Une Letre Home: Bill Boggess

Story Bill Boggess

People_BillNBobbieEiffelTowerRecently, on a very nice, sunny, 72-degree day, Bobbie and I were eating duck “confit” and potatoes out on the patio in the backyard. That got me thinking about some of the benefits of living and working in France for the past 28 years.

What in the world has a guy from Columbus been doing in France for so long, you ask?

Well, I am a missionary to the French … but I’d never tell a French person that. They think missionaries belong in Calcutta or New Guinea, or some other physically challenging place. When some people hear that we are missionaries in Paris, they emphatically tell me they know some real missionaries laboring in a South American jungle or North African desert. And vainly trying to defend my being a missionary to France, I reply in a smart-alecky tone, “Well, somebody’s got to do it.”

Three years ago Bobbie and I started a new church in Guyancourt, a town of 32,000 people just south of Versailles. Over the exceptionally well-attended Easter weekend, the only Catholic church in town had 680 people and we, the only Protestant church, had our 35 regulars. That makes 715 out of 32,000 people in church on Easter, 2.2 percent of the population. I wonder how many people went to church on Easter in Columbus, in one of the 114 churches listed in the Yellowbook?

But why should they go to church on Easter? Most of them don’t even know what it is.

I coached Little League baseball here for 14 years. One Easter weekend, at a tournament near Bordeaux, my fellow coach asked me to explain the meaning of Easter. Every one of the 17 kids and parents knew it was a holiday, but only three knew that it was the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

People often ask me why the French don’t like America or Americans. I’ll tell you, I’m getting tired of that question. It’s just not true. The French do like America, and they do like Americans. However, they do have questions on how we justify certain actions in the world.

One probable source of this opinion is the conflict between American tourists and Parisian waiters. A tourist might make some snide comment expressing disgust that the waiter doesn’t speak perfectly fluent English or maybe there’s a misunderstanding about when the waiter should bring the bill. The waiter responds with an “appropriate” remark (or gesture) and the opinion is established: The French don’t like Americans.

Before coming to France in 1983, we were told it would be hard to make friends here. That it might take years before we would be invited into a French home. Well, we were invited into a French home by our neighbors within a week, and it has been easy for us to make friends.

What was hard was learning the language. I am an extrovert, a talker; so let me tell you, not being able to talk to people here was very difficult. It gets really old communicating on a 2-year-old level. So, I was very motivated to apply myself to language acquisition.

On a scale of world languages ranked according to difficulty, French is not a particularly hard language to learn. But to speak it well? Bobbie and I had taken one semester of French at Mississippi State before moving. A few weeks after our arrival, we went to a restaurant and there learned the value of that semester by mistakenly ordering congealed blood sausage instead of ham. Soon after, we began to study French at the Sorbonne in Paris. After about two years of really trying, we began to see some real progress.

Asleep one night, I received an elbow jab to my ribs and heard Bobbie shout at me, “Arrête!” which means “Stop!” I laughed and told her she could yell at me in English. She laughed and realized that she also had been dreaming in French. We were finally able to communicate.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t make mistakes. For months we shouted out the window of our fifth-floor apartment to our 4-year-old son on the playground below to come up for supper. We thought we were saying, “It’s time [to come up], Brian.” But actually, we were shouting for the whole world to hear, “It’s the weather, Brian. It’s the weather!”

So, what do I miss living away from home for so long? Simple things, water skiing and messing around on the Tombigbee in general, MSU sports, hunting, fishing, reunions — I’ve missed numerous family reunions and all of my high school — fried okra and corn on the cob.

And which country do I prefer? Everybody asks me this, and I diplomatically tell them I love both the country of my birth, and my adopted country.