Saturday, April 7, 2012

Never Forget

(left: Bayeux Embroidery)
Sometimes, when you're living in Paris, you get hankering for a change. You want to climb aboard a TGV and go someplace so fast that you get whiplash trying to figure out what train stations you're not stopping in. (For those of you who haven't tried it, the TGV is le Train à Grande Vitesse, the famously high-speed long-distance train that zips through the countryside and through eardrum-bursting tunnels somewhere between 200 and 357 m.p.h.). You want to see the ocean, because you've heard that France is surrounded on three sides by ocean. You even want to go someplace where they don't drink wine. And if you're Le Prof, you want to see something medieval, one of those not-coming-to-the-Met-anytime-soon, got-to-visit-some-little-town-in-Europe-to-see-it spectacular medieval attractions they've got there.

(left: Château de Caen, started by Guillaume le Conquérant)

So La Potiche planned a short vacation on the Norman coast, so that Le Prof could see the Bayeux Embroidery! And William the Conqueror's Castle and Abbaye! Because Le Prof gets so happy to see artifacts of the Middle Ages that he waves his little fists in the air and shrieks with joy. "OMIGOD! LOOK AT THAT! THERE ARE REAL LIVE GOATS IN WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR'S KEEP!" For the record, Le Prof wants me to tell you that he also knows lots of staid facts about, like, forest legislation and noble privilege in the thirteenth century. For the record, I'm going to tell you that Le Prof waves his little fists about forest legislation in the thirteenth century, too.

But what was in it for La Potiche? Le Prof said, "We're there for two nights and three days, right?"

"Yes," said La Potiche.

"And we're going to Bayeux the first day, and Caen for William the Conqueror stuff the last day, right?"

"Yeysss," said La Potiche, looking furtively into the distance.

"So what are we going to do the middle day? What do you want to do, Bub?" ("Bub" is what Le Prof calls La Potiche in the real life.)

(left: apple desserts, cream. Two of the things Normandy does best. The other one? See below.)

La Potiche was planning to indulge a secret vice. Some of you who've known La Potiche a long time, or a little time, are nodding wisely to yourselves. "Food," you're thinking, remembering all the Norman creamy desserts and Camembert-sauced things and bulots and terrines she FB'ed about. But that's not her secret vice; that one's right out in the open.

Three nights before our departure for Normandy, it was La Potiche's turn to pick a movie. She and Le Prof were snuggled into their hide-a-bed with the pillows nice and fluffy and the laptop warm in their laps, and La Potiche hit play.

Le Prof started. "Wait--what? We're watching a John Wayne movie?"

"It's got Arletty and Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum," La Potiche said, looking furtively at the screen. "All our favorites. And it's about France."

"It's got Sean Connery," Le Prof said disapprovingly.

"It's got Richard Beymer from West Side Story," La Potiche said.

"You mean Richard Beymer from Twin Peaks?" said Le Prof.

"The same," said La Potiche.

The movie was, of course, The Longest Day (1962), a film about the World War II Allied invasion of France.

Le Prof said, "Wait a minute. Are you saying you want to go on one of those Invasion Beach tours? I don't know about that."

He was thinking of the time he found La Potiche weeping inconsolably over her copy of Les Misérables and, on her laptop, the Google satellite view of Waterloo, Belgium, and mumbling, "There's this DITCH, right across the plain--and those poor guys on horses aren't even going to see it!!!!!" And the time when she didn't sleep for two nights because she was so agitated about the Battle of Schöngrabern in War and Peace. And the time La Potiche dragged him to the Civil War encampment reenactment at Governors Island and embarrassed him forever by harassing the Union officers' wives about where they were hiding the captured rebs--because she'd be d--d if she'd go all the way to Governors Island without seeing some captured rebs. Or the time they were back at Governors Island, this time to see an open-air performance of Henry V, and he didn't think twice about La Potiche's asking him idly, "What kind of battle cries did English soldiers yell in, like, the early fifteenth century?" Until the moment when La Potiche shrieked, "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" and went running away ahead of him, and ahead of the English army too, in search of some actors playing French soldiers for her to attack.

Or all the effort she put into trying to convince him, last summer, to spend a thousand dollars they really needed for French visas and travel insurance and airfare, on a road trip to Gettysburg. "La la laaaaa, la-la-la laaa," La Potiche sang, which was, of course, "Ashokan Farewell," the title theme of Ken Burns' 1990 PBS miniseries, The Civil War--and then she started bawling, because that's what "Ashokan Farewell" does to her, and the road trip got dropped. La Potiche's secret vice is battlefields. She has turned into her dad. The weeping and screaming are her own personal touch, though.

