I live in an apartment in Dijon, France that is centrally located between the train station and the original Maille mustard shop where tourists come to sample the sinus-clearing condiments that the town is famous for.Our home is situated off a pleasant side street that remains quiet even during the bustling hours of the week.We have a view out of our third-floor window onto the gothic Saint-Benigne cathedral with the gold, red and green roof tiles traditional to the Burgundy region.

In the foreground of the cathedral, stands a slightly newer stone building.It’s a residence like ours, but one that also houses the offices of a psychotherapist and a dentist, both on the ground floor.Its north side is covered in lush green ivy.

This building was also, once, the headquarters of the Gestapo.

The first time my wife’s grandfather came to visit us after we’d moved in, he handed Haribo candies to his two great-granddaughters and then glanced out of the living room window.

Ça porte malheur, cet immeuble,” he intoned in a lower voice.The building carried woe or bad luck, as he said.

The rest of the family rolled their eyes.They’d heard the war stories before.They also knew that anyone asking questions about it, like I usually did, opened his storytelling floodgates.

He told of passing by the building and hearing screams, of knowing people who were dragged in never to come out and how he and his friends, then in their mid-teens, would dare one another to throw rocks at the place.

He described the daily life of the city.He talked of bread lines where people stood for hours with ration tickets that were useless if the supply ran out.He talked of the suspicion that grew among the people as neighbors ratted out one another for conspiring.

In one story, he and his friend snuck out after the imposed nighttime curfew to steal vegetables from gardens just outside the city limits.They slipped by the guards unnoticed, but on the way back with their shirttails wrapped around unearthed carrots and potatoes, they were spotted.The guard approached them, shook the vegetables out of their shirts and told them to go home immediately or else be thrown in jail.They escaped back to town and never tried to again.On this night and in multiple ways for these four long years, he was one of the very lucky ones.

My wife and her family told their Papi to stop bothering Nat.“First, the Americans had to rescue us and now we have to bore them with these old stories,” my father-in-law laughed, a joke which I never knew exactly how to respond to.

I explained that all this is fascinating.I offered my side and said that my father’s father fought in the Pacific during the War, which they seemed equally astonished by, as if I’d told them my grandpa was Gary Cooper.The conversation changed to lighter topics and tinier, contemporary struggles of place, community and family.

Once everybody left, I went to my window again.The sun shone down onto the roof of the building before us.People walked casually in and out.

And I stared, cleaved in two by how comfortable and painless our lives in this year presently are.

I recently changed dentists and decided to make an appointment with the man across the street.I chose it out of convenience, always finding annual checkups a nuisance and wanting them over with quickly.

I arrived on time, first thing in morning.The building that houses the office is tall for the city of Dijon, at seven stories.That day, it cast a long shadow over the courtyard before its entrance.After stepping inside, I noticed the interior stone walls and wooden spiral staircase that probably hadn’t been replaced since the original structure was built.The intercom, with its small copper buttons, had the air of turn-of-the-century belle époque.All of it had survived vile times.

Official records of what happened in this building from August 1940 to September 1944 were burned when the Gestapo left the city as Nazi retreat began.All that remains are scattered first-hand accounts, which, from certain survivors, is nearly unbearable to read.They recount enduring some of the lowest depths of a human’s capacity for cruelty and sadism toward its own kind.

But there is no current historical reminder of this building’s past save for an engraved plaque “In Memory” on the courtyard wall.

After signing in with the receptionist, I was shown to the waiting room.The empty room featured a handful of folding chairs and an end-table of tattered magazines.The white walls held no pictures and no decoration.The only light came from the high window and a lamp posed on the floor, as though it had just been brought in.

I’ve never believed that a dwelling can be physically haunted by the presence of past inhabitants.Though on this morning, I was testing the thin limit of that belief.I realized I’d probably made a mistake in coming here.What was I thinking?I was about to lie back in a chair and let someone jam tools in my mouth in a building once inhabited by Nazis interrogators.Worse, I was dishonoring the fragile memory here.I was more or less ignoring the atrocities on this site.I restrained my imagination from alighting on ideas of what this very waiting room might have once been used for.

Then, the dentist called my name.

Bonjour,” he smiled at me, his blue mask pulled down around his neck.He apologized for the wait and explained they were a little disorganized today.

