|Some Gave All
We left Honfleur to go to Caen, which the internet said was pronounced Ken, but the French say Khan, like Kublai Khan, whereas Cannes is pronounced Can, like tin can only softer sort of. No one ever knew what we were trying to say anyway, in spite of our best efforts at pronunciation. Caen is centrally located to everything we wanted to see, so I had booked an Airbnb room there for four nights. We weren’t supposed to check in until 5pm, when our hostess got home, one of the small downfalls of Airbnb’s over hotels. You have to work out the arrival time in advance, via email or phone, and it isn’t always the most convenient for guests, but usually, it’s not a problem and it really wasn’t in this case either.
We spent most of our day in the Caen Normandy Memorial, Centre for History and Peace, a comprehensive WWII museum with a large section also devoted to the Cold War. Peace is emphasized by describing what non-peace looks like, through descriptions of how both WWII and the Cold War came about. It was well thought out and a must see for anyone interested in a tour of Normandy for war buffs. Caen, and Normandy in general were devastated by D-Day and the fighting in the months afterwards, with many cities 80-90% destroyed by Allied bombings of German troops in preparation for our landing. Thousands of French civilians were killed, homes and lives destroyed but they seemed to know that this was the cost that had to be paid in order to free France from the Nazi’s, and from all accounts, they showed nothing but gratitude for our arrival.
It was time to find our home for the next four days but we were having some trouble with our GPS, which we were now calling Leona (as in Helmsley) because she was such a bitch. She insisted that the street we were on, Leonardo da Vinci, was in fact the street we wanted to be on, rue de Bayeaux. I turned around three times trying to find the right house. The last time, we saw it as we drove by but couldn’t turn around on the narrow, busy street. Leona kept telling me to turn left at the next stoplight. This intersection turned out to be a huge roundabout, which normally Leona tells me about, saying “Enter the roundabout, take the third exit on the roundabout,” but this time, she kept repeating, “Turn left at the light,” so I did. Except it was, in fact, a roundabout, so essentially, I went the wrong way on the circle, with Mary yelling, “Brooke, this is a circle, you’re going the wrong way on a circle,” which at this point I could tell, because traffic was now coming towards me. Luckily, the street I wanted was the very first one to my left so I hit the gas and gunned it to the street and up the hill. “Leona confused me,” I said, as Mary and I started laughing, relieved that we hadn’t been clobbered by oncoming traffic. We finally parked on Leonardo da Vinci, around the corner, roughly a long block away from the house, and walked back.
We were staying in what was listed on Airbnb as a XVIII villa, and it probably was an XVIII villa but it looked like a row house on a long street of row houses. Our hostess, Isabella, a tiny, attractive woman, perfectly dressed and coiffed, was delightful and showed us around the house. The first thing we had to do was take our shoes off. No shoes in the house, which was absolutely gigantic inside, much larger than it looked from the street. Mary and I were on the third of four floors, apparently having sucked her into the weird stair karma that I'm clearing on this trip and am only sorry Mary had to suffer for. I have been in third floor rooms a number of times, not to mention all the train station stairs. My legs will hopefully be thin and wiry by the time I get home. What we did not know until we went downstairs later, was that every time we walked those stairs, our lives were in danger. They were highly polished wood to the second floor, then highly polished stone up to the third floor. In our stocking feet, due to the no-shoe rule, both of us nearly busted it several times. After the first few slips, we learned quickly, both looking like little old ladies, with careful foot placement, slow descents, gripping the handrail for dear life every time we ventured downstairs.
Our room was one of three guest rooms, facing the street, while the other two were on the garden side on the back of the house. The room was at least 20x20 maybe bigger, painted a peaceful, light blue, with tall windows, a fireplace, and high ceilings. We were sharing a WC and bathroom in the hall outside our room but Isabelle and Pierre didn’t have any other guests so we had the whole floor to ourselves. They lived on the second floor, with a bedroom, little sitting room and a large living room that stretched from the front to the back of the house, which we could use if we wished. The first floor was kitchen, dining room and home office. We paid twelve Euro’s extra the first two nights and had dinner with Isabelle and Pierre so we wouldn’t have to go out. In France, the best cooking is usually at home and this was no exception.
