Longtime friends, first meeting: Pen pals of 42 years get together in France

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    Karen Mahoney, right, and Pierre Philibert, her pen pal of 42 years, in Old Lyon. ( SUBMITTED PHOTO )


When I was in seventh grade at Burlington Junior High School, my French teacher Ronald Shields asked our class if we would be interested in having a French pen pal. Most of us jumped at the opportunity.

After paying $1 to get a name from a foreign language pen pal list, I was given the name Pierre Philibert from Lyon, France.

Pierre was 14 and I was 13 when we first swapped letters and photographs. He was the astronomy buff, often sending pictures of his Celestron telescope, colorful visions of globular nebulae, planets and stars. I was the music aficionado, mailing pictures of school concerts along with stories of my aspirations of becoming the next conductor of the Boston Pops.

Countless words passed between us over the years. We corresponded through junior high, high school and college. Pierre joined the French Army after high school, serving one year, as was the requirement in France at that time. Then, he attended college majoring in banking. I majored in music.

For 42 years, we showered gifts on one another and shared news of school, friends, vacations, hobbies, new loves in our lives, our weddings and the births of our children and my grandchildren. We shared in the devastating losses of our parents and we mourned the end of my first marriage. Years later, we celebrated when I found happiness and joy with my second husband.

Making the journey

From the beginning, we had hoped to visit each other’s country, but something (usually finances) prevented us from traveling.

In the past few years, Pierre experienced some serious health issues as did my husband, Blaise. It seemed to us that if we wanted to enjoy the visit, we needed to do it before we became too old, too sick or lost our memories.

On Sept. 12, we boarded a plane for Paris, spending two days at the Hotel Tourisme Avenue near the Eiffel Tower.

Our modern room was miniscule by American standards, a small lavatory, an arms-width shower room, a queen-size bed that barely wedged between the four walls and the little desk that we piled our suitcases on. The window opened to the back of the hotel, and we faced two large apartment buildings that were undergoing renovation by very loud and spirited French men. They began work early. Needless to say, we did not need an alarm clock.

Taking the steps to the first floor in the Denon wing, we prepared to queue for the Mona Lisa, catching The Winged Victory Of Samothrace on the landing as we went through — this is the ancient Greek figure used on the bow of ships and on the front of Rolls-Royce cars. Peering through the crowds at the Mona Lisa’s famously enigmatic smile, it was difficult to see her clearly as the thick security glass wall conceals some of her finer details. Incidentally, she is much smaller than I had expected; her dimensions are just under 3 by 2 feet, not the massive portrait I had imagined. Honestly, I was a bit miffed that we waited so long for a tiny painting.

Because massive crowds make Blaise and me a little edgy, we bolted from the Mona Lisa and consoled ourselves with Raphael’s magnificent The Virgin, Child And Little St. John, which was well worth seeing. After several hours of viewing Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave sculptures, various paintings, the Greek Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, and of course, the Venus de Milo, we walked beneath the pyramid and rewarded ourselves with something to drink and a little shopping before hopping back on the train to our hotel.

We ate dinners at Le Beaujolais, Café Mollien and Fontaine de Mars, and of the three, the latter was the most iconic of experiences. Old school Parisian, we sat outside at white linen tablecloths, where our waiter brought us an appetizer of cheeses and sausage. I enjoyed a glass of La Mouline, an intensely aromatic and silky red wine with blackberry and raspberry undertones. Blaise enjoyed a Fillet with Béarnaise sauce and frites. I had lamb and a tower of potatoes. The fare was enchanting and there were plenty of gluten free choices to accommodate my celiac disease. Next to our hotel was a Haagen Dazs ice cream shop that we visited more than once.

After experiencing Paris for two days, we took the city train to the Gare de Lyon where we boarded the TGV, the high-speed train to Lyon. There, Pierre and his wife, Chantal, would be waiting for us on the platform. My mind began racing, as I was both excited and nervous about meeting them face-to-face for the first time.

We would be staying with them for eight days; what if we didn’t like each other? What if we weren’t compatible? What if they forgot to pick us up? What would I do about food? What if they didn’t understand what I meant about having to be gluten free? All of these thoughts trampled my mind throughout the two-hour scenic ride as Blaise snored in the seat beside me, obviously oblivious to my angst.

A time to meet

Once we arrived at the Lyon Station, we saw Pierre and Chantal, cameras in hand, craning their necks to find us. We grabbed our bags and were greeted with hugs and kisses on each cheek. Thankfully, Pierre and Chantal spoke more English than I remembered French, and we were able to chatter all the way to Lyon, where we stopped at a pub for something to drink.

