How did a family from Fayetteville, Georgia become un petit peu Français? It all started in 1974 when my dad left his job at Eastern Airlines in Charlotte, N.C. to work for SITA in Atlanta, GA to work on the cutting edge telecommunications technology of his time.
SITA’s offices were like the United Nations of telecommunications. The network control center was filled with talent from France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, China, Australia and Brazil. Imagine what the water-cooler conversation might have been like. I had heard my dad discuss everything from world politics, Tai Chi, what kind of truffles one could dig up in their backyard, as well as recipes for cornbread with his friends. Whatever they were discussing, I feel like it was directly contributing to world peace.
My mother diligently hosted dinners for many of my dad’s bosses. These meals leaned towards social togetherness verses stuffy work affairs. My brother and I were always included. Our favorite guest hands down was Claude Avignon. As you can guess, Claude was French and from, of course, Avignon. If I had to give you a visual of his vibe, it would be “Executive 1960s Serge Gainsbourg” or “French James Bond”. Debonair with savoir faire, Claude was a truly gifted master of social situations. He could be a welcome guest of the Royal Family in Monaco as well as the Loving family in Fayetteville. My parents said he fit in like an old shoe everywhere he went. In addition to all his sophistication and pedigree, he was incredibly good natured and downright lovable.
One afternoon as my brother and I unloaded off the school bus, my mom called us to her van, “Get in! I’ve got to go get some steaks. Claude Avignon is coming for dinner!” The magic of Claude began before he even arrived. My mother started preparing and my brother and I assisted, following her every request. Our tablescape for the evening was curated with my parents finest things: Wedgwood china in a dark blue Florentine pattern, F.W. Smith Fiddle and Thread candlestick holders and silverware, and Tiffin-Francsican crystal glasses. The roses were cut straight from my father’s rose garden and the linens were handmade by my mother. The menu of steak, baked potato, and vegetables were of course grown and gathered from our backyard garden. To earn his meal, Claude’s second purpose that night was to help my dad fix his mid-life crisis purchase, a navy blue Fiat 124 Spider with a khaki convertible top. Claude was a real Jacques of all trades. He had raced in Formula 1 and knew about cars. Not a single mechanic in the Atlanta area had been able to figure out what was wrong with the Fiat. Claude had pinpointed the carburetor after only one ride around the block. My brother and I wanted to be a part of the action, we inched as close to the working men as we could get away with. As Claude reached his wrench towards the engine, he suddenly jerked his hand back and shouted in pain, “Good Dammit” (his French pronunciation for god dammit) Thankfully, It wasn’t serious – just a minor burn. Claude recovered quickly and had the carburetor fixed in no time. As the dynamic duo hit the road for another test drive, my brother and I were left behind in laughter repeating Good Dammit over and over again, placing it forever in our lexicon.
When they returned, dinner was served. Claude complimented my mother on the atmosphere. “Wanda, everything looks magnificent.” He began to tell us about the success of his repairs, “We got up to 120 miles per hour down County Line Road without the least bit of trouble!” I could tell that my dad wished Claude hadn’t shared that particular detail. My mother’s eyes opened wide. “Claude!” You are lucky the police didn’t catch you and throw your French derriere in jail.” “Wanda, Wanda, … don’t worry. I just act like I don’t speak English and it works every time.” Claude waved away her concerns in his confident French accented English. The conversation segued to the children. Claude was not interested in perfunctory chit chat, he would engage us about our interests, even inspire us with a story he had from the genre of whatever we were pursuing at the time. Kids know when adults see them as real people. Claude had kids of his own, and split his time between Atlanta and Paris. I imagined he missed his own family, and that is why he enjoyed his evenings at our house so much. Claude always stayed long into the night when he visited.
Inevitably at some point in the night, Claude would wax poetic about French gastronomy. In Claude’s defense, it is undisputed that French Gastronomy is superior to literally every other type of Gastronomy. We would listen to him explain formal French place settings and how my dad needed to buy my mother more stemware so we could have different wines with each course. Despite these cultural standards, he thoroughly enjoyed our authentic southern hospitality. Vive la difference!
Not long after this last dinner, Claude moved back to France. My dad lost touch with him a bit and we were all shocked to learn that he had passed away suddenly. I was so sad and found it hard to believe that such an unstoppable force of nature could die so young. My dad’s international friendships with Claude and many others opened our world. In our adult lives, my brother and I both ended up living in France for a period of time. My brother got a masters at the Sorbonne and is fluent in French along with both of his children. I learned to speak French a bit while living in Nice. During my time in France, I worked at SITA and made many international friendships of my very own. My daughter doesn’t speak French, but she has been to France many times and has eaten in some of the finest French restaurants in Paris, La Cote d’ Azur and New York City. She will tell you to your face that there is an ice cream stand in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris that will change your life. She is 10.