May 21-June 1 2009 / France: French History Seen Along the Seine
Medieval Times to World War II, and Much More
We drive west. The landscape changes, from that flat array of brilliant yellow (rapeseed), green, and brown furrows, to rolling hills (so hard for the liberators to penetrate), dotted with stone houses, cows, and reddish soil.
We pass by St Lo, once called the capital of ruins, for nothing was left standing after a few days during which 5000 tons of bombs were dropped on it. After the war, the Marshall Plan brought money here, and young architects had their time.
There is a little argument between the two French guides as to whether everybody got money for their destroyed houses or businesses. One vehemently says how no one in her family got anything at all!
I see lots of raptors of some kind, almost like falcons or something, on tree tops and fence poles. There must be lots of little rodents in here, in these fields. The flesh-eating raptors would have had an abundance--it is not to be considered.
We pass two white trucks that say on them: National Flying Club. Racing Pigeons. A Family Sport. Maybe the raptors are following along.
Oh! On the foggy horizon, like a great apparition: Mont Saint Michel. I'm actually seeing it with my very own eyes, that place that Richard Halliburton wrote about, for me, at the very beginning of my life.
The bus goes slowly across the causeway. At one point we stop and all rush out to make a picture. There are walkers, cars, buses. bicycles. Everybody's going there.
The parking lot—parking lot!--is a complete crush of vehicles. Just at the entrance, a white cat is seen briefly, climbing deftly along the rocks above our heads.
Once I am free of the bus, I creep along the single narrow little medieval street, in a great din of French voices and tightly-packed rows. We all go forward, so slowly, but still, I notice, maintaining our western European/American distance from each other.
I don't plug in my ear-phones thing in which one of our guides is giving a narrative—I can see what I want to see. There are still some monks here, it seems, though in very small numbers, and when I walk into the church, near the top, I get weak in my knees—there is the spicy smell of incense, there the Easter Pascal candle to the side of the altar. This is where they worship, every day at noon we are told. But they chase the tourists out. I would pay a handsome donation to be present for that.
There is an organ in this church! What I would give to hear it.
They hauled all this up here, all these huge granite stones, a thousand or even more years ago. They cleverly balanced all of it on a small pointy rock, carefully being sure that the second level fit and was held up by the bottom one, and then that the top level, the third, could perch safely on the two below it. The audacity of it! The necessity of it! It had to be built here. The Archangel Michael told the abbot so.
I have to choose between making images, seeing with my bare eyes, and listening to the guide. But I can't see and listen and make images all at the same time. So I choose to see. I can always learn later. I am pretty determined to do what I need to do.
All that we tourists see is quite empty of monks now, but the vista from up at the top, along the grayish white sand and pale blue water, the figures of a few souls being carefully led along the treacherous sand, is expansive and full. There is a nearby tiny rock, and they could have built on it instead.
Midway back down, there’s a tiny garden to one side, and it is filled with French families picnicking, a festive holiday scene. If I’d had a little bag of lunch I would have stopped to eat with them.
Coming down, the crowds get thicker and thicker, until finally, in the street that's about fifteen feet wide, those of us on the going-down side are almost motionless. It's a little bit scary, but I'm ok. Finally there is the restaurant where our group is to eat lunch, its handsome upper dining room in deep yellow walls with red drapes, just like my colors in my house. I eat a little, the tablemates are among the dullest of the lot, and soon I leave.
I slither back up the crowd to the next shop, duck into the entrance and call my daughter at home. Mont Saint Michel is her heart’s desire. I buy some pretty ”tapestries” of this astonishing place, one for her and one for me, and a patch for my pack.
I slither again, slowly, out to the entrance and the parking lot, by the sand, and the endless cars and tour buses. It's fine, I am comfortable on my sitting place on a rock wall, and I am not in a hurry, and I just watch the scene in front of me. There are numerous people with dogs: a whippet, a black lab, a golden lab, two spaniels, some kind of teeny long-haired animal, a guy with a black and white dog in a tote bag, clutched to his bosom. People pushing kids in strollers—how will they get them through the crowd and into the abbey and up and down all the steps in there? It's the dogs, though, that puzzle me. Why have they brought them into this terrible crush?
