how that turned out..heehee.

Kennedy? 7th grade History class..whoa - this takes me back!
Thanks for your kind words during our crisis - I appreciate you so much :-)

The pups are loving having us home- spoiled? Nah..we're the one's spoiled !

Have a great week :-)

Rowan said...

I remember the night quite clearly, I lived in Cheshire close to Jodrell Bank Observatory and they had a giant TV screen there so that people could go and watch. My boyfriend and I spent most of the evening there but the actual landing we watched on TV at my house. It was a very special moment.

gma said...

I had no idea you had gone to school in France. What fabulous memories you have. I was in Santa Monica Ca. living near the beach
hanging out!!! I think it was the following year I went back to school. Took Rod Stewarts advice from his song "Wake up Maggie I think I've got something to say to you"

Janet said...

What a fantastic post! I didn't know you studied in France! How exciting except for the food and the bedbugs!

I watched the moon landing from my home in Illinois. My daughter was 9 months old and my son was almost 6 years old....he was fascinated with astronauts at the time.

Shopgirl said...

You are a want to learn, but more than that, you want to share what you learn. A teacher of history.
I did take the second blog off, I will put things on my Backofthemoon from time to time.
Hugs, Mary

Shopgirl said...

We went to our friends house, ate a nice meal and watched the best we could the moon landing. My Cory was 6 weeks old. It was hard to see what was going on, and the sound was not good. But we were proud mostly because we beat everyone else there.
I am not for spending money now on these projects. I think our earth needs us more. I think we did what JFK asked, and he was a fine man. I think Walter cared about him deeply. And he was a special man too. But now we have another young man asking us for compassion. People are hurting and if we could go to the moon, I think we can go to the Doctor. We have good insurance. But not everyone has what I have.
Yes, I have a soup box tonight, thats what happens when you stay up to late.:(
I love ya Julie, Mary

Patty said...

I was at my grandmothers house in GA. for summer vacation. I remember thinking that it was not I can't believe how long ago that has been now.