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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  1. I think it's inevitable, Nina, that someone will mention that gorgeous plate-palette in the penultimate photo.

    So let me be the first to say, that's why France is so special. The melding of whimsy and elegance creates an unforgettable sensory experience there.

    Thanks for the continued tour.


  2. You are the best tour guide ever.

  3. Greetings from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

  4. wonderful wonderful tour.. Normandy has been on my mind all week.

  5. Nothing wrong with whimsy and elegance but to me the 2 most beautiful photos in your essay are the ones of the old veterans.

    Bless them. They won't be with us much longer.

    The daughter of a deceased WWII vet

  6. When I was a young advertising art director, my mentor was a quiet but very talented creative director by the name of Van Stith. Van was a great help to my early career and over time we became good friends. It wasn't until I had known Van for over a year that I learned about his WWII experiences. As almost all veterans of that war he was reluctant to talk about himself, but eventually the story came out. On the morning of June, 6, sixty four years ago Van was a young Sergeant in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed The Big Red One) in the first wave of the assault on Omaha Beach. He had already fought in battles across Africa and Sicily before returning to England to prepare for the invasion across the channel. Nothing could have prepared him for the first hours on that beach. Van did what thousands of others did that day -- he swallowed his terror and got on with the the job. That job involved reaching his objective and helping secure a beachhead, then through St. Lo, battles across France to the German border, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, battles into Germany through the Harz Mountains and finally into Czechoslovakia when the war ended. Van was was one of the lucky ones. He lived to see the end of the war, come home, get married, use the G.I. Bill to get an education, find a job he was good at and have a wonderful life. Sadly, Van passed away last year. As I see it, he was a hero. Not just for what he did that day but for how he lived every day of his life. Quietly,,,humbly...and with a spirit that left you better off for knowing him. Thanks for remembering the men like Van who made it home and all those who are buried in Normandy.

    Thank you too, for your giving a perfect description of one of the most beautiful places on earth. Every time I have been Normandy and Brittany I've been sorely tempted to buy a house and stay. I enjoy your photos and your candid portraits always impress me -- the ones of the WWII veterans are wonderful and so poignant.

    A few days ago you mentioned the Calvados Region. Have you tried Calvados? The double distilled apple brandy can range from a fiery rough drink to a smooth aged Hors d'Age or XO. Some of the best i've had are farm made "calvados fermier" made by one farmer following traditional methods. There is nothing better then sitting at table with friends after a good meal, sipping from a cup of coffee and a glass of calvados as we talk about... well... everything.

  7. It is wonderful to see there pictures of Normandy and the veterans, and Pegasus Bridge, too.

    I was born in 1946, and it was many years later that my father told me that – as a lance-corporal in the Durham Light Infantry of the British Army in 1944 – he had volunteered to be a glider pilot. Had he been accepted my father may well have been part of the Pegasus Bridge assault. Given the huge number of fatalities among the glider pilots who took part it is lilely, had he made it through the tests, I would not be here to see all this.

    Seeing images of Normandy and hearing the memories of those times always brings it home to me that those fateful few hours altered thousands of lives and ended so many future possibilities. It may be obvious that so many things were changed for years to come but it still is a sobering thought.

  8. First job I took after music school was as a roadie for a rock band on a European tour. We spent a lot of time in France, and came upon some of the allied cemeteries and memorials. Quite sobering in their sheer vastness.

  9. The men there this week-end were so pleased to talk, to have their photos taken. Perhaps in the course of the year, they are "merely" grandfathers, great grandfathers, retired. But here, they were allowed to be heros again. And all these years later, their memories are vivid and real.

    The gentleman with glasses was delighted that we were American. He could not say enough praise for our countrymen, whom he came to know at the time of the war. "You're always welcome in my home," he told us.

    I'll add a little to the various commemorations taking place this week-end in my Sunday post.

  10. Regarding the Pegasus Bridge, From Iain Murray at The Corner:

    Landing on Sword Beach, Brigadier General Lord Lovat had his piper play his commandos ashore. They pressed quickly ahead, reaching the Pegasus Bridge almost exactly on time. I say almost, because Lord Lovat felt a need to apologize to Lt. Col. Geoffrey Pine-Cotton of the 7th Parachute Battalion for arriving two minutes late.

    His Lordship was severely wounded at Breville a few days later and was unable to return to active duty upon recovery. He became Churchill's Minister for Economic Warfare.

    We shall not see their like again.


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