The first night we had dinner at Pierre and Chantal’s home in Chaponost, a suburb of Lyon, where Chantal prepared a dinner of several courses beginning with a salad with a fried egg on top. Afterwards, she brought out Beef Bourguignon and a tasty casserole made with celery and fresh bread. Once the dishes were brought to the kitchen, she brought out an array of soft cheese, more bread and fresh plums and figs, followed by plates of tarts, cakes and cookies. We had wine, coffee and a cherry liquor to round out the meal. Stuffed, we were surprised to see our friends loading a cardboard box with food and coffee and rolling a suitcase to the door. We learned that we would be staying at the cottage in St. Genis where Pierre used to visit in the summers as a little boy. They inherited the home after Pierre’s parents passed away and rent it out to vacationing tourists.

The old cottage from the mid-1700s was charming, but chilly in the cool, rainy evening. A massive fireplace dwarfed the kitchen/living room and the fire Pierre started quickly warmed the home. The dark, nearly black woodwork was massive and heavy, the doors strong enough to withstand even the strongest attack during the French Revolution. The windows locked with ornate thick steel rods that pushed into the frame.

Since dinner lasted four hours, it was well past midnight and after visiting for a few moments and finding our room, we went to bed. The next morning, there were large cereal bowls on the table, with an array of pastries, breads and cheese. A small pot of coffee was brewing on the kitchen counter. I was looking around to see if Chantal was cooking oatmeal, as I did not see any cereal boxes on the table. We sat at the table and Pierre proceeded to fill our cereal bowls with coffee. Chantal was filling her bowl with hot chocolate; and because the entire pot was empty after filling our bowls, Pierre had to make another pot. I was a bit perplexed as to what I was supposed to do with the bowl because there was a large spoon next to it, so I decided to wait to see what they did. Imagine my surprise when I watched them drink directly from the bowls. We followed suit, thinking all the while that perhaps they had no coffee cups at the cottage. Later we would find out that most of the French drink their morning coffee, tea and hot chocolate from bowls.

After a leisurely breakfast (all French meals seemed to be leisurely) we took the bus to Lyon. Lyon is France’s second largest city, with a population of 2 million, including the suburbs. It is also said to have more top-rated restaurants than any other city in Europe, outside Paris. It is where I learned that the salad Chantal made for us the night before was called, “salad Lyonnaise,’ a salad with bacon, croutons and an egg on top.

Situated at the confluence of the rivers Rhone, rushing down from the Alps just to the east, and the Saone, meandering through the celebrated vineyards of Burgundy and Beaujolais just to the north, the city had its beginnings around 43 B.C. Invading Romans established a place called Lugdunum or city of crows, on the high hill overlooking present-day Lyon and made it the future capital of all Roman Gaul.

The brand new, Musee de Confluences, is positioned at the exact spot where both rivers meet. This is where Pierre works in the finance department. More on that later.

Pierre thought it helpful if we embarked on a walking tour of Le Vieux-Lyon, or old Lyon. We purchased headsets, which explained various locations in the city. The tour took about two hours and we were able to view sites such as the Maison due Chamarier, remains of the church Sainte-Croix and Saint-Etienne, Notre Dame De Fourvière in Lyon and the magnificent St. Jean Cathedral.

During the Renaissance, Lyon became a prominent center of silk production, the legacy of which lingers today. The Croix Rousse and Vieux Lyon, or old Lyon districts are peppered with “traboules,” narrow covered passageways that protected the valuable silk as it was moved from place to place.

Lyon was a major player in the French Resistance during World War II and those traboules served Resistance fighters well in eluding German patrols. It was interesting to maneuver through the traboules in the old Lyon, cobblestone streets that hid treasures of coffee shops, restaurants and little boutiques. Within the traboules are small residences, which are still occupied. Through the walkways, hidden courtyards exhibit lush gardens or the family’s laundry hung by a wire.

Surprisingly, this was one of my many favorite places during our foray into everything French. I enjoyed peeking in the windows of little shops, catching glimpses of the apartments buried in the Traboules when the occupants scurried off to the market. I thought about the silk traders and the soldiers moving through those tunnels, unseen by the world and goose bumps traversed my arms.

Sites of Chaponost

In Chaponost, where Pierre and Chantal now live, are the Roman Aqueduct ruins which carried water to Lugdunum, the Roman city. The ancient Roman presence permeates much of the country. From there we traveled to the Museum of Confluences, a unique museum that opened in December 2014. Pierre works in the financial department in the museum and thankfully, he arranged for a tour for us in English.

The massive glass and steel structure resembles a cloud (looks a bit like a spaceship) and is situated on a peninsula at the confluence of the two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. The $225 million structure boasts dinosaurs, aboriginal art, insects, and the three floors of collections are based on the questions of “Where do we come from? Who are we? And what do we do?” It explores the many theories of life and how it began. We found the museum fascinating and appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into all of the exhibits. The curators put much thought into the presentation.

