Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ancient Lands: France, Part 1



We are back in Germany at my brother's home. We had no internet in France except for a few brief stops at McDonalds for wifi, but really, it has been nice to be mostly unplugged while here. We aren't using our phones and are only checking email every so often, so it has been a vacation from everyday life in the best sense. Eric has left to return to our home while the kids and I spend another 9 or so days here. This long-planned trip is more than half-over and it has already been a feast for my senses.

Right now, there are so many things I want to remember and describe about France, so I'll begin and do my best. I am hopeful the photos will fill in the blanks where the words fail me.

Last Saturday, we Nusses, along with my brother's family, traversed a few yards of Germany, a few kilometers of the Netherlands, and all of Belgium to get to the rolling countryside of Northern France. Our destination, a tiny town called Blay with only a couple hundred inhabitants, is a few km from the town of Bayeux.

As we drove through France, we made a couple of observations. In some ways it is very similar in look and feel to the gentle farmland of the Mid-Atlantic region of the US where we live. My daughter said the land reminded her of Pennsylvania. We could imagine how the Eastern seaboard of the Americas could feel familiar and home-like to the first European settlers. In addition, to my eye,(and maybe I'm just experiencing romantic flights of fancy) there was an unmistakeable sense of quiet ancientness everywhere we went. A sort of round-cornered softness. Obviously the light is different, since we are at a different latitude, but there is something else as well. Pale-colored stone houses, stables, and other buildings that could possibly date from centuries ago (or have been painstakingly restored or rebuilt in their original style) are common. So many of the towns, villages and even cities still have a section with tiny, steep-roofed, close-set homes that sit right on the main road or a few farms arranged in the classic style of big house, barn and stables built (all of that certain-colored stone) around a central yard. Everywhere are churches and cathedrals and town halls from time out of mind, moss-covered, crumbling in places and somehow still standing.

There is also a kind of reverence to be found in so many places in Normandy, and this is one of the principal reasons I came. It has been a battlefield over and over again, and of course most recently during WW2. This part of France bears testimony of the effects of all that war, with ruins and castles and new alongside old at every turn. The quiet peacefulness of modern Normandy is in stark contrast to its history and all those old buildings seem to me to be standing up in a sort of silent, steadfast show of tenacity. "Take hope. We have been broken, but we are still here, and life goes on," they seemed to breathe.

And of course, in so many places, there are reminders of how much it mattered to these communities that the allies came up those beaches in 1944 and took Europe back from the grip of the Reich. There are memorials, bars and restaurants with names like 6 Juin (June 6), statues, flags, and stone plaques in places not on any tourist map that simply express the gratitude of an entire town for the bravery of Les Liberateurs, The Liberators. Know that I have no wish to romanticize war in any way, because it is brutal and for the men and women who fight, it is never simplistic or easy. Here in Normandy however, the feelings of the people touched by this battle are etched in stone, over and over again, in simple language that moved me to tears at times. I found it difficult to be cynical and instead felt grateful and astonished.

And so I was moved by this brief stay in Normandy. I will try to share details in other posts, but in this overview, I want to remember that I felt things deeply while I was there: The beauty of the land. The palpable lift to the soul afforded by FLOWERS everywhere (I'm not crazy to want flowers blooming near me as much as possible). The friendliness of the people. The stories from the war that helped me think so much about freedom and history and being a good citizen of the world. All of it. I want to remember the damp, fresh air, the blue and white skies and walking everywhere in the nearly constant winds coming in off La Manche that made me forget completely about how my hair looked and remember to breathe.
The River Aure in Bayeux

The farmstead where we stayed.

An entire city hall built as a monument to the d-day troops.

A door in a cathedral in
the town of  Ste. Marie du Mont. I saw this kind of
ordinary beauty everywhere we went. 

Another plaque. 

People adorn their houses with flowers and lace curtains.
Every day. In America, people write endless books and magazines on
how to get the French Country "look." Here is the real thing. 

The flower border next to our renovated stable that served
as our Normandy home

The owners believe this to be the symbol of the Knights of
Malta, meaning this was a safe place for them to find shelter
for the night. Holy History!

Can you read that? Above the window? 1720!


Off the main roads, we wended down narrow roads like this
one next to our farm. 

Spectacular clouds over Bayeux. 

Looking down the tiny, narrow streets of
Bayeux to the Cathedral there. 

Standing on Omaha Beach. 

My fairy-like niece dances in the wind with my scarf. 




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