“Once…my life was a feast where all hearts opened, and all wines flowed.” — Arthur Rimbaud, from A Season in Hell
In the summer of 1965, my parents, Tom and Fran, drove their new European van to visit Jean and Annie Mongelard (Moz-a-lard) in Toulouse, France, a city often called La Ville Rose or The Pink City because of pink stone used in construction. They carried some small trees from California as a gift, though how they got the trees through customs is a mystery. The gift was meant to thank the Mongelards for rescuing me and a childhood friend, James R. Dean, when we were stranded in Toulouse a previous summer. Our trip had been a comedy of errors with bad planning, particularly when it came to money. We camped at a Toulouse youth hostel, broke and facing major decisions. Selling everything from books to toilet paper and Bermuda shorts did not produce adequate proceeds. I sent a frantic letter home requesting cash in an envelope.
Then we got lucky. James met a woman named Ann who had many friends, and when local French youth heard about our plight, they arrived without warning one night on motorcycles, driving us to a house owned by the Mongelard family. I rode behind a muscular youth named Jackie, who initially didn’t identify himself. Jean and Annie Mongelard agreed to take us in until our money arrived.
Jean Mongelard was an impressive sight, a short but strong man with a pronounced jaw and thinning unruly hair.
The first question Jean asked was if I was German. He remembered World War II and still harbored anger toward anything German. When I informed him we were both Americans (I didn’t mention I had some German heritage along with the Irish), Jean was satisfied. He had fought alongside Americans after the invasion of Normandy. Annie was pleasant, short and stout, and needed little prompting to sing Edith Piaf’s torch songs at full volume. James and I slept outside under some stairs. After days on the road eating poorly, we now feasted on rich French meals with many courses; I only knew the meal was over when fruit was served.
We attended a local carnival and drank wine with Jackie and his friends, men and women who personified the open freedom and rebellious nature of French youth. Hearts opened and wines flowed. One night, they broke into the public swimming pool to skinny dip, and then ran around the block to dry off, their nude bodies caught the headlights of oncoming cars. No one reported these incidents. The fact Mongelard was the lifeguard during the day made it a tad awkward. It also didn’t help that the local French kids thought Jean Mongelard was a comic eccentric, and revealed that his name in English meant, “eat bacon.” Despite some language barriers with les jeunes de Toulouse, we did manage to have political discussions and even helped translate certain profanities into English for their amusement.
“How you say dis, in English, de word for—” and then the speaker would demonstrate with crude gestures. “You repeat, s’il vous plaît.”
“In English, you would say—” and the language lesson in profane slang would continue. The next day at the pool, we heard those words shouted in a French accent.
Jean Mongelard loved to tell his war stories and finally did so when two visiting Mormon missionaries, fluent in French, translated while Mongelard acted out hand-to-hand combat, occasionally grabbing one us to demonstrate killing a German soldier.
James and I felt sad when our money finally arrived and we had to move on. I would miss the Mongelards and Jackie’s friends, remembering the parlance we developed to communicate. I would never forget the beautiful face of a French girl at the pool who saw I was reading “The Sound and the Fury” and told me William Faulkner had just died.
We stayed in touch with the Mongelards, and in 1997, with my wife, Karen, and her son, Steven, visited them at their summer home in the Pyrenées. Now in their 70s, they were still robust in their love of life, including superb cuisine and drink. At an elegant French restaurant, we bought them a fine meal, which we all enjoyed.
In 1999, the Mongelards visited America to see a friend of Jean’s, a fellow former prisoner of war now living in California. James dropped by and his wife, Chris, tells what followed: “We had a great visit and said our goodbyes, but as we were leaving, we realized the Mongelards were walking behind us carrying their bags.” Evidently, Mongelard’s French friends no longer wanted to be their hosts.
The Mongelards were high-maintenance people, who did not understand certain customs, and though Annie wrote fairly decent English, their lack of spoken English created problems. James could not communicate that with the onset of MS, he found it difficult to entertain them. They did manage, however, and after a week, the Mongelards flew to Pocatello.
Three incidents stand out from our Idaho visit. Jean, a professional chef, cooked an amazing meal for us and invited guests, and though he nearly burned down the house when the stove caught fire, we had a great time. After dinner, Annie entertained us by singing an operatic version of Edith Piaf’s “No Regrets.”
On another occasion, when a local maintenance person came by to fix a broken window, I anxiously asked him if he spoke French.
“No,” he said, “but I do speak German.”
At the sound of the word, “German,” Jean launched into his shrieking Hitler imitation as I tried to explain to the startled repair person that Mongelard was still fighting World War II.
Michael Corrigan graduated from San Francisco State with an MA in English and creative writing. He is a retired instructor of English and speech communications from Idaho State University. He has written several articles for various outlets, including Atticus Literary magazine online.