Over dinner our first night, Mary and I looked at all the flyers we had picked up along the way, and discussed our plans for the next four days with our hosts. We were going to St. Mere Eglise the next day since it was the farthest away, and working our way back. We had it all worked out, but when we got on the road, the minute we saw the Omaha Beach sign, we abandoned our well-laid plans and headed straight there. There is something so epic about this day, so much energy, time and effort went into the planning, so many lives lost in 24 hours, so many stories, so many heroes, the fate of an entire continent at stake, such a definite line between good and evil, right and wrong. There were other landing beaches, all integral to victory, but this beach turned out to be the most difficult on which to land. The US happened to draw this one, instead of Juno, Gold, or Sword and the most lives lost that day were here. It was sacred ground to Mary and I, and we walked silently along the shore, up the hill leading to the pillboxes and gun placements, and along the rows and rows of headstones in the American cemetery on top of the bluff overlooking the sands these men gave all to capture. There were fathers and sons, brothers, relatives that had died on this day, or in the days afterwards, that were buried together here. After the war, families were given the choice of having their soldiers brought home and buried in the States. Many chose to leave their loved ones at the place they fought so hard to win, with the men they fought and died next to, their brothers in arms.
That day and the next, we wandered all over Normandy, knowing the places we wanted to see but open to whatever showed up. We stopped at any roadside memorial, took tiny side roads for cemeteries of any nationality, German, English or American, and saw all the landing beaches. At Pointe du Hoc, a heavily fortified German gun placement overlooking both Utah and Omaha beach, we saw how accurately the Allied planes dropped their bombs, the bluff covered with hundreds of huge divets in the ground, some of the pillboxes and gun placements completely destroyed by direct hits. We went to some of the towns whose names we knew from all the war books and movies we had seen. St. Mere Eglise, Carentan, St. Lo…all were beautiful, as towns, the evidence of war distant but not invisible; newer block buildings next to ones from centuries past, pockmarked walls from bullets and bomb fragments, entire sections of churches repaired with newer stones, or damaged archways and steeples that could not be repaired. Some things cannot and should not be erased. For this part of France, they will be forever grateful and tied to the US, the UK, and Canada in a way that the rest of France will never be. Isabelle told us about a group called Les Fleurs de la Memoire, or Flowers of Memory. It is a volunteer group founded in 2000 by a French couple who wanted to honor those who died during the Normandy invasion. French families adopt a grave and at least once a year, put flowers on it when the American families can’t do it. Isabelle’s family adopted a grave years ago and take it very seriously, considering their soldier as a member of the family. I googled the story and am including a link to it because I found it so moving and a wonderful example of the gratitude still alive here. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90824280
St. Lo was one of our favorites because somehow part of the ancient fortress and much of the ramparts around it, built by Charlemagne in the 9th century, were still intact. This is a major crossroads town and had been contested in many wars between many nations over the years. During our “war tour” we had some light moments mixed in with the profound, but the one in St. Lo needs a little preface. Bathrooms in Europe are very different than in the States, and it’s always best to use one if it’s available whether you have to or not, a credo our well-traveled father taught us very early in life. In Europe, I have tried to follow this advice but sometimes the opportunities come along too infrequently. While there are public toilets, they are not abundant, they are not free, and they are typically not clean. I learned to keep pocket change very early in the game, once having to beg change from a little old lady walking by a toilet in a park in Trondheim. I also have a disturbing tendency to walk into Men’s rooms by mistake. I have done this repeatedly over the years and even though I look very, very carefully at the signs, I somehow still get confused. Many of the bathrooms are actually for both sexes, having stalls and urinals in the same room. Wow. I try to avoid those. I also try to avoid squat pots, a hole in the ground with two little platforms for your feet on either side of it. Yes, they still have those. Wow. My Mom wanted to write a book about the bathrooms of Europe. It could have been a bestseller.
So, walking around St. Lo, I had to pee pretty urgently and finally found a toilet in a small park on the top of the fortress walls. I looked carefully at the sign by the door, and it had a picture of a man, a woman and a child. I walked to the end of the small, dark green building but could see no other signs and only one other door which was locked. I went back to the first Door of Confusion, Mary close on my heels.
“What do you think this means?” I asked her and she shrugged, no help at all.
I went up to the door, terrified that I would open it to find a row full of men peeing in urinals, (been there, done that) even though we had seen no one around for the last ten minutes. As I gingerly pushed on the door, it opened one inch and I heard the toilet flush. I leapt backwards off the step with a yelp, Mary shrieked as she bolted for the end of the building. I’ve never seen her move so fast. I bent over double laughing, my legs crossed and tightly squeezed together, certain that I would pee right there, as Mary peeked at me from around the edge of the building saying, “What? What is it? What the hell’s in there?” I couldn’t even answer her I was laughing so hard, waiting for whoever flushed the toilet to come out and see me in this embarrassing condition, but no one did. I walked back to the door, still bent over slightly, using every muscle I had to hold it in, and knocked but no one answered. I pushed it open, expecting a long row of urinals and stalls, but it was only a single toilet and sink, like an oversized port-a-potty. And it was empty.
Who flushed the damn toilet?