My son yelled, “Dad, the French people are here,” as he dribbled a basketball in our driveway.
That’s not exactly how I imagined our first impression after months of planning and hard work.
I'd long been rehearsing what I’d say, and I'd even painted my front door and windows in preparation. Both projects I’d been meaning to do since moving into our house. I wanted everything just right.
I also landscaped my yard like a one-man landscaping company. Each bush was freshly trimmed, every blade of grass manicured. I was sporting a dark farmer's tan for my efforts.
And on Tuesday, our special guests — the Mayor of Saint-Avold France, Rene Steiner; Deputy Mayor Raymonde Schweitzer; their historian Pascal Flaus; and their chauffeur for the day, Kris Johnson, president of the Fayetteville Saint Avold Friendship Alliance (FSAFA) — had just arrived.
The French dignitaries are guests of the city of Fayetteville, organized and hosted by FSAFA.
They are at our house to experience an American backyard BBQ of hamburgers and hot dogs.
The backyard event was part of a week-long itinerary for our guests from Fayetteville’s sister city. They had traveled over 4,200 miles from Saint-Avold for the 30th anniversary of our sister city relationship. It was the first time Mayor Steiner has visited America, and the first official visit here of the city’s delegation.
Saint-Avold is home to the Lorraine Cemetery, the final resting place of 10,481 of our U.S. soldiers killed in action in World War II. Twenty-two of those soldiers were from North Carolina, and one — Private First Class William Shaw — was from Fayetteville. Lorraine Cemetery is actually U.S. soil and serves as the largest American military cemetery in all of Europe.
Mayor Steiner and the French citizens are still very grateful for the soldiers' sacrifices and continue to honor and keep their remembrance. FSAFA is Fayetteville’s organization founded by the late Martha Duell, and created to honor our service members and promote and foster a relationship between the Fayetteville and Saint-Avold.
I was prepping the charcoal grill when Mayor Steiner pulled into the driveway. I quickly wiped my hands on my cooking apron and called Karen, my wife, over.
Karen was born in Vicenza, Italy, and in addition to Italian, she’s fluent in French and Spanish. She’s taught French in public school for the last 20 years and been instrumental in translating and communicating with the mayor, who speaks little English.
The moment had arrived.
“We are honored you are here, and our house is your house. Please make yourself at home.”
Karen translated my words and Steiner put his hand over his heart.
They felt it. We meant it too.
It was an honor to have them in Fayetteville, and in our home.
Mayor Steiner is very humble, unassuming and gentle. His entourage Schweitzer and Flaus were well. They were very thankful and presented gifts to Karen and me — including two beautiful Saint-Avold mugs. One has a better chance of wrestling a salmon from a bear’s mouth than prying those treasures from me. They’ve already found places of honor in my home.
Our guests are dressed for a backyard BBQ, much different from the previous night’s suits and French-themed sash Steiner wore when he received the keys to the city from Mayor Mitch Colvin. The keys are Fayetteville’s highest honor.
Both Karen and I serve on the FSAFA board, but Karen joined the committee tasked with planning the dignitaries' week-long events. I won’t forget when she came home one night from a meeting and informed me we'd host our guests.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“They’re coming here, and probably the city council too. You don’t mind cooking, do you?
“What? What'd you just say?”
I thought I misheard. It sounded like my wife just said the Mayor of Saint-Avold, France, and some of the Fayetteville council were coming to our house and I was going to cook for them.
“They requested you play your fiddle,” she said. “I told ‘em you could.”
I’m sure I wore a thousand-yard stare while I processed what she just said.
I love to cook and I could pull that off, but I wasn’t about to play my fiddle. Anytime I play in front of people I get nervous and fold like a beach chair. Playing carols for my family at Christmas time is usually disastrous. Our guests specifically requested a fiddle and wanted to hear bluegrass rather than a classical violin.
So I picked up the bat phone and called bluegrass extraordinaire Jerome Hawks of Fayetteville. Hawks invited John and Caroline Parsons, also of Fayetteville, and the trio set up in our backyard and played the most beautiful bluegrass for our French friends.
The evening’s weather was perfect as summer was giving way to fall. An occasional leaf trickled down as we dined on burgers, hot dogs, slaw, beans and chips. There was cake and key lime pie, and we shared a libation or two.
Our special guest felt the love and was very appreciative. They left with their bellies and hearts full. Before he left, Mayor Steiner grabbed me and gave me a big hug.
“Thank you! Thank you, thank you,” he said.