In the cookies of life, sisters are the chocolate chips~Author Unknown
On Sunday, we decided to go to Mont St Michel, one of the most visited places in all of France, right behind Paris. Naturally we picked the worst day to do it, the Sunday of a three day holiday weekend, and the roads and parking lot were packed. Mary and I had seen this place on the Europe trip in 1971 and we wanted to see it again. I’m beginning to think that maybe that part of my journey needs to be let go. So far, the places I’ve re-visited have mostly made me sad, the memories I have from the first visit are so precious and clear, I hate to muddy them with the sight of the progress of time. Mont St. Michel was built by hermit monks who wanted some peace and quiet. Originally, it was an island, only accessible at low tide. When we went in ‘71, we parked on the wet sand, walked to the island and had to leave before the tide came in, not many tourists at the time. Now there is a huge parking lot, which was quickly filling up when we arrived, and shuttle buses that carry tourists to and from the Abby. The causeway had changed the way the tide came in so that the water no longer surrounded the island at high tide. There was scaffolding all over the place, from ongoing repairs, and a much larger causeway being built in order to get more people there faster. The streets were jammed with people, so we walked on top of the rampart walls, trying to avoid the crush. We were done within thirty minutes, neither one of us having the patience for crowds. For us this was a place much more beautiful from a distance, like the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge.
We decided to drive around and try to find a war cemetery for English soldiers we had passed on the way. There was also one for German soldiers so we looked for that too. The German cemetery was somber, actually a crypt containing the remains of nearly 12,000 German soldiers. We walked around the two story building in under five minutes, it was hard to imagine that such a small space represented so many lives lost. The British cemetery was much more uplifting somehow, and we wandered around for nearly an hour. Each headstone bore more than just name, rank, DOB and DOD. There were symbols carved into the headstone representing the division they fought for and there was also usually something personal from the family, from flowery little poems, to one that said only, “I love you Daddy.”
As we slowly meandered back to Caen, we found a nearby town and looked for lunch. I drove by a little restaurant that was packed inside with a full parking lot, so I said, “This is the place for us.” We walked into the tiny little room and every table was full but we went to the waitress anyway. She pointed to a four top seated with only two people, and offered that to us. I looked at Mary and she was very reluctant but I told her this was how I met so many people on the road. Do scary things, get out of the comfort zone. So we sat next to the couple, a youngish woman and an elderly man. They nodded their heads at us as we sat down, but made no effort to chat. The menu was written on a chalk board and I translated as best I could for Mary. She decided on the chicken and I said, “I think I’ll get the sausage and potatoes,” at which point the girl next to me quickly looked at me and shook her head no, not saying a word.
“Is it not good? What should I get instead?” and she suggested the steak, which was what she was having. We chatted a little after that but she was more interested in finishing her lunch and getting on with her day. So, we didn’t make friends that time, but Mary got a taste of what my life has been like since I left home.
We left the next morning to head back towards Paris and then Brussels. We were spending tonight in Rouen, the following night in Paris with Jean Marc and Anita, then the last night with my friend Anita in Brussels before I had to take Mary to the airport there. Our last night in Caen, we had pulled out the map to try to figure a decent halfway point to Paris and when Mary saw Rouen, she said, “Oh, can we go there? I found some old postcards of Grandad’s from when he was an ambulance driver there in WWI.”
“Sure, it’s as good a place as any to stop for the night.”
We wanted to see Etretat on the way, it was a spectacular cliff formation north of LeHavre that we had somehow missed when we were driving down. We made it to the center of town, knew we were near the ocean, found a great parking spot and walked to the boardwalk. It was freezing and super windy so we looked at the cliffs, took a couple of pictures and jumped back in the car. Mary and I travel well together, we don’t fool around with long, lingering looks and walks by the shore, especially not when it’s cold.
As we continued north with some east thrown in, we passed through lots of small towns and villages, avoiding the autoroute. Today was a holiday, November 11th, Remembrance/Armistice Day in most of Europe, a day people pay tribute to the war dead from World War One specifically, unlike Veteran’s Day in the US, which celebrates all veterans from all wars. We passed through one small town, Criquetot-l’Esneval, and noticed a band, police and lots of people milling about in front of the Mairie, or town hall. We kept on going but Mary said, “I bet they’re having a parade for Remembrance Day. Can we turn around and watch it?” So, we turned around, found a spot to park and walked back towards the hubbub. They were just beginning to line up, band first, then a group of policemen with fancy gold bike helmets, a group of important looking men, a group of frenetic looking children and the rest of the village falling into line at the rear. Mary and I joined this last group. We marched along with the band playing, with no idea where we might be going. We flowed along for about five or ten minutes until we came to the gates of the cemetery and a statue of a soldier standing on an engraved stone, commemorating those from this village that had died in the war. There were speeches and flowers and the children sang, I think the national anthem but I’m not sure. It was very touching that so many people came, that something that happened so long ago was still honored here. We knew that if a town this small was acknowledging this day, it must be happening all over the country. I know we do this in the US, but it doesn’t seem as vibrant and meaningful as this did, like many are just paying lip service. For example, every single town, no matter how small, that I have ever been to anywhere in Europe or in the UK, has a memorial to it’s WWI dead. They often have added the names of those from WWII but they all started as WWI stones. We don’t have that, not from any war, not in such an all-encompassing way.