He had a white head of hair and reddish face and a bear-like build.His voice was low and soothing.He started talking to me about sealant for cracks in the teeth, which can be a common source of cavities.He was slightly obsessed with sealant, in fact.He asked me where I was from and for the rest of the appointment tested his English by pointing to objects around the room.I tried to respond correctly through the tube sucking drool out of my mouth.“A dwill, yah iss a dwill.”

I had planned, at some point, to ask about the history of the building.He must have been in his mid-sixties, born perhaps during the occupation.He must have stories himself.As with my wife’s grandfather, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.There’d be so many questions.

But here we were having a lovely time.I hesitated on how to introduce the subject out of nowhere until I finally understood that mentioning Nazis and one the most excruciating periods of the country’s recent history would be marginally inappropriate at best and hideously offensive at worst.Who was I, this kid who’d waited too long for a dental exam brought into the world on faraway, unintruded soil during prosperous peacetime years?

So instead, I asked him about the fluoride treatment he’d be giving me.He dabbed the gel on my teeth and gums.I kept my mouth shut.

“Make sure you don’t drink juice or wine for the next three hours or anything that might stain your teeth” he paused.“That means, you have to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with champagne.”

He winked down at me.

On the 8th of May, France observes VE Day, Victory in Europe, or as it is known here Victoire 1945.This year it falls on a Sunday, meaning no day off work, the main source of discussion this year.

It also follows the news at the beginning of the week that the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, had been shot dead by American Navy Seals, in an operation approved and overseen by President Barack Obama.The calendar date when this news spread throughout the world matches the date precisely, 66 years ago, that the announcement was made of Adolf Hitler’s death.

The two events in history are not the same, though I can’t see them as completely antithetical either.

The pain of Nazis occupation is still felt on this soil; it lingers through generations, in the bruised memory of those who lived through it and in the subconscious of the country whose arc of history it shaped.There are times I think the demons are still being wrestled with.

There are other times where everyone has moved on.

I’d heard the news about bin Laden’s death just before my appointment.But my mind was busy with older history.Walking out of the dentist’s office, I hurried back home to check the humming feeds on that morning’s news.Relief popped from everywhere, along with talk of victory.

I opened my window to let in the warming air.I looked across the street with the taste of fluoride in my mouth.I thought of doing something to celebrate.Maybe it was too early for champagne.

A real triumph resounds over decades.You hear it as a slow roar of hope in the unassuming coexistence of others, in a man practicing proper dental care on a one-time site of tragedy and in Americans analyzing the busted fragments of the last ten years.  We are here, and elsewhere, in all the silent buildings still left standing.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

41 responses to “Victory Right Beside Me”

  1. pixy says:

    it’s never too early for champagne. but i imagine that the flavor mixed with the fresh flouride might not be the most appetizing.

    • Yes, there’s always a good excuse for champagne. I was just going to drink to no cavities, but then a terrorist goes and kicks it. Still, we’d better wait until the new taste in our mouths wears off.

  2. Tawni Freeland says:

    My great-grandfather fought in the Pacific during the War too. He was a kind man who wrote poetry. I named my son after him.

    You give such perspective to a trip to the dentist with this excellent piece. I mentally do this for myself when I go. I can’t stand anything scraping my teeth, and the drills terrorize me, so every time I’m scheduled for a dental appointment, I play the “What would be worse than this?” game in my head to be less of a raging wuss about it. It sounds a bit morbid, but comparing getting a filling to something more grisly helps me remember that it’s ultimately not that big of a deal. The last time I had a filling replaced (which involved shots with long needles into my gums and tooth drilling), I was a few days away from major abdominal surgery. I noticed that with the surgery looming ghoulishly a few days ahead, the dental work seemed like no big deal by comparison. Perspective!

    My point: there’s always something worse. We live very easy, cushy lives, and sometimes we need to stop and take a moment to appreciate our good fortune. So I really enjoyed reading this eloquent, thoughtful reminder of how great we’ve got it. I also think your final sentence is beautiful and perfect.

    • Yes, stopping for a little perspective is vital, yet before long I’m back to complaining about traffic jams or routine checkups like it’s the end of the world. I’ll learn one of these days.

      Thanks for such a kind comment, Tawni.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Fascinating story, Nat. I often lose sight of the fact that the Nazi occupation wasn’t all that long ago. Out of sight, out of mind, sadly. One can see how the mindset of the WWII generation can differ so fundamentally from more present day attitudes.

    What a curious comment from the dentist about UBL. Do you think he was being sincere or do you think he was assuming that as an American, you would appreciate his comment?

