First of all, allow me to apologize for the delay in writing something for you, but things have been in a state of flux since we officially became a French family a fews weeks ago. That little red family register has changed a lot of things for us, the most immediate of which is that now I don’t have to be a full-time student to stay in the country! Given that I was already feeling both overqualified and overwhelmed in my last academic pursuit, I decided to just drop out. In the long term, that means that my schedule will be much more conducive to holding down a full-time job. In the short term, it means my schedule will be much more conducive to pursuing all kinds of personal projects ranging from the mundane like writing for je parle américain, to the utterly useless like learning Irish Gaelic, to the extremely ambitious like … writing a novel.
Yes — writing a novel.
Now, I know that might sound like a pipe dream, and
I know that living in Paris hasn’t transformed me into Ernest Hemingway,
but bear with me for a moment.
I’ve always loved telling stories. My parents still talk about my penchant for it even as a toddler. During those long road trips to my grandmother’s house, I would often stand on the backseat as if it were a stage and demand my audience’s attention while “narrating my tale.” I would even try to turn my father’s head so he could watch me! (It was the ’70s — before seat belts and child car seats became de rigueur.) There was also a children’s creative writing class I took one summer at a nearby college, where I spun the yarn of — wait for it — a French potato named Pierre Pétain. In retrospect, I really should have done more research on the choice of family name, but you have to cut a 10-year-old a break, right?
Apart from a few pieces published in my high school literary magazine, I eventually started to read more and create less … or, rather, create differently. Like the stereotypical high school nerd, I spent most of my adolescence with my nose in a book … most often a history one. What I can admit now that I never would have admitted at 16 years old is that I was sometimes so enthralled by what I was reading that, not only would I imagine myself in the story, I would go so far as to create — on paper! — an alter-ego, with an entire life story set against that historical backdrop. I was an English pirate in the Caribbean in the 1650s … I was a member of the Dutch Resistance during World War II … I was a young Confederate soldier during the American Civil War … I was a nobleman during the Russian Revolution … I was a history nerd in rural South Carolina! Looking back at that time now, I only wish I’d saved all those creations instead of trashing them out of shame at my hyperactive imagination!
To be honest, not much has changed in the quarter century since those awkward years. I’m still crazy about history. If there’s a historical drama playing on the big screen, I’m there! If there’s a new historical series on television, I’m going to find a way to watch it! Almost everything I read these days is historical fiction, too. What also hasn’t changed is that I still imagine myself — even at 41 years old — as a character in the midst of the story that’s unfolding, even if I don’t create an elaborate record of it like I once did.
But that’s about to change.
Thanks to a creative writing course during my last semester of French classes, my creative juices have really started flowing again. The real impetus for my foray into novel-writing, though, is the genealogical research I’m doing on my own French roots. I’ve traced my lineage back to a Huguenot family that fled France in the 1680s because of religious persecution, and it’s their story that I want to tell. Unfortunately, apart from a few anecdotes, I haven’t uncovered a lot of historically verifiable information about them. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to get to know them better, though. To that end, I’ve already made friends with the librarian at the Bibliothèque du Protestantisme Français, an impressive little repository operated since 1869 by the Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français. Exclusively dedicated to preserving the story of the Protestants of France, it is a veritable treasure trove of almost 30,000 volumes, some of which are original works dating back to the 1500s. In its large, somewhat dusty, somewhat musty reading room, bounded on three sides by three stories of ancient leather-bound tomes, illuminated by an opaque skylight overhead, I’ve already spent several hours poring over transcriptions of old church registers and manuscripts.
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Not surprisingly, I’ve found just one reference to my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather so far, but the search itself is transporting me to another time and to another place — adding little details here and there to the backdrop of the story I will one day tell, a story that might start something like this …
“It was the christening gown that Marguerite had sewn for Jean-Michel. A yard of bleached linen, a foot and a half of Brussels lace, and a spool of silk thread for the little daisies she had embroidered herself on God knows how many rainy winter nights in that little house above rue des Cordiers. Daisies — marguerites — certainly not the most masculine of embellishments, but she had to leave a trace somehow.”
The next step? Keep writing and researching. With all the old manuscripts at the Bibliothèque, I hope to come across another reference or two to my elusive ancestor, but even if I don’t, I’ll have immersed myself in the ambiance of that era. After that? Book a weekend trip to Dieppe, in Normandy — the seaside town where he was born and lived before fleeing his native land.
Unfortunately, the old Huguenot church, where he was certainly baptized and where he might have married my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, was burned at the height of the persecution in 1685. Most of the old city was then destroyed some ten years later in the Nine Years’ War. I still hope to see some vestiges from that time that will speak to me … or perhaps just breathing the salt air and walking the paths my forebears walked will inspire me with images and sensations that I can translate into the words of their story.
Bookmark me. A new chapter is about to begin.
© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved