Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”
Way back in September of 2021, I wrapped up my recollections of visiting the Beaches of Normandy with an emotional post, stating that I would be giving myself some time away from these harder travel stories for a little while. I have a ritual about writing these types of posts which often means sitting with those dredged up feelings of overwhelming sadness at the incomprehensible loss of life all those years ago. After spending so much time back at the beaches, remembering all the mental anguish I had experienced walking freely and unhindered where so many fell, I needed to focus on the lighter sides of life for a while. Little did I know this would translate into almost an entire year off from blogging.
Well, it’s now been 16 months now since my Beaches blog went live so…I’d say it’s OK to finally return to that unfinished travelogue. That said, I will be easing into it with a little human interest story to start things off.
Stephen felt, as he had done before at moments of extreme tension, a dislocation in his sense of time. It seemed to stutter, then freeze.
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
The mind truly is a fascinating bit of machinery – I’m sure I’ve mentioned that before.
When the mind is at peace, bathing in a sense of calm, moments somehow fly by and before we know it, the peace is gone and we have encountered a new problem to solve or responsibility to take care of.
I know this from the little meditation I have done in my life. When I am truly able to calm my mind and focus on my breath, 5-10-15 minutes go by in a snap and suddenly the meditation is over and it’s time to get going on my To-Do list again.
And yet, in moments of stress or tension, time seems to slow down or even freeze completely. It’s almost as if our mind wants us to savour every single second of intense anguish so as to ensure that we keep ourselves as far away as possible from similar situations in the future.
Wouldn’t it make more sense for the opposite to be true? For happiness and peace to drag on forever while sadness and strife are over in the blink of an eye?
If you know a trick to make the mind’s mechanics flip like this, please let me know. Because in today’s blog, I’m going to talk about a painful experience which seemed to last for ages. An experience which cemented my firm belief that all life is immensely precious – a belief I hold sacred especially in today’s day and age with the Covid-19 pandemic still ravaging the world and mass graves of Indigenous children being found throughout the country.
He wrapped himself in the cloak of his remembered world, hoping he would be safe in it where no shells or bullets could reach him.
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?
Sometimes it can be a safe place, somewhere to escape to when happiness and comfort seem unavailable in the present and the past instead offers a chance to relive a familiar feeling of peace.
At other times, what is meant to be a stroll down memory lane can turn into a desperate effort to get out of the swirling, churning undertow of past pain and back into the serene hindsight of the present.
Reading through my memories of our trip to Juno Beach in November of 2015 was an example of the latter.
I felt pleasantly detached from reality, as though I were walking a foot or so off the ground.”
Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn
And here we are again, a month or so after the last post returning to the beaches of Normandy. Now that I am re-reading my travel diary from this trip, I think this might be a four-part as opposed to three-part post. I want to devote all of Part Three to Juno beach, being Canadian.
With a sigh that seemed to come up from the soles of the feet, he rose…”
P.G. Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
I’ve made the executive decision to divide my rather long and emotional tale of my trip to the beaches of Normandy into several different posts. I do this not only in consideration of your time, dear reader, but also your mental health – especially as we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. I have a feeling this series will run to 3 or 4 posts and I hope you will join me for all of them.
They settled, just for one blessed instant, on a place that held love, not loss.
Louise Penny, A Still Life
I promise this entry will be much lighter than the last few chapters of my travelogue have been – finally focusing on a sense of peace and awe instead of destruction! Savour it well because the next one will tell of our visit to the beaches of WWII fame. And that one is a doozy.
After taking in as much as possible of the information about Caen’s experience of the Second World War, we turned away from this beautifully tragic city towards our next destination: Bayeux.
Ridley’s heart sank within him. Physicians say that this cannot happen, but editors know a sensation which may not be described in any other phrase.”
Robertson Davies, Leaven of Malice
Re-reading the last travelogue I published, so long ago now it defies reason, I was struck by the intense emotions which had been inspired by my research into the bombardment of Caen during World War Two. Before even embarking on the tale of my 2015 trip to France, I had known that many of my recollections would result in revisiting the hard feelings which accompanied almost all of our war-related outings but I confess I have been surprised by how much these musings have affected my psyche. So much so that often weeks or months pass before I feel that I can once again return to those days filled with, yes, adventure but also intense explorations of the human suffering that was the constant soundtrack to the World Wars.
Even now, all these weeks since I posted my last travelogue, I find I have to give myself a few moments to digest the thoughts and feelings laid out so honestly in my travel diary before I can even begin to craft another post.
And so, without further ado, we return to Caen, France to finish up the tale of our visit to that glorious if pained city in November of 2015.
“Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, ‘casualties may rise to a million.’ With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods
Fair warning – this post is long, gets a little dark at times and there are no visuals – besides the unrelated cover photo – but, if you’ll see it to the end, I hope you’ll enjoy it nonetheless.
After the shock of our first Canadian WWII cemetery, Dad and I were headed to Caen for what we hoped would be a welcome respite from all the doom and gloom of the innumerable graves, memorials, and listed dead. Unfortunately, even a visit to one of France’s large cities was not to be without its sorrowful moments.
Upon arriving in Caen we realized that it was, well, enormous compared to the places we had visited thus far. With a population over 117,000, it was almost overwhelming in its size after all the quaint villages and towns we had frequented during the trip thus far. Rather than enticing us, however, the clamouring and never-ceasing din of the city made it unlikely that our stay would be a very long one, especially after the emotional toil of the morning.
We parked as close to the center as we could get without getting lost, in the Place de la Resistance (or was it Republique? Or both? Are these interchangeable? Same thing, different Era?) by the enormous golden statue of Joan of Arc.
A few wrong turns on foot later (story of our largely mapless trip…) we stumbled unexpectedly upon the Abbaye aux Dames which happened to be, luckily, one of the two places I really wanted to see in this city.
I know, I know, another old church. But this one was commissioned by Queen Matilda herself! William the Conqueror’s wife, and a formidable woman in her own right of course. Not only that but she was also buried in this fortress of a holy place making it hallowed ground on which I very much wished to walk.
I can see the grounds and the magnificent building in my minds eye even if I cannot find my photos of the place. The spires reached towards the sky climbing to dizzying heights while the high ceilings and cool stone walls inside made for a calming, if a bit ostentatious, atmosphere. There is something about walking through an old stone church and running your hands along the always slightly damp-feeling walls which makes one contemplate who else might have once walked a similar path, or rested a feverish forehead against these same stones in prayer. I know I for one feel my breath begin to slow the moment I step under the archway into these places – the air hangs heavy with both time and incense, inviting me to quiet reflexion. It really is a most beautiful experience.
Tearing ourselves away from this place of rest, we made our way over to a building that would prove to be, quite literally, the complete opposite: the castle. Walking across the bridge towards the towering walls of stone, we could only imagine how intimidating this would have looked close to 1000 years ago when barely any of the city as we saw it existed. Majestic and awe- or dread-inspiring, I would bet, depending on the reason for your visit.
As we got closer to the impressively tall walls, I couldn’t help but notice the damage they had sustained at some point in time. Now, some of it may have been age…granted. Much of the castle was afterall over a thousand years old. But it didn’t look like that to me. It looked somehow more sinister…deliberate. I tried to shake these thoughts and focus instead on the visit ahead but they remained foremost in my mind throughout our exploration – and with good reason, I would soon learn.
Once we had entered through the strategically claustrophobic front gate, the inner courtyard of the castle was actually quite expansive. We looked around a little and realised there were two exhibitions on that required payment in two of the castle’s interior buildings (including the keep) but that, other than these, it was completely free to walk around. Since one of the exhibitions was on art and the other, rather randomly, on Neanderthals, we chose instead to just look around. We were also running out of time if we wanted to avoid looking for our next B&B in the dark…
One of the most incredible discoveries made, as per our M.O., entirely by accident was that of a plaque commemorating the Canadians who fought to liberate the city of Caen during the incredibly bloody Battle of Normandy. It was both unexpected and moving to find such a heartfelt thank you to our countrymen in the heart of this historical city. I’m always surprised to find any mention of our relatively young county in the midst of such ancient settlements.
