Sunday, August 29, 2004

Chilling the Wine

When we got back to the hotel with our (unopened) bottle of wine, I walked up to the desk and asked if they could chill it for us. I struggled with the words and proceeded very slowly. The woman behind the desk smiled broadly, evidently glad of my attempt and happy to wait.

I explained that our wine wasn't cold and asked if we could leave it with her.

Est-ce que nous pourrions laisser notre bouteille de vin ici? Ce n'est pas froid.

Of course, leaving it with her left out the most important part of the question -- did they have a refrigerator, and would they put our bottle in it?

Est-ce que vous avez un re-fri-gé-ra-teur?

I struggled with that last word, laboring greatly to hit every syllable without tripping, paying particular attention to the vowel sounds. And I pulled it off, happy just to complete the sentence without botching the syllables, not knowing how badly I might have botched the rest of it.

The woman's eyes lit up. She smiled even more broadly than before. She was evidently quite impressed that I had mastered refigérateur. Frankly, so was I.

Bien sur! she said, and she took the bottle gently from the counter and walked thru a doorway behind her.

When she came back, she said that she might not be there later but someone would and if no one was we could always call the desk on the telephone. Someone would get us our wine, she reassured us.

Later, when we came to get the wine, a man was at the desk. I told him that we had left some wine in the back, and the woman looked around the corner thru the doorway and smiled. She left to get the bottle, and the man asked us if we had a cork-screw. Of course, I didn't know the word for cork-screw and so didn't know what he was asking, but it was obvious when he held one up for us to see. I rolled my eyes and laughed and said that we didn't, so he handed me theirs just as the woman came back with the bottle and three glasses.

In the end, we only drank half.

Trip to France - Day 11

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Coming Home from Chenonceau

It was sunny when we arrived at Chenonceau, and we were happy to find a cool, shady place to lock the bikes and eat our lunch. The sun cast a green glow around us, filtering thru the canopy of the Sycamore trees that line the main drive to the grounds.

We ended up hanging around for a very long time. We took the long audio tour inside and then took our time in the gardens and on the grounds. (We did not, however, rent a boat to row on the river, which in retrospect was probably a mistake.)

Given the amount of time we stayed, it was quickly clear that our initial plans to follow the bicycle circuit were not going to come to pass. We were less than one-third of the way around, yet we had spent many hours in this one place.

As it turned out, had we not dallied at Chenonceau and instead hopped back on the bikes to continue the circuit that Jean-Francois had mapped out for us (which included two other lesser chateaux), our trip would have been miserable. For it clouded up quickly, and the sky that had been blue suddenly turned black, and we could smell rain in the air.

So instead of risking getting soaked and risking returning in the dark on the least marked portion of the route, we opted for the same (well-marked) route back that we had taken on the way to Chenonceau.

As we took our last photographs and searched for the bathrooms and waited for each other to reassemble at the appointed place, the sky got darker. When Ben and I finally found Trudy walking down the main lane between the Sycamore trees, I was nervously looking over my shoulder at the black clouds that seemed closer by the minute.

So we hurriedly unlocked our bikes and started the ride back. We crossed the railroad tracks at the entrance. We passed the fruit stand, where we found those marvellous raspberries. And we climbed the hills thru the villages and fields and the Forest of Amboise that we had ridden thru just several hours ago.

As we peddled, the clouds seems to fall behind us. The sky grew lighter. It seemed safe for a while. Although the clouds still seemed to be coming our way, we seemed somehow to be outpacing them.

And so with a feeling of relief, we crossed the crest of highland the lies between Chenonceau on the Cher and Amboise on the Loire. And we coasted downhill into Amboise and arrived at our hotel just as the first drops from those black clouds (which had now caught up with us) began to fall. We locked the bikes outside and took refuge in our room.

The rain came down hard for a while, but it soon let up, and so we decided to take the bikes back to Jean-Francois before he closed up for the night.

When we got to the store, he was still there. We chatted with him for a while, and he let us taste his wine, a bottle of which we bought, although it must be said that Trudy and I neither know anything about wine nor drink it all that often. Still, we were happy to buy his wine, since he had given us such a wonderful day.

So although the three-chateau bicycle tour that we originally planned was cut short by our dallying at Chenonceau and the advance of bad weather, we came out ok in the end.

Trip to France - Day 11
Chenonceau / Amboise

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 Thursday, August 26, 2004


We decided to take the audio tour at Chenonceau. This was one of two places I got to choose on this trip (the other being Mont St. Michel), and I wasn't inclined to be frugal now. So we got tickets for an audio tour -- the kind where they give you an electronic box and headphones and you proceed from station to station at your own pace.

But these weren't just any electronic boxes. The tickets we bought got us an audio tour thru Chenonceau with iPods. iPods, I tell you. They gave us three iPods, and we hung them around our necks and listened as a man with a French accent told us the history of the place.

With renaissance music playing in stereo in the background, he told us about the round tower outside that was the only remnant of the early castle. And he told us of the women who oversaw the building of the chateau over the years and the making of the gardens. He took us down into the kitchens and showed us where the supplies were loaded up from the boats on the Cher river where it passed under the white stone arches that held up the galleries above. And he took us thru the tiled ballroom with daylight streaming in from the windows on both sides.

And in a room with green walls where Catherine de Médicis ruled France after the death of Henry II, I heard a harpsichord playing behind me. Surprised that a room that small could hold a harpsichord and surprised that I hadn't seen it when I walked in, I turned in the direction of the music.

The harpsichord player was joined by other musicians just as I turned to look. The sound filled the room. With the green walls of Catherine's study around me and the music filling my head, I was on the verge of tears. And when I turned and looked, there were no musicians there but instead some more tourists coming into the room -- no musicians, but the music was still playing. And it was then that I remembered that I had an iPod hanging around my neck.

I looked out the windows on the river flowing underneath. With the music fading and the narration for that room finished, I walked back into the hall and went to catch up with Trudy and Ben who had moved on to the next station.

Trip to France - Day 11
Chateau de Chenonceau

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 Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Biking to Chenonceau

Jean-Francois was reluctant to give his name. Don't ask me why, but when I said, Je m'appelle David and reached out to shake his hand, he stumbled thru several sentences before he surrendered his name. Perhaps the gesture was a little too American.

But Jean-Francois was a very pleasant man. We talked about last summer's heat and this year's Tour de France. And he tolerated my French graciously. His shop was near the center of town on the sidewalk along a narrow street. We took the two steps down into his shop and saw the bikes and the wine that he had there for sale. That was his business: bikes and wine. We were there to rent.

The rentals were in a rack in front, and we had come into the store to arrange for a bike trip to Chenonceau. Jean-Francois gave us locks and helmets (emphasizing that helmets are optional). And he gave us a map for the circuit we planned to take, reassuring us that the route to Chenonceau was very well marked and that we wouldn't need the map until later. He asked for some identification and said that he would be there late and that we could pay when we returned or even the next morning if he had gone.

With the locks wrapped around our seats and the helmets strapped to our heads (optional or not), we rode our chosen bikes out of the Loire valley until we had left Amboise behind. Before we passed over the last hill, we stopped to look back at the town with the white chateau sitting on top of the castle walls. Then we rode over the crest and around a bend and were out in the middle of nowhere.

Following the green arrows to Chenonceau, we rode along a two-lane asphalt road thru a countryside of rolling hills. Fields of grain lay before us punctuated by small groves and hedged fence rows. In the distance, we could see villages and the dark green line of the edge of a forest.

With the trees in the distance and the fields surrounding us and a single tractor harvesting the grain far in the distance, we stopped by the side of the rode and took some pictures, had some water, and ate some of the baguette that Ben was carrying in his backpack.

Our road led straight to the trees. When we entered, it felt as if we had gone into a tunnel. The thick forest came close to the road's edge. Where before there were golden fields of grain, now there were thickets and large tree trunks. This was Le Forêt d'Amboise.

