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Postcard From Brittany: A Simple Exchange, And The Man Who Gave It Meaning

An American soldier and a French civilian chat on the causeway leading from the mainland of Brittany to the famous tourist resort of Mont St. Michel in Normandy on August 8, 1944. American forces in their advance across the peninsula seized the resort, which was undamaged. (HH/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
An American soldier and a French civilian chat on the causeway leading from the mainland of Brittany to the famous tourist resort of Mont St. Michel in Normandy on August 8, 1944. American forces in their advance across the peninsula seized the resort, which was undamaged. (HH/AP)

Celeste was a farmer in Brittany, in the northwest corner of France. He was a simple man but rich in satisfaction, the kind that comes from a life lived long and full. He never told me so, but I could see it in his eyes and manner, and in his calm, unhurried demeanor.

It was the era of “freedom fries,” and I was apprehensive about visiting my new French relatives.

My French wife’s uncle, Celeste looked to my eyes every bit the Frenchman. He wore a beret slightly tilted to one side and a near-permanent half grin that parted his rosy cheeks, sun-baked from a lifetime working the fields. His hands were the size of baseball mitts and as leathery and worn as one that belonged to Babe Ruth. But he was not an athlete or a sportsman. There was no time for that. He was born during the Great Depression, between the War to End All Wars and World War II. Times were tough in Brittany, but farmers made do. They lived off the land and from the harvests of the bountiful French coastal waters.

Celeste, August, 2013. (Jeffrey Holt/Courtesy)
Celeste, August, 2013. (Jeffrey Holt/Courtesy)

All Celeste talked about was his farm. He was proud to show off his barn full of endive or shallots. The care he took in his work was evident in the way he handled each shallot, gently massaging the outer husk until the layers peeled away to reveal the moist and pungent inner flesh. He worked long hours, but, in the best of French traditions, he paused from work mid-morning, to enjoy a crusty baguette; mid-day, for a hearty lunch with wine; and again at mid-afternoon, for a goûter, or snack, of coffee and chocolates. Somehow, he still managed to work the land, acres of it. It was this well-balanced approach to life that, I believe, was the source of that confident, satisfied glow.

I first became enamored of Celeste 12 years ago. It was during the Iraq War, and tensions were high between the U. S. and France. It was the era of “freedom fries,” and I was apprehensive about visiting my new French relatives. Talk of Saddam Hussein and WMDs made me nervous, and I didn’t want to defend the “American position.” I was anxious that there might be a heated discussion, most of it in a language I didn’t understand.

I was shocked, then, when my wife’s entire extended family, most of them elderly, wanted to meet the American, albeit the one who stole their daughter. This was the generation that survived World War II. To my surprise, when they heard “American,” they thought “gratitude.” That I hadn’t yet been born in 1944, when brave American soldiers liberated Brittany from the Nazis, was of no importance to them. In that off-the-beaten-path region of France, I was the first American many of them had seen since the liberation, and I was their first opportunity to say thanks.

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Of all the stories my extended family of in-laws told me about when the Americans came ashore in Brittany, one of my favorites was from Celeste. He recalled an afternoon when a troop of Americans marched through the family farm. The children were the first to run and greet them. Celeste explained that they wanted to give the Americans something but had little to offer. So they gave the American troops the only thing they had: shallots. It was the fall harvest, and they had bushels of them. They were a welcome gift after months on a Navy warship without fresh vegetables. In return, the American troops offered the French children one of their few remaining staples: chocolate. It was a rare treat in rural France at that time, and the shallots-for-chocolate exchange made a lasting impression on Celeste.

They wanted to give the Americans something but had little to offer. So they gave the American troops the only thing they had: shallots... In return, the American troops offered the French children one of their few remaining staples: chocolate.

Celeste’s story made me realize that French–American alliances have been forged and reforged since the birth of America. My Franco-American family is living proof of that bond, and the tradition will continue with my kids.

As we were packing to leave Brittany, Celeste came to say goodbye. As a parting gift, he offered my wife and me a bushel of shallots. I was deeply touched by his gesture. I just happened to have a box of chocolates I had brought from America, and as our two families gathered around, I offered them to Celeste. The French-American bond was forged anew.

Celeste died on Thanksgiving, November 27, 2014. He was 88. I feel unsettled by the unrelenting passage of time and the sense that a little bit of history, and a way of life, has gone with him. At the same time, I am thankful that I knew him. His indomitable spirit left an impression that will endure in all he touched. Celeste taught me that the bonds that unite us are stronger and more enduring than the forces that might divide.

Lunch on the farm, c. 2002. Left to Right: François (the author's father-in-law), Monique (the author's mother-in-law), Simone (Celeste’s wife), Celeste, Gwen (the author's wife), the author. (Jeffrey Holt/Courtesy)
Lunch on the farm, c. 2002. Left to Right: François (the author's father-in-law), Monique (the author's mother-in-law), Simone (Celeste’s wife), Celeste, Gwen (the author's wife), the author. (Jeffrey Holt/Courtesy)

Related:

Jeffrey Holt Cognoscenti contributor
Neuroscientist Jeffrey Holt is an associate professor at the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

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