After spending a moment or two (not longer since we were largely emotionally spent by this point) thinking of all the men who had to die in order for this memory to be made in the first place, we moved on to the oldest part of the castle at the back.
We were rather disappointed that the one building we wanted to explore was completely locked. It was the oldest building on the grounds and the only complete example of a medieval reception hall in France. I’m not even sure of what we would have found inside but, damnit, we wanted to explore it so badly. The exterior of this historic building, however, would have to do.
Moving past this there was a walled-in area which had been excavated by some university archaeologists in the past 5 years or so. We could see the crumbling knee-high remains of the castle’s ancient fortifications (dungeon, castle, keep, etc…) pushing through the dirt. It was fascinating to see such obviously levelled ruins inside another structure that was so much more intact.
It was only upon reading the panel accompanying the ruins that I realized not all of them were as old as they looked. Though all of the fortifications uncovered were built by William the Conqueror’s nephew (side-note: my goodness that man and his family really left their mark on this city), they were not all destroyed at the same time. Many of them had been destroyed periodically starting hundreds of years ago but the last, the chapel, had only been raised during the bombardments of WWII.
This discovery also explained the more recent scars I had also noticed in the outer walls – no wonder they had caught my eye. And yet, they had resulted from even more sinister a purpose than I could have guessed.
You see, this 1000-year-old chapel that had survived years and years of warfare, rebellions and goodness knows what else, did indeed succumb to the heavy bombardment of the 20th century’s industrial warfare. However, despite what you might be thinking, it wasn’t the Nazis who committed this crime against history and humanity (though I’m sure they committed plenty such crimes over the course of the occupation). No, this historic landmark was not felled by ‘enemy fire’, but instead by the heavy-handed shelling perpetrated by the allies in preparation for their storming of Caen during the Battle of Normandy.
For me, this ruined chapel starkly represented what must have been at least hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties in the ‘martyred city’ before its…liberation? I think it is an amazing indication of the resilience of the French people that they welcomed the allies in at all after the chaos and trauma that rained down on them courtesy of their ostensible liberators.
All these years later, I have done a bit more digging into the civilian experience of the Battle for Caen that led to the destruction of much of the city – not to mention wreaked havoc on the lives of so many innocents, if it didn’t end them outright. Finally, after several weeks where I barely had the energy to recall my emotions from this trip let alone come up with even a remotely fascinating obscure historical fact, I have somewhat of a gem for you.
In the days leading up to the allied bombardment of Caen, leaflets were dropped on the city to warn the residents of the carnage that was to come. Apparently these leaflets read something along the lines of, “The vital objective near which you find yourself will be continuously attacked. . . . Leave now! You don’t have a minute to lose.” How terrified must these people have been waking up to such a dire warning? Can you imagine walking out your front door and having a paper drop into your hand telling you to leave as soon as possible so as to escape your otherwise inevitable demise? Even if you were able to leave quickly and safely, you would have most assuredly been leaving behind the majority of your belongings, among them far more sentimental items then you could possibly carry with you. And yet, this is what so many of Caen’s citizens were expected to do days before their city would be almost blown from existence.
And leave many of them did. Leading me to my long-awaited (you await these, right?)…
Random Historical Fact #19
While I am sure there is so much more I could learn about this exodus, I found this Los Angeles Time article from 2008 which detailed at least one part of this harrowing experience. Apparently, since they had so little time to get to safety (not to mention – where was safe from fighting in Normandy after D-Day?), many people fled to the limestone quarries just outside the city to hunker down and, hopefully, survive this stage of the war. After witnessing the horrific occupation of their country by the Nazis, I can only imagine what they must have been thinking when their saviors made their grand entrance by laying their homes to waste. Some liberation – which is better? I assume most would answer freedom…but at what cost? I won’t recount the whole article here but it does tell the story of one young boy, only 7 at the time, who hid in a deep hole with his family for weeks while his home was subjected to an unknown fate. The boy, Gerard Mangnan, survived but his 18-year-old brother died. Having ventured out to steal some German ammunition, he had missed the entry rope and fallen to his death in his haste to escape the wrath of German bullets. Most of the boy’s memories, however, seem to center not on suffering (the blessing of childhood innocence?) but on the odd organized society that emerged as thousands of families waited out the war in their sunless shetler. Mangnan particularly recalls the Canadian troops that once visited bringing peace offerings of gum and biscuits. On a slightly darker note, however, he also recalled that the only way some of them knew that another day had passed was when the small patch of blue sky at the entrance to their refuge turned dark. Yet another young life turned upside-down (though, thankfully, at least not snuffed out) by that awful conflict.