La Potiche got Omaha Beach, and Le Prof got William the Conqueror. Like most tourists to Normandy, at least judging from Tripadvisor, we didn't see, at first, how these two interests were reconcilable. But of course when we got there, we saw that WWII tourism and medievalist tourism are absolutely complementary, because Normandy is about war, and maybe always has been.

The city of Caen offers a chilling example of a millennial perspective in war. William the Conqueror thought Caen was a place of strategic importance. It has a knee-breaking hill, upon which you can perch your big freaking fortress and look down upon invaders. It straddles a wide river that flows only a few miles to the ocean. That is why the Germans holed up there: because towns containing big freaking fortresses tend to have defensive advantages over towns that don't have big freaking fortresses. It took the Allies two whole months to take Caen, after which the city looked like this. (right)

Next, this is Caen in 2012:

The roofless, bombed-out tenth century church of Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux, a church that William himself might have visited while he was busy building his Abbaye aux Hommes across the street, and Queen Mathilde was building the Abbaye aux Dames on the other side of the castle. A shell landed on it in 1944. To the right you can see the kind of buildings they built in Caen after the war.

Bayeux, where the Tapestry/Embroidery is housed, is a completely charming, well-preserved medieval town, with a beautiful cathedral, cobble-stoned streets, and good restaurants. Bayeux was the bishopric of Odo, William the Conqueror's half-brother. It's like Odo said, "Let's build this town so that our restaurants will last a thousand years." It owes its preservation entirely to the fact that it is strategically useless: far from the sea, and too narrowly built to accommodate tanks in the streets. It was the first city to be liberated by the Allies, and the Bayeux Museum of the Battle of Normandy indulges in some not-entirely-sensitive gloating about its preservation. But Bayeux also contains an art work / historical record / propaganda piece that depicts war in amazing detail: failed diplomacy, deforestation for the war machine, mobilization, an epic cross-Channel naval invasion, provisioning, and horrific violence on the battlefield. If somebody made a 70-meter embroidery of the Allied Invasion of France, it might not look so unlike the Bayeux Tapestry.

This is Pointe du Hoc, pitted by shell craters. Some of the craters are twenty feet deep; the almond-shaped holes were launched from the sea, and the round ones dropped by planes. There's no knowing how long the craters will be there, if, perhaps, they might still pock the landscape a millennium from now. There's no knowing what other wars, or what else, might change the shape of the ground--or what remains of other battles were obliterated by the air raids, because WWII was only the most recent war fought here. There are places on the Norman coast where the armies of Henry V laid siege, screaming "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" And Vikings. And the Wars of Religion, because the coast went Protestant. Charlotte Corday was educated at the Abbaye aux Dames. Normandy has been a battlefield for at least a thousand years. "Never forget" doesn't work here, in a place where there are so many wars to remember. And maybe that points to the irony of saying "Never forget" about any war.

That is why the inscription on the Commonwealth Memorial at Bayeux is perhaps the most touching of the memorials, and the most chilling: "NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS" ("We, conquered by William, have liberated the Conqueror's native land").

Did we forget what the conquered did at Agincourt? But then, Agincourt is in Pas-de-Calais.

Link to our Normandy trip pictures


  1. Liked this (deeply philosophical, and moving, and funny) post a great deal.

  2. Thanks so much, Jeffrey! Did you and Wendy go to Caen?

  3. As a family two years ago we went quickly through Caen on the way to Bayeux, our real destination. We didn't linger at any battlefields, though Alex was eager to see a bunker: we did that Normandy trip way too quickly. Two years before we'd been to Mont Saint Michel, and bypassed Caen then.

  4. Pointe du Hoc is a fascinating story of valour and pointlessness. The troops who took it discovered that the defending troops had removed the guns from the headland before the invasion... Lovely blog post, and thanks for reminding me of the Memorial verses in Bayeux. Did you get a chance to see the nearby War Correspondents memorial?

  5. RR, we're very glad you liked the post! I think La Potiche decided on Pointe du Hoc precisely because of the story of the missing guns, which we knew from both The Longest Day and from a documentary we watched the week before our trip. We did in fact visit the War Correspondents memorial, though we got a bit mixed up on the way there and nearly clambered the wall into an abbey garden. Found it very moving: so very many names!