où est la guerre?

We arrived in France for the first time on Bastille Day.

After three weeks in Italy, where I had been in charge of the map and the language, Bob emerged from the overnight train to Nice suddenly totally responsible for our well being.

As he spoke first to the cab driver and then to the hotel clerk, he held is head as if it was painful to produce the sounds he was making. And the locals stared at him as though he were a giant misérable wearing a bloody head bandage.

In the square outside our hotel, a military parade unlike anything we might see in the States was in progress. Soldiers in revolutionary uniform stood in formation and moved slowly and methodically from one position to the next, ringed by a silent crowd of respectful watchers. The routine moved in increments of frozen rifle positions and directions faced, punctuated by motionless pauses that seemed to last minutes.

From the hotel, we needed to return to the train station to pick up our rental car. When the bus stop map proved unhelpful, Bob turned to an old man who was watching the military parade from a bench nearby.

“Où est la guerre?” Bob asked, hands pressing his forehead as if to stop the bleeding.

The old man stared, perplexed, and muttered something at first indecipherable, repeating “longtemps,” which from high school I kind of remembered meant “a long time.” I thought he was trying to tell us the train station was a long ways away.

But somewhere in the moment, Bob and I both realized that the befuddled old man was telling us the war, “la guerre,” had happened a long time ago.

And in turn, Bob remembered that “train station,” “la gare” is pronounced slightly differently.

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