I’ve always had a thing for Napoleon Bonaparte. After all, he was a pretty amazing guy. In addition to his military exploits, he oversaw the centralization of the French government, established the Bank of France, got the French people to accept the metric system (something I doubt even Barack Obama could do in the United States), reformed the law (the Napoleonic Code still forms the basis of legal process in a quarter of the world), and instituted a tax code and road and sewer systems. He was passionate about wife Josephine, even if he had to divorce her in order to produce an heir, and he was also pretty cute, if the paintings hanging on the walls of the Louvre are anything to go by. He was not perfect, of course. Bonaparte re-established slavery in the French colonies, had mistresses, and was responsible for the deaths of many men, but he has played an undeniable role in the formation of France.
My daughter Lilia, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair, and I were staying at a hotel was near Les Invalides where Napoleon was now entombed, I thought it would be a waste not to visit this site. I wasn’t sure, however, if Lilia would be interested or if she even had any idea of who he was.
“Have you ever heard of Napoleon?” I’d asked her back in Japan.
“Yes!” she said. She’d read about him, or maybe seen something about him on TV.
Oh, good. I’d raided my son’s bookcase and came up with another book – a book about French history in manga, which I encouraged her to review. She’d brought it along in her suitcase.
On our second morning in Paris, Lilia wrote a postcard to her former homeroom teacher, Miss Endo. We had a breakfast of pastries from the Pain en Ville bakery next door, mangoes and oranges, coffee, and milk. And then we set off for a morning devoted to Napoleon.
I’d ascertained from our taxi ride the day before that Les Invalides was within walking distance. I wanted to walk as much as possible to make up for the buttery almond croissant I’d eaten, and also to save money.
I pushed Lilia’s wheelchair past the military academy, past a homeless guy camped out on the corner, past a young woman with pink hair, till we finally came to the entrance of the Military Museum.
We’d gotten there early and we didn’t have to wait in line for tickets, so we were the first ones inside. A close-cropped guard let us in through a special entrance.
We took a look at dolls dressed in military attire through the ages.
“How could you ride a horse in that?” I wondered aloud to Lilia, while pointing to a tin-man costume with a slit for the eyes. There were other figures dressed in chain mail, or in helmets adorned with lavish plumes, or in tunics with baggy red trousers. Lilia lingered before each of the glass cases. I hurried her along. There was so little time! And so much to see!
The guard directed us onto the elevator. We got off at the first floor where there was an extensive exhibit devoted to World War II, including a video showing Japanese kamikaze pilots downing ceremonial cups of sake before they flew off to their destruction.
Lilia was familiar with WWII. As a family, we’d visited the Peace Museum in Hiroshima where she’d seen photos of victims of the atomic bomb dropped by Americans. Lilia had later done a school presentation on the bombing, and had won a prize for her painting of the Peace Dome. We’d also visited Himeyuri-kan in Okinawa, a museum devoted to the student nurses who’d died when American soldiers gassed the cave-turned-hospital where they were hiding. On our last family trip to my home country, the United States, we’d stopped off in Washington D.C. where we saw the statue commemorating the American victory at Iwojima, as well as the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I’d hurried Lilia past the exhibit about the Nazi’s systematic execution of the disabled.
Lilia knew about modern wars, too. Recently she’d started paying attention to TV news reports so she knew something about the French currently fighting in Mali. Two months ago, nine Japanese oil workers were taken hostage and killed by al Quaeda supporters at the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. The terrorists were reportedly acting in response to French military actions in Mali. The incident was all over Japanese TV for a couple of weeks, leading my Japanese husband to worry about our safety in Paris, but I’d already booked our hotel and paid for our plane tickets. Closer to home, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was threatening to send a missile to South Korea or Japan or maybe the United States. That guy was on TV all the time, too.
Now, looking over the exhibits of weapons and military maps and uniforms, I tried to explain about how various countries were aligned during World War II. “Japan and Germany were friends,” I signed, “and France and America were allied. But now all of the countries are friends.” Simple, I know, but it was about all I could manage on the spot.
Still, the evidence of war made her sad.
We moved slowly, from glass case to glass case.
“Here is the uniform the French soldiers wore in Africa,” I explained. Then, later, “Here is the printing press that the French people who didn’t like the Germans used to make secret newspapers.”
The room was dark and there were no other visitors. At one point, the guy with short hair who’d us in, came to check up on us and told us how to get to the third floor. Then he disappeared again, leaving us alone.
When we reached the end, I tried to remember how to get to the elevator he’d mentioned. Another guard appeared and offered to lead us.
“She wants to see Napoleon’s clothes,” I said, feeling a little guilty. We were about to turn our backs to the horrors of war in order to observe fashion. How frivolous we were!
“Ah, les vetements de Napoleon,” the man nodded. “Come with me.”
