May 21-June 1 2009 / France: French History Seen Along the Seine
Medieval Times to World War II, and Much More
Today we will go to a place called Caudebec en Caux. Seen along the Seine this morning around seven, with only a few people up, some seawall and surprisingly, some natural shoreline. Now and then a stone house, foursquare with symmetrical roof, some of the half-timbered style. Patches of woods, even, and limestone cliffs. Red cross-river ferries, twice. I was surprised to find it so pastoral. But then later a guide pointed out about the tidal bore, quite dangerous, that used to come up here and has now been tamed. So you could not build houses by the immediate shore, or they would be awash twice a day.
The French clearly adore to have everything just so, neat, symmetrical, tamed above all. Everything is manicured and tamed in rows.
Our little boat—actually it's very long, and kind of squat (to go under bridges) is very pretty and comfortable inside and I slept moderately well last night. But this morning, after a stultifyingly boring lecture by the art expert (how could this be?), I made my decision to skip the morning's trip to an abbey, with tour to be given by a monk, and I tucked in with blankies, deciding not only to sleep through the excursion but also through lunch. I slept four hours. That was good. When my head gets too full of demanding stimuli I have to give it a rest and some clarity. And I was ready for the afternoon’s visit.
Caudebec—already occupied when the Romans got here-- was completely destroyed by bombing, except, miraculously, the fantastic Gothic church. After our excursion this afternoon I went in. There had been a wedding—there were heart-shaped paper rose-petals around the entrance on the sidewalk, and some rows of chairs inside had white chiffon bows. There was an extraordinarily sweet-scented bouquet at the front—lilies mostly. In some of the side chapels were decorations and objects made by children. Some of the stained glass is from the 14th century. Imagine, oh imagine who made it...
We go to Jumieges Abbey, usually and always, apparently, described everywhere as “the most romantic in France.” That means that in its elegant treed and lawned setting, it is almost absurdly picturesque, for the vistas, the juxtapositions. It was first built in the year 790, and much wrecked finally in the Revolution. But here are large pieces of chert in the limestone blocks, and I think to myself how the prehistoric peoples hereabouts must have been very rich, trading this valuable tool-making stone for things from other places.
The guide goes on and on and on in her harsh voice, while I make images and find great natural history stuff: a stalk of wild lettuce absolutely bristling with aphids, some celandine, buttercups, the scene (by a ruined pillar) of a pigeon kill. Swallows' nests with swallows flying to them and coursing through the air just above us. But nobody else notices these things of course.
Yes, yes, I am a land person.
I am amazed that every one of the French lecturers seems to have confused thought processes, that is, is unable to tell a story with beginning, middle, end. Very strange. And yet here is this apparent need for orderliness in the landscape.
We have docked at Le Havre and today will visit Honfleur
This early morning and on into breakfast it is raining and there is big lightning, running all the way across the sky at one point. I think, oh good, I will stay in my little cabin at water level, parked dumbly facing the rough stone wall of the quai, and read the day away. But no, I eat my breakfast coffee and bread, and get on the uncomfortable bus. But I am not feeling well. I called home last night, at length, and I miss them.
Now it’s sprinkling and we are supposed to go to Honfleur.
I suppose people who come to America to visit get tired of hearing us speak English in the same way I am tired of hearing the French around me.
These people are fine, really; it's me. I just feel—oh, well, perhaps even lonely. I seem filled with sadness, and it came on suddenly yesterday.
Everything seems to be passing in a rather unpleasant haze. Undistinguishable. Just not sure why, either. I wish I couldn't understand the others and that the guides weren't trying to speak English. Then I could just tune it all out and I would not be in a state of constant low-level irritation. I did ok in the beginning, socialized, flirted, made people laugh, but now I've shot my wad and don't want to make an effort anymore. I don't want to chirp good morning at anyone else this morning.
I would like to try to understand what is unique about the landscape here. The countryside is deeply green, seems sparsely settled, here and there sheep or cattle. Here and there stone houses. All so tidy and orderly.
Yesterday, quaiside, a sort of French Society for Creative Anachronism, folks in “medieval” garb, piles of animal skins, smoking cooking pots, etc. etc. Very funny.
We cross the Normandy Bridge, where the river is very wide. Today, it's gray and almost invisible.
So it seems Honfleur is one of those medieval places where the shops are done up selling art and things, and every other one is a restaurant. Some dire thing is wrong with my camera, and I am still feeling bad, but one of the men, very sweet, helps me by talking to me comfortingly and also by fixing my camera. So I feel better, and then there is a carousel, with not one but two tiers of animals going round, and a man dourly swabbing it down. I walk around with the guide, not plugged in to the headset and so not listening. There are some amazing little streets, and roofs and sides of buildings are covered with slate shingles.
There is a fine church, wooden inside, and I light a candle and look at the very special posters which say, Don't be afraid of silence. Don't be afraid of death. The Pascal candle is still lit.
