mercredi, mars 21, 2007

07.03.21: St. Paddy's Day ... Long memories

Well, I might be a little late, but Happy St. Paddy's Day just the same.

I got a little busy late last week and didn't have time to write before la grande fête, and then, well, took a little trip for the week-end, which I now summarize for you below....

Went to Normandy last week-end for a visit. First time to that famous region. Hey, what's to see ...

Started off with a visit to a couple in Caen that we met in Sénégal last December, and we were invited to their house to spend a day or two. Turns out that Véronique is friends with all of the directors of the big hotels in Deauville (you know, where all the Hollywood stars hang out during the Deauville film fest). So, we took some tours of the 4-star-luxe hotels in Deauville, had a cocktail or two on the house, and short-sheeted the beds in the Susan Sarandon Presidentielle Suite. Took a tour along the northern coast between Honfleur and Cabourg, and ended up back in Caen for the evening.

Believe it or don't, but Friday night we went into Caen to a bar named "O'Donnell's Irish Pub", had a few pints of Guiness (pronounced here as uhn puhn de Geen-ace), and listened to a band (5 piece) play traditional Irish music. Very traditional, and nicely played. Mostly reels, and a few ballads. I never did figure out where the band was from. When the singer sang, his english sounded, well kindof irishy, and my french hosts said he spoke french with a bit of an accent, but when we were leaving I thanked him in english, and he looked at me kind of funny like he didn't understand. So, I don't know where they were from, but they played a nice set of music on the eve of St. Paddy's Day, in a northern French town, not that very far from Ireland. I didn't mind it a bit.

Normands can be persistent with their apple theme. Apples grow here, along with cows for cheese and butter. In the french tradition of combining economics and the necessity of a specialty drink for each course of the meal, the Normands have figured out how to make an aperitif (before dinner) and a digestif (after dinner) from the same fruit. I don't know the exact process, but apparently fruit, fermented and distilled results in a relatively strong apple-based, cognac inspired, digestif called Calvados. If you can find the aged (30 yrs, what patience!), it makes for a quite nice after dinner drink. One fruit region, two drinks needed ... add a little fresh apple juice to calvados, and voilà, you have Pommeau, a sweeter, lighter alcohol version suitable for an aperitif. I am not an expert on these matters, but I will be happy to report new discoveries, as experienced.

Spent the rest of the weekend visiting the famous sites ... D-Day beaches, American Cemetery in Normandy, and the Bayeux Tapestry, and on Monday, to an 1000 year old ruin of an abbey called Jumièges.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a tapestry (go figure) that is about 70 meters long and 50 cm tall which recounts the history of the Battle of Hastings and the conquering of England by William the Conquerer (Guillaume le Conquérant) in 1066, establishing the strong presence of the Normans in western europe for a few more centuries. Created as a sort of political propaganda at the time, it has taken on a life of its own in symbolism throughout the ages, and is preserved in an unbelievably wonderful condition 900 years later. Worth a stop, if you find yourself near Bayeux.

The D-Day beaches and war memorials are, as always, moving. La Pointe du Hoc is a spit of land that juts out into the Channel that was strategically important to capture in the initial phases of the Normandy landings. In preparation, the small strip was aerial bombed to the extent that no spot of earth was left untouched. The nazi defenses persisted, and the Rangers who scaled the cliffs to arrive on this spot found tough resistance. Today, the strip of land is American soil, and the remains of the aerial bombing are evident everywhere, while the grasses and potentillas, in yellow spring bloom, put some soft edges on the remains of the concrete and steel bunkers that were constructed by Rommel's crews in anticipation of the eventual Allied attacks.

At the American Cemetery we hooked up with a British couple to take a guided tour given by a French lady, who is employed by the American Battle Monuments Commission ( Quentin Roosevelt, son of Teddy, died as a pilot in WWI near where Grandpa was engaged in Eastern France. Theodore, Jr, also son of Teddy, died in Normandy during WWII. As a tribute to the family, Quentin's grave was moved from eastern France to be next to his brother in Normandy. I recalled seeing some photos of Quentin and his wrecked plane in Grandpa's photo albums, which I mentioned to our French guide, as she had discussed that they are always trying to tie together pieces of history. She said that they had some photos of the original burial site of Quentin, but that they had not previously seen any photos of Quentin's plane nor the surroundings. So, I e-mailed her some digitized photos from Grandpa's stash, including the photos of Quentin, for which she is very thankful to have. She may contact me to have at the look at some more of the family archives. We'll see.

In a turn of history, at the British war memorial, there is a large engraving in stone, commemorating the contributions of the British soldiers in liberating France, that references the Battle of Hastings, and essentially says: "We, the previously conquered, return 900 years later as your liberators."

Europe has a long memory like that.

Hope your week-end was memorably pleasing,