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Celebrating July 4th in France

It's the July 4th weekend. My wife, Kathy, and I have a bag full of red, white and blue pinwheels, some Stars and Stripes-brand snack cakes and a packet of mini-flags. We're nearly set for a holiday blowout in the country. Strangely, none of the stores is stocked with hot dogs or chips. No one around us seems to be doing the same.
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It's the July 4th weekend. My wife, Kathy, and I have a bag full of red, white and blue pinwheels, some Stars and Stripes-brand snack cakes and a packet of mini-flags. We're nearly set for a holiday blowout in the country.

Strangely, none of the stores is stocked with hot dogs or chips. No one around us seems to be doing the same.

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With friends, Kevin and Martha, we're on Autoroute A6 out of Paris on our way to the town of Saint-Avit-Sénieur, 375 miles away in the Dordogne River valley. Here, although the roads are busy, it's just an average summer weekend.

The French call the A6 the "Route du Soleil" because the highway aims south at a horizon of promised sunshine. Our toll-taker gives us a grin.

"Have a great Fourth," says Kevin without thinking, and though the man looks confused, he nods.

We pay and he hands us some sort of safety kit containing strawberry yogurt cups and a booklet for kids starring Babar the Elephant.

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Being Americans in France isn't new to us. But somehow we never get used to the drill. "I wonder," Martha says, "if Babar's ever met Uncle Sam."

In the 1990s, the four of us lived and worked in Paris. When we could, we escaped the city for vacations in the Dordogne or, as the French say, "Périgord." Historic towns such as Sarlat-la-Canéda and Bergerac dot the area, the weather is often warm and there are duck dishes and St. Emilion red wines on seemingly every menu.

Cuisine is one of the area's big draws. Small-scale restaurants concentrate on local flavors using the region's chestnuts, walnuts, mushrooms and famous truffles. And even though it has prehistoric cave art and stunning vertical villages built into cliffs along the river, the Dordogne tends to be less touristy than Provence.

It's also a shorter ride from Paris on the TGV, France's efficient high-speed train. From Charles de Gaulle airport or Gare Montparnasse, the ride to Libourne takes three hours.

Especially in summer, when the river Dordogne and its smaller sister, the Vézère, are meandering lazily along, you can rent canoes or kayaks at one of the outlets that dot the riverbanks here, paddle away an afternoon, and drop the boats off at designated points downstream.

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Even the odd rainy day can lead to some good exploring. Because the area has a long history of being battled over by the English and French, the Dordogne is up to its ears in walled towns known as bastides, fortified churches and hundreds of châteaux and castles, including those open to visitors at Beynac, Montfort and Castelnaud.

Saint-Avit-Sénieur itself is microscopic. But close to the village is Cantegrive, a restored hilltop farmhouse that -- thanks in part to owner Joan Roberts, an ex-pat Vermonter -- has been turned into a low-key inn with views of horses in hayfields and a few neighborhood châteaux.

Inside the 17th-century stone building are two rentable sections that, with an upstairs and downstairs and full kitchens, are essentially independent houses. What Roberts calls "La Grande Maison," a former barn and wine cellar, has three bedrooms. La Bergerie (where sheep once lived) offers two. Both have an airy charm courtesy of French doors, terra-cotta tiles and mighty stone fireplaces.

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"For the grill, for the grill!" Roberts shouts as we drive in. She's waving herbs and sticks. Things to make a fire flavorful.

Roberts misses American-style barbecues, the burgers-and-beer kind, and now, with July 4th on tap, we are happy to help out. We show her our sack of snack cakes and flags.

"Some things are missing," Martha decides. "Big things. We can't do the Fourth without them."

It's the morning of the holiday and we're helping Roberts dress up picnic tables with star-studded paper tablecloths weighted down with jars of olives and pickles.

Kevin and I are handed a shopping list. After some aimless searching in sleepy towns we find a store in Beynac with an enormous sign shouting "Fois Gras!! Souvenirs!!"

Pay dirt. We return like conquering kings.

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Out into bowls on the starry, striped tables pour the locally made potato chips we've found. "Trois parfumes!" announces the bag. Three flavors. "Vinegar, Eschallot et Moutarde."

I'm getting hungry. It's time to light up the grill.

This is an exclusive holiday party. Roberts has invited only Americans -- those who are here on vacation or a few who have retired in the Dordogne -- including her pals, Oliver David and Astrid Hunt-David, who live in the next town.

"Wow," David says when Roberts puts on a patriotic cassette tape full of thunderous choruses. "Love hearing those American voices." When the meat is starting to smoke, Astrid grabs a bun. "I never eat hot dogs," she says, "but on the Fourth, I have one. Just one."

The Davids say they've tried having local French friends over a few times for the July 4th holiday. "Strangely enough," Astrid notes, "they were the ones bringing the American flag."

The marching music sounds even louder as we drink cans of Kronenbourg lager and crunch them up like frat guys when we're done. A foursome of Finns staying in another wing of the inn are out in lawn chairs.

"So, how old is it?" shouts one of the men.

How old is what?

"The country. America."

We have to think a minute. We yell out a number, and then ask: "How old is Finland?" The patriotic music hits a crescendo. Cymbals crash. We do not hear the answer.

"It's time!" Kevin announces. He's parading around with feu d'artifice -- literally "fake fire" -- the French term for fireworks. For the kids he has a packet of glow-in-the-dark necklaces and earrings.

Everyone stands back behind bushes and beds of flowers as Kevin and I light up the contents of our $14 firecracker pack.

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A stick that's called "Helicoptere Aries" is impotent. It whistles off in a low, grass-cutting trajectory. "Compact Adonis" rockets up high and true. But Kevin has lighted it close to my right ear. When it lands it sets off a miniature brush fire near the pool.

The kids are clapping. The Finns are slamming their shutters. My scalp feels like it is burned. The party is almost over.

"Well," says Astrid, who's over near the fizzling remains of the grill. "I'm going to make an exception this year. I feel inspired."

What? I say. My right ear is ringing.

"Pass the moutarde," Astrid adds. "I'm going for my July 4th hot dog No. 2."

Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).