Friday, June 06, 2008

from Normandy: on this day, sixty-four years back

You are counting and so you know. Of course. Who wouldn’t remember?

We didn’t. At first.

It’s Kathy’s last full day with us and we have chosen it as the day to pool our resources and rent a car.

Easy? Not in Honfleur. For all the tourists that pass this way, I must say that they do so with their own wheels. There is no train service here. There is no boat service that I know of. There are buses, but they aren’t easy to plot and work with if you want to do more than go from point A to point B. And there aren’t really car rental agencies.

Except for Sarl Locagis. Sarl Locagis will rent you a moving truck and sell you as many cardboard boxes as you need for your big transfer. And on a slow day, Sarl Locagis will rent you a car. Thursday was a slow day for Sarl.

It was a pretty day for us. The state of the skies is best represented by a shot of the old harbor.

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Nice, no? Cool, but who’s counting. We’ve got scarves.

Fishermen seem a tad idle, but that’s not weather related. We’re very aware of the tension at the moment here, in the port towns of France (and elsewhere in western Europe). Fishermen are protesting the high cost of fuel and the elimination of fuel subsidies. If you love seafood, you better visit soon because they say the current supplies are going to run out within a week.

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Bonne chance, guys! Hope things settle for you soon. Love those little crevettes!

We come to Sarl Locagis a bit late. No matter. We have the car for the whole day, but we only have 100 free kilometers. That’s not a lot of driving. But, the very sympa mademoiselle at the Bureau de Tourisme noted that the D-Day beaches of Normandy are only some 35 kilometers away. They are our destination. That’s 70 kilometers round trip, with a little extra for mistakes and detours.

(Such bad math that was!)

And so we pile into the car, put on some French music and head west.
Shortly into the drive, someone throws out the idea that a stop might be nice. With perhaps a little beach time. Now, you may think that this is pretty wimpy. It speaks of poor road trip attitude if you can’t go for more than 30 kilometers without stopping.

Well sure. But frankly, we were coast deprived. Or at least I have been feeling that. Honfleur, for all its coastal glory, is really quite sheltered from coastal waters. It’s just enough around the bend in the Seine estuary that you can’t really see the sea. And on this day, driving along the coast, we are tantalized by fleeting vistas of sandy beaches and rippling waves and the desire to get out and crunch on sandy shores really takes hold.

At Villers sur Mer, we stop. A small little place, with a market and a beachfront café. Two essentials of life in this type of community, so far as I’m concerned.

It's so different from Burgundy! Look at the houses, for instance:

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So there we are, tasting sausage samples that Madame cuts for us at her stall and buying wild strawberries and thinking that life, in general, cannot be faulted.

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And on the beach, we crunch sand and shells, lots of shells and we exhale.

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And now it is time to keep going. Or is it? The astute reader will have noticed that we are some 30 kilometers into our journey. The D-Day beaches are not even a mirage on the horizon. Bummer.

So here we are – at the doorstep of history and the odometer is hovering near our Cinderella warning kilometer. What would you do? Bite the bullet, of course. Even at 26 Euro cents for each additional mile. Right?

It will be a long time before I agree to such rental terms.

In the meantime, I mentally magic-brush the odometer off the dashboard and accelerate.

And now we come to the crossing of the River Ome and then, just a breath away, the Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal.

Exactly on the midnight of this day, in 1944, the Normandy Invasion began. D-Day. And it started with the Allied army capture of this bridge. The first soldier to die in the invasion, Lt. Brotheridge, is buried nearby. The family Gondree installed a commemorative plaque by his grave. They live in the house that was the first to be liberated during the invasion. This house.

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Now a café, run by a woman who was a little girl living there on June 5/6, 1944 (no photos inside allowed).

And so by the chance of Sarl Locagis’s schedule, we stumbled on the annual reunion of World War II veterans, their families and friends, school groups, onlookers, all here now, all thinking back to a day when the weather was slightly worse and the toll on lives lost is hard now to fathom.

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Hit hard now by history, we push forward.

The villages along these Normandy shores are quiet places now. Summer homes and water sports centers draw the attention of the families who come here to enjoy the stretches of sand and water.

But there are monuments as well. And flags: English, American, Canadian, Polish. And plaques. And cemeteries.

Like for so many, D-Day images for me, come from movies. The Longest Day, Band of Brothers.

Not after today.

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We picnic at Lion sur Mer, right on the water’s edge. It turns cold and a few dark clouds roll in, threatening rain.

A million men landed, a war was won. Much later, but it was won. No one doubts that it needed to be won.

Sar Locagis forgives us the extra miles. The many extra miles.

We eat well on this night at Le Breard, where plates resemble paint palates and food is presented with pomp and flair.

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But it’s the Normandy cheeses, served at the end, that stay with me. Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, Pave d'Auge, Camembert. Creamy, soft and pungent, the same as they have been for so long. Centuries. Years of war, quiet times. Same cheeses.

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