The next day we traveled to my preferred spot of the entire trip and it fueled my penchant for Roman history and my love of ruins. We drove to Vienne to St. Romain en Gal, which is the site of a surprising discovery, more than 7 acres of Roman ruins were unearthed when the city has plans to construct a high school in 1967. While digging, the construction crew unearthed beautiful mosaics, ceramics, architectural remains, water pipes and other objects of daily life. The entire project was abruptly ended, the high school moved to another location and an archeological dig ensued. In 1996, the Gallo-Roman Museum of Saint-Romain-en-Gal opened to the public. Renderings, mosaics, and scaled down models are represented inside the museum, but the best part is the ability to walk in the footsteps of the Romans and through all of the ruins. We remained here for hours because I could not tear myself away from the intricacies of their baths, plumbing, fountains and homes. The fact that all of this was still standing was so overwhelming that I could barely catch my breath.

On the way back to Pierre’s home, we further assuaged my curiosity by visiting the ruins of a Roman coliseum on the north end of town. I realized then, just how young the United States is in compared to the rich history in France. It was mind-blowing to me that in lieu of tearing down the old, the French go out of their way to preserve and embrace the past. It was beautiful. As we stood shoulder to shoulder by the rows and rows of stairs in the coliseum, I remember glancing over Pierre and Chantal’s heads at Blaise and mouthing, “Can you believe it? We are really here.”

This is how I felt much of the trip; everything was new to us, yet the friendship seemed old, as if we simply picked up where we had left off in our letters. Spending these days with them felt like a reunion and not a first meeting, because we already knew each other. I’m sure it sounds odd, but we had already been through so much together, we had just never spent time, face to face.

In the days to come, we would visit many more churches and cathedrals and travel hours to visit Annecy where the lake and old world French town are inviting to French tourists, as well as American. As a boy, Pierre vacationed with his parents often in Annecy as I recalled from his letters. The quaint town also specialized in the most delectable gelato, of which we sampled several dishes.

From Annecy we drove to Chamonix, the home of Mont-Blanc, the highest point in the French Alps and located near the junction of France, Switzerland and Italy. We stayed in a small chalet owned by one of Pierre’s friends, a tiny two bedroom, one bath home located at the base of a lush mountainside where the lowing of cows and melodic songbirds offered a sense of calm and comfort.

To the heart of a glacier

When we arrived in Chamonix, we embarked on the Train du Montenvers, which brought us to the mountaintop. From there a cable car brought us into the most incredible excursion, to the Mer de Glace, a glistening 200-meter-deep glacier that snakes down the northern side of Mont Blanc, a treasure trove of frozen tunnels and ice sculptures that change color according to the weather and a little help from multi-hued LED lights positioned throughout. After the cable car dropped us off at a platform where a restaurant and gift shop were conveniently positioned, we descended the 440 metal stairs to the glacier’s entrance.

My heart pounded as we trekked through the glacier and I remember announcing to our small group, “this cannot be possible.” Trying to fathom this place where we could not only see a living glacier, but traverse through it, was beyond my comprehension. After climbing the 440 stairs, we knew why there was a restaurant and gift shop located at the top. We were exhausted and paused for espresso and a welcomed break. From there, we visited the Galerie des Cristaux, a museum tucked into the mountain that contained a trove of glittery crystals from Mont Blanc, and the Glaciorium, which examined the birth, life and future of glaciers. Weary, we hopped the train to our car and traveled back to the chalet.

From Chamonix, we drove through La Clusaz, the ski resort city and traveled several hours to the weekend home of Chantal’s sister, Christiane and her husband, Daniel. They joked to us that they were taking us into deep France to see how the people really live, away from tourism. We drove into a remote farming area outside Le Puy-en-Velay where we were welcomed with a fragrant dinner, soft cheeses, breads and macarons. Neither Christiane nor Daniel spoke English, but it never mattered. Blaise and Daniel found a common bond through humor and a Google Translation app and my French seemed to be enough to communicate with both of them. We laughed so hard we cried and found that despite the language barrier, that people all seem to be the same wherever they live. With a bit of patience, understanding, love, compassion and humor, the language is really secondary.

The six of us traveled to Haute-Loire to tour the home of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who is considered the hero of the US and France because he put his life and fortune at the disposal of the American rebels in France’s fight with England.

Our final journey before returning to Lyon was to visit LaSalette, France, a sacred place where Mary, the mother of Jesus appeared to two shepherd children, Melanie Calvet and Maximin Giraud on September 19, 1846. Walking on these sacred grounds seemed a fitting conclusion for our French adventure. We prayed at the site and traveled back to Lyon, exhausted but exhilarated.

Leaving our friends was extraordinarily difficult as we felt such a close bond with each other and we enjoyed the French culture and the people. We are hoping that our friends, along with Daniel and Christiane, will travel to the United States soon so we can show them the beauty of our country. We hope one day to return.

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