    I remember working in Denmark not long after 9/11 and the attitudes of the Danish were overwhelmingly supportive towards me. There was a depth to their sincerity that I’ll never forget.

    Only three years later, I found myself in a bar in Iceland where I was refused service because the bartender suspected I was American. It was only after I showed her my EU passport that she smiled and asked what I wanted to drink. I told her to go fuck herself and I left.

    Anyway, it is indeed amazing how quickly attitudes can shift. Hope you didn’t stain your teeth with too much wine.

    Really nice read, Nat.

    • Thanks, Joe. This war wasn’t really that long ago at all and from here somehow it seems all the more recent. WWII has been, at this point, revisited and reféted in movies, books and commemorations so thoroughly as to make it feel like ancient history, I think.

      It’s interesting your encounters in Europe as an American. In the past week, random people in bakeries, at my girls’ school and at the dentist have all excitedly mentioned the Bin Laden news. Part of it is simple association when happening upon an American and a chance to make interesting, topical small talk. Some of it however is genuine, sincere sense of shared hope or victory (for lack of better words). Sometimes the French are pulling for us more than we think. I think my dentist was probably a little bit of both.

      However, that being said, a lot of people over here go on to explain their belief that the CIA faked the death. Conspiracy theories and general suspicion often go unchecked in these parts, a tendency toward suspicion that I see sometimes as coming from the trust destroyed among the population during the occupation years.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    I love your work, Nat.
    You have such a beautiful, gentle style. There is so much thought in your writing. It feels like your mind is always working over the images you see and the situations you encounter and trying to make sense of things – and you do it in such a lovely way.

    “And I stared, cleaved in two by how comfortable and painless our lives in this year presently are.”

    Deep sigh here. How lucky we are.
    How lucky we are.

    And how lucky we are here at TNB to have your words.

    • Well, you’re always a dear to say so, Zara. I do attempt to make sense of things, but whether I actually arrive at anything might be another question.

      In any case, thanks for being such a delightful reader to share these words with.

  5. Mary Richert says:

    Nat, I really appreciate the context you put things in with this piece. You created a great sense of human unity through all our shared experiences.

  6. Nat, the dentist is bad enough. The legacy in that building? I can’t believe you didn’t bolt from the chair. I would have been a whisper, I can guarantee you that. I especially identified with the part where your wife’s grandfather told the joke about the American’s coming in for the rescue and you didn’t know what to say in response. That was such a small, quiet, but lovely truth. Nice work, I’ve really enjoyed your pieces lately.

    • Thanks, Robin. I’m not sure how I didn’t bolt either, especially when I learn more details about the history of the building. And, yes, since living over here, I’ve had numerous instances of French people telling me that the Americans rescued us during the war. I’m never entirely sure if there’s gratitude, resentment, bitterness, kidding around or stating of fact inserted into the comment. I tend to just smile politely and ask more questions.

  7. In Germany a lot of Nazi buildings are still standing because they couldn’t afford to tear them down just because of what they used to be. Berlin and most of Nuermburg were rebuilt because there was too much damage, but Munich was too far south to effectively bomb so a lot of the old buildings were left untouched.

    The Gestapo headquarters in Munich are just an office block now. Most of the time they used the buildings for ironic purposes that would have pissed off the Nazis. The museum for ‘degenerate art’ was turned into a museum celebrating what we would know as modern art.

    Our generation have to keep asking the older the generation about what happened… to hear theit stories. Otherwise we’ll forget and we’ll go down a path where we take freedom, fast food and facebook for granted in blissful ignorance.

    The deaths of Bin Laden and Hitler are incomparable. Both were evil men, but Hitler’s death was a definitive end to a reign of evil and terror. It was when the sun began to rise after the darkest hour of the 20th century. It was victory.

    For one thing not everyone is for the war on terror like everyone was against the Nazis. For another Bin Laden hasn’t orchestrated anything high profile in almost a decade. He’s just a symbol. There are undoubtedly hundreds like him, and hundreds more ready to take their places. His death doesn’t extinguish the flames of terror, it will fuel it.

    • Yes, this is an important clarification you highlight. Bin Laden and Hitler are not comparable and, I’m perhaps too quick to assume that it’s obvious that their wars, their impact, the result of their respective deaths and their place in history are all vastly different. They should not be confounded as the same entities.

      I bring them together here, first on the coincidence of the date of their deaths, and then on the coincidence as I personally wrestle with the aftermath of one intolerant, megalomaniacal enemy and the recent demise of another. What happens next, where victory lies this time, I don’t know.

