Do you recognize the lady on the left in the picture above? Until last night, I didn’t either. I found out, while partying with the French on New Year’s Eve, that Charlotte de Turckheim is “kinda like a big deal” (in France.)
December has been a busy month for me. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, paid us a visit a few weeks ago. So did the French Chief of Staff, General Georgelin. They were followed by the International Security Assistance Force Commander, General McChrystal, and all of them had journalists in tow (creating more work for yours truly.)
Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, it was the French Defense Minister Herve Morin. Morin is the civilian head of all branches of the French military. (He is equivalent to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.) He had his entourage with him, including journalists and French celebrities. Both the French and U.S. forces gathered in a big tent to hear him speak. (Of course, it was all in French, so we Americans had no clue what he was saying.)
One of the French Celebrities was Charlotte de Turckheim. Although none of the Americans knew who she was, when she walked in the tent all the French guys went CRAZY, so we quickly learned she was a big deal in France. After Morin spoke, she put on a one-woman show that lasted for an hour and 15 minutes. Even though I couldn’t understand a word, I still think it was a great show. I could tell when something funny happened because the French troops laughed. Halfway through the show, my French counterpart (and friend) translated for me on the fly, so I was able to actually understand a little bit of it before it ended. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t speak French, but appreciated his kindness by helping me enjoy the evening.
After the show, I was invited to join my French Public Affairs counterparts and have dinner with the Defense Minister. They served escargot and salmon for hors d’ourves, followed by filet mignon. I ate a few of the snails to be polite, but filled up on the filet. (I still don’t really care for the snails, frogs legs and other “delicacies.”)
For most of the meal, I was just blankly smiling at everyone. Primarily because I was the only American in the room, and, of course, I wasn’t able to communicate with anyone. Occasionally, one of the journalists would ask me a question in English to be polite, but for the most part, I didn’t say much.
After a while, I kind of zoned out. I allowed the French chatter to surround me, but not affect me while I ate. I was able to keep a nice smile on the outside, but since I could not keep up with the conversation, I just began to daydream. It was a good strategy, for a minute or two … But then, while I was in the middle of having a blank smile on my face while taking a bite of my filet, the Defense Minister approached me from behind, speaking in English.
I didn’t respond to him at first, as I was still in my “I-don’t-understand-what-anyone-is-saying-so-I’ll-just-continue-to-smile” mode. But my friend grabbed my attention to let me know that the Minister was speaking to me. I immediately stood and shook his hand, but my mouth and brain were not as fast.
My first few words were jumbled, as I had just finished swallowing a bit of food while abruptly cutting short whatever daydream I was in. I regained my composure as quickly as I could and told him about our team and how we work with the French. I still had my job 24 hours later, so I assume I didn’t cause an international incident.
After dinner, we returned to the tent, where the French DJs (yes, DJs) were bumping techno music through a laptop, with a video display on a big screen. Of course, they had a countdown party, with Defense Minister Morin, Charlotte de Turckheim, and lots of troops all dancing and eating. I think the party was more fun for the French, who have no restrictions on drinking alcohol while deployed. (US servicemembers are forbidden to drink during their deployment.)
We counted in the new year, and Charlotte let me pose for a photo with her. Afterward, I walked back to my tent, with a full moon lighting the way. I took a pic of the last full moon of 2009 before going to bed.
The next morning (today,) I woke to a good ol’-fashioned gut-bustin’ breakfast. A kind soul had cooked some blueberry pancakes, turkey sausage, and scrambled egg casserole and left it out in one of the American tents for everyone to share. It was my first meal of 2010, and it was great!
After breakfast, I went into the public computer room so I could Skype with Muna and Taj as they counted in the new year. (Afghanistan is 9 hours ahead of them.) I was able to see Taj, fighting to stay awake long enough to see the ball drop on TV. (They were watching coverage of the New York celebration at Times Square.) I asked Taj to count down the final seconds out loud, and I counted with him via Skype, several thousand miles away.
Looking back on 2009, I realize that I’ve spent nine out of the last 12 months of 2009 away from my family.
Here’s to hoping that 2010 isn’t the same.