France’s Lost Colony: One of ‘Em, Anyway

Today marks the 450th anniversary of the day that Captain Jean Ribault sailed into the body of water that would later be known as Port Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina. The colony that he founded there became the first French settlement and—with the exception of a very short-lived Spanish outpost possibly near present-day Georgetown, South Carolina—the first European settlement in what is now the United States.

The middle of the 1500s was marked by competition among the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French to colonize the Americas. The English, the Dutch, and even the Swedish eventually arrived on the scene, but their efforts came at least a generation later. The Spanish dominated the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and western South America. The Portuguese dominated eastern South America—that’s to say, Brazil. That left northern North America for the French. In the early to mid-1500s, though, a lot of it was still very much up for grabs. In fact, the French were showing up all over the place, building forts and giving places French names. For instance, there was:

  • Cap Rouge, on the St. Lawrence River. Cap Rouge was founded by explorer Jacques Cartier in 1541, but the outpost was abandoned after only one year. (The maple syrup was good, but that winter wasn’t anything to write home about, I guess.) Nevertheless, Cap Rouge went down in history as the first French settlement in the Americas. Incidentally, the city of Québec, capital of the province of Québec, was founded in 1608 on the site of the old settlement.
  • France Antarctique, near present-day Rio de Janeiro. This interestingly named colony was France’s first South American one. “Brazil?” you might ask. Yes, the French even colonized Brazil. But, really, who could blame them after having endured that chilly Canadian episode? France Antarctique was founded in 1555 as a refuge for French Protestants fleeing from the wars of religion back in France. Fort Coligny, named for the French admiral who supported the expedition (and was, himself, a Huguenot), was built on the island of Serigipe in Guanabara Bay. The village of Henriville, named for King Henri II of France, was located just onshore. Of course, the settlement was in violation of the Papal Bull of 1493, which had given the area to the Portuguese, and they eventually succeeded in destroying the French settlement in 1567.

Given that history, it should come as no surprise that the French also tried to colonize Spanish Florida, which at that time comprised all of present-day Florida and the coastal regions of present-day Georgia and the Carolinas. While the Spanish had claimed Florida as their own in 1513, they didn’t succeed in building a permanent settlement there until 1565, when they founded Saint Augustine. The French looked at that track record, of course, and thought, “Well, why not? Spanish Florida is big, and the Spanish aren’t doing anything with it!”

Continue reading France’s Lost Colony: One of ‘Em, Anyway

Remember, Remember the 8th of May

May is a month chock full of holidays here in France. Just last week, we celebrated May Day. Since it fell on a Tuesday, lots of French took Monday off as well so they could have a four-day weekend — that’s what the French call faire le pont (“to make the bridge”). This year, May is also the month that brings us such Christian holidays as Ascension on May 17 and Pentecost on May 27. While the latter is no longer a public holiday in France, the former is … but let’s not get into a discussion about laïcité, okay? Instead, I’m writing about today’s holiday:

le 8 mai

A blogger friend of mine noted in a post today that it was “Victory Day” … but no one could tell her exactly which victory it commemorated. Being the history nerd that I am, I passed along the needed information. (It also helped that my local Métro station is named for the holiday!) Given that, I figured I might as well write my own little blogpost on the holiday that I just celebrated by doing absolutely nothing special …

Victory in Europe Day” or “V-E Day” is the day that marks the end of World War II in Europe, when the Allies formally accepted Nazi Germany’s act of military surrender. Following the fall of Berlin and Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, control of Germany passed into the hands of Admiral Karl Dönitz, who established a short-lived new German government named after Flensburg, the town on the Danish border where he was holed up at Germany’s naval academy. Allied forces were advancing rapidly on what remained of the German army in northwestern Germany and, on May 4, Dönitz surrendered to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery near Hamburg.

Continue reading Remember, Remember the 8th of May

Cinco de Mayo, or … Telling the French to Step Off

For better or for worse, Cinco de Mayo — like Saint Patrick’s Day — has become one of what NPR writer Linton Weeks calls America’s “Alcoholidays”: those holidays that have become “widely celebrated by people who have no ties to the traditions they spring from” through the festive adoption of national colors and costumes, and the excessive consumption of national alcoholic beverages.