It felt like the Michigan forests of my youth. The hardwoods looked the same. The grasses and weeds growing at the edge of the road seemed the same. And the two rut drives disappearing into the trees felt the same, although the red sign forbidding mushroom picking that we saw nailed to a tree beside one drive was a reminder that this was a different place.

We rode a long time thru the forest. The thick canopy blocked the sun. It was dark and cool, and the breeze in our face made us smile. When we passed out back into the surrounding farmland, the bright sun made us squint.

We passed a meadow where a bird was singing his heart out without a moment's rest. We followed the road thru a tiny village with stone walls closing in on either side. And as we followed the street thru the village, we turned a corner and peered thru a gate into a farmyard full of chickens and geese.

At the base of the last hill, we turned left and peddled the final mile to Chenonceau. Ben and Trudy were far ahead of me when I noticed a fruit stand by the side of the road. No one was there, but sitting alone on the table there were several pints of raspberries and a hand-written sign asking for two Euros. I set a two Euro coin behind a box and took a pint, and I got back on my bike to catch up with Trudy and Ben.

When I found them, they were waiting at the last turn right before some railroad tracks. Just beyond the tracks was the entrance to the chateau grounds. A man directing traffic to the parking lot motioned us to ride straight in, where we locked our bikes and bought some sandwiches at a sandwich shop.

And there in a shady place under great, towering Sycamore trees that lined the drive to Chenonceau, we found a bench and ate our sandwiches and drank our water and ate those raspberries that tasted better than any raspberries I have eaten before.

Trip to France - Day 11
Amboise / Chenonceau

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 Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Snippets from Amboise

Amboise on the Loire. A bridge crosses the river from one side to the island in the middle to the other side. We stand at the foot of the castle walls with the chateau looking down on us. After a hectic several days of one-night-here and two-nights-there, we are here for three glorious nights.

Here are some snippets from the second day...

  • alarms go off in the morning, even though we didn't need to get up early. :-(
  • breakfast downstairs. Trudy and I go and leave Ben to come on his own as soon as he gets out of the shower. (It took six wake-up calls to get him out of bed, and we were not about to miss breakfast!)
  • we go do laundry and the laundromat near the center of town. I go to track down change, failing first at a restaurant nearby, failing again at the tourist information center, succeeding finally at a small super market, where I also buy necessities for the rest of the day: a baguette, chocolate, apples, carrots, and a block of emmentale cheese.
  • walk to the island. Have lunch there, sitting on a bench in the shade watching school kids play games at the far end of the field. Nap under the oak trees at the upstream point of the island while Ben goes exploring.
  • return to Amboise proper. Tour the chateau. Look down from the balconies and ramparts on the river flowing slowly by under the blue sky and summer sun as the swallows dart around the grounds.
  • eat at a pizza place. Ben has lasagna. We all have ice cream for dessert. After the stress of having found a place to eat, it is good to just sit and watch the world walk by.
  • Ben goes back to the island by himself while we go back to the hotel, take showers, and then take another nap. (Travelling is hard!)
  • Ben returns right on time. My comment about calling the police if he didn't show up promptly at 10pm must have got his attention.
  • Trudy falls asleep. Ben and I write in our journals. The sun hasn't set. Swallows fly by outside our window that opens out onto a narrow street. People walk by on their way home for the night, their footsteps and voices drifting in thru the window. I run out of space on the page and don't have so much else to say so I stop.

Trip to France - Day 10

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 Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Swallows of Amboise

Swallows stream thru the alleys during the days in Amboise. You can hear them coming several blocks away, their high-pitched cries getting louder as they approach.

They fly in groups of two dozen or so, careening down the streets and then looping up into the air to swoop around a corner and then off in some other direction, their cries diminishing with their distance.

And when they approach the chateau on the hill, the groups of them join together at the castle walls and cry their squeals and climb the updrafts, swirling upwards in circles until they reach the ramparts and then high into the sky, where they bank and dive back down to the rooftops of the city, splitting off into their groups again, dashing in different directions down the streets and alleys, starting the chase all over again.

Trip to France - Day 10

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Bird Dog

We walked along the sidewalk at the top of the dike between Amboise and the Loire. The sun was getting low in the sky. There were other people walking and sitting on the benches. The water was flowing slowly and shining in the sun.

From the top of the dike, we could see a man and his dog walking along the river near the weeds that grew tall at the water's edge. He was throwing something and the dog was fetching, running after it, bounding thru the weeds, and bringing it back to the man.

Then on one toss, the dog ran only half-way into the weeds and stopped. He remained absolutely motionless for a moment and then, crouched down low to the ground, he began to move slowly forward. First one paw, then another. Inch by inch. Step by step. Until a bird flew up from its hiding place.

The dog leapt after the startled bird and grabbed it in mid-flight. With the wings hanging limp from its jaw, the dog returned in triumph and delight to the man who was absolutely horrified.

He tried to get the dog to drop the bird. But it wouldn't. He looked nervously around and saw us stading there. I think we were chuckling. But he was not.

He tried again to get the dog to drop the bird, this time speaking loudly and tapping the dog's nose. But it didn't let go. The man bent over and tried to coerce the dog's jaw open -- to no avail. He spoke more sternly -- to no avail. He picked up the stick he had been throwing and tossed it -- to no avail. The bird still hung limp from the dog's jaw.

The poor man was mortified beyond belief, and we could not bear to stand there watching him try to undo what could not be undone. We turned and continued walking, yet we could not resist a glance or two back. Somehow, the man got the bird out of the dog's mouth, but we did not see how, and I guess we shall never know.

Trip to France - Day 10

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 Monday, August 16, 2004


So I guess there is no harm in admitting this. This is just between friends, after all. So there is no need for me to be ashamed or anything like that when I say that we are all three just plain worn out.

The sky isn't even hinting of nighttime, and here we are all collapsed on our beds. Trudy is already breathing deeply.

You won't tell anyone about this, will you?

Trip to France - Day 10

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Sitting on a Park Bench

It is a long walk from the bridge over the Loire at Amboise to the upstream point on this island. Or at least it is longer than we expected.

As you follow the path past the flowers and the hedge-hidden swimming pool, past the tree-lined quadrangle where the school children come to play, past the soccer stadium, past the old stone Chapelle St. Jean, there are fewer and fewer benches to sit on and rest.

But at the very end of the path, where the oak grove stops and the path bends around to the other side of the island, there is one last bench. One last place to sit and gaze upstream to the east with the water flowing towards you and around the island and away to the west and the sea.

When we came here today, we sat for a moment on that bench by ourselves while the boy found something else to do. We sat there alone for a moment and then found a place for a nap.

But we are not alone anymore. A woman is sitting on that bench playing fetch with her poodle. And a woman in a red jacket is sitting by herself further on down by the river's edge. And a family just walked by with a dog on a leash, and another family with a boy on a bike going the other direction around the island. And now there is a group of kids driving by all on bicycles.

It was a long walk out here, but we are not alone, anymore.

Trip to France - Day 10

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Snapping Sticks

Somewhere in the distance I hear the sounds of sticks snapping. Birds are singing from the leaves of the trees on the south side of the river. The rapids are rushing on the north. And when a breeze comes up, the whispering of the shaking aspen leaves mixes with the sound of the water, and you can hardly tell them apart.

But between it all, there is that sound of snapping sticks. There it goes again -- that snapping/cracking sound that can only be one thing: a teenage kid let loose on an island in the Loire.

Trip to France - Day 10

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Sur La Loire

Perhaps we're at the point in this trip where you just plain get tired. Or perhaps we're being lazy. Whatever the explanation, we just didn't feel like doing much today.

