Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving For Those Who Fought On The Beaches of Normandy

Crosses reaching out to sea over Omaha Beach. Almost 10,000 men rest here. More died. The thin,
mishapend trees give you an idea of the harsh weather along Normandy beaches.

This Thanksgiving, while I’m still thankful for family, friends, enough food to eat, the ability to see a doctor when sick, and all the other things that make life good I am grateful for something new. Unexpectedly, I found it in France.

Part of our river cruise was to see the D-day beaches in Normandy. Their images were imprinted on my brain, especially with the marathon war documentaries and movies on The History Channel every Memorial Day. I thought it would be like when you finally get into the room with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and say, “That’s it? That little thing? What’s all the fuss?” I was eager to get to the American Cemetery because I have loved the beauty and serenity of National Cemeteries ever since, as a Girl Scout, we hiked the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee and at the end had the land open up into V’s of white crosses that stretched to eternity. For my own father and grandfather at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, I love to go just before closing as the deer come out at dusk to feed amid the headstones.

But as we drove down country roads that hadn’t changed much except for the paving, the tour guide pointed out that there weren’t many old buildings. The Germans forced the townspeople out and demolished the towns so Allied troops would have no place to hide. What used to be centuries-old villages now were little pink weekend vacation cottages risen from the ashes of war. We saw farm fields instead of Norman cows grazing because so many had been killed by battles or eaten for survival that they no longer filled the neatly, walled parcels of land.

Brad next to the remains of war at Arromanches

The full impact of the invasion swept over me when we hit the beaches at Arromanches. While all the mines the Germans had planted have been removed, the hulking, barnacle-covered pontoons of landing forces and the temporary harbor that had been constructed immediately after the invasion remain to give some perspective of what it took to get those soldiers and tanks across the English Channel and to shore. The beaches were so wide that they seemed to stretch all the way to England. The Germans thought that the Allies would come at high tide to avoid the open space, so they had planted and wrapped with explosives large, sharp obstacles of wood, cement, and steel to tear out the bottom of landing ships. As a result, for the invasion the soldiers had to hit land at low tide and make their way across this minefield in the early hours of dawn. I can’t even imagine what physical and emotional strength it took for the young men to run onto the beaches and keep moving forward as the Germans sat on the high ground, picking them off like the proverbial shooting gallery. There really was no way but forward.

Windsurfers next to decaying landing pontoons

As I strolled calmly along the beaches among the windsurfers, joggers, and parents playing with dogs and children, I knew something of the distance, and the wind, and the rain that made this attack even more dangerous, for bad weather is constant in Normandy. They say it rains twice a week in Normandy, first for three days then for four. And the rain was coming down as I tried to keep my camera dry, whipping it out for a quick picture with one hand while holding my hat with the other before sticking it back under my scarf. 

 Aerial shot of bocages that men and tanks had to penetrate to fight

The hedgerows - or bocage in French - that still line many of the roads in Normandy were for centuries a utilitarian feature in daily life. For the stone and thatch homes they served as windbreaks from the incessant ocean wind of Northern France. Or they provided privacy for the courtyards of village farmhouses. They marked fields for the small crop acreage or to keep the iconic Norman cows contained. During the war, however, they turned sinister and deadly. Planted atop raised mounds of earth, the tightly woven thickets provided perfect cover for the Germans to hide and pepper the Allied troops who had just landed on the beaches as they moved down the dirt roads closely hemmed in by the village buildings. It was impossible to escape. And still they stand, silent witnesses to the man-made chaos and horror of war.

Our guide was from the Norman area. Her family had lived there for generations. When she spoke of the Vichy government during that era she almost spit in her disgust. She had tales from older relatives of lives turned upside down when all they wanted was to fish and tend farms. They evacuated their Norman villages and kept on the move, hoping to find safety. Her grandfather, she said, rarely spoke of the battles that now make that region a tourist mecca. While I had no family member who had fought that battle, many on the bus had the same story to tell. They were there for their soldier fathers and grandfathers, trying to understand what they had experienced because they had said very little about that battle once they came home.

From outside and inside the bunkers overlooking the beaches of Normandy

Only by standing on the beaches, driving through the claustrophobic hedgerows, or visiting the cemetery and listening to the stories told in the words of the soldiers in visitor center movies did they begin to understand why their fathers and grandfathers said little about one of the most significant days in world history.