Think about it. What would Saint Patrick’s Day in America be without the least Irish of us parading about in green while swilling Irish whiskey and chasing it with dyed beer? What would Cinco de Mayo in America be without the least Mexican of us shooting tequila while sporting a sombrero? Everyone has an opinion about whether the “mainstreaming” of such holidays is a good thing or bad thing, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Spending this Cinco de Mayo in France, the big question for me today (putting aside my “least Mexican”-ness) was whether I could — or should — be celebrating it here … in FRANCE.

I’d wager that most Americans who are off imbibing great quantities of José Cuervo today haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re commemorating. Contrary to popular misconception, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. That’s September 16, the day when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest in the town of Dolores, announced the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 (“El Grito de Dolores” or “El Grito de la Independencia“). On the other hand, Cinco de Mayo marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated a superior force of French soldiers.

Wait … the French? The French were in Mexico?

Why, yes. Indeed they were …

Continue reading Cinco de Mayo, or … Telling the French to Step Off

French Carolina

Carolina was an English colony, of course, but did you know that the French actually beat the English in the race to get there? Of course, the Spanish beat them all in 1526. Quelle surprise. Their settlement, San Miguel de Gualdape, was actually the first European settlement in what is now the United States, possibly located near the site of present-day Georgetown, South Carolina. Unfortunately for the Spanish, though, San Miguel was abandoned after only 3 months when famine, disease, and unrest among their Native American neighbors forced the settlers to return to Santo Domingo. The French arrived in 1562, after Admiral Gaspard de Coligny organized an expedition to settle the region. The expedition, led by Norman navigator Jean Ribault, built Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island but, like the Spanish before them, they didn’t stick it out for very long. Ribault, having returned to Europe for supplies, was detained because of the French wars of religion, leaving his fledgling settlement to founder. After only one year, all but one of the 28 remaining settlers set off across the Atlantic in a makeshift vessel. You may have read about their fate: by the time they were rescued by a passing English ship, the unfortunate crew had already resorted to cannibalism to stay alive as they drifted aimlessly on the ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish sent an expedition from Cuba to destroy Charlesfort, and the French experiment in colonizing the area came to an end. It wasn’t the end of French settlement though …

Continue reading French Carolina

Looking for work, or walking off the job?

Strikers at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle yesterday. Photo from Reuters

The News

Besides the record-breaking cold temperatures, the big news this week in France is the grève — the strike — at Air France. Essentially a “strike about the right to strike,” it was called by the unions representing Air France’s pilots, cabin crews, and ground crews to protest legislation that would impact their right to walk off the job. Now, you should know up front that workers’ rights are a big deal in France: the 35-hour workweek, generous unemployment benefits, and strong union representation are ingrained in the national consciousness here. As a matter of fact, the right to strike (“le droit de grève“) is actually enshrined in the French Constitution of 1946. Nevertheless, since 2008, railway and bus employees have been subject to a regulation to ensure “the continuity of public service” in ground transportation by requiring 48-hour notice of the intent to strike and the provision of “minimum service” during the strike. Last month, the Assemblée Nationale passed legislation expanding this regulation to include air travel as well, and the Senate is expected to take it up later this month. That, in a nutshell, is why the departures board at Charles-de-Gaulle was lit up in red today. Continue reading Looking for work, or walking off the job?

Up, up and away …

Saturday afternoon, I joined some friends at Parc André-Citroën to do something I’d never done before: ride in a balloon! That’s right. Perhaps surprisingly, this almost 40-year-old had never, ever gotten inside the basket of a hot air-balloon to make an ascent. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights. (I have, after all, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. I’ve even gone parasailing.) It’s just that, for whatever reason, I had never gotten around to doing this before yesterday.