He asked where we were from. After I’d explained that I was an American married to a Japanese man, living in Japan, he said, “C’est bon ca!” That’s good! He then told me about his own multicultural family. He himself was from Cote d’Ivoire. His daughter had married a Dutch national and lived in the Netherlands, and another family member had married a Vietnamese. We agreed that marriage between people of different cultures led to international understanding. It was very, very good!
In fact, though I often told my children that my marriage to their father was proof of peace between our nations, they were not fully convinced. My husband and I didn’t always get along, and I thought that many of our arguments were a result of cultural differences. I was from the Don’t-Sweat-the-Small-Stuff School of Life, while he was into micro-management. My husband thought that sleeping in on a Saturday was a mark of sloth, and he made us get up for breakfast even when we didn’t have school or work. I, on the other hand, thought our kids were entitled to a restful weekend. I thought they deserved a leisurely summer vacation, too, but he disagreed and drew up detailed schedules for completing homework. He thought that serving cold cereal for breakfast was tantamount to neglect, and recently he’d declared that he didn’t like bread or coffee or the sweet desserts I baked for our family. Also, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa made him angry. And he was upset about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still.
When we got off the elevator, the guard who’d first greeted us looked surprised. “Are you finished?” he asked.
Was it my imagination, or did he seem disappointed? After all, we were the only visitors so far, and we hadn’t even gone through the whole museum. He was obviously a member of the French military. I felt the need to apologize for our lack of interest.
“Elle est devenue triste,” I said, using Lilia as an excuse. And she was sad. Fighting between countries – or her parents – made her miserable. “She wants to see Napoleon’s things.”
We said “merci” and “au revoir” and moved on to another wing of les Invalides. Here, we didn’t need help with the elevator. We went up with a group of gray-haired American men, whom I assumed were veterans. Lilia and I looked at the cases of beautiful swords with ornate hilts. One was in the form of a rooster’s head. Others were in intricate filigree.
We spent a meditative moment in front of Napoleon’s stuffed horse, which was nearly bursting at the seams. Finally, after going through the exhibits of Napoleon’s military campaigns in Europe and North Africa, including his defeat at Waterloo, we moved on to the dome which housed his tomb.
I pushed Lilia in a circle, trying to find the wheelchair accessible entrance. It had to be here somewhere. Most of the tourists were gathered here. Obviously, this was the most popular attraction, and there had to be an easy way inside. I decided to go ask for directions at the information desk.
The young man there said, “Je suis desolee. That is the only place here that doesn’t have a ramp.”
I thought I’d better ask if was okay for Lilia to go in anyway. I could help her up the stairs on my own.
The guy showed me his right elbow, which was in a cast. “I can’t help you,” he said.
“That’s okay. I can do it.”
He shrugged in typical French fashion. “Do what you like.”
We went back outside. There was no railing, but from previous experience, I knew that Lilia could make it up the ten or so steps with me supporting her from behind. I told her to put the brakes on her wheelchair, unbuckle her seat belt, and stand up.
She had just taken one step when a woman offered to carry the wheelchair. I hesitated for a moment. In Japan, I had become conditioned to refuse assistance. But I needed help! And she wanted to help! Helping us might even make her feel happy!
“Yes, please,” I said.
Then, two middle-eastern men – Lebanese? – grabbed onto Lilia’s arms and helped her up the steps.
“Merci beaucoup!” I said, after she was once again settled in her wheelchair. I thought of all the times in Japan that we’d been ignored. Sometimes people didn’t offer to help because it created a never-ending chain of obligation. They thought they were doing us a favor by letting us struggle on our own. I knew if my husband had been with us he would have been ashamed to accept these offers of help. He would have insisted on doing everything himself in order to avoid being a burden.
Inside the dome, it was cold. Lilia wheeled herself to the center, where there was a large hole. Down at the bottom, was Napoleon’s tomb – a dark wooden casket, which contained coffins within coffins (six in all). Lilia grabbed onto the railing and took a photo.
“He’s really in there!” she signed, awed.
“Yes!” I confirmed.
I pointed out Empress Josephine’s tomb, which was off to the side.
Lilia took the manga French history book out of her backpack and pointed to the picture of Josephine.
“Yes, it’s her,” I said. Once again, I was surprised by how much she actually knew, how much she’d picked up on her own.
I sat down on a bench for awhile, observing the visitors from around the world. Napoleon Bonaparte was a general, a war hero, who had overseen the killing of thousands, yes, but who had also brought people together.
When we were ready to leave, I thought that it would be easiest to take Lilia-in-her-wheelchair down the steps backward. It would be a bit bumpy, but I could do it on my own.
Without saying a word, a blond man – Swedish? Dutch? – picked up one side of
Lilia’s wheelchair and helped me carry her down the stairs.
“Merci!” I called after him. “Thank you!”
There were angels everywhere.