At this time of year I think a lot about my father-in-law and all the wonderful stories he told me during the times we spent together. He told me about his youth trying to get chewing gum from American soldiers during World War II when war was like a game to a kid, to stories as an adult and the horrors of civil war and how his homeland was torn apart.
My parents-in-law were French nationals from Northern Algeria, from a time when Algeria was a French colony. They have an enormous understanding of Arabic culture, and their family was very well respected – my father-in-law’s father was the Mayor of Oran and one of the last French people to leave.
Sadly in their beautiful and culturally rich homeland trouble was stirring. With civil unrest, war broke out, and French Nationals were ordered to leave as control of the country was given back to the Algerians.
It was a bloody war, but my father-in-law told me he had a guardian angel looking after him, and he always knew he would be safe. The story he liked to recount was the time he missed his train. When that particular train arrived at its destination, all on board had been slain.
Through all this, though, my parents-in-law managed to keep their spirits up and stayed in Algeria as long as they possibly could. My mother-in-law eventually left in the middle of the night with the car chock full with the most sentimental of things that they could fit inside. She tells of driving towards the ferry bound for France at the last minute, with a windshield that had been shot out by a volley of rifle fire.
My favourite story, though, involves champagne. Of course.
Apparently, one night, the fighting in the street was particularly bad. It had been building up all day. The old lady that lived above them had come down to see if they were alright. She was most upset, because she had just finished all her ironing, which was folded and piled neatly on a chair in her living room. Apparently a stray bullet from the street below had come through the open French doors and some how pierced through the chair and lodged into her ironing. Her sheets were ruined!
As the gun fire grew louder, my parents-in-law were not sure if they would live to see the morning. Deciding to take refuge in the corridor, as far away from the windows as possible, my father-in-law raced down to his cellar and grabbed a bottle of champagne.
‘If it was going to be our last night on earth’, he said in true Lili Bollinger style, ‘we might as well be drinking champagne!’
There was one particular brand of champagne that he was always very loyal to after that night. It is not a very well known brand, but to him it represented the fact that they lived through that night, and had the chance to start over back on ‘the Continent’.
I just can’t remember now what it was, and sadly I can’t ask him. It doesn’t matter. It was champagne, and his guardian angel made sure they got to finish the bottle.