“The Greatest Generation” has been thrown around so much that its meaning had become a bit diluted. But standing on the beaches of Normandy I comprehended the all-or-nothing risk that the Allied troops took on to capture those concrete bunkers hurling fire and death down on them. I understood that “The Greatest Generation” was not an exaggeration. The level of cooperation among nations, the boldness of thinking, and the degree of sacrifice to literally save the world is something we see today primarily in movies with Will Smith or Bruce Willis single-handedly fighting aliens in space.

I stood on the beaches realizing that there was not one speck of cover. When the ramps of the landing craft lowered the soldiers had no option but to race forward across the wide beaches of Normandy -- beaches that now hold thousands of holiday revelers on a summer weekend. They pushed forward, often dragging their injured comrades with them as they sought cover. They climbed the cliffs to the bunkers and kept fighting against all odds.

For that I’m truly thankful.

What are you thankful for this year? Tell us in the comments box and then get to baking those pies for your family. Happy Thanksgiving.

If you’ve never seen the opening to Steven Speilberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan, you need to watch it to understand what it took for the soldiers to cross the distance from sea to land and up to the concrete bunkers of the Germans.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Taxonomy of Life On A River Cruise. Or Who Do You Think You Are?

When Brad and I walked into the dining room for the first time on our first-ever cruise, we both had the same thought: why does this seem so familiar? Yes, it was just like we were starting high school and trying to figure out where to sit in the cafeteria. If we sat at a table for two, would that mean we’d never meet anybody? But what if we sat at a table for four and nobody ever joined us? Wouldn’t we look like a couple of losers? Would we wander the dining room seeking a spot to land, isolated outsiders and clearly newbies in the cruise world while everyone else started on their first course?

Happily, none of those worst case scenarios happened during our week on the Seine River.  The thing about a ship with only 150 travelers, though, is you quickly encounter everyone and figure out who to avoid and who could tell a good story, especially for those daily dinners, which were always open, rather than assigned, seating.

The first evening taught me about a special genus called competitive cruisers ad nauseum. Even from across the main lounge you can hear them name-checking the places they’ve visited and which ships they took. If someone asks a question, they’re the first to answer because they know everything even though they’ve never been on this ship or this tour. Don’t bother sitting with them at dinner unless you’re somebody who likes to listen while someone else talks.


In a small space like a river boat you can’t avoid the second group of people, i.e., cruiser queribundus. The complainers, they’re the same people on dry land who always find fault with the smallest thing. They’ve perfected their grumble. The cruise director isn’t as animated as their last cruise director. This gourmet food selection and unlimited wine at every meal wasn’t as exciting as back home in their town with four Michelin star restaurants. Nobody told them in advance where the most famous paintings were in the museum we visited. Meanwhile, the entire country of the Philippines has practically been wiped off the planet by the largest storm in recorded history AND you have chocolate on your pillow each night and a 24-hour espresso bar. PERSPECTIVE, people!!

Sigh, we find the indecoris Americanus still exists. This group and the cockroach will continue to exist after the zombie apocalypse. While no country produces perfect tourists, I still feel like I need to run up and apologize when I see the performance of an Ugly American in the flesh. A woman from the cruise walked up to a guard in a museum and said, in English (in her outside voice), “Where’s the bathroom? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.” Yes, in English. As if she assumed the guard should speak English just for her. No bonjour or s’il vous plais, or merci. No attempt to use the most basic travel word, toilette. On my first trip to France I clutched my phrasebook like a lifeline. The best part of owning a smartphone is the dictionary/translation app. But people still assume the world bends to their comfort zone.

In true high school fashion, this cruise offered an example of the genus cool kids. They didn’t take Latin, hence the modern title. They travel in a herd. The whole lot of them booked the cruise together and have no use for the rest of us. They eat together, they tour together, they sit together on the tour bus. My close encounter with this high school royalty occurred early in the trip when after dinner I took my computer aft to the “quiet” lounge to complete my MFA homework. The cool kids had set up camp with bottles and bottles of wine and a laptop playing party music at top volume. Never mind that music, dancing, and drinking were happening in the main lounge. “Do you hear that sound? That’s not how the engine on our last cruise sounded. That doesn’t sound right. This boat needs an overhaul. Those glasses on the table shouldn’t have moved like that. That engine needs an overhaul, I tell you.” Repeat a dozen times, each iteration louder and louder to sound over the music and successively slurred as bottles empty. They never even acknowledged my presence. I wasn’t part of the cool club.