After the walking tour I walk around a little by myself. At a gallery in the window I find a painting of three wild boars, big fine creatures, running through a winter forest at sunset. I love it very much and in desperation, not being able to buy it, take a picture of it, which I will enlarge and print when I get home.
There is here a museum of Erik Satie, which sounds a very French aesthetic affair and very wonderful, with a mingling of sound, movement and image. But I will have to stay another four hours to get the shuttle bus back to the ship, and I do not want to stay here that long, in quaint Honfleur. So I go back to the ship and have lunch and another long nap, and read. Now, of course, I will have to hear about the museum, which sounds it would have been just my kind of thing and I didn't do it. Well, it serves me very right for sloth and lack of venturesomeness. I will try to see some of it online, but as I think it is one's museum headset that triggers images, there. Too bad for me and missing it is only what I deserve.
Just feeling quite detached. There seems no center any more.
It's raining again, and thundering. I have to get dressed for a lecture, from the old gentleman who lived through D-Day, M. Heintz.
Andre Heintz, whose 89th birthday was yesterday, and who is an erect, elegant person, gave us his words about having been in the French Resistance. This boat is German, staffed mostly by Germans, and they stood around and listened as he spoke.
He told us little of what he himself did, whether through habit of secrecy, or modesty I could not say, but he had a few images of various kinds of papers of the time to show us, papers he had kept. One of these was put out by the German hochtkommandant or whatever; it announced that in Caen (where M. Heintz spent the war) on pain of arrest you were forbidden to express your opinion in the movies, by word or gesture. M. Heintz said that therefore instead of hissing when Hitler appeared on the screen, people coughed or shuffled their feet, or other subversive actions.
He told us how completely shocking it was to people when the Germans marched through and easily defeated the French. Three weeks earlier, he said, we had had no idea this would happen. He was among groups of hostages who were gathered up by the Germans and put for 48 hour stretches on trains going here and there, so as to deter sabotage of the trains.
This dignified and humane man seems somehow to have put these horrible things—all the things he witnessed—in some place in his mind where he can access them but not give in to them. He seems remarkable, a witness for the right.
Today it is Rouen, imagine that!
Last night I slept little. First there was a huge storm, with lightning and big water on the river; I looked out of my portholes into the brown water at eye level and saw enormous swells or waves sloshing past in the direction the boat was going. Later we went through several locks, and I would look out onto a slimy plant-covered wall. Still later, after we docked I believe, there was a long period of some kind of repair work going on, drilling somewhere on the hull of the boat.
There are lots of different boats docked here, most of them long and skinny like ours. The watery wall outside my portholes is festooned with various small, determined plants.
So we set forth in the rain for a walking tour in Rouen, and to the small plaza in front of the great cathedral which Monet painted so many times. A group of teenaged tourists is there, and also a little music group—accordion, bass, and I think something else. The musicians played Rock around the Clock with great gusto, and I loved it. Our French guide kept grimly on into her microphone. Loved that too. But I gave the musicians some coins.
The cathedral leaves one stunned really. How on earth did they do this? Raise the three hundred foot spire, haul the stones? Make the stained glass dating some of it from the 13th century? I think when I get home I will read David Mccauley on building cathedrals. Inside it grabs one and quiets one. I walked softly around in the dimness. It seems Richard the Lionhearted is buried here, or at least his heart. He of Robin Hood's times.
Then another, Saint Ouen's Abbey, where Joan of Arc was tried and tried to speak for herself, since her king she had saved deserted her. There are transcripts of that trial, and in them her forthright and very strange voice is heard. We go to the market square where she was burned to death; on that place they have raised a gorgeous new church, and a towering cross. The new church is wonderful, and in it the architect has used ancient stained glass. I have been lighting candles in some of the churches, and in Joan's church the bank of candles stands before a statue of her, flames around her feet, and the candles flow around her, real flames. Too late for Joan now.
There is a peculiar place which is now an art school, but which was built in 1348 to contain the bodies of the plague-dead. Three-quarters of the parish died thus. This horror is not explored by the guide, but surely in its time it was as terrible a thing as the battles of Normandy?
The streets surrounding all these were, miraculously, untouched by the devastation of bombing, and so there are rows of half-timbered buildings facing each other across the narrow alleys. There are shops at street level, of course, but when the rain and wind pick up even more, our tour is over and I return to the boat, on my own for a few very brief minutes, the first time on this trip. My own doing, again, not to be on my own more, but I am ridiculously shy about these things—me, the great traveler!
There is to be a lecture this afternoon about Van Gogh by the brisk and self-important art historian. I am sure we are terribly beneath her! But at breakfast this morning, she at the table, I told some of the other people (a quite deliberate move on my part, with her there) about my Learning To See Art course, and she listened with some surprise I think, and asked where I taught. Oh, I said, that was a long time ago.
If only it were nice out, I might venture out again. But it would mean dressing up again, hauling the umbrella, wandering the same streets which I have already seen. I have no interest in the stores, nor in braving more hordes of tourists. So I think I have seen all I want.
But I am troubled that I seem not to be making much of this expensive and long-anticipated trip. I really need to think why this is so.