      There’s that line in the movie Jarhead where U.S. Marines back from the First Gulf War encounter a Vietnam vet and the narrator says “All wars are different, all wars are the same.” As someone fortunate enough never to have had direct exposure to nor any kind of participation in a war, it’s an idea that I can only partially guess to be true. This is maybe why hearing the stories is all the more crucial for me.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Terrific piece, Nat. Love the way you ended it.

    I kept waiting for the lights in the room to change, and the dentist to ask you, “Is it safe?”

  9. Gloria says:

    Nat, this is a fascinating, meditative read. The final line is sublime.

  10. Enjoyed this, Nat. The way you overlap history here is effective and compelling.

    I must admit, though, I would have avoided being in that building for too long. Some places hold pain, I think. I am not making a dentist joke.

    Both of my grandfathers served in WWII and neither talked about it. In 8th grade, I interviewed one of them for a class assignment, but he gave me very little information. I know that he served in France and was a train engineer. There’s a part of me that wonders if he might have been part of the Resistance. He spoke fluent French–“Cajun” French–which I learned recently was very close to a dialect still spoken in the country at that time. He’s long dead now…maybe my grandmother knows.

    • Yes, for me stories these stories from our grandparents’ generation become more meaningful the older I get. The Resistance fighters are especially fascinating, my wife’s other grandfather, who passed away many years ago, aided the resistance and evidently, like your grandfather, was always reluctant to talk about it. Then there’s the grandfather I write about in this piece, slightly younger at the time, who has almost a need to tell these stories to whomever will listen.

  11. Well done, Nathaniel. That last paragraph in particular, that last line, wow.

    • Thanks, Cynthia, it’s good to see that last line hit people the right way. Sometimes with these subjects (WWII and 9/11), which have been written about extensively, it’s hard to know what’s worth reiterating.

  12. I didn’t want to read this just because the word “dentist” fills me with fear. But of course, there are worse things. It’s easy to forget.

    Beautiful final line. So much to ponder indeed.

    • I was never too frightened of visiting the dentist, at least up until this point. Now, if the building housed a tax consultant that would be another story altogether. Thanks for stopping in, David.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Yes, I was going to say something along the same lines, David. I think I may return to this piece to read that final paragraph and muse on it, like a meditation by a tombstone.

      It’s curious to me that people are so often bored by war stories. It seems to be something of a universal that old soldiers inspire apprehension for the tales they might tell, and so they get together and swap stories that no one else cares to hear. I suppose anything can be made dull in the wrong hands — or coming from the wrong tongue, as it were — but I’m personally almost always fascinated with anything pertaining to history, and, you know, finally it’s all history. I’ll never understand those put off by it.

      • It’s true these firsthand accounts of history are always amazing, and as I said to Ronlyn, become more so for me the older I get. It’s interesting in the case of my wife’s family. They roll their eyes at the stories, first because they have truly heard the same ones multiple times before, but more than that I know there’s the persistent worry the old scab on the wound will be pulled off. From my incomplete, informal research into it, the scars go fairly deep for the French population to this day.

        Thanks for the comment as always, Duke.

  13. This is hands down my favorite piece of yours, Nat. Really fantastic. The cliche of the banality of evil is never so perfectly portrayed as in your visit to the dentist’s office. All things over time are made pedestrian, and we allow it to be so. I was just remarking the other day that people talk about Vietnam as if it were ancient history, maybe part of the Punic Wars, when I was learning to read and write while it raged on. I’ve also been in that same situation, having worked once at a business owned by older German emigres, of wondering where the line was crossed in terms of asking about their histories, and being fascinated by their stories while their sons yawned and tried to change the subject. Anyway, great.

    • Thanks for this comment, Sean. Interesting to hear your similar experiences on the matter. Sometimes those with the stories want you to pry and other times not at all, I’m often bad at sensing the difference. Much of the subject of war still lies so far beyond my ability to truly fathom.

      And yes, the Tet Offensive was a crucial part of the Punic Wars and the First Gulf War ended at the decisive Battle of Hastings, I’m pretty sure.

  14. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Wow. Chez les alboches, chez la dentiste! (sorry, “alboches” is rude, but it’s colloquial from my memory of French comics when they touch on WWII) I give you a lot of bravery points for going to a dentist’s office that used to be a Gestapo installation. I’m glad it sounds as if it finished painlessly for you.

