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John Kerry, America's European secretary of state

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

His mother nursed the wounded in Paris during World War II, he biked around a divided Berlin as a boy and got lost in the London zoo, and he speaks French, German and Italian.

John Kerry, who has just returned from his first overseas trip since becoming secretary of state, wowed his European hosts with his deep knowledge of the continent and his insistence on the strength of transatlantic ties.

Whereas his predecessor Hillary Clinton made Asia her first stop, Kerry was drawn back to the streets and neighborhoods of his boyhood traveling first to London, Berlin, Paris and Rome before flying to Ankara and then further east.

It sent a strong signal to European critics, who have feared that with the US administration's much vaunted pivot to Asia, the old ties with Europe were beginning to fray.

Not so, said Kerry, time and again on the 11-day, nine-country trip.

In each of the European capitals he visited, he shared memories and personal vignettes of times he had spent in the cities.

Like many Americans, Kerry can trace his roots back to Europe, born into a family of Austrian-Hungarian Jews on his father's side who converted to Catholicism and Scottish-Americans on his mother's.

His mother, Rosemary Forbes, was born in Paris when Kerry's grandfather was working there in the 1920s.

She grew up between France and Britain and became "very active" early on in World War II, Kerry told US embassy staff in Paris.

"She worked over in Montparnasse as a nurse aid caring for the wounded who were coming back from the front as the Germans were approaching Paris."

As the Germans approached the city, she jumped on a "bicycle with her sister and a couple of friends and biked out of Paris and forged her way across France, got to Portugal, where she got help to get on a ship to come back to America," Kerry added.

Kerry still has family ties in France as his cousin, the son of his mother's sister, is the French environmentalist Brice Lalonde. And he spent many summer holidays on the family estate in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer in Brittany.

He has retained the French he grew up with as a boy, which drew sneers from American critics during his 2004 presidential bid.

But Kerry delighted his hosts speaking perfectly -- even though with an American accent -- during a press conference with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.

He referenced the centuries-old ties between Washington and Paris, calling France "the oldest ally of the United States."

"We just finished one of those wonderful French lunches that have been drawing Americans to Paris for centuries," he said to laughter, evoking former secretaries of state Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Germany also remains close to his heart.

The son of an American diplomat, Kerry spent part of his childhood cycling through the rubble-strewn streets of Berlin, then divided between the four Allies after World War II.

He visited the Brandenburg Gate, which at the height of the Cold War was the symbol along with the Berlin Wall of the division between East and West Europe.

And he held a meeting with young Germans in an Internet cafe, where he encouraged them to tell him what he should know about today's reunified Germany.

And Kerry didn't forget what he called "a partnership of the heart" with Britain when he met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

"When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain -- our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship -- there is a reason why we call this a special relationship," he said.

"I came here many, many years ago as a young child, managed to get lost in London Zoo. I want to thank somebody for finding me."

And in Rome, where his good friend and former brother-in-law David Thorne is the ambassador, Kerry thanked Prime Minister Mario Monti in Italian for his "spirit of friendship."

But even though his visit was at times an intensely personal journey, Kerry was all business when it came to pushing for a free trade zone between the United States and the European Union.

Last month, Washington and Brussels announced the start of talks for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to create the world's largest free trade zone.

Kerry hailed "a moment where fair and free trade can kick into gear economic growth, restore competitiveness, create millions of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, and provide us the strength that we seek and the quality of life for our citizens."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130307/john-kerry-americas-european-secretary-state