SAMUEL CATALINO

MARCH 7th 2009

On a cool French March evening I was touching down at Charles De Gaulle airport.  It was the first time I had been in Paris since 1965.  Bernard and I spoke over the phone a week earlier about my impending visit to Laon and had generously offered to pick me up at the airport.  He had invited me to stay at his home Saturday evening although we had never met.  Thoughts ran through my head…how should I act, and I was concerned as I was meeting people in their own land who did not know me?  I was very concerned that I would be a gracious guest and not do anything that would upset my new found friends in a land I had not lived in almost half century.

All of my concerns disappeared as I met Bernard and his lovely wife Suzanne.  They were happy to meet me and any fears went the way of the London fog (which I never saw during my stay in London ) as he drove to his home outside of Laon. I had brought a number of old photos (mostly of Bievres) but a photo of my father and many of the flight crew in 1964 at Laon AFB.  I also brought a Laon AFB (1964) school yearbook which I shall scan and pass on to Bernard.  My French had atrophied, but many familiar words came back while conversing with my gracious hosts.  Their English was excellent and as long as I spoke plainly, there were no language barriers.  They were happy to look over the yearbook and the old photos I brought and saw some names of people they had met.

Bernard had already determined our schedule a week ago.  We would go to Laon AFB in the morning and in the afternoon we would go to Bievres, a small town I lived in from 1963 to 1965.  After going through many of the photos, Suzanne showed me to the room I slept.  I can say I did not get much sleep as I had been looking forward to this time for weeks.  Windsor Castle was great, 10 Downing Street, Parliament and Big Ben as well as the London Eye was fabulous to look at, but this was the highlight of my trip to Europe .  Daylight could not come soon enough, and sleep was in short supply as I felt like a child getting up for Christmas morning.

The next day came with a mist outside which developed into a steady rain in the morning.  Bernard joked that the weather he had ordered had not come through.  She showed me the map of the USA and many of the places he had visited and all of the souvenirs and memories he had acquired over the last ten years.  The weather did not dampen my spirits as after breakfast, we set out to Laon AFB.

We came upon the gate of the current base which is manned by the French military. 

They allowed us to come in and we came into the base.  Bernard pointed out the taxiway, the runway of the old base.  He also told me that the base will be up for sale and may be torn down in two years.  I confessed that there was not much of the base that I recalled but he pointed out to me the Control tower and the school.  We came upon the hospital where my sister had been born and Bernard pointed out the town of Couvron which is noted on her birth certificate.  The highlight for me was when we stopped by the base chapel.  My mother took a number of pictures of me at that chapel when I had my first Holy Communion 45 years ago.  I took a number of photos there, and Bernard took a photo of me in front of the Chapel. 

We left the base and then came upon a monument which was dedicated to all of the USA military who served at Laon AFB.  He took a photo of me as I took one of him in front of the monument.  I had no idea it existed.  We set off for his home where we rested for a time.

Bernard came to me and asked me:  “Are you ready for Bievres?”  I should have asked him if Bievres was ready for me.  He had informed me that the Mayor wanted to meet me, so that was an honor in itself.  So we set off for the trip to Bievres.

As we came down the hill, I instantly recognized the landfill which was there over forty years ago, and then we entered the town.  We passed the home where the Holsteins (another USA family had who was stationed at Laon AFB) used to live, then made a left turn and within seconds I immediately recognized the hill that led up to the place my family called home forty four years ago. 

We parked and my hosts indulged me as I got out and took video of the area.  The house had changed, but the road leading up to the house was now paved, the hill was more like a garden rather than wild vegetation, and the home was now surrounded by bushes rather than just the fence it had so long ago.

There was someone coming up the hill, and they stopped to speak with Bernard who explained why we were there.  A lady came out of the home and I explained that I used to live there.  Her daughter explained to her that I used to live there many years ago, and we were all invited in.  I excused myself to get my photo album and we all went inside and looked at old pictures.  It was so fascinating that although there had been some changes, the area was still the same.  We chatted away about things I remembered about the home and Sophie took me upstairs to look at the lovely view of the yard.
We exchanged e-mail addresses and Sophie’s daughter told me to make sure to pass on her e-mail address to my sister and ask her any question about Paris .  I promised to scan and send them all of the old photos of the home and Sophie told me she would take any picture of her home and send it to me.  I can not express the gratitude I had for her to open up her home to us and her kindness to show what was once a place my family resided.  Questions and answers went back and forth as I engaged in pleasant conversation with our new friends at Bievres.  Bernard had to break me out of my trip to the past and we went to meet the Mayor.

The Mayor, Mr Gilbert Rousseau, greeted us warmly and invited us in.  I met his wife, his granddaughter and grandson.  We sat down and looked at the photo album and there was a photo of the very home he lives in.  A scan was made and he took Bernard and me on a tour to the Town Hall and the school my brother attended for one year.  He also opened up the church which was next to the house I used to live in and where as a family we worshiped in so many years ago.  We also went by the World War 1 memorial.  I was shown the place where a barn used to be, which my mother had documented with a photo.  There were few new homes that had been built there, and I could recognize that they were new.

While at the town hall, the mayor showed me a group of photos of Bievres before the time of the war and after.  Bievres suffered a great deal during World War I, and this was the first time I learned about this.  In the past, I had always wondered why there was a World War I memorial and not a World War II memorial. 

We came back to his home and he served us refreshments, including a local wine which I thought was delicious.  His daughter came and I met her and her husband.  I took pictures of all of my new friends there and sadly it was time to depart.

Suzanne made a wonderful lunch, as Bernard was still feeling a bit under the weather so she would be taking me to Laon to catch the train to Paris .  I wished him well and a swift recovery.

I briefly lived in Laon before we moved to Bievres so it was interesting to go up the hills and the narrow roads.  Suzanne proceeded to give me a tour of Laon, something I did not expect and again was another pleasant surprise.  I saw a leaning tower there, and she would stop and allow me to indulge myself in taking photos and video of the cathedral and the area below.  Bernard gave me a pamphlet about Laon so we got to see much of the history of the city. 

All good things come to an end, and Suzanne dropped me off at the train station, but made sure that I caught the right train to Paris , pointing that my train had indeed arrived.  I waved goodbye and jumped on the train.

I was blessed by new friendships while I was in Laon with wonderful, gracious and kind people.  I was touched by the devotion I saw between Suzanne and Bernard while I was a guest in their home.    Although my knowledge of speaking French has diminished, I understood the speaking and expression of the kindness, concern and making one feel at ease by my hosts and many of the people I met that day at Bievres.  Always I shall be grateful to the website that is maintained by Bernard and Suzanne and their hospitality as they entertained me in their home one misty March day.