So after eating breakfast, and after doing the laundry and spreading it out in the hotel room to fully dry, and after walking to the island in the middle of the Loire and eating lunch (bread and cheese and chocolate) on a bench in the shade in a park watching several groups of French school children play, we walked to the point of the island where the Loire goes one way and also goes another, and we found a shady, grassy place under the canopy of a stand of oaks, and we lay down and napped.

We slept while the clouds passed in front of the sun, and while the cool breeze made quake the leaves of an aspen leaning out over the bank, and while white birds flew out over the water in front of the gray-leafed willows on the southern bank of the river.

We found a shady, grassy place and we napped. So now we feel much better.

Trip to France - Day 10

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 Sunday, August 15, 2004


She drove a tiny car -- a faded blue Renault, or something like that. It was Amboise, so it was a Renault or a Peugeot or a Citroen, not a Ford or Chrysler or Toyota. And it was faded blue.

As she crept into the cobblestone intersection and stopped to look both ways (all ways, for there were streets coming from many directions), her car stalled.

From a distance it appeared as if she was yelling -- sitting behind the steering wheel of that stalled, faded blue Renault yelling. She flailed her arms and pounded on the steering wheel. Then she stopped. Then she started again, her head bouncing and her mouth wide open and her hands again flailing and pounding.

After a moment of this, she looked to her left and a man with a broken arm walked up and spoke to her. He pointed to something inside her car with his one good hand, and then he went around to the back and with that same good arm began to push.

The car didn't budge.

Then another man walked up to the back of the car. He had grey hair and wore an old, grey vest, but he had two good arms. Together the two of them pushed the woman in her faded blue Renault out of the intersection and down one of the narrow side streets.

They disappeared behind a corner with the two men pushing and the blue Renault rolling silently. A few moments later, from down that street, the echoing sound of the first man could be heard, telling her to pop the clutch and get going.

Vas-y! Vas-y!

Trip to France - Day 910

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 Saturday, August 14, 2004

La Loire

We were on the way to Amboise from Dinan, leaving the countryside of Normandy and Bretagne behind for the Loire valley.

The day was going to be a long one: up early to catch the bus to Rennes, and several trains from Rennes to Amboise. But we were now half-way there, and we were beginning to relax in our seats as the train sped towards the Loire.

There was a woman sitting in front of us with her daughter. Or perhaps it was her grand daughter. The woman was white and quite large. The girl was black and skinny and young.

Out the windows, fields and forest were speeding by. And then the train went over a bridge and out over a wide, slow-moving river that glistened in the sun.

The woman called the girl to the window.

Vites! she said.

The girl dashed over and sat next to the woman by the window. The woman leaned over close to the girl and pushed their heads to the window.

Regardes! she said. C'est La Loire!

Trip to France - Day 9
crossing the Loire

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A Long Trip to Amboise

We knew the drip from Dinan to Amboise was going to be a difficult one. We hadn't been able to figure out exactly how we were going to do it before we got there, because the train and bus schedules that we could find on the web were just not sufficient.

But Madame Ronsseray who runs Le Logis du Jerzual in Dinan helped us iron out the most vexing piece: how to get to Rennes in time to catch the train to Amboise. She called us a taxi in the morning to take us to the bus stop. The bus slowly threaded its way along two-lane roads thru the countryside of Bretagne.

The view out the windows was even more pastoral than the view out the trains had been. There was no graffiti. There were no power lines or gravel-lined railroad tracks. There were no train stations. Just the narrow strip of asphalt and green fields on either side.

Several times, the bus has to slow down and wait for a break in the traffic so that we could pass some bicyclists sharing the road. The last stop on the route was the train station in Rennes.

But that was just the beginning. From Rennes we took the TGV to LeMans. The ride was very smooth, and we got there quickly. Then we waited an hour or so for the next train to Tours. Although it wasn't a TGV, it too was smooth and the time passed quickly. Then we waited an hour or so for the train to Amboise, which wasn't many stops up the line from Tours to Paris.

By the time was got to Amboise, it was evening. And we had a walk ahead of us to find the hotel, which proved elusive in spite of the fact that two guys at the train station explained how to get there and highlighted the route on a map of the city for us.

Once we got settled in, we had dinner and we walked along the banks of the slow-moving Loire. And then, as we had been doing so many times on this trip, before daylight had left the sky, we collapsed into our beds and went to sleep.

Trip to France - Day 9
Dinan to Amboise

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A Taxi to the Bus Stop

It was drizzling when we woke up. It was early in the morning (although not too early to have croissants and jam and coffee before we left). And the light of the cloud-filled day was dim.

We had walked from the train station to Le Logis du Jerzual only yesterday afternoon, but Madame RonseraiRonsseray didn't even ask if we were planning to walk or not today. She just arranged for a taxi to take us to the bus station.

We had spoken to her before about how travelling to Amboise was going to be difficult, since it was Sunday and the train schedules didn't work out (one arriving at Rennes after the second would leave for Amboise). And she had told us that there was a bus and that she would look into its schedule, which she did. The bus she found would take us to Rennes instead of the train. And from there we could catch the train to Amboise.

All the details were falling in place. Although it was raining, a taxi would soon arrive to pick us up. And although it was going to be a very long day getting to Amboise, we no longer needed to worry whether we might not be able to get where we needed to go.

When the taxi arrived, the drizzle had turned to rain. We were grateful that Madame RonseraiRonsseray had not asked. We handed the driver our bags, thinking how miserable it would have been walking back up the steep cobblestone streets in search of the bus station on foot. We climbed into the dry car happy to let the driver take us there, even though the distance was small.

The bus station turned out to be a bus stop at the edge of a plaza in the middle of Dinan. It was Sunday, but traffic on the road was beginning to pick up as if it were a weekday. Cars came into the plaza and drove around the circle past the bus stop and disappeared in some other direction into the city. The driver drove around the circle and stopped in front of the bus stop. He went to the trunk and got our bags and put them under the shelter out of the rain. And he showed me the schedules that were hanging on the plexiglass walls, explaining that the buses were running on their Sunday schedule and pointing out the next arrival time.

He told me how much I owed him, and I offered him a 10€ bill. He wouldn't take it, and gave me some change. In the end, I think he took less from me than he had told me it cost. And then he drove thirty feet up the road and pulled next to another taxi that was sitting there.

Meanwhile, I turned and walked back to the schedules. I pointed to show Trudy what the driver had shown me, but I couldn't find the arrival time. I stepped back to get a better look (not having my reading glasses), and as I did so a man who had been standing nearby watching our arrival walked up and gestured to a different schedule from the one I was pointing at.

Ici, he said with a friendly smile on his face, and he pointed at the next bus arrival time.

Merci! I said.

A few minutes later, a bus pulled up. We stashed our bags underneath, climbed on, paid the bus driver, and settled into three comfortable seats near the front.

We were on our way to Rennes.

Trip to France - Day 9

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I Could Taste It

Years ago, when studying for a final exam in Real Analysis, spending many hours of many days cloistered in a cubicle in the corner of the library studying theorems and proofs, I briefly felt a hint of what it must be like to be a mathematician.

It was only brief, lasting an evening, or a day perhaps at most. The pieces (little pieces) fell into place. Theorems decomposed themselves into Lemmas, and the steps to proving the Lemmas seemed less like forcing the mathematics to yield the desired result and more like shedding light on what was obvious.

It was only a glimpse. Just a moment. But I could taste it.

This evening, while standing at the gates in the walls of old Dinan, after having walked along the periphery to reach them, I briefly felt a hint of what it must have been like to live in the days when those walls were built.

It was only a moment, lasting a few minutes at most. We stood there outside the archway next to great hinge-posts the size of a man's forearm where once great gates hung from the stone. Our heads were bent back looking at the ramparts overhead. We stood between the two towers that flanked the approach to the city.

At this place, the Dukes of Brittany defended their claims to the land. And for a moment, feeling tiny before the walls and the gate, feeling how hopeless it might be if the gates were shut and the walls held against me, I understood what it might have been like back then to stake a different claim.