Gaudium est - life is a joy. And we found plenty of this type throughout the week. There was the couple where the husband surprised his wife with the trip just a couple of weeks before they were supposed to leave. “Thank heavens my sister and I had just made a shopping trip to New York,” surprised wife laughed. Or the couple whose suitcases never arrived until just before dinner on the last night. The ship kept moving and the luggage was always one day behind. They appreciated the crew doing their laundry each day and joked about the situation because, well, what else could they do. The joyous set said c’est la vie when the flooding Seine meant some of our cruise was cruisin’ down the highway in a bus, and the cold and rain of Normandy made us feel like we were going to grow mold. There was the group united by knitting on rainy afternoons and others, like me, who thought the espresso machine that also delivered steaming, foamy milk for hot chocolate was worth the price of the cruise.

If you’ve done group travel, what categories have you encountered that I’ve overlooked? Share with us in the comments box your own close encounters with any of these kinds of creatures on your own travels or your own taxonomies.

The photos are the colors of Honfleur, the French port town that played an important part in the Hundred Year’s War and that I remember being mentioned of in Shakespeare’s history plays. This was one of two days of the trip we had some sun. It was also a favorite subject of Impressionist painters.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On French Terroir - Or Something Close To It

 My own impressionist version of life along the Seine 
(I promised my nephew I'd try Lightroom for my photos)

I’m an old vine. And that’s not a bad thing. At least that’s what I heard last week when I was rolling down the Seine River, drinking wine beginning at 9:30 in the morning.

Brad and I have been on a wine cruise down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur and back. At least some of the week was cruising. You see, the rain they’ve been having in northern France raised the level of the Seine so much that no boats could fit under the famous Paris bridges. We were lucky that our ship got stuck outside of Paris. The first part of our cruise consisted of getting on a tour bus and driving for a long time in rush-hour traffic to meet up with the ship in Conflans-Ste.-Honorine. Thank heavens the the bridges from here on out were new and tall enough to handle ocean-going vessels. At the end of the cruise it was back to Conflans where all kinds of river boats were tied up four across at the dock, waiting out the water.

  The high Seine in Paris

But back to my viney old self. Or rather, wines and old vines.

Vigneron Jean-Marc Espinasse (here and here), who came up from his warm Provencal vineyard to cold and rainy Normandy to teach us, was asked “When is a vine considered an old vine?” He said many might say 40 years, but he felt it was closer to 60. And with the older vines the roots are sunk deeper, so they can endure more. After hearing that, I didn’t feel so bad about this old body getting creakier by the month. Because I fell -- again -- and am feeling as ancient as the vines that produce the wines we’re drinking.

Jean-Marc Espinasse

I keep trying to tell myself that being an old vine is the best thing, that I’ve still got some grand cru life left in me. Jean-Marc told a story about how when he ran over one of his old vines, his babies, with his tractor he cried. Nobody cried when this old vine went down on the bus steps, though the bus driver was very solicitous the rest of the day like I was an old grandma who wears orthopedic shoes and reindeer sweatshirts.

Whatever Jean-Marc talks about, he always gets back to the French concept of terroir, or the influence soil, geography, climate, and other natural elements have on the wine or food from a certain place. Since he’s an organic winemaker, terroir defines everything he does. On a previous trip to France, another winemaker did an experiment and showed us how different wines that came from grapes grown just on opposite sides of a road could taste so different. Perhaps this plot had a little more sun, or that plot was a little closer to some lavender. “Without good terroir,” Jean-Marc told us, “you can’t have a good wine.”
While sometimes in France I just want to go the the Picard store and buy a week’s worth of frozen dinners (salmon on a bed of puréed broccoli - yum!), I love shopping at the weekly market and see where my food is from. Every merchant has labels on everything telling you if the dates come from Tunisia or Algeria. I prefer the clementines from Spain over the ones from Provence. Most of my vegetables come from within an hour of Dijon, my chickens come from Bresse-en-Bourg and my beef is Burgundy Charolais cows.

During this time when we can’t even get the U.S. government regulations to label if our food has been genetically modified, I like to come to a country where the origin of food is so essential (although not universal, I admit). On the bus tour to Honfleur the tour guide pointed out some stunted corn in the field. She said that the corn plants don’t produce ears of corn because it’s too cold and wet; however after the buds fade they mow it down and save it to feed the Normandy cows in winter, along with the peas, beans, and other crops they grow for the cattle. France escaped the mad cow problem, she said, because they don’t feed them much commercial food.

Even the houses in Normandy are about "terroir" with thatch roofs and irises growing on top

France can be maddening sometimes, like when you want to go to eat dinner before 7:30 p.m., or  if you have to deal with paperwork. But I do love the idea that nourishing our body begins with all the centuries of plants and minerals that have inhabited a small plot of land. The circle of life and all that.

Unfortunately, I also like French fries, French ice cream, and French chocolate. Sigh.

More stories from Normandy will be coming. Have any of you been to Normandy? What is your favorite part? Wherever you live how much do you know about the origin of your food? If you buy organic or local, what particular food do you try to always buy organic or local? Share your Normandy and food thoughts in the comments box.

We sailed on the Amallegro with Amawaterways and all of our arrangements were made by the über efficient Susan Boehnstedt of Critics Choice Vacations. Thanks to everyone who made our first cruise so relaxing and interesting. More stories to come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Postcard from Dijon

 Words cannot capture my joy at returning to the apartment to find
the geraniums I planted this summer still blooming.

You know those times in your life when everything is running so smoothly that you will be a front page feature in the HOME section of your local newspaper, star of an article full of tips about how to do everything better than anyone else? Me neither. My life always feels like herding cats.

Somehow I’ve made it back to Dijon. After my disastrous trip in the summer, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to walk onto the plane, let alone lift anything into the overhead bin. After my fall two days into the July trip, I got back into physical therapy the day after returning home, sticking with it until the day before heading back to France this fall. Steroid shots got my knee moving, but I probably will have to have rotator cuff surgery sometime next year. That meant that nothing in the house got cleaned. The garden was never finished. Brad was out of the country in Germany since September. I had the new challenge of keeping up with all my MFA homework (I’m reading and writing a lot - just not blogs).

To add injury to injury, neither arm nor knee has done well because each day I had to lift and carry my 40 lb. dog who was in worse shape than me. Skyler’s arthritis is making it hard for her to stand, plus she decided not to eat the food she’s eaten for years.  I never know what the day will bring in her condition. Even though she’s on multiple pain meds and is playing food roulette, every day she still wants her walk (now reduced to three houses up and three houses back then -- alley oop -- lifting her up the front stairs). I almost cancelled the trip this time, but Brad and I have a special event planned you’ll hear about later. So when the GREATEST FAMILY MEMBERS IN THE WORLD (hi, Melinda and Laurie) stepped up to take care of my old girl and get her to her vet appointments I put my aching body back on a plane.

 And when I started breathing the air of France, I exhaled. I sat and had tea at my favorite comptoir. See that book I was reading? Be good to yourself -- run to whichever place you get your books and get Kathleen Finneran’s, The Tender Land. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing you’ll ever read. It’s an exquisite memoir about a St. Louis family that must carry on after tragedy. Find a quiet corner and read this weekend.


I took a walk down Cours du Parc and wondered how many Sunday mornings this couple had walked this path after buying their daily bread. What other streets were part of their long lives in this historic city?

This was definitely not on the menu when I went to the market to buy the meat for our first dinner party in our new apartment. No thank you. In my very French Dutch oven I made a recipe I had saved on my computer ages ago - Braised French Onion Chicken with Gruyere. It was a wonderful night with good friends Didier, Francoise, and Claire -- even if we did have to get up and wash dishes and silverware between courses. We started with kir and ended with Vanille Pecan Caramel Beurre Salé ice cream and chocolate.

As evening approached this past weekend, I was racing around to find a screwdriver, expandable curtain rods, a book light, and other sundry items sold uniquely in who-knows-which specialized store. When I heard these guys laying down some smooth jazz up ahead of me I slowed down to listen and breathe. And I always drop something in the pot when I take pictures of street artists.

This is a short trip because I need to get back to my baby.  At the end of this week Brad and I leave on an adventure outside of our little Dijonnais sanctuary. Uncertain of internet access. But if it’s there I hope to bring you stories and photos of places new and interesting (and probably filled with rain). Meanwhile, if you have any questions or any requests on what you’d like to see or read about this country I’m still trying to figure out, leave them in the comments box and I’ll see what I can do.

Come to think of it, I do have a handy tip. If you’re having something from IKEA delivered that’s bigger than a breadbox, make sure you pick the option where they bring it up the winding stairs to your third-floor apartment and not the one where they leave it in the street or on the sidewalk. Trust me, it’s worth the extra 30 euros.

This was the space we had to prepare a four-course dinner

Related Posts with Thumbnails