France on Fridays: Saints et Soldats

Saints and Soldiers • Wednesday, June 7

Linen tablecloths and china cups welcome us at breakfast. Croissant, yogurt, fresh coffee and jam. There is no other way to start the day, we have come to believe. When I get home, I will scout out local bakeries for fresh croissants; finding nothing but processed imposters at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, I am momentarily determined to make them myself, but page 96 of Julie Child’s French Cooking remains dog-eared and unused to this day.

It is morning in Honfleur, and it feels like late spring with the telltale warmth of summer in the air. The cobblestone streets are full of activity as local townsfolk get on their way to work, shopping, and morning errands.

We have errands of our own before we head west to Mont Saint-Michel. And so, on this crystal-clear morning, with sun in our eyes, we find our way to the pharmacie for no, not allergy medicine…

“Parlez-vous Anglais?” DeLinda asks the woman in a white coat at the counter. Behind her, shelves of medicines and tonics are displayed like perfume bottles in a boutique.

“Ah, non,” she smiles politely.

“OK,” says DeLinda. She has prepared for this. “Je voudrais…ah…medicament,” she says, pointing to her nose and sniffling for effect. “Mais, pas dormir (but not to sleep).”

Furrowed brow melts into comprehension.

“Nose spray!” exclaims the pharmacist, and we all smile in relief.

After the pharmacie, we mail our postcards at the Bureau de Post, then head to the épicerie for water, snacks, and les tissus.

Leaving Honfleur in our bright blue rental car, we exit through roundabouts — the traffic circles we come to love — and find our way to A84 via A13 through Caen to Avranches and on to Mont Saint-Michel.

In high school, I learned of this famed monastery on the island that is accessible at low tide, and floats on the water at high. In college, a poster of it hung on my wall. Now, some 22 years later, I will see it, walk it, experience it.

Near Caen, we stop for gas. The pumps are in French, but how different could it be, I wonder as I push this button, and that button. Nothing happens. I push that button then this. Nothing happens. I go inside and ask for assistance.

“Ah…il est kaput!” says the woman behind the counter.

“Kaput? Is that French?” I wonder later, like a punch line you don’t get right away.

After the highway and miles and miles of back roads through the Normandy countryside, Mont Saint-Michel appears on the horizon. A brown speck across fields of green, far out against the blue sky. A speck, a dot, a rise…it takes shape gradually as we make our way down a two-lane winding road. Rounded hills of green dotted by red poppies roll up and down outside the window. Mixes of green, dark, light, solid, patterned, remind me of collages, and I take notes and photos for projects at home.

We stop, briefly, at a café along the road: Le Manoir, a small stone building with a terra-cotta tiled roof—for café crème and a snack. Sitting there in the morning sun, halfway to our destination, we cannot help but think about the task of creating this place: this grand stone-made island, its shops and cobblestone streets, its abbey rising 240 feet above. The cathedral structure surrounded by a small village, set atop a 275-foot stone base.

Later, as we walk through the main gate, around the curving street path, up the steps (and more steps), into the grand abbey, it dawns on us that all of it, every cobbled stone and granite slab, every wooden beam and pane of glass were transported here. Transported through rolling French countryside, across one mile of tidal water at the mouth the Couesnon River, bordering the English Channel, up to this stone island more than 1,000 years before the benefit of 21st century technology. Imagine!

Mont Saint-Michel is immense and amazing. Its transformation, however, from divinely-inspired structure, courtesy of the Archangel Michael, to National Monument (a.k.a. tourist attraction) could not be more obvious. The mystical gravel road covered at high-tide that I’d read about in high school has been paved over — a more reliable access for the tour buses and rental cars. The shops that once housed necessities for the island’s residents now provide the must-haves for les touristes: t-shirts, plastic jewelry, bottled water, logo-engraved knick-knacks and what-nots. The Disney analogy rears its ugly, consumer head once more…until we step into the Abbey.

Above, past the shops and up stone steps, it is quiet. Moss dappled stone and ivied walls. Cool stone hallways. Ribbons of sun sneaking through cracks. There is a reverence here, among everyone. We are hushed and respectful, with plastic whatnots discreetly tucked into backpacks.

It is the small details that catch my eye: the lines of the barrel vaults, the Gothic architecture, the stained glass. The feel of the stone, the shadow and sunlight. The statues and decorative accents. There is so much to see here, including the phenomenal view from the top, out across tidal plains to the sea. Without the vocabulary of architects, historians, artists or theologians, though, I am remiss in my accounting of this place. Our photos must serve as silent witness. The black and white photos in a souvenir book, Echo of Light by Solveigh Kaehler, capture the mystery my own do not.

We depart Mont Saint-Michel at lunchtime and drive east once more, towards Honfleur by way of the beaches of Normandy.

We drive until sunset, through old battlegrounds by the sea. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword beach…names recalled from history class and my Dad’s old war movies.

At Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs to attack the Germans on D-Day, we stop and survey. A gravel path through low scrub trees leads out to an expanse of cliff. Summer green grass spreads out to cliff’s edge, ocean in the distance, England on the horizon, blue sky. It is beautiful at first, and we breathe in the fresh, salty air. And then we notice…the barbed wire along the cliff, the pock-marked ground and telltale craters. But it is the stillness that makes us stop — the breeze extinguished, the air dense with memory, the ground hallowed. The smiles in our photos of this place belie its effect; we are quiet as we walk to the car.

Weary, we stop at Omaha Beach, simply because we are there. We see the memorial Les Braves, a metal sculpture commemorating the Americans who liberated France. In a way, this wave of history and death is too much for the end of this day, the middle of this grand journey. The beaches, the placards, the monuments, the remnants of a battle some 60 years old…we have paid homage, but we are hungry and entertaining colds, so we head back to Honfleur for dinner and sleep.

• • •

Les Deux Amis En France, ©2011 Jen Payne. All rights reserved.

See also:
C’est La Vie
La Plus Longue Journée
À Travers La Ville
Petits Oeuvres D’art
Escalier au Ciel
Plus Escaliers et Alors Nous Arrêtons
Le Voyage de la Route!
Les Américains

Photos ©2011, Jen Payne, DeLinda Fox.

6 thoughts on “France on Fridays: Saints et Soldats

Add yours

  1. Your photos are exceptional.
    Very nice to see through your camera lens —

    When I was at Mont St Michel aeons ago I was sick with stomach flu and spent our whole three days there in bed chewing charcoal (a French physician’s recommendation) and saw nothing whatever but the walls of our chamber —-

    1. I am so sorry you did not get to see Mont Saint Michel. It was breathtaking! I hope my photos did it justice for you here.

      (You can buy charcoal capsules here that do wonders for indigestion and such.)

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