It was only a glimpse. Just a moment. But I could taste it.

Trip to France - Day 8

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 Thursday, August 12, 2004


We weren't quite sure what to expect in Pontorson after we left Mont Saint Michel on the bus. Neither Trudy nor I remembered much about the train station, even though it was only yesterday that we had arrived. (We were too focused on figuring out where to go next.)

I remembered a station building but didn't remember if it was even open. Trudy didn't remember the building at all. And today's trip was going to be an uncertain one as it was, so not being sure about the start made us uncomfortable.

Our trip would involve catching a south-bound train to Rennes from Pontorson (departure time slightly uncertain) and transferring to a west-bound train in Dol (under the assumption that a west-bound train would come by at a reasonable time (if at all).

Due to all these uncertainties, we were hoping to be able to talk to a real live agent at the station, but we didn't know if we would find anyone there. If not, we were hoping for an automatic ticket machine, although we had never used one yet and weren't at all sure it could help us unwind our uncertainties. But we didn't remember seeing a machine when we arrived, either.

So it was with some relief that we discovered not only a train station with open doors and an indoor waiting area with a functioning ticket machine but also a traditional ticket area with a woman sitting behind a tall plexiglass window. When we walked in, she was providing detailed travel information for three women who were huddled around the opening in the window each asking questions, evidently about the same trip.

If it took a long time for the three waiting women to get all their questions asked and answered, it took us no time at all. Is it possible to buy a ticket to Dinan? Yes. Do we change in Dol? Yes. Do we have to compost[*] our tickets here? Yes. Do we then need to compost them again in Dol when we change trains? No. And so on.

It all went very smoothly, and as the transaction was drawing to a close and the agent was pushing our tickets thru the opening in the plexiglass, I felt euphoric about the lifting of all the uncertainty and about the facility with which I had asked those questions and understood the answers.

To tell the truth, it was the ease with which I held that conversation that tickled me most. And in my euphoria, I collected the tickets and the change from the window, smiled at the woman, and said, Aujourd'hui!


Aujourd'hui, I said. Not Au revoir, but Aujourd'hui!


Do you understand? I got started with the Au... alright, but what came out next was laughable (...jourd'hui). Instead of saying Goodbye to the woman, I said Today!

Facility with the language, indeed.

[*] At every train station in France, there are many orange pedestal-sized machines where travellers must cancel their train tickets. I never did get the exact purpose of them, but it clearly has something to do with making sure tickets only get used once -- although one then must ask why the conductors on-board also punch them. If you don't compost your tickets in these machines, you risk sizable fines and a stern lecture from the conductor, we were told. [back]

Trip to France - Day 8

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 Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Ramparts to Ramparts

After breakfast, we walked the ramparts of Mont Saint Michel one last time.

Then we went back to the main street, and for the first time since we had arrived yesterday, we went shopping: post cards, souvenirs, that sort of thing. There were, frankly, so few times that we went shopping on this trip, and this medieval place with narrow streets and old stone buildings was so unique as a shopping mall, that it made the shopping tolerable.

Then (although it hadn't been so long since we had had those wonderful galettes for breakfast) we went to get sandwiches for lunch. We got sandwiches and pastries and drinks and took them with us thru the gates and outside the walls, out onto the perimeter where we sat down to eat amidst the arriving and departing crowds.

As we ate, buses of tourists came and went. A group of Italian school children sat around us and ate their lunches, too. And after them, a group of rowdy British kids took their places. We crossed our fingers that they weren't waiting for our bus. They weren't.

When the bus arrived, we paid the man at the front of the bus and road the short trip back to Pontorson. Unlike our drive in yesterday, no sheep crossed the road, forcing the bus to stop for a while. From the bus station, we walked the block or two to the train station, where we bought our tickets to Dinan.

It was a wonderful, sunny day, as they all had been so far. And the westward ride thru the green fields of Bretagne seemed even better than the train rides so far. I think, to tell the truth, that it might have been that the tracks seems less smooth, and the train rocked left and right more than before, and that seemed more like a train ride ought to be. But on the other hand, there was something about the countryside that seemed even more appealing than Normandy.

The farmhouses seemed to have been there for centuries: stone walls and stone farmhouses and stone barns, gardens that seemed like they'd long since settled into a pattern of annual production, and fields that seemed very comfortable doing in the sun what they had done for year upon uncountable year.

After changing trains in Dol, we arrived eventually in Dinan. It was a long walk to the B&B. We had to ask directions three times as we got closer, and still in the end I had to set out alone while Trudy and Ben guarded the bags. When we finally got there, it was late in the day. But there was a smiling face to greet us, and she made it clear that she was not concerned about our arrival time, since Trudy had let her know ahead of time by email.

We had dinner along the river at a place that seemed like it should have cost much more than it cost for the taste of the food and the view of the little river we had. There were boats anchored along the stone quai. The sun was still shining on the top of the hill on the other side. The food was very tasty. (Funny thing how some our warmest memories are those of tasty eateries!)

After dinner, as the sun sunk lower and the hour got late, we wandered the city and found the main gate, where we walked into the old city as others might have done in centuries past when the land around was wilder and the city inside the walls held that wildness at bay.

We walked the ramparts back to the B&B, and then we went to bed.

Trip to France - Day 8
Mont Saint Michel and Dinan

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We weren't in a hurry. We didn't have to leave the room until 11:00am. So we took out time. And when we did leave, we walked the long walk down the stairs and thru the narrow alleys (with Ben and Trudy pulling their suitcases over the cobblestones) back to the hotel office.

The woman at the desk who had greeted us just the day before smiled and said Bien sur! when I asked if we could leave our bags with her. She pointed to the back and said to put them in a corner back there, where they had a fold out screen to put between them and the room full of tables where people would be eating for lunch in an hour or two. And then we went in search of a late breakfast.

We went in search of a place that Trudy had read about -- a hidden place that took us a while to find. The downstairs was a gift shop, and the restaurant was above. We found a place to sit, and we ordered our galettes. All three of us ordered galettes. We were hungry and we knew what we wanted: buckwheat galettes.

The waitress there did everything. She took our order. She made the espresso (grandes tasses!). She cooked our galettes. And she bussed the table when we were done. And when we were done, we were no longer hungry because of her galettes -- galettes that will live in our memories as the finest breakfast we had on our trip.

Trip to France - Day 8
Mont Saint Michel

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 Monday, August 9, 2004

The Smell of Breakfast

I am out here by myself. I don't know why so early.

Out here on this balcony at this table with my bare feet and the sun shining brightly in the eastern sky making me squint.

Out here with this amazing view from this place where I've always wanted to be just once to be able to say, I was there.

Out here with a pencil and a journal lying open on the tabletop with thin gray lines waiting for the words to come.

Waiting for the words to come...

climbing sun in the east. blue sky overhead. green fields on the mainland. cooing doves in the trees. seagulls on the chimney tops. grazing sheep in the distance. windbreaks between the fields. swallows diving from the abbey walls. old bell towers covered in lichens and moss. castle ramparts overlooking the bay. cobblestones and narrow alleys. cemetery stones. steps going up and down. tide coming in. tide going out. benches in secret places.


The smell of breakfast is wafting on the breeze from some restaurant down below, and now all of the sudden I am hungry and ready to set this pencil down.

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Morning on the Mount

As they do at home on hot, sunny days, the doves here are cooing from the branches of the trees. But little else is here as it is at home.

From this spot next to (and above) the bell tower that rises from the terraced courtyards of the cemetery below, I can see the tides rushing out to sea. And I can see the clouds racing across a blue sky and passing behind the pointed turret of an old stone building across the alley. And I can see sheep grazing in the salt marshes.

