From Here To Embry

Christmas 2012 in the north of France with dear friends….. une célébration idyllique! Despite the 8 hour drive from here (deep in the Dordogne) and the ‘vigilance orange‘ warning for heavy flooding in the north, the corgi and I set out December 21, excited for the road trip. We drove for 7 hours, reaching Basse-Normandie, to spend the night in Ver-sur-Mer, next door to Courseulles-sur-Mer and Juno Beach, site of the Canadian forces landing during the WWII liberation of France.

It was, as forecast, raining. Relentlessly. Visions of wretched WWI soldiers suffering the trenches in bone-chilling rain and boot-sucking mud--floated to mind as fields along our route rose into lakes, and portions of roads churned into racing rivers. The flooding was unnervingly real.

We arrived at our B&B well after dark, (having dodged our way around unexpected ‘routes barrées‘), tired and bleary-eyed and glad to have found port in the wild weather. The place charmed, as did the friendly owner and my new 'best friend', her golden retriever Grenade. (french for pomegranate, though the english spelling seemed mildly ironic, as my ‘raison d’etre‘ for being there in the first place was to visit the site of the Normandy invasion).

Always the rain. Heavy, sodding, cold, relentless. In the weather-slicked courtyard of the Juno Beach Centre (Canada’s WW II museum and memorial), I stood transfixed before Canadian artist Colin Gibson’s bronze-green sculpture of five helmeted soldiers, viscerally bound in courage and strength of conviction. They appear to be launching bravely and purposefully into eternity, a fitting artistic statement to that fateful day in June 1944 when Canadian forces first stormed Juno Beach as part of the Allied Invasion (Operation Overlord) to liberate Occupied France. As a work of art, regardless of location and context, it resonates to the very bone.

Inside the Centre however, there was a party going on–adults and children, mostly employees and their families, were gamely singing ‘Petit Papa Noel‘ while a rather bedraggled-looking Père Noel looked on benignly. There were seasonal refreshments, but I declined to linger, preferring to duck into the museum’s display area and have it to myself.

To enter the museum’s exhibits I had to pass through a doorway into a small, empty room with an industrial steel plank floor. As the doors closed behind me, I was left standing in semi-darkness amid the sensory bombardment of a surround-sound movie of heavy seas churning spray at me, and thundering cumbersome bombers overhead. The intent is that you experience a WWII soldier’s ‘verité‘ in crossing the English channel in a landing barge, enroute to the bloody battle for the beachheads of Normandy. Very visceral.

Throughout the museum the interactive displays and ‘living’ histories, the riveting personal stories and in-the-field artifacts struck the few visitors there that day, myself included, into silence. Suddenly the full reality of my own father’s harrowing experiences as an RCN Lieutenant aboard a small corvette in the North Atlantic, vainly trying to shepherd ‘sitting duck’ merchant convoys through U-boat wolf packs, (pardon the upcoming pun) sank home. He rarely if ever shared his war memories; naive questions were routinely deflected to safer waters. But here were the facts, figures and testimonies of life at war. Raw, vivid, wrenching, inspiring….

There is a quiet room towards the end of the exhibits, dimly lit, with simple cubicles to sit in and listen to personal letters of soldiers, as read by professional actors. Projected onto the departure wall of this quiet room is a rolling list with every name of every Canadian soldier who died in WWII. It takes 13.5 hours to scroll through the entire list. This detached and simple 'factoid' stays with me..….

Outside the museum,  the weather was as grim as the German machine-gun bunker that still menaces the crest of the dunes. Juno beach itself was deserted. Well, almost. Wild wind whipped the surf to a boil. A lone windsurfer skimmed the angry waves at breakneck speed. Forlorn site in December. Gunmetal skies, sodding rain, machine-gun wind.

I walked the beach alone. Cold length of demarrara sand and dank seaweed; once bloodied horizon that spanned thousand upon thousand breaths. Two giant crosses --Christian at one end, ‘Croix de Lorraine‘ at the other--now mark that brave and sorry universe, known for time as Juno.

I confess I cried. How can you not? Such unimaginable courage in the certain face of death. Such conscious sacrifice. Such monstrous losses. 

The beach is an ever open monument. Poignant elegies are yet delivered by a restless sea. A rusted rifle, still-birthed from the deep, barnacled into forever silence.  A soldier’s broken helmet, the metal now sea-paper-thin. Fragile lamentations….



Views From the Field....

I hate packing. Too many decisions. The suitcases always look too small, my needs too large. I long to leave with just the clothes on my back and passport in pocket.

Mackenzie travelled brilliantly. She knew the routine. Stepped right up into her kennel without even asking. Both flights. Last year I had to firmly nudge her into the crate for the Paris to Bordeaux leg. This time she knew what to expect. And she was right on cue.

Through that rubbery curtain at the mouth of the baggage carousel in Bordeaux she made her 'encore' entry--floating along the conveyor belt before an admiring audience while trailing an ever-growing entourage of baggage. Endearingly amusing.

The winter has been milder this year than last. Only one bad time of it before Christmas where 4 inches of snow closed everything down including the Marché de Noel where I had hoped to sell my 'perfect for Christmas or hostess gifts', cleverly potted-up bulbs in repurposed vide-grenier 'finds'. So what do you do with 19 amaryllis and 53 hyacinth well on their way to blooming and with only one week (before leaving for Canada for Christmas) in which to 'move' them? 

You make an online catalogue....I turned the kitchen into a photo studio, piled laundry baskets on top of each other on the kitchen table, covered them with burlap as a no-seam backdrop, shot the product on risers, and ultimately compiled it all into a power point slide-show catalogue and called it The Potting Shed which I emailed to the 10 or so english speaking people I have met here in France. Then I took on the challenge of translating the full catalogue into French ~ L'Abri de Jardin ~ for my french speaking voila! J'ai vendu plus de la moitié de mon produit...en cinq jours.

The upside of the downside of the market cancellation is manifold: the unsold bulbs will keep, along with the assorted 'truc' I planted them in, till next Christmas marché. And meanwhile the house is still in various stages of scent and bloom which, apart from the gift of such beauty also provides ample opportunity first hand to see which bulbs really did produce the colour as pictured on their tag and which hyacinth produces the most scent...all valuable info for next year's effort.

Meanwhile Mackenzie and I have our walks in the woods (except for Sundays--officially dangerous hunting day) along ancient footpaths that take us across busy streams and alongside sunny meadows of lazing Limousin cattle who eye us with curiousity and not a bit of wariness. Mackenzie's corgi-short legs always seem to baffle them.

I love how cattle stand still in unison, at different times of the day wherever they are in their field, all facing in the same direction, and just commune it seems with who knows what or who. I feel them to be almost spiritual in if deeply rooted to the earth and in perfect pitch with the universe. It's very peaceful to observe.... as if they have gone inwards meditatively.

Too long in the French countryside with just a dog for company? Perhaps.....


The Neighbours / Les Voisins