The amount of people who took shelter in these caves is astounding – roughly one third of Caen’s pre-war population of 60,000. The only image I can conjure to try and comprehend the sheer number of refugees crammed into the quarry’s network of tunnels is the scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan huddle in the caves behind Helms Deep while their men defend them from an army of ruthless Uruk-hai – completely unaware if the next beings to walk through the doors to the caves would be friend (and therefore safety) or foe (and therefore certain death). I imagine that Caen’s citizens huddled similarly in their family units, shuddering as bomb after bomb fell outside, wondering if the cave ceilings would hold…and, if they did, what kind of world might greet them once they finally emerged from what was both a sanctuary and a prison.
Knowing that, despite the successful evacuation of one third of the population, the allied bombardment of Caen was to nonetheless exact a heavy human toll on the people of that once beautiful city, I feel it is important to learn as much as we can about the individuals who were there – both the victims and the survivors. This is the only way to turn the dry and ultimately incomprehensible statistics of military history into something human beings can understand and therefore empathize with. If we do not make an effort to do so, as Mr. Gaiman said (I’m paraphrasing a little), these individual stories will be washed away by the tsunami of suffering still experienced by so many souls…becoming numbing and meaningless statistics once more.
I have more to say about Caen and then Bayeux-by-night but I think I should really leave this post there. I know that without photos this was a long one to read and, if you have made it this far, I thank you sincerely for trusting that this was worth your while.
I’ll be back next week for Travel Tuesdays, I promise.
Until then, despite how hard these days are, remember…Life is Beautiful
“In town, there was silence bled into by whispered talk”– Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom
Today is the day I finally return to my retelling of the trip I took to France with my Dad back in 2015. Fingers crossed I can actually finish this story in a timely fashion! The last travelogue took me, what, a few years? In an attempt to get this done in a timely manner…this post is a long one. Fair warning.
Recommitting to writing for what feels like the 1000th time isn’t easy but, hey, it’s bound to stick sometime. At least that’s what I keep telling myself every time I miss a day of writing for whatever reason. One of my resolutions this year was to try to put less pressure on myself when it comes to achieving non-essential goals. My husband will tell you I consistently keep a daily to-do list of more than 10 things I want to achieve, which would be fine if I didn’t get anxious, stressed and incredibly emotional when I don’t achieve each and every one of these goals. Since these negative feelings are often accompanied with a whole heck of a lot of self-criticism, I’m trying to make it easier for me to achieve my goals as a way to feel more accomplished and less self-critical. And if I don’t achieve one or more of the things on my list one day, or even several days in a row, so be it! I mean, I am a new mom and only human, for goodness sake.
All this to say, this is me attempting to return to a weekly post on here at a minimum. I can’t promise I’ll achieve this every week, but you better believe I’m going to try. And if it doesn’t happen? I’m not going to beat myself up. I hope you, dear reader, won’t be too disappointed either.
“Overall, the library held a hushed exultation, as though the cherished volumes were all singing soundlessly within their covers.” – Diana Gabaldon, Outlander
I feel the need to start off this post with an admission that despite the quote chosen above, I am not writing about a library, per say. That is not to say the location described never held any tomes of the written word within – in fact I can safely say that it once contained mountains and mountains of books – but rather this quote seemed to help me recall the feeling of walking around its hallowed grounds in a way I found both evocative and inspiring.
For, this was the day I finally got to walk up the steep paths of the legendary Mont Saint-Michel. And let me tell you, it truly did not disappoint.