Green and golden fields shine on hillsides in the distance. Rows of poplar trees stand as windbreaks between fields and the water. The sun is climbing up into the sky, beating down on this balcony. A cool breeze blows around the corner.

Sunlight bounces off the slate roofs, and off winding rivulets in the marshes. A seagull cries in the distance. The doves have stopped their singing in the trees and are diving and rolling thru the air between the stone walls of the closely packed buildings that cling to the sides of the island.

With the doves gone and their cooing silenced, nothing here is like it is at home -- not one thing.

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 Sunday, August 8, 2004

Last Chance of a Lifetime

Mont Saint Michel is a castle on a rock set out in the middle of the bay. When the tide is in, the only way to get there is by the narrow causeway that runs up to the gate. But when the tide is out, it is surrounded by a bay of sand.

Ben wanted to set out over the tidal sands all day. He kept mentioning it and asking if we could. But the sands were sticky and wet, and the prospect of wading out into a gooey mire with a tide coming back in did not sound appealing to Trudy or me. So we declined his frequent entreaties.

Instead, we walked around the west side of the island (on the outside of the walls, sticking as close to the rocks and the wall as we could, to keep out of the mud). We walked to the abandoned chapel and to the well that made this stronghold in the middle of a saltwater basin feasible centuries ago. And we walked further to where the map showed stairs partially descended to shore (but we did not find them).

And we when we went back thru the gates, we climbed to the top of the island. We toured the abbey sitting on the summit, with its dining halls, galleries, meditation gardens, and church built into the living rock. And at every turn when a window in the walls or a terrace at the edge afforded us a glimpse of the low lands surrounding the island, Ben offered his suggestions again. And we still said, No.

But as it turned out, the tide was going out, not coming in. And as the day wore on, the sun warmed the air. And the tide sands got drier than they were before. As we rested in the afternoon, we could see it from the balcony. What had looked gooey and wet now began to look dry, and people were setting out on foot across the sand.

As Ben and I stood on the balcony of our hotel room looking out on the waterless bay, I changed my mind. I said to him, Why don't you go exploring out there by yourself? Take off your shoes when you get beyond the castle walls, and run as far as you want.

He stared at me.

It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, I said. It was perhaps the only time I will ever be able to use that bit of advice and speak the truth.

He was silent for a moment longer, and then he decided to go. I gave him ten Euros to get a snack on his way to the gate. And he was off!

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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 Saturday, August 7, 2004

Sur Le Balcon

On the balcony...

This room faces southeast. The afternoon sun has dipped behind our building, although the light of it still illuminates the edges of a Cedar tree towering over our room. To the south, a man in a green jumpsuit waters the pansies by a grave with unhurried care.

A blackbird sings from the peak of an old slate roof. A dove coos from somewhere on the other side. Swallows dive thru the air, sweeping from their hidden homes in the bushes and branches farther up by the abbey.

The sound of children drifts up on the breeze from the hidden alleys between the rooftops below us. Shadows of the clouds march across the dry low-lands of the tidal basin. (It is low tide.) Across the bay, the steeples of Avranche shine in the summer sun.

The day wears on...

The man in the green jumpsuit has now finished. He searches for the key to the weathered wooden door of the clock tower. He holds up a ring and picks thru the keys one by one until he finds the one. It is an old skeleton key. He turns it in the keyhole and pushes the door open and puts his garden tools away.

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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A Room With A View

1. Looking for La Vielle Auberge

The hotel was on the only street in the village, so not having an address seemed natural. All we had to do was walk until we would certainly find it. And that is what we did.

The street in Mont Saint Michel climbs up the island from the gates and has shops and restaurants and hotels packed in close succession on either side. It is a bustling commericial district and has been for centuries.

We kept our eyes peeled for La Vielle Auberge and eventually saw the sign hanging out over the stream of people walking by. When we walked in with our backpacks and suitcases and duffel bag, a woman who seemed to be expecting us said, Bonjour in that characteristic French tone in which the first syllable is stressed and spoken in a high pitch. She had a warm smile on her face, as did the man next to her and a second woman not too far away.

We told her we had reservations and gave her our name. She nodded and said, Oui. Une chambre avec balcon. (She had stressed the balcony of our room several times when I spoke to her on the phone when making the reservations. I was certain that either we were in for a treat, or she was trying to put good spin on something mediocre.)

2. Climbing to the Room

After the formalities were complete, she handed a key to the second woman who asked us to follow her. She stepped out into the street, and we scrambled to follow her thru the crowd. When we caught up with her, she took us uphill a little farther and then made a sharp left turn off the main street, under an archway and up a narrow alley.

The noise of the crowd quickly diminished, and the alley climbed even more steeply than the street. We took a right turn and climbed some steps. Then there were more turns, more alleys, and more steps. All four of us began breathing deeply, and Trudy and Ben and I began to wonder if we would be able to retrace our steps.[*]

Eventually we came to a stop at a door in a stone building. I said to the woman (in what must have been quite awkward French) that she must have strong legs for climbing to the rooms so often. She chuckled and said she only has to do it three times a day. (They take turns, I guess.) Then she used the key to open the door.

Inside it was dark, and there were three more doors off a short, narrow hallway, each of which had a number on it. She walked to the end of the hall and opened the last door on the left.

3. The View

This was our room with a balcony, our room with a view that looked out on the bay from up high on the island. It looked to the east toward Avranche across the bay, where a distant church stood sitting on the ridge of a hill shining brightly in the summer sun. Our train had passed Avranche on our way to Pontorson earlier, and not long after that is when we spotted Mont Saint Michel in the distance as the train wound its way along the coastline. Now we were looking back the other way.

The sky overhead was blue. The tide had gone out, and the bay was a shining plain of brown mud and sand. There was a bell tower nearby rising from a church below. It rose out of the clutter of close-packed buildings, slate rooftops and cobblestone alleys. Behind us, building upon building was perched on top of one another climbing right up to the edges of the abbey. And on top of the abbey spire, golden Saint Michael with his sword held high shined in the sun against the backdrop of a summer blue sky.

This was no mediocre room. Clearly we were in for a treat.

[*] This is one of the advantages of travelling with a teenager. If you don't know how to find your way back, you just tell them to go out (on their own, that's the key enticement, here) and figure it out. Ben turned out to be quite adept at tracing his way thru the narrow alleys of the island, and this enticement seemed quite harmless, since ... how far could he go? [back]

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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Arriving at Mont Saint Michel

We stepped off the train onto the platform in Pontorson without knowing quite where to go. Our destination was Mont Saint Michel, and we only knew we had to take a bus. So we just followed the people in front of us. They all of them seemed to know what they were doing, and they all seemed to be going in the same direction.

Across the tracks and down the street a ways, it became clear where we needed to go. There was a bus waiting in front of a small building that could only be a bus station. And that was where everyone was headed.

Inside the small station at the back of a waiting room, there was a doorway that led to a small office where a man sat with some strange pieces of what looked like mid-twentieth century mechanical equipment that were evidently related to calculating the fares for the bus rides.

I asked for three tickets. He asked if we would be returning. I said we'd be returning tomorrow. He said we just needed one-way fares. He told me the price, which seems mighty cheap but then Mont Saint Michel was barely more than a stone's throw down the road. I paid him.

The bus was almost ready to leave. I asked the driver who stood at the door taking tickets if I could put our bags in the luggage bins underneath. He nodded. Then we showed him our tickets and climbed in.

The bus drove thru the rural countryside from Pontorson to the island. We went past farms and fields and hotels and cottages and then down a long causeway. We passed all the parked cars of the day-visitors directly to the gates to the castle, where we all climbed down from the bus and got our bags out from underneath.

From the bus, it was only a short walk to the gate. We crossed a small wooden boardwalk that took us from the causeway out over the still-wet mud flats and then around to the gate. The big wooden doors were swung open. Just inside was a small plaza filled with people arriving and leaving -- mostly arriving, because it was still early in the day. On the other side of the plaza was another gate with a raised portcullis and a second set of doors that opened onto a narrow cobblestone street that began to climb steeply uphill.

