Medders, Kim: Our Time in France

In 1965, my dad finished up his Masters degree in Educational Administration at San Jose State and reapplied for a principal position with the military dependent school system in Europe. Dad had been offered some remote place in Turkey, but his long time friend, Roy Kilkenny, asked him to take a school of which he was superintendent located in Beaulieu Sur Mer, France. The small resort village of Beaulieu Sur Mer was located on the French Riviera between Nice and Monte Carlo. The school, Joshua Barney Elementary was a K through 8th grade and there to support the U. S. Navy dependents of the U.S.S. Springfield, which made its European homeport there.

We arrived at the airport in Nice really not knowing what to expect, but that was always half the fun of our traveling adventures. Mrs. Konopsis, a dependent wife who I later found out was going to be my 6th grade teacher, picked us up. I thought Mrs. Konopsis really traveled in style as she drove a beautiful new Lincoln Continental which navigated through the tiny French cars like a battleship around rowboats. This made an impression on me because I don’t think my dad had ever owned a new car up to this point in his life. Her husband was a Commander and she taught just to have something to do while the ship was out at sea. She drove us to the tiny base shore facility in Villefranche where we found out dad wouldn’t get paid for a while due to some major snafu, and also decent affordable housing was hard to find. This was a problem because of the previous year my dad didn’t work so he could finish his Master’s degree. This left the family pretty broke and we had to sell things like our car just to get to France and have some cash for traveling expenses. The Navy decided to make amends by putting us up in at the Hotel Victoria, a small hotel near the dock which catered to the British tourist trade.

We spent over a month at the Hotel Victoria which was great fun, at least for me. Mom and dad were counting just about every cent (or Franc), but we still had fun. Just about every day we would get out and explore the area and take in the French shops and stores. Every morning, we would start the day with a complimentary continental breakfast delivered to our rooms. The breakfast consisted of croissants or rolls with coffee for mom and dad, and hot chocolate for us kids. Mom had brought some card games entertained us by by teaching us how to play cards. We became experts at Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Knuckles, and finally graduated to Pinochle. For lunch, we ate something in our rooms usually consisting of French bread and cheese, sometimes sandwiches of peanut butter and jelly, which really doesn’t work well on French bread. Dinner was served outside family style at a long table on the veranda, with some of the other guests at the hotel. I’m sure the food that was served was gourmet, French and was excellent, but I couldn’t stand most of it. My 10 year old American palette was very underdeveloped.

Finally, dad found us an apartment in an old hotel calling itself Le Bristol Apartments in Beaulieu Sur Mer, near dad’s school. The apartment building was quite grand and must have been the height of luxury for a hotel at the turn of the century, but had seen better days. There was a casino attached to it that was burned out, perhaps from the war. Our apartment was at the end of a long, white marble hallway. Inside, it was huge, yet small for a family of 5 people. I say this because there were only two bedrooms to this furnished apartment. Mom and dad got a bedroom all to themselves, and my brother, sister and I shared a long, narrow parlor off of the room we called the living room. The rooms appeared spacious though due to the ceilings which were 20 feet high! The rooms were furnished with an odd collection of what would be antiques today. Even our beds were weird and old as they were more like reclining couches than beds. The apartment had a tiny kitchen, but a large bathroom with a bidet. I had never seen one of those before, and still have no idea as to their function. In my eleven year old mind, I thought it was a fancy flower planter! The water in the kitchen and bathroom was heated by small wall mounted heaters that had a pilot light. My sister Els was afraid of the pilot flame because she thought it was where the devil lived. Across the street in front of the apartment was a nice park and a pebbled beach. My brother, sister and I went to the beach and swam when weather permitted and played in the park. We did have a few friends, but curiously, I don’t remember playing with them much.

Dad also found us a car. One of the teachers sold him one of the worst cars we have ever owned. A crappy 1960 French Simca. This car was not the roomy VW bus we had come to rely on in our travels abroad, but it was cheap and we needed transportation. Dad paid her $200 for it and almost immediately, we had mechanical issues. I remember one time we were traveling to Germany for a conference in Berchtesgaden and the damn thing broke down in the Alps. We had to take a train to the conference and home while parts were located and it was repaired almost a month later. We had that car for two years, until we returned to Germany and dad found another VW bus.

One of the best things about living in Beaulieu Sur Mer was we were only a block from a beautiful Mediterranean view and a beach on the Riviera. Weather permitting; we kids would be there most of the time. One of my great regrets in life is the French were not doing the topless thing on beaches yet, but the bikinis were pretty skimpy for 1966 standards anyway. These beaches were hard to walk on because for some reason, the French covered them with rock. I guess it was low maintenance or something, but made for uncomfortable sun bathing. The water was great though, and it was fun to interact with the British tourists we found.

Our only other play area was a small park across the street from our apartment. It was a beautifully maintained park with crushed granite paths and a big sandbox in the middle. We quickly learned, however, that we were not allowed on the grass. Also, we learned, the sandbox wasn’t for kiddies either. It turned out to be a sanitary area for pets!

