Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Adventures #2 & #3: Dijon & Normandy


I probably should just count these as Adventures 1.5 & 2 since Dijon was such a short trip and can be summed up in two words: mustard & churches. But it did get a butterfly sticker so I think it deserves some documentation. A big group of us went for the day and we spent a lot of time standing on corners, trying to figure out where to go. But we did manage to see some churches, as well as Les Halles, the big indoor market selling candies, mustard (duh), all kinds of game and poultry (still complete with their heads), fish, and produce. We saw three different churches in Dijon, bringing my church count to five so far. Not being very educated on gothic and/or renaissance architecture I have to confess that, though beautiful, they all look the same. But I do like the little patron saints chapels and the stained glass. We ate a very traditional French lunch, meaning it took three hours and involved innards. (For some reason I felt compelled to try andouille again, this time knowingly and it didn’t taste any better, even after pouring enough Dijon mustard on it to make my eyes water.) On the way back from Dijon, I visited Gray (another butterfly!), a tiny town outside Besançon. Here, I got to hang out with some fun peeps, I saw another church (six!) and I ate at a French McDonald’s in the name of cultural research. I liked the different fry sauce, but would have preferred more than 3 ice cubes in my Sprite and the McFlurrys definitely disappointed because you have to mix them yourself even though their McFlurry machine is just sitting right there. Click here for pics from Dijon!


Two days later, I left for Normandy with three other Besançon-area assistants: two from the UK (SO fun to have friends with cool accents) and one from Arkansas (less cool accent). We got along well (in my opinion) and had the same attitude and expectations. I’m SO lucky to have met them.

After meeting in Besançon Monday morning to game plan, we were on a train to Caen by 3:30 that afternoon (what did I tell you about whims?). We counted our little victories like successfully using the metro to change train stations in Paris or booking a tour we wanted or communicating absolutely anything in French. I failed at attempting a train manicure; you’d think it’d be a good way to use all that free time but you’d be disappointed. We celebrated our safe arrival that night with cider. Cider, a specialty of Normandy, is not the apple stuff I remember my brother liking at Christmastime, but a bubbly, dry, alcoholic drink. It’s very nice. Not having much of an idea of what we were going to do in Caen, the next morning we started wandering around. A very sweet town, we spent most of the day at the ducal chateau of William the Conqueror (who also pops up later in our trip). Not only was it free, it offered great views of the city, see for yourself. We could spy three church steeples but only went into one (seven!).

Our one casualty of going at the last minute was not being able to see Mont St. Michel, the island chateau about 2 hours away from Caen. I’ve heard it’s lovely but the D-Day tour and the experiences we had in Bayeux and Caen definitely made up for it. The weather even cooperated with us. France knows the Normandy region for its rainy and cloudy weather but gorgeous blue skies greeted us two out of our three Normandy days. The afternoon of the D-Day tour turned overcast, but we didn’t mind, as it seemed fitting and set the mood. At one point the sky was the exact same grayish blue as the water so the horizon seemed lost somewhere in the middle.


When we went to the tourist office in Caen, we booked a tour of the D-Day beaches that leaves from Bayeux, which meant we had to go to Bayeux (only 20 minutes by train and another sticker for my map). Bayeux, as in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you need a refresher as to what exactly the Bayeux Tapestry is like I did (OK, I honestly had no idea what it was), click here. Sounds a little boring, right? I went since I could get student prices with my expired ISIC card and old LSU I.D., but I actually enjoyed it. A super long stretch of embroidered cloth behind glass, you get an audio guide (price included!) to talk you through the depicted events. Since barely anyone could read at the time, the government commissioned the pictorial tapestry to convince citizens that William the Conqueror is awesome and that everyone should hate the British. So basically, it’s advertising! Yay for Mass Comm! (OK, technically it’s propaganda, but everyone always assumes that’s a bad thing because of Animal Farm.) Between seeing what may have been one of the first PR campaigns and living in the birthplace of the Lumière Brothers, I’m covering Mass Communication and French thus using BOTH my majors. Maybe my degrees aren’t all that worthless…

A needlepoint thing in the gift shop tempted me because then I could create my very own mini Bayeux tapestry! Just like the monks or whoever. But the 60€ price tag changed my mind. Probably for the best, because now I’m picturing myself needlepointing away the evenings in Besançon while watching Circle of Friends and Little Women. All I would need is Lizzie to ship me some of her cats. (Much love to Lizzie by the way for sending me my first letter in France not from my mom! Not that I don’t LOVE your cards too, Moma.)

Before catching our train out of Bayeux we found the cutest restaurant where I got my current answer to the “what was the best thing you ate?” question. Autumn Salad: Potatoes, mushrooms, and Camembert (a cheese of Normandy!) on top of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers and a little ceramic pot of soft-boiled egg. And after lunch we learned from an ATM that we got our first paychecks! (My first thought was that I totally could have afforded that needlepoint thing, cats or no cats.) Click here to see some pics of Bayeux. There’s about 50 times more English floating around than Besançon and some of the restaurants and shops have signs: “Welcome to our Liberators!” Are they perfectly catering to their tourist clientele or what? I liked talking with the other Americans we saw, but I’m still waiting for my first LSU-apparel sighting. I can’t wait to “Geaux Tigers!” them and then become best friends. That’s just one of the many things I hope to accomplish in the next six months.


We had an absolutely incredible tour of the D-Day beaches and you can see my pictures here. At first 40€ seemed expensive (even with my shameless claim to still be a student) but it was completely and utterly worth it. Our guide, Christophe, brought us to Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, as well as some out of the way places I doubt we would have normally seen. He earned some more points when, at the cemetery, Christophe stopped his speech to say to himself “I love this one” when the bells played “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The fact that he was so knowledgeable and appreciative and respectful made him that much better of a tour guide. I would have happily paid the full adult price I was probably supposed to pay in the first place.

I feel like anything I try to articulate about visiting these sites would seem trite and uninformed. All I know is that while you’re standing on this beach with its clear, clear water and beautiful views of bluffs and cliffs, it’s impossible to imagine what actually happened, impossible to imagine the water running red and the bluffs raining down bullets and shells, impossible to imagine the hell on earth. But even harder to imagine? This hell didn’t end right after June 6th but lasted and lasted. So, as a soldier, even if you made it through D-Day itself, you couldn’t feel ease or relief because tout de suite, your next nightmare began.

In our little minibus (Ubaye flashback), we first stopped at Point du Hoc, a battered bluff near Omaha Beach. I love that the French left everything as it was and didn’t try to restore or move it. The German bunkers and pillboxes (built by French prisoners) still exist and you can walk and climb all over them. Bombings from ships and planes left the entire area, once flat farmland, completely cratered and treacherous. When I walked down into one of these craters the quiet down there struck me, but then I realized how incredibly not quiet it most definitely was the day the crater was made.

From the beach Christophe pointed out the American Cemetery as a group of pine trees atop one of the bluffs. Once I stood among the graves up there, I could smell those pines. Ascetically, seeing the similar grave markers lined up just so, by the hundreds, is powerful. Our guide made a point about the mélange of surnames and their represented ethnicities on the stones, a true example of the melting pot of America. I saw them lower a flag as taps played, I found a Louisiana soldier’s grave, and spent the time walking around by myself. I loved learning that American military cemeteries abroad must be positioned to face the US. So at Omaha, all the gravestones face west; the soldiers face home.

“To these we owe this high resolve, that the cause for which they died should live.”

1 comment:

  1. I am loving your blog! See everything you can, so I can live through you!!!!