We passed thru the second gate. The crowd pressed in on us. There was barely enough room for us all: the people coming and going, the tourists standing around, fork lifts honking their horns and slowly climbing the steep cobblestone street loaded down with deliveries for the businesses lining the way, and shop owners standing in their doorways, some of them hawking there wares loudly. The sun was high enough in the sky that it threw a sliver of light on this mass of humanity packed in the tiny place.

There were no addresses here -- no need for them, I suppose, since the place is ultimately so small. So we didn't know how far to go to find the hotel. We just kept walking like everyone else. Trudy and Ben pulled their suitcases behind them, making a racket on the cobblestones. I carried my duffel bag over my shoulder and tried not to whack anyone with it as I turned to look back down the street to see how far we had climbed.

And just as I looked around and began to take in the view, the bells of the Abbey began to ring. This was a pealing ringing like the tolling of the bells in Vernon a few days ago. But whereas we sat outside in the grass on a hill across the river from those bells then, this ringing was trapped in the narrow streets. It bounced off the walls and cobblestone. It surrounded us. The whole island seemed to be vibrating.

I turned back around and walked quickly to catch up with Ben and Trudy who had moved far ahead in the stream of the people in the street. Not long after I caught up with them, the bells stopped ringing. And not long after that, we found our hotel.

Trip to France - Day 7
Mont Saint Michel

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Abbey Across the Bay

Our two-car Basse-Normadie diesel train sped across the green fields of Normandy. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. As we approached the bay, we could sometimes see the water thru breaks in the trees along the railroad tracks.

I looked out the window hopefully, thinking I might spot the island.

It wasn't there... It wasn't there... The trees closed in, and the view of the bay disappeared.

But then we went around a bend and up a hill and the trees broke and we had another view of the water. And there in the distance, far to the west across the bay, small and grey against the flat horizon of water, was a silhouette of the island and the abbey with its spire pointing up to the blue sky.

I gasped. Trudy looked over at me, and I pointed out the window so she and Ben could see. Then the trees closed in again, and that view of our destination was gone.

We would be there soon.

Trip to France - Day 7
Bayeux to Mont St. Michel by train

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 Friday, August 6, 2004

Seasoned Travellers

We had an early train to catch to take us from Bayeux to Pontorson. And the hotel was a fair walking distance from the station. So we set the clocks and watches early.

We are getting better at this, Trudy said when the alarms went off in the morning.

It was 5:30am. Early enough for hot baths for three. We gave ourselves a generous buffer, because we knew how we had been dragging in the mornings ever since we'd arrived in France.

But this morning, it didn't seem as difficult. When those alarms went off and we opened our eyes to the dimm pre-dawn glow, it just didn't seem as hard as it did they day before. Trudy was right. We were becoming seasoned travellers.

But now it is 6:40am, and we are ready to go. We've taken our baths. We've put on our clothes. Our backs are packed. Trudy is sitting in the corner of the room reading a travel guide that she plans to leave behind. Ben is absorbed in Ursula K. LeGuin and eating the baguette that we sent him for yesterday afternoon knowing that we'd leave before breakfast and would need something to munch on.

And now it is 6:45am. Trudy is still in the corner. Ben is still munching. It is silent except for the singing of the birds outside. It is not time to leave yet. (The walk isn't that far.) And I am thinking we didn't need to get up that early after all.

Seasoned travellers or not, 20 minutes more would have been nice.

Trip to France - Day 7

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 Thursday, August 5, 2004

We Didn't Find It Difficult

When we went to sleep last night, it was not yet dark. Even with the thick drapes which Ben arranged so as to close the gaps, the glow of dusk crept in. So we just closed our eyes and fell asleep. We didn't find it difficult.

And when we opened our eyes this morning, the light had returned. It was as if we had only closed them for a moment. The light of pre-dawn was sneaking in thru those same cracks in the drapes that Ben had worked so hard to close.

We got out of bed and got ready for the day. It was 5:30am, and we were very tired. It would soon be time to go, and we'd be gone before breakfast was served.

But didn't find it difficult, for today we were leaving for Mont Saint Michel.

Trip to France - Day 7
leaving Bayeux

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The Plane Tree

We knew it was old from the look of it -- a trunk that would take five people or more to girdle round hand in hand. We came back by it after one last walk in the evening past the cathedral standing in the middle of town.

The tree stood at the northeast corner of the cathedral in a small square nestled against the stone walls of the building. Banners of red and yellow hung around the edge of the square -- for the festival coming in a few days. But the tree dominated the scene. We didn't appreciate its size until we walked up next to it.

Its gnarled trunk pushed up high into the air before the first branches broke away, each one big enough to be a massive tree in its own right. Not a single other tree stood there, just this one. Yet the square stands in shade all day, for a canopy of green extends from one side to the other, from the walls of the cathedral to the city hall on the other side.

At the base of the tree, the year of its planting is etched into a marker of stone: 1797.

Trip to France - Day 6

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The American Cemetery

The cemetery affected me more than I thought it would. As I stood and looked at the sculpture with hand upstretched in a gesture of freedom, I began to sob. I'm not sure why. I just began to sob.

But then I heard Charlie telling his family around him about June 6, 1944 as the 79th and many others disembarked on the beaches. And I heard a daughter ask him to point to the map and show them where that bridge across the Seine was.

How could I sob as he stood there pointing and telling the story of that bridge and the march toward Paris that he had obviously told them many times? I gathered my composure.

But when we turned and walked into the cemetery proper, when we turned to face the graves arrayed on the hill, I found myself hit by a tidal wave of emotion. I could not continue walking, the onslaught was so severe, and tears came to my eyes again. It was all I could do to walk to a corner where the ropes along the paths came together and sob quietly and stand by myself and wipe my tears away.

The sun was shining, and the sky was bright blue. The wind was blowing thru the Austrian Pine trees that line the path along the cliffs that look out over the channel. The sound of the wind was as waves breaking on the beach that we could see far below.

I did not feel, right then, that I would be able to walk down the middle of the park, with the white crosses and stars of David shining brightly in the sun on the close-cut lawn. So we walked around the periphery, to a spot at the far end, were we sat for a while, gazing back at the crosses and stars and gazing the other way thru a window in the forest that looked out on the fields of Normandy.

We sat there for a while, quietly, trying to ignore the smoke of two women who sat nearby. And then we stood up and continued our walked around the edges, between the white graves and the landscape that is such a credit to the people who keep that place, and a such fit place for all those men to rest.

Trip to France - Day 6
D-Day Beaches, The American Cemetery

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 Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Charlie of the 79th

Charlie stood in front of the map on the wall. The wall was tall, and the map extended from the ground all the way up. There were others there, too, craning their necks to take in the depicted movements of forces across Normandy. But around Charlie, there stood a group of people whose backs were to the map and whose faces were right on him.

Tell us where you landed, Charlie, said a younger man standing several feet away in front of the rest filming Charlie with a video recorder.

Charlie pointed to the map. There, he said. And the faces of the men and women around him turned to look.

He told them about their advance in a quiet voice. He told them how many men they lost.

How many? asked the man with the camera. How many percent? he asked in a voice clearly intended for a future audience.

Fifty percent, Charlie said. We lost fifty percent of our men.

At that moment, music started to play from somewhere behind us in the cemetery. At first most of the people ignored it, because it was a fairly poor recording of some sort and the bells it played sounded woefully out of tune. But gradually more and more people turned around, and the talking in front of the maps ceased, and a group of students laid some simple flowers at the foot of the memorial sculpture.

The music finished. And a sound like gunshots rang out from the recording. And then a trumpet. And then taps.

When I looked around, Charlie and his entourage were nowhere to be seen.

Trip to France - Day 6
D-Day Beaches, American Cemetery

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What Must They Think

I wonder what the men must think who come to this beach where they fought so hard for their lives and for freedom sixty years ago. Those men who still can come.

I wonder what they must think of the carousel on the beach. Of the colorful souvenir stands and cafes with tables and chairs inviting vacationers to have something to drink or eat. Of the boys and girls horsing around and eating with great commotion.

I wonder what they must think as they sit quietly on the benches with their wives beside them. With their whispered comments to each other. With their gray hair and wrinkled faces. With their memories from so long ago of something so much more important than the carousel and souvenir stands and noise and commotion that I wonder what it all makes them think.

Trip to France - Day 6
D-Day Beaches, Arromanche

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Abandoning all our previous plans, today we rented a car and drove to the Normandy beaches. The cobalt blue Renault Megane was a pleasure to drive, and the Normandy countryside thru which we came was even more pleasant.

It was easy to find Arromanche. The maps were clear, and it was not even 40 kilometers from Bauyeux. We drove around the tiny town once looking for a place to park, and then when we found it walked down to the beach and sat down immediately to eat the lunch that we (in a fit of thinking ahead) had bought from our favorite sandwich shop down the street from our hotel.

We sit for a while, eating, talking, watching the people walk by. Then Trudy speaks.

This sandwich is so filling! she says.

She is silent for a moment and then speaks again.

But I am going to finish it.

Of course, by the time she makes this announcement, Ben's and mine have long since been finished, the evidence long thrown into a garbage can. For once it was nice not to have to search for a place to eat.

The sun is overhead. The sky is blue. The beach is mostly empty. To the west, the waterline juts out into the water. To the east, the grassy slopes on top of the hill are almost all that is left of the bunkers that sat there 60 years ago overlooking Arromanche, overlooking the water. Here on the wall above the beach, we sit between a class of French school children and five elderly women.

The kids are eating their lunch and having numerous conversations as they form and reform into big masses of loudness and little cliques of secrecy. They take pictures of each other. They jump up and down. Their teachers tell them not to stand on the wall.

The ladies are sitting on a bench. Their dresses are subdued. Their faces are calm. Their husbands are nowhere to be seen. They talk quietly. They periodically gaze up the beach to the east where the wreck of the D-Day landing is still visible far out into the water.

Sixty years ago, it wasn't quite like this. We know it. That is why we came here. The ladies know it. Certainly, that is why they are here, too. I wonder what the children think.

Trip to France - Day 6
D-Day Beaches, Arromanche

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 Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Geoff and Beryl

Whereas the other hotels on our trip served breakfast from 7:00 to 11:00, breakfast here at the Hotel d'Argouges went only until 10:00. And the night before we had decided against a day trip to Caen (which would require an early departure on the train) and against a bus tour to the Normandy beaches (since the buses all left early, too). Instead we slept in. We were only now beginning to catch our breath from the jet lag and the hard-travelling days, so sleeping in sounded mighty fine.

We took our time in the morning. Although the sun came up early and the birds in the garden outside our window started to sing loudly before any light was creeping thru the curtains, we did sleep in late.

And when we finally wandered down to breakfast, we were the only ones in the dining room except for Geoff and Beryl. They had brought their car over the Channel on the ferry from England. She was a retired midwife, he a retired engineer. And when I mentioned it looked like we were cutting it close for breakfast, she didn't think so. The time felt luxurious to her.

We chatted for a while in that room that everyone else had long since left. We talked about travelling -- by car and by train. (They seemed fascinated that we were looping thru the northwest by train.)

We talked about the cost of going to school. (They lamented that things are now so bad that British students must take out loans instead of getting outright grants.)

We talked about painting. That is how she spends her time, now that she is retired. (Ben tried to tell them that I am an artist, too.)

And we talked about places to go. (They were going to St. Malo soon. We highly recommended Rouen, images of which were still warm in our memory.)

And then we all stood up to go, as the hotel staff came in to wordlessly remind us that the hour was passed. We said goodbye and that perhaps we would see each other later that day.

We didn't.

Trip to France - Day 6

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A Little Adventure

We went on a little adventure on the way home from the restaurant tonite. At least those were the instructions to Ben. Take us on an adventure. You choose where to go. So he took us on a longer walk back to our hotel overlooking the garden.

And with the town now quiet after the hubbub of the day, and with the 10:30pm sun setting the clouds on fire against a pastel blue sky, we walked thru a quiet, sleepy neighborhood sitting at the top of the hill.

Bayeux is an old city, a medieval city. But this was not a neighborhood of narrow streets and old stone buildings. It was a slice of modern day France: new houses and duplexes with small, immaculately tended suburban gardens and even two dogs in a fenced-in yard.

Just beyond the top of the hill, we turned the corner at the Lycée and walked by a shop named L'Amour de Chien where we took a picture of a happy Trudy. And we turned another corner on the main street that we had climbed earlier in the day with our luggage toted behind us. And we headed back down to the hotel, where Trudy crashed first and then Ben (after his compulsory page in his journal -- no more of this two or three sentences stuff).

And now I am at the end of my story. The electric pink and blue sky has turned to black. The garden is barely visible outside the window. And the adventure is done.

Trip to France - Day 5

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It was after 7:00pm: dinner time. It had taken us a while to find this place, an effort that seemed to decorate every evening with frustration for me. But when we wandered up to the door of this place and looked over their menu posted at the door, we all three decided that this was the place.

We sat in a booth near the window. There was another family in the booth next to us: a father, a mother, and two high-school age boys. But the place was dark and the sounds were slightly muffled, so we hadn't really noticed them.

Excuse me! shouted one of the boys. The sound was not muffled.

The waiter turned around. Though as for that, he didn't look so much like a waiter but rather had an innkeeper look about him. And this was a very tavern-y looking place.

Water! the boy shouted again.

The waiter seemed confused, not understanding the English perhaps or more likely in stunned reaction to the shouted commands.

The boy's father spoke quietly, in the manner of a teacher instructing a pupil. He spoke with a very American accent.

D'eau, he said. Un verre d'eau.

Doh! the boy shouted.

Ah... une carafe d'eau, the waiter said.

Yes, doh! the boy shouted.

I wanted to shrink into my seat. I wanted to speak French with as non-American an accent as I could muster. I wanted to become invisible.

I am sure there were many times during the trip when the three of us fit the most stereotypical of American stereotypes. I wore jeans most of the way. Ben wore his running shoes and usually had a T-shirt on. We struggled with the basics of living in France (finding food, making change). So I would do well to hold my tongue, which I shall.

But this much I know. We did at least know not to shout. And we did try hard to stick to French. And we did know how to say S'il vous plait and Merci. So I was horrified at the impression this family was leaving with the waiter (and everyone else in the place).

So when we asked for the bill later in the evening, I made sure to say Merci, monsieur in my best possible accent. And I do believe that he and I made a brief connection -- that all Americans don't behave like that -- when I mouthed another Merci from the door just before we left.

Trip to France - Day 5

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 Monday, August 2, 2004

The Cathedral Keeper

We arrived in Bayeux in the middle of the day. After a long trek into the center of town and then another long trek up a very long hill (carrying and pulling our luggage up the busy, narrow street), we rested for a while in our hotel room.

The garden outside our windows was blooming. There were birds singing in the canopy of the trees. The sky was blue. The sun was out. And we were tired. So rested in the room and then went to eat sandwiches by the river and then went to see The Tapestry.

We were the last ones to leave the cathedral that day.

The large wooden door was wouldn't budge when we pulled on it to leave. The keeper of the place saw me struggling to figure out how to unlock the latch -- it was a complex looking contraption with several keyholes and several knobs, something altogether fitting for the door of a gothic cathedral.