Mom’s life in France must have been weird, but she adapted well to the situation. In the years prior to my dad becoming a principal, working as a teacher was not a problem. Here, because of nepotism, she could not work full-time at Joshua Barney. Though some her time was relegated to the life of a housewife, she soon found other activities to fill her days. She got to substitute and volunteered to run the school library. Mom also proctored exams for the one high school student in the area doing correspondence classes. She had some high school French and did some tutoring for a French boy moving to the states and substituted when needed. When not at school, she home schooled my little brother as there wasn’t a Kindergarten.

Joshua Barney Elementary School was an interesting place. It also had been a hotel, although not as grand as Le Bristol. The Navy had renovated it into a school, with walls knocked out so the rooms were wide enough for classrooms. As I remember, some of the classes, (including mine) were combinations. Mine was a 5th-6th and there was a 7th-8th next door accessible by a sliding pocket door, we shared some activities with like French lessons. All the classrooms had beautiful marble fireplaces and French doors opening on to a balcony with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes, when we knew the ship was due back, the kids would keep an eye on the French doors, watching for their dads to come home. This two story building had other things left over from its hotel era. A marble stairway took you upstairs where the upper grades were, and it had a dumb waiter. There were rooms down in the basement which was used for storage and meetings, such as Boy Scouts and a Bible study. There was a large play yard out in front of the school that appeared to be the remains of a garden.

Arriving in France, we had great expectations of our new adventure. We were already accomplished world travelers having visited just about every free country in Europe, and a few in Africa. We had toured France in the late 1950’s and it was fine. I had seen some Hollywood depictions like, “American in Paris” and thought living in France would be fun. In 1966, however, the French were very hostile towards Americans.

The relations between the United States and France were strained at the time due to the Vietnam War and De Gaulle was posturing to leave NATO. There wasn’t a real base or any housing area. The American dependent families lived in rented apartments and homes. The French tended to be hostile towards us and made life difficult for the American dependent families living among them. Still, with broken French, we lived, worked, played and worshiped among them and tried to ignore some pretty blatant hostility. Some of them were pretty deliberate and in my opinion cowardly about showing it too. On many occasions I would be out playing, walking around or visiting some store and a French person would give me the “eye”, curse at me in French or make a point of telling me what they thought of America.

One time I visited a barber shop on my own. Dad gave me a couple of Franks and told me to go get a haircut because I was getting a little shaggy. The shop was crowed and I politely waited my turn and finally moved into the barber’s seat. He asked me how I wanted it cut. I usually had the sides cut short and left the top alone and tried to convey that in my broken French and hand gestures. The barber, after a moment, gesticulated and said, “Assez!” He picked up the shears and gave me a butch! I was bald for a long time because of that. Isn’t it incredible that these people would take out their aggression on a kid…like I had some control over the politics of my country?

The U.S.S. Springfield’s home port was Villefranche harbor. She was the flagship of the 6th Fleet in 1965 and 1966. Everyone looked forward to when it returned to port. As I said, there was not much in the way of shore facilities, so usually when the ship was in, the Captain would invite all the dependent kids on board. They’d pick us up at the docks and we’d all crowd on the liberty launches and ride them out to the ship. After climbing the ladder onto the ship, we would be seated on the mess deck on both sides of a canvas screen stretched across the room and the sailors would show us a couple a fairly new movies. For some reason, I liked to sit on the back side of the screen because everything turned out backwards! After the movies the sailors would feed us ice cream and cookies until we busted. I think one of the reasons I probably joined the Navy was because subconsciously I thought that’s what sailors did all the time!

When the ship was out of port, life settled into routine. Fortunately for me, my dad was home all the time. The other kids were a little jealous of that. Since the shore facilities were so small, we were allowed to use the USO in Nice when the ship was out of port. On Saturdays, they would show us kids a movie and feed us hot dogs and soda pop. The other movie experience was the Commander of the shore facility would selectively invite the higher ranking folks to his office every now and then for a viewing of a film. We would find a seat at one of the sailor’s desks while the Yeoman set up the 16 mm projector. We usually waited until the Commander made his grand entrance and then the movie started. Mostly they were British comedies. Other than that, you could go see a French film. There was a cinema near our apartment and I can remember seeing my first James Bond film there. “Goldfinger” was great, even though I didn’t understand the words!

As the school year ended, so did our life in France. Tensions were coming to a head, and dad was offered a bigger school in Holland. We loaded up the Simca with our clothes, tent and camp traveled through France and Belgium. Personally, I was glad to be headed to our new assignment which was an Air Force base with a B.X. base theater and Commissary! Soon after we left, France dropped out of NATO and De Gaulle kicked the Americans out of France. Joshua Barney and the flag ship moved to Gaeta, Italy. Except for the church, all things American disappeared from this area.

Several years ago, the movie, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” came out and I was treated to many scenes of places I had been in Beaulieu and Villefranche that were in the film. I have visited Beaulieu Sur Mer via Google and it appears to be much as I remember it, a beautiful French tourist village. The site of Joshua Barney School has been refurbished into a nice hotel called The Carlton and La Bristol Apartments has also been restored to a hotel again complete with casino. True, I hold some resentment towards the French for being so mean to Americans and me in particular during the time I lived there, but it was a memory I will treasure always.

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Photo of exterior of Joshua Barney Elementary School Mulitple photos of the Quality Hotel Carlton, Beaulieu, France

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