We started the morning off bright and early, having gone to bed at an overly decent hour, with a lovely breakfast consisting of fresh baguettes, homemade white cheese, butter, jams, raisin buns, cake and – of course – coffee. I must say, for the entirety of our sojourn in France, I was both confused and enamoured by their style of breakfast. See, in North America at least, the preference tends to be towards savoury-style breakfasts (definitely the kind of breakfast my husband prefers). I know what you’re thinking, “But, Erin, Canada is famous for it’s maple syrup-drowned pancakes”. Well, yes, you’re totally right. But in most peoples’ experience, I would wager, this was a treat for a Saturday or Sunday morning complete with cartoons and pajama time that stretched luxuriously until noon or later. On most mornings, some eggs and toast will suffice (and bacon! If you have the time).
However, I digress.
The breakfast, however sweet for my taste, was scrumptious. A treat I was able to enjoy largely in silence as Dad did most of the talking every time Bernard popped his head in while I proceeded to stuff my face. You’d be surprised at how much food I could consume back then – certainly not the case anymore! I have slowed down considerably in my, er, older age.
Right after breakfast, we headed out on our short journey to Mont Saint-Michel and, honestly, I was shaking with anticipation (or from the abundance of strong coffee — we’ll never know, will we?). This place had been on my bucket list forever so the chance to finally see it in person was just unreal.
Due to my sheer excitement, when we were still a fair distance away I made Dad stop on the side of some random road beside a field because there it was…already!
In the far distance, across goodness knows how many kilometers of flat ground, Mont Saint-Michel rose up our of the mists like a mirage. I can think of nothing I have seen before or since which can compare with this view. It was like reality’s best imitation of the most elaborate fairytale location imaginable.
I did, finally, get back into the car and allow Dad to drive us there but it was hard not to just stand there forever and stare. It was only the promise of seeing it up-close-and-personal that made me move.
After parking the car, we opted for the 40 minute walk to the Mont as opposed to the 5 minute shuttle service – and I’m damn glad we did. This way, we got to savour 40 minutes of that view. Totally worth the exertion (I’m not sure pregnant me would be in agreement but, she was not present at the time). I think I took a million photos – if I could only find them all!
The walled city/abbey crossbreed was no less spectacular once we entered it. A winding, narrow cobblestone street made its way languorously to the pinnacle where the abbey sat. It was a wonderful, picturesque climb.
We also stumbled, rather unexpectedly, on a plaque proclaiming that it was on that very spot in the 16th century where Jacques Cartier was given his orders to explore Canada. How cool is that? A little piece of Canadian history in my new favourite place in all the world (do I give that title out a lot? I feel as if I do…)
We explored a little chapel which seemed to appear out of nowhere, and yet another memorial to the local war dead, perhaps all the more stark for being surrounded by so much peaceful beauty. Finally, having appeased our curiosity by exploring as much of the lower levels as possible, we made our way up to the Abbey itself.
The tour of the Abbey was very well laid out, though much of it was blocked off at the time unfortunately (including the stairs to the bell tower – so much for my tradition of climbing the tallest tower available!). Despite these closures, however, it was no less awe-inspiring. So many cavernous rooms containing long rows of pillars reminiscent of Moria (though it was, in fact, Peter Jackson’s inspiration for Minas Tirith instead), and a breathtaking view of the coast of Normandy. With the fog still hanging heavily in the air throughout the countryside, the view was unforgettable.
The cloister also featured one wall which had a huge floor-to-ceiling “window” of modern glass being the only thing stopping us from tumbling to the ground below. If that had simply been precariously-thin stained-glass once-upon-a-time, as Dad suggested, it can’t have been very safe. I’m curious as to how many accidents were narrowly avoided… Not a place to walk around with your head in the clouds…or your nose in a book!
