Three weeks before I left France, my father came to visit. Mentioning everything we did would take more time than I am prepared to devote, but I will take you through the highlights.
Dad flew in to Paris and came to Montpellier train station, where I met him and we spent a few days wandering the shops and parks of Montpellier. He kept taking pictures of anything remotely medieval, which struck me as odd until I remembered that on the other side of the pond, we haven’t got anything medieval! Or Roman, for that matter. During the day I introduced him to the glories of things like fougasse (heavenly marriage of olive bread, a croissant and a pretzel), fougasse d’aigues-mortes (a sort of cake made with orange-blossom water) and tielle (octopus stew baked in a pie). In the evening we went to a bar (ironically, an English bar) and had pastis, which Dad loved.
Dad, who has definite Communist sympathies, noticed they had Cuban rum on offer and got really excited, so I bought us some shots. Doing shots with my father…now, if there is one thing I could never, ever imagine myself doing, that is it. Granted, instead of tossing his shot back Dad sipped his, so we didn’t really “do shots” (and it was so endearing to watch).
We went north–all the way north–to Caen, the largest city in Normandy. It was cold and rainy. We took a cab to our hotel in the suburbs and I realized it was true what they said about Normans–really friendly people, who do talk a bit like Quebecers (“C’est pô comme çô”)
The first day we spent our time in the (vast) Memorial Museum, which should be a stop on anyone’s list, although a whole day should be set aside to wander through the exhibitions on the buildup to the war, on the Résistance, on the landing itself and on the end of the war, as well as the British, American and Canadian memorial gardens.
Every time I see, hear or read anything about the Second World War, I think about the soldiers who stormed the beach, the families who hid Jews under their houses, the ordinary men and women who carried guns in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or blew up railway lines in the French Résistance, or survived Auschwitz. Would I have had the strength of mind to do that? Or would I have buckled under the pressure, closed my eyes to the problem, tried to play the game? I hope that if it came to harming others, I would have said no. But if the choice was between active resistance and passive blending in and keeping my head down, would I have made the noble choice? I’d like to think I would, but the terrifying thing is, I’ll never know.
The next day we rented a car and drove down the coast to Juno Beach, where Canadian units landed on D-day. It was cold and rainy , but I ran down the beach to climb on top of a bunker and shoot a video (which my memory card decided to erase, thus continuing my lasting hatred of technology). There were two young Canadian men there (my age or younger). One was an anglo from Alberta. The other was a pure laine Montrealer with curly blond hair and a Quebec accent sharp enough to slice things with. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of homesickness when we commiserated about the awful weather, and he said, “Il fè trèèèè frette!” (which more or less means “It’s soooo cold outside” but in joual…hard to translate the feeling).
The guided tour was given by the Albertan, who spoke the best French I had ever heard from an Albertan, more or less fluent with an endearing accent (now I think I know more or less how I sound). He had difficulty remembering what he had said in what language for our bilingual tour group. I remember learning that not all of the invasion objectives were successful, and that the German units sent to fight the invading allies were Hitler Youth. That late in the war (summer ’44) German manpower was stretched extremely thin, so 15-year-old boys, well-trained and thoroughly brainwashed, were sent into battle. I remember learning that local men of a certain age would tell you more than you ever wanted to know about those bunkers…because they had built them, as forced labourers during the German occupation.
I was also excited to go to Juno Beach because in my last year of undergrad, I did a paper on a Radio-Canada war correspondent, Marcel Ouimet, who had covered the landing. It was one of the better things I’d written, and I put a lot of effort into making every translation perfect and every sentence flow. During the time I was working on it I really felt like I’d gotten to know the man, who started off as a campus newspaper editor and local radio reporter to become a famous war correspondent within a few years, but then all but died in obscurity. It was quite a rush to walk where he walked, where he worked…like history coming alive…
That was a busy day! After Juno Beach came Arromanches, the hulks of the artificial port sticking up out of the sea at Gold Beach. Walking through the pedestrian paths of the old Norman town with my father saying “This is too cute, they must just do this for the tourists.” Delicious buckwheat crepes and hard cider (for me) which my father thought tasted like apple cider vinegar.
To be continued…