We moved on after the parade. We were using Leona to guide us but Mary had the map out as well. Leona kept trying to get us to use the autoroute and I kept ignoring her and trying to use the map to go on smaller roads. We finally got so confused, the map and Leona weren’t matching at all and we were completely lost. I decided I’d follow Leona to the autoroute and just let her be in charge, but I think I'd already pissed her off by ignoring her so many times, and she was about to pay me back. We were really in the middle of nowhere, and heading towards the kind of cranes you see at docks. It was getting more and more industrial and weird, no people, no stores, the roads getting smaller and we hadn’t seen signs for the autoroute in miles. Leona said, “Approach the roundabout, take the third exit on the roundabout”, just like she always does but this led us down a one way, one lane street. This could not possibly be leading to any autoroute. We came around a curve and saw three stopped cars ahead of us and Leona says, “Board the ferry.” Oh. My. God. That BITCH. Where in the hell are we? Ferry to where??? We quickly became trapped by cars pulling in behind us, with no idea how long we would be here, wherever “here” was. I am laughing with that edge of hysteria to it, repeating breathlessly, “Board the ferry” over and over, as Mary just looks at me and begins to laugh too.
I got out of the car to see if anyone in line spoke English so we could figure out where we were and how to proceed. The first guy, on a motorcycle, responded “No,” without even looking at me when I asked him if he spoke English. No one in the next two cars spoke English but the guy right in front of us did, “a leetle beet,” he tells me.
“We’re trying to get to Rouen (I’m pronouncing it Roo-en like hen), can you help me?” and he doesn’t understand me at all. I repeated Rouen several times and he finally says, “Aaah, Roo-on,” but without the “n” sound, the n just got lost and the “on” part was said with that weird, “hock a loogie” sound they make for certain words. Hard to describe unless you’ve heard a Frenchman speak French.
He confers with his wife in the passenger seat and they decide that yes, I can get to Rouen using this ferry, it’s very simple. The ferry turns out to be free and is only a ten minute ride and we only had to wait ten more minutes for it to show up. Phew, crisis averted. We took the time to have some tea from a thermos we had bought for our road trip. I wished it had been something stronger than tea in there.
I know that these things always have a way of working out even better, these happy accidents of traveling without a plan, but sometimes I do forget and get a little attached to what I thought was supposed to happen. The good news is, no matter how crazy things get, I forget that anxiousness almost immediately and go straight for the funny, fun part of the adventure. Maybe one day, with enough travel behind me, I’ll be able to skip the anxious and go right to the funny.
As we approach Rouen about an hour later, Mary very quietly asks me, “Hey Brooke, how do you say “R-E-I-M-S”?”
“Well, I’m sure it’s wrong but I say “Reems". Why?" (That is totally wrong by the way, Emily later told us it’s pronounced “Rahns”, like rinse only with an “ah” instead of the “i” sound. Whatever.)
“Um, I’m pretty sure that’s where the postcards are from, not from Rouen. I got the two mixed up. I think I wanted to go to Reims.”
For me, there is something about family that brings out my child-like nature, like a super highway to my youth. When Mary and I are together, it’s a safe place to be silly and we have been called the giggle sisters. We have infected our other sister Emily, who is far away physically, but one of the Three Musketeers for sure. Our brothers tolerate the silliness very well, but they are not so easily swayed from their maturity. But it’s more than the laughter over nothing, it’s the safety to tell Mary my dreams and fears and know that she understands them and nourishes the dreams and eases the fears. She held me in her arms the night that Michael died, so I wouldn’t be alone in the bed I’d shared with him for nearly 32 years, as I sobbed for what seemed an eternity. She cried while I cried, she always has, and she’s always held me close and always will.
I miss my sister every day, but I love that she supports me 100% in my crazy dream. I know it was hard for her to see me go, but she set this butterfly free to return to her healed and that is exactly what I’m doing.