We also came across the top of a chute we had jokingly called the “toboggan run” looking up at it from below. It was, in reality, far too steep for even the bravest of Canadians to attempt a run. At any rate, as Dad and I stood there, we both experienced shaking ankles and calves as well as a pain in our legs. We chalked it up to our incredible fear of heights (we were both looking straight down) but I read over lunch that day the following story:
Random Historical Fact #17
Though intended to be a place of quiet religious contemplation, during the French Revolution and the numbered days of the Napoleonic Empire the Abbey was actually converted into a prison to house people deemed to be enemies of whatever regime they had managed to anger (remember – power changed hands swiftly during these trying years). At one point during the Abbey’s tenure as a daunting dungeon, one such political prisoner decided he would rather take his fate into his own hands and choose to leap to his death rather than face an unknown length of time rotting in an isolated cell. Though the exact location he lept from does not seem to be agreed upon publically (at least from the research I have done thus far), while Dad and I were there it was suggested that the top of this chute was where it happened. I can’t imagine being so desperate to avoid a situation that you decide to cease living instead but, then, this man wouldn’t be the first or the last to make this heart wrenching choice.
Though I may not have any proof that this is where Gautier leapt to his doom, I’ve spoken before about sensing pain or suffering in a location, even if no evidence persists. Believe what you will, but I know what we both felt standing there…and it still gives me shivers.
Our time at the Abbey did eventually come to a close as we enjoyed some fresh crepes and local cider (both specialties of the region) and a bit more rambling to walk off the food, as well as a Croque Monsieur for me because…France.
After a disappointing walk through a fake “Village Mont Saint-Michel”, which basically consisted of luxury hotels and huge restaurants to cater to the thousands of tourists who flock, unsurprisingly, to the Mont every year, we jumped in the car and headed on to our next stop – St. Malo.
As we drove through countless coastal villages, my heart was again broken by the sheer amount of memorials to lost soldiers on the side of the road. At one point, we went through two villages in the span of a minute or so, both of which had their own memorial dedicated to 40-odd combat dead…the villages today couldn’t have had more than a couple hundred inhabitants total; in either. How many men even came back? The mind (and the stomach) reels.
I was still trying to process these thoughts when we rolled into St. Malo and the finding of the Old City, thankfully, acted as a welcome distraction. We found parking underground at the port and headed a few paces through the gates of the medieval city.
The sight that greeted us was already familiar though no less striking. A curving network of cobblestone streets and surrounded by a grandiose stone wall complete with a network of defense towers.
Before the fun could begin, however, it appeared the heartbreak was not yet over.
We stumbled suddenly upon the city’s Jardin de Resistance which memorialized not only war-combat-dead but also the civilian casualties from the German siege of the city (so many) and the French Resistance fighters either executed en-place, or deported to Dachau or other concentration camps and killed there. Their ashes, or the ashes of far too many victims of Nazi cruelty in general, were eventually brought from the camps and spread on the ground around a horrible stature of an arm-less soldier crying out in agony. This time, I couldn’t stop the tears. Luckily, Dad knew me well enough to let me be. I’m not sure that I am terribly upset that I cannot find my photo of this statue but please do feel free to look it up if you want an idea of how horrifying it was.
After this incredibly somber note, Dad and did our best to enjoy an afternoon of rampart walks and a stroll along the coast, barefoot no less, to one of the adjoining islands which held the tomb of some famous writer that he knew though I was, embarrassingly, clueless.
While on the ramparts, we were overjoyed to find an hysterical statue of a flamboyantly famous Corsair as well as a statue of Jacques Cartier himself (right near the Maison du Quebec, appropriately).
After the glories of Mont St-Michel, one would think little could please Dad and I but I will say that St. Malo was a pleasant surprise. The day was then topped off by a fantastic dinner in some small town – the first place we could find as everything seems to shut there after 2pm not to re-open until closer to 9 in the evening. The owner of this place, however, made up for it by being the consummate host, serving up the best seafood pasta and Stella a physically and emotionally tired girl could ask for.
Finally, we rounded it all out with a view of the spectacularly lit-up Mont St. Michel after dark. I may be unable to find my photos of this (though I guarantee you would have no problem finding some with a quick Google search) but I’ll never forget the sight.
It may not have been a library, per say, but that view certainly held a hushed exaltation, as if the stones themselves were singing soundlessly within their mortared homes.
I told you the quote fit.
More in two-weeks! And, remember, Life is beautiful.