    I love your pieces that touch on your adaptation to your adopted home in Dijon, and especially the nuances of culture and language. Your ancestral memories around WWII would presumably have been of the boys who had to leave the farms and storefronts to go fighting in exotic locales while your wife’s grandfather brings to life those whose memory of the same period was terror of Nazi and Vichy control manifested in buildings where you could hear screaming when you walked by. *Shudder!*

    BTW “immeuble” is one of those words that has always excited my language geek side, being a pure real-estate (“agence immobilière”) invention to spice up the more normal “bâtiment.” I always used to assume it was from latin “immobilis”/”immotus”/”immotendum” (“unmoving”/”unmoved”/”not to be moved”) but the alternative possible etymology from “meuble” (special or artistic fixture or furnishing) is far more interesting.

    • Thanks, Uche. Yes, I always flub the difference between bâtiment and immeuble. It was once explained to me that a batiment is simply an ugly immeuble. But I’m mostly impressed you know the word “alboches,” often just shortened to “boches” which yes is pejorative, though perhaps understandable that there would be a pejorative word for enemy invaders. The French comic books are such a rich artistic and cultural treasure trove here. There’s a recent series called “Il était une fois en France” about the Occupation that’s excellent.

  15. This was a quietly thoughtful piece, Nat, and a well-written one. For a second I stopped and imagined the frozen tableau that might have resulted had you brought up the Nazi use of the building; you were right, I think, to not bring it up.

    Never having been to Europe, and in a country very far away, it seems odd to think of a solid, structural connection to the horrors of the time just sitting across the street, but then, I guess everything has to be somewhere.

    Your final conclusion was the perfect touch. C’est bien, mon frere.

    • Yes, I sometimes can’t believe that I’m sitting across from this spot either. It makes it harder to complain about a stubbed toe or a broken washing machine (though somehow I still manage to find a way).

      Bringing things up is a good idea, in any given situation, only about a third of the time I think.

  16. angela says:

    nate, this is terrific. the dentist’s comment was chilling:

    “Make sure you don’t drink juice or wine for the next three hours or anything that might stain your teeth” he paused. “That means, you have to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with champagne.”

    you so deftly segued from the mundane to the historic, from one time period to another, and from one symbol of hate to another. subtle yet telling.

    • I’ve been meaning to respond, but couldn’t get in here to comment.

      So thanks, Angela. It’s good to hear that shuttling between the mundane, slightly comical and the serious worked, there’s often a lot of room for misconstruing from the reader or poor juggling from the writer. Always appreciate your comment.

  17. Matt says:

    Wonderfully sublime essay, Nat.

    I’ve never thought there was a bigger “fuck you!” to the despots of history than, as Irwin mentions above, to repurpose the structures used for evil into something banal. Turning a former Gestapo headquarters strikes me as the perfect way to give the finger over your shoulder into history. Doubt the agents working to hard to extricate information would have imagined it coming to such a purpose.

    I always fall asleep in the chair. I’m a dentist’s dream patient.

    • Yep, sometimes the best way to give the finger to the fascists all of stripes is to just to make small talk and a routine appointment.

      I wish I could fall asleep in the dentist chair, but I’m usually too busy bleeding from the gums.

      Thanks for the comment, Matt.

  18. […] real triumph resounds over decades,” Nat Missildine decides, on his way to a dentist’s office located in what was once Dijon’s Nazi headquarters.  […]

  19. Richard Cox says:

    Nat, your writing here is beautiful, even haunting. I don’t believe in spirits or that places retain a sense of memory about whatever happened in them. However, I do believe in the human predisposition to believing that, and the way we conduct ourselves or feel when we are in those spaces is a very real thing, indeed.

    I had one grandfather in the Pacific theatre and one in Europe. My maternal grandfather was born in the U.S., but only barely…his parents were immigrants from Germany and his first language was German. I always wondered how he must have felt to be fighting his very near ancestors. Neither of them spoke often of their experiences, however, and both were gentle, quiet men afterwards.

    Thanks for posting this. I read it several days ago. Sorry it took me a while to finally comment.

    • Yeah I don’t believe in that physical presence of the past ghosts either, but it didn’t stop my mind from attributing a memory to a building. It’s strange when you think about it that we attach this meaning to stone, brick, wood and soil, but in my case it’s as close as I’ll probably ever get to the particular tragedy of that time.

      Interesting to hear of your grandfather, the son of German immigrants, and to imagine what that must have been like for him. Thanks for coming back to comment, Richard.

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