I was invited by a friend who was doing field research for a presentation on Parc André-Citroën. This 59-acre park was constructed on the site of the 1915 Citroën factory, where André Citroën built one of the first fleets of French automobiles. That factory closed in the 1970s, and the city of Paris purchased the property and opened the park in 1992. The park features an expansive central lawn around which are situated two greenhouse pavilions, “dancing fountains” where kids (and adults) can play in the spray of the jets during the summer, a reflecting pool traversed by a suspended walkway, and six ornamental gardens. But what drew me to Parc André-Citroën yesterday (in addition to catching up with friends, of course) was the opportunity to take a ride in the Ballon Air de Paris. Continue reading Up, up and away …

An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

Your Guide to Père Lachaise © 2011 Michel Pouradier, all rights reserved

Best known to most Americans as the final resting place of Jim Morrison, Le Père Lachaise cemetery is the largest graveyard in the city of Paris, occupying 110 acres in the 20th arrondissement and having over 1 million interments. I can still remember my first visit to Père Lachaise back in April 2009—it was nothing like I had expected. There, in the center of a bustling multi-ethnic quarter, was a veritable city of the dead, with streets that actually bear names and divisions that function somewhat like little neighborhoods. It was even large enough to have a map with an alphabetized key for locating the grave sites of literally hundreds of its most famous occupants. I spent a few hours during that first visit, strolling along wide, tree-lined avenues and down narrow, winding cobblestone chemins in search of such luminaries of French literature, music and history as Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Georges Bizet, Jean de la Fontaine, Édith Piaf, Molière (who isn’t really there, but that’s another story), and even the legendary twelfth-century lovers Abelard and Héloïse (at least according to the 1817 marketing scheme to attract cemetery plot purchases).

Continue reading An American … no, make that eight Americans … in Père Lachaise

“Give me your tired, your poor …

… Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

— Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

It was Saturday afternoon and I was racking my brain for an idea for my next blogpost. The pressure was mounting since I try to post at least twice a week and the last post was on Wednesday … and then I Skyped with my mom.

“Did you see the Statue of Liberty celebrations?”

“Um. No. What was that about?”

“Yesterday was her 125th birthday.”

Voilà ! Merci maman !

It’s hard to think of a more iconic symbol of the United States than the Statue of Liberty. From postage stamps to commemorative coins to old New York state license plates to television and films, it is an unmistakable image that evokes America. Almost everyone knows that the statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States, but the details of the story are always more fuzzy once we leave grade school. And most Americans aren’t aware that, right here in Paris, we have our very own replica one fourth the size of the original in New York. It was made by the sculptor using one of his design moulds and was presented to the city of Paris in 1889 by the American community living here to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Just this afternoon, I ventured out to the Île aux Cygnes, a narrow island in the Seine just downriver from the Eiffel Tower, to take a look at the replica for the very first time.

La Statue de la Liberté, Île aux Cygnes © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved
La Statue de la Liberté, Île aux Cygnes © 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Having been inspired by my little afternoon excursion, I came home to finish up this post, the backstory of Lady Liberty’s 21-year voyage from idea to icon.

Continue reading “Give me your tired, your poor …

Cold War on Line 7?

I live in La Courneuve, at one end of line 7 of the Paris Métro. I spend a lot of time riding on that line, looking at its long list of stations during my daily trips back and forth to Paris. Scanning that list recently, I noticed what seemed to be some strange homage to the Cold War: the end of World War II … the White House … and the Kremlin.

V-E Day in Paris, May 8, 1945

The official name of the La Courneuve station is La Courneuve—8 mai 1945. The date refers to V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day: the end of the Second World War in Europe, when Germany’s act of military surrender was officially ratified in Berlin. While we don’t celebrate May 8 in the United States, it’s celebrated widely in Europe as a public holiday. Nothing really noteworthy in having a station named in honor of the end of the war, right? Towards the other end of line 7, however, two more stations drew my attention: Maison Blanche and Le Kremlin-Bicêtre. That got me thinking. “Maison Blanche” means “White House” and “Kremlin” … well, “Kremlin” means “Kremlin.” (I’ll admit, I had no idea what “Bicêtre” meant.) “How interesting!” I thought. At one end of line 7 we’ve got the end of World War II and at the other end, we’ve got the White House and the Kremlin! Hmm …

Continue reading Cold War on Line 7?

An American in the Métro

© Simon Law

There’s something quintessentially Parisian about the Paris Métro. From the art nouveau entrances to the winding corridors to the white-tiled walls and ceilings, there’s simply no confusing the Paris Métro with any other underground transit system in the world. But did you know how American a few of the Métro stations are? For most French, these stations are probably no more interesting than, say, Boucicaut or Bréguet Sabin, but for an American, they’re little souvenirs of home right here in Paris. Continue reading An American in the Métro