Welcome to the Franco-American museum in the Chateau de Blérancourt (that’s yours truly in the picture above, standing at the entrance). I’d been hearing about this museum which is a mere hour’s drive from Paris for quite some time. Truth be told, and I don’t know why, it wasn’t on my list of priorities.
But fate took care of my lack of interest: on our way to another French monument, the Abbaye de Royaumont, a road sign indicating “Blérancourt” suddenly loomed up on our right.
It was not just a sign but a “divine sign”, we laughed, as we happily changed our plans and our route.
We were happy with our decision but our GPS wasn’t. According to its little pictogram, our car had veered off the road and into fields! Given our precarious situation, we immediately decided to do something hardly anyone does these days: stop the car and ask directions of two locals lazily drinking their beers in a front of a café.
“Excusez moi,” I said, as I rolled down the window to peer up at our potential saviours.. “We are looking for the Chateau de Blérancourt but keep going around in circles.” (I didn’t mention the picture of our vehicle plowing through fields).
One of the fellows, a grizzled old-timer, glanced at the cell phone I was holding in my hand.
“It won’t tell you?” he asked, pointedly but with good humour.
Red-faced, I admitted that I hadn’t even thought of consulting it. He and his friend grinned and pointed us in the right direction. “You should stop here for lunch before you go,” they added. We almost did, but it was time to be on our way (and reflect for a few seconds on how few and far between these informal exchanges are becoming now that we get our information from machines instead of humans).
We did end up eating before going to the museum, repairing to a small town named Cuts (pronounced “coots” in French) which featured all in one place, the Holy Trinity of almost all French villages: the church, the Mairie and the school. It also boasted a Michelin starred restaurant but we opted for the town’s one and only simple little café where we ordered up big tasty sandwiches and a couple of glasses of wine. As we sat on the terrace enjoying the lovely spring weather, something odd happened. Every single passer-by greeted us with a smile and a bonjour. This was so astonishing that we almost choked on our wine. Yes, we were definitely no longer in Paris.
Then it was on the museum, a country residence built between 1612 and 1619 by the French architect Salomon de Brosse for the Potier de Gesvres family. During the French Revolution, the main building of the original residence was totally demolished. Fortunately the portal and two pavilions remained.
The American connection started at the end of World War I when Anne Morgan, daughter and unique heiress of John Pierpoint Morgan,the richest man in the world, toured the devastated area of the Aisne region, staying at the Chateau de Blerancourt where she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France (CARD).
“The French Friends of Blérancourt Museum” was founded in 1923 and a year later the chateau became a museum – and a continuing testimony to the French support of the American War of Independence and the American commitment to the French during the First World War. The eclectic collection you can see today after a recent renovation of the buildings ranges from plaster casts of famous American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and the famous French friend of America, Lafayette (picture below), to posters depicting U.S. aid in World War I and an elaborate costume of a Native American.
The beautifully and carefully landscaped gardens surrounding the chateau made us want to sit down with a book and stay all afternoon.
But it was time to go and make some other discoveries: in the nearby town of Noyon we stumbled on the house in which Jean Calvin was born. (By the way, contrary to what I thought, Calvin was French, not Swiss). Back to his birthplace: who knew? (Well, I wasn’t all that surprised: everywhere you go in France, even in the least touristic regions, history is your constant partner and monuments abound).
On this sunny Sunday morning the people sitting at the tables on the sidewalk cafés in Noyon were mostly men and mostly Arab or Turkish workers. Many stores were closed – not just for the day, but seemingly forever. Is it just a sleepy town, I wondered? Or has it been hit by massive unemployment?
I don’t have the answer to that question but I do have one certitude: if you want to see France and know France, you’ve got to hightail it out of Paris.
And when you do, you’ll see how and how fast you leave the City of Light behind. Under wide skies, you see enormous fields (like the one in the picture below of a yellow field of “colza” or rape, and farmers tilling the land. You’ll see villagers leisurely stopping to talk to each other on the street – and oh, how those conversations can last (reminds me of the small town in which I grew up in the Midwest). People are wary of newcomers, but if you don’t come on as a big city dude, you’ll be just fine. Voilà – et vive la différence.
As the famous American writer Henry James wrote in his book “A Little Tour in France” : “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France.”