I guess it's a French thing of some kind.
Tour buses parked to the vanishing point on the horizon!.
But everybody in our group finally turns up, loads up, and we drive back to our hotel, this peaceful place, with its violent past.
I am a hit with some of these folks. Tonight at the table they want to know all about American Idol, since none of them will admit to watching it and they are of course astonished that I do. I have spoken up about some of the books I have read in preparation for this, and now they all ask me stuff. Ask Hilary, she's done her homework. Yeah, I did. Most of them seem pretty smart, knowledgeable and well-educated, and some of them very articulate. But yeah, I know a lot, and I can talk, and I do.
“Enthusiastic.” The one word used most frequently, and over a long period of time, to describe me.
It could be worse, you know? My epitaph: Here lies Hilary, Enthusiast.
Today to Bayeux and the tapestry.
Oh the Tapestry! The exquisite detail, the tiny perfect scenes, the fierce battle, the horses, the dying, the Comet! All done, 900 years ago—900!--as a vital task and report, to stir people, and we don't know by whom, or even where. And yet here we are, so terribly far into their future, walking slowly by it in a darkened corridor,
listening intently to our headsets telling about each number—they numbered the scenes, even!--I am with chills to think of it.
What that we make will be experienced in this way in the year 2909?
If there is a year 2909.
And even before the tapestry, Bayeux was a Roman capital city. And there are half-timbered houses, and all kinds of things to buy.
And the cathedral, a vast Romanesque and Gothic cathedral, and I wander through it, and there are places to light votive candles, and I do, and a young girl with her family lights one, and she prays, and when she turns around, this child, I see that she is weeping. As they pass by where I am sitting, I catch the mother’s eye and touch my heart. What terrible loss have they suffered?
There is a chapel with an American flag, and red, white, and blue flowers. Music plays softly, some of it from the organ, Bach, and so I sit in meditation, and listen.
There is a Saturday market, with foods and flowers and fleamarket stuff, some live rabbits and chickens, and some dead, skinned ones. Cheeses, jams. Meats, dark from being seasoned I guess.
I finally buy a caramel ice cream cone. I've had only two pieces of bread for breakfast, and a lot of coffee. The meals at the hotel are ok but they last too long.
Time to wend back to the bus. At the tapestry I bought a folding booklet with the entire gorgeous thing in it, which is good. But then I stop in a little shop across the square from the tapestry museum, just to look. And the man in the shop behind the counter is playing Mozart softly! I linger to listen. I point to my ear, I am listening. He nods quickly and shows me the disc, yes, Mozart, I nod.
I linger more, listening and looking at some lovely white pottery tiles and plates painted elegantly with single brilliant poppies: symbol of the Beaches, the death of soldiers, so pervasive here. He comes to me. Do I speak French? No? With some effort at recall, he points to the painted poppies and says, My wife.
Oh! Well, this is all too much for me to turn away from. I gesture, and speak a little. I am on tour. Omaha Beach. My heart. He nods. The tapestry aussi, I say and gesture across the square. Also my heart. He nods. We understand each other across all this.
So I buy the best of his wife's work, a large, magnificent poppy and a drooping bud, painted in brilliant color and form on a stark white tile. The image and the colors will remind me of the stories of this place. I will give it a good place in my beautiful livingroom, and send him and his wife a picture of it there.
And now I'm settled in my fine cabin, in splendid solitude, here on the Cezanne river boat. All terribly posh, German it turns out and if that is not a weird thing here in this place of war, I don't know what is.
After the too-long dinner I made five circuits of the long open deck. There was a blue-lit bridge, quite high and pretty, and a tall office building, lit with ferocious regularity at every window. Must be quite expensive.