CASTINE — There’s a running joke among some Americans that France is somehow in our debt.
We came to its rescue during World War II, they say, mounting an amphibious invasion of European shores and pushing back the occupying German forces.
Really, though, we were just returning the favor. France saved our own bacon in the Revolutionary War — a history lesson that wasn’t lost on anyone who visited Castine this week.
In 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette sailed to Boston with the news that France would be helping our young nation’s struggling army in its war against the British.
Lafayette sailed on the frigate Hermione. That vessel later aided our nation by sailing up to Castine, where it gathered intelligence on the British troops stationed at Fort George after the disastrous (from our standpoint) Penobscot Expedition.
The Hermione again sailed into Castine Tuesday afternoon.
Though it’s just a replica of the original frigate, the 216-foot-long ship made for a wondrous site as it emerged from a foggy Penobscot Bay. The sun broke through, revealing the blue-and-gold ship and an armada of other sailboats, motorboats and kayaks accompanying it into Castine Harbor.
Cannons were firing and a French flag was fluttering — especially appropriate, considering Tuesday was also France’s Bastille Day, a national celebration that commemorates the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution.
Frank Costello of White Plains, N.Y., was impressed by the spectacle, but not surprised.
“It’s what I imagined a frigate looks like,” the 79-year-old retired history teacher said after the Hermione arrived at the town dock.
But Costello’s daughter, Kathleen Kearns, 54, of Belfast, did learn something from the replica’s arrival — and her father’s commentary.
“I didn’t know the French were so involved in the Revolutionary War,” she said. “For me, it’s like a living history lesson.”
The Castine Historical Society lobbied hard to bring the Hermione to Castine on its tour up the U.S. East Coast, with a total of 11 stops planned from Yorktown, Va., to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
The town’s celebration began last weekend, with musical performances, presentations, tours and other programming. The ship is leaving early Thursday morning.
An estimated 5,000 visitors were expected. It’s hard to say how many were in town Tuesday afternoon, but hundreds could be observed at the town dock when the ship’s crew members disembarked.
The sailors were mostly young, tanned and bedecked in traditional blouses and culottes. They sang chanteys before leaving the ship. Some lit cigarettes after stepping foot on the dock.
Soon, a parade featuring a 70-foot paper mache replica of the Hermione snaked down Main Street. A ceremony was held featuring such dignitaries as Governor Paul LePage and, from the Penobscot Nation, Vice Chief Bill Thompson, Tribal Historian James Francis and Tribal Elder Charles Shay.
Addressing the crowd, Francis eloquently highlighted Shay’s contributions as an Army medic during the American storming of Omaha Beach in June 1944.
He also discussed Castine’s role in the history of Franco-Penobscot relations. It was here that a baron from the French town of Saint-Castin — for whom Castine was named — married the daughter of the contemporary Penobscot chief.
“These are three communities bounded through history,” Francis concluded.
Several years ago, the mayor of Saint-Castin and Todd Nelson, former principal of the Adams School in Castine (and current principal of Brooksville Elementary School), struck up a relationship and organized an exchange program for students in the French and American sister towns.
Since then, around 20 kids from Castine and Saint-Castin have stayed with host families in the other’s towns.
Finzi was in town for this week’s festivities, staying with Nelson, touring Castine and even enjoying dinner with the student who had stayed in his home during the Adams School exchange. (That student now attends Maine Maritime Academy.)
During an interview Tuesday morning, the French mayor said he’s serving as an emissary for the governor of the province of Béarn, where Saint-Castin is located (a province whose rugged coastal geography recalls Maine’s, Nelson said).
He also pointed to the historical importance of the week’s events.
“It’s very important, someone from Béarn being here,” Finzi said. “For me, it’s very important today. It’s symbolic. It’s the day of Hermione.”