I don’t know much about my family history beyond my grandparents. I don’t even know much about that, it’s never really been a thing. But sometimes, at family gatherings, holidays, etc. stories get shared.
As some of you know, I am half French. My dad is German, my mom is French. I’ve been raised bilingually, spent many school holidays in France, up to four weeks at a time.
There’s more to it, though. My grandpa on my mom’s side used to be German. I knew he was from Husum, northern Germany, but that’s it. I never really asked, he was one of those impressive and a bit scary but also loving grandfather of 26 grandchildren1 in his lifetime. He wasn’t a huge person, his built was average, but his voice, demeanor and strictness scared most of us grandkids. He did have a soft spot in his heart for the German ones2, though.
He died a quiet death in his bed in 1997. I can’t remember if it was then or a few years later when my dad told me the story pépé ((French, affectionate word for grandfather)) had told him one night out on the porch, sharing a few beers.
Grandpa Rudolph was in the military, a stoker/machinist on a German submarine. Well, of course, he was born in one of the northern-most cities in Germany. I don’t know anything about that time in his life, except that the submarine was captured in Lorient, France, when the harbor was taken by the English. He ended up being a prisoner of war, tried to escape three times.
His first two attempts ended up with him being caught in a rowboat on the atlantic, and brought back into camp. On his third attempt he actually got all the way home, but the Mayor – who was a friend of the family, but still – had to send him back because he couldn’t produce any discharge papers from his prisonership. So he got taken back to France. That when he said “Fuck it”, and after being released he just stayed in France. By that time he must’ve gotten a fair command of at least French and English, so he made do with being a day-laborer.
At one point he ended up staying with a peasant for a while, essentially being a farmhand. The guy took a liking to him and in the end tried to marry his daughter off to him, so he’d have someone to pass on the farm. Pépé apparently didn’t like what he’d told my dad was one monster of a woman and fled during one night.
He later married my grandmother Gisèle and did a lot of different jobs from building to being a trucker, which got him to drive from Spain to Russia, from Sweden to Italy and pick up all sorts of languages. My mom apparently got some of the restlessness from him and spent time as an au-pair in London and Berlin, as a late teenager. Then she ended up spending some time in a tiny village in the Moselle valley, working as a waitress in the restaurant/bar my dad and the guys from the orchestra frequented at the time. He was 28ish, she was about 21. He asked her out, she went along to one of the orchestra gigs at a wine festival and nearly got scared off by the guys from the neighboring village telling her: “What? YOU WENT OUT WITH ONE OF THEM?”
In the end all went well, and when my dad told his mom that a) he was gonna be a dad and b) they were gonna get married anyway, she first freaked out and went: “I knew it! It was bound to happen, you always laid with her back in your room! I’m not gonna tell your grandma, that’s up to you.”
To which my dad replied: “FINE!” and went to his grandma, said: “Granny, I’m gonna be a dad!”
My great-grandma’s reply was classic: “Oh. Good. But you know, at your age this didn’t have to happen to you!”3.
My parents married in June 1981. I was born in October that year.