He came up and said something to me that must have translated to Can you figure it out? There was a playful tone in his voice. I tried again briefly with the latch but couldn't master it.

Qu'est-ce qu'on doit faire? I asked, thinking maybe he'd give me a hint.

He chuckled and showed me a key he was holding. And he reached around me to insert it into one of the keyholes in the latch. We laughed. He pulled the door open and the light of afternoon flooded thru the crack.

Merci, we said.

He smiled and shut the door.

Trip to France - Day 5

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How Do You Say...

Trudy leaned forward from her seat after we left the station at Caen and were rolling toward Bayeux.

Tell me again, she asked. How do you say, We have a reservation?

The woman across the aisle was paying close attention. She had been speaking very quietly to her young grandson, evidently explaining about travellers and tourists. As she was whispering, he was watching us closely. And when Trudy asked her question, I could feel the woman waiting for my answer, curious I suppose as to what she was going to hear.

So in the best French accent I could muster, I replied, Nous avons un reservation.

Trudy made me repeat it several times, which I did. And I suspect that the woman got a kick out of the fact that I got the gender wrong -- every single time. (It's "une reservation". I know better than that.)

Oh well.

Trip to France - Day 5
going to Bayeux

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Exact Change

The French have created something amazing with their public pay toilets. The modular, futuristic looking booths are distributed strategically throughout the country. They take your coins, let you in, lower a hydraulic seat (that's really nothing more than a U-shaped stainless steel pipe on hinges), automatically start a trickle of water running into a stainless steel sink recessed in the tile-lined wall, trigger a hot-air hand dryer when you reach for it, and saturate themselves floor-to-ceiling in a spray of sanitizing solution after you've left. Just watch out for that hole in the corner.

I have some words of caution, though. First, the machines don't accept one, two or five centime coins. They just throw them back at you. (I mean, they come flying back out of the machine.) Second, they don't make change.

This second point deserves a little elaboration...

We were standing on the platform in Caen, waiting on the next train to Bayeux. We had just arrived from Rouen. There was about an hour to go. We had been travelling since morning, and I found that Mother Nature was calling.

Like an answered wish, I spied one of the pay toilets setting out on the platform at the far end of the station. I walked up and read the instructions. They were easy enough to figure out. The cost was 30 centimes.

Fishing around in my pockets, I found 20 centimes and inserted the coin and then 5 and 2 and 2 and 1, making a total of 30 centimes. But the small coins came flying back at me, leaving the booth 20 centimes ahead.

I fished around in my pocket some more. The best I could do was a full Euro piece. I looked at it for a moment and then put the coin into the slot. I pulled on the door again, knowing I wouldn't get any change but expecting the door to open. It didn't.

Things were beginning to get serious, now. In disbelief and desperation, I put in another one Euro coin, leaving me down 2.20€ for a 0.30€ toilet. But the door still did not open. I stood there a moment trying to decide what to do. Ben had been watching me, and I knew he was wondering what I would do next.

I wandered back to the station and asked the man in the ticket booth if he could make change. I spoke tentatively, for we had found that getting change is no easy task.I made sure to explain what I needed it for.

Est-ce que vous avez de la monnaie pour les toilettes?

He was sympathetic. He asked how much it needed so that he could give me the correct coins, and he pushed them to me under the plexiglass window that hung between us.

I walked back down the platform with plenty of change in hand. And when I got back to the machine which had taken my money, I wondered if perhaps the booth was broken. Then I thought (optimistically) that it must just be finicky -- waiting for some combination of coins that would add up (in some permutation or combination) to exactly 30 centimes. And I wondered if it might let me in if I just put in a 10 centimes piece. So that is what I did.

I pulled on the door, and it opened. Next time I will have exact change.

Trip to France - Day 5

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 Sunday, August 1, 2004

Who Is Keeping Those Gardens?

If you sit at the window of a train speeding thru the French countryside, you will see a lot of things. Lines of aspens at the edges of small fields. Old stone farm houses. Forests. Cattle grazing in the sun. Gardens with flowers. Gardens with vegetables. And train stations. You will see a lot of train stations.

I noticed something about the train stations on our trip, and I have a theory.

As the train went thru each village and city and town, whether we stopped or not, you would almost always see one house at the end of the train yard. Each of these houses looked alike. And while their architectural similarity was striking, more striking was how each house was (1) meticulously kept, (2) subtly integrated into the train yard as if perhaps it were a guardhouse at the entrance to the property, and (3) an exploding garden in back full of blooming flowers and ripening vegetables.

What are these houses? Who lives in them? Why do they all look the same? And, who is keeping those gardens.

Here's my theory.

The French national rail system employs a live-in station master at each station. One of the perks of the job is a house to live in that you may treat as your own.

And it is the spouses who tend the gardens.

Trip To France
Normandy/Bretagne/Touraine by rail

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Melville and the Girl in Pink

1. Melville

Melville was standing in the aisle of the train as it sped thru the summer fields of Normandy. He was a seasoned train traveller, that much was clear. He stood in the aisle confidently, holding a deck of cards in his hands, not holding onto anything else even as the train sometimes came to a stop in a station and people had to squeeze by him to get on or get off.

Melville dropped his cards in the aisle. Some slid under the seat on which his sister was sitting.

Melville! she said, and she leaned over to see what he was doing.

He stood up, having gathered all of them. He didn't say a word. He was concentrating on the cards.

2. The Girl in Pink

Melville was three, maybe four years old. His sister was older: six, maybe seven. She was dressed in pink: a pink shirt, a pink skirt, which was covered by a pink denim jacket her mother had put over her lap when she hopped in the seat next to Ben. And she had pink shoes.

She was playing with a toy that belonged to her brother -- taking advantage of the fact that he was (for the moment) completely engrossed in his deck of cards.

She had an infectious smile. Her eyes sparkled with the carefree happiness of a six (maybe seven) year old. She looked up at Ben and showed him the game, as if to boast of her accomplishment. Then she shook it violently. (This shaking of the game was evidently some way to reset it -- something akin, I guess, to clearing the screen of an Etch-a-Sketch.)

She shook it and started over, this time showing it to Ben each time she advanced a step. She would hold it up and say, Un. Then she would work it a while and hold it up again and say, Deux. And then Trois. And so on.

She's teaching you to count in French, I said.

So he leaned over her shoulder (to tell the truth, he had been leaning for some time). As she said the numbers, he repeated them after her.

She was thrilled. I was thrilled. Her brother had lost interest in the cards and was now not so thrilled. He pushed her over to get in the seat with them.

3. Melville, the Girl, and Ben

When Melville got up onto the seat (it was a bit of a climb for him, but his sister helped pull him up), Ben scooted over to give them more room. When he moved over, the girl in pink moved over, too, leaving just the same amount of room (ie, none) between her and Ben.

This gave Melville plenty of room to join the party. It also left plenty of room for Melville's gray elephant, which he set down on the seat.

They sat there, in that seat, the four of them: Ben, the girl in pink, Melville, and his gray elephant. Melville leaned forward and reached across his sister to touch Ben on the arm. Ben looked at him and smiled. Melville pointed to his shirt, as if to say See my shirt? Ben nodded silently and smiled.

Melville's sister shook the game and offered it to Ben. He held his hand out and waved it back and forth declining her offer, pouting out his lower lip in a gesture of No thank you. So she offered it to her brother. He accepted it happily, shaking it over and over to get started.

And when he started playing the game, he leaned forward to touch Ben's arm again, as if to say, See? I'm playing it, too! Ben nodded and smiled. The girl leaned over to watch her brother play the game. Then she looked up and Ben and smiled broadly.

The game was compelling to her, and she periodically looked over to see how Melville was doing. But Ben was even more compelling, and she spent much of the rest of the trip to Caen looking up and him and smiling, her eyes sparkling furiously, trying to teach him to sing her favorite song.

Trip to France - Day 5
on the train to Caen

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