Days in Normandy

I’m staring at the Empire State Building, of all things, in noir. The streets of New York sit below it across a black border, again in stylish black and white. To the right of them, over another border, are the taxis you see in movies – bright yellow. I wonder again if I’m doing the right thing by being here. It’s a selective color photograph in the shape of a large piece of film, a thick stripe climbing up the wall of the hotel room at Le Genty Home in Mortagne-au-Perche. On each side of this bizarre array of photographs are minimalist silver birch trees of the room’s wallpaper. The room itself has ornate coral trim around the roof, floral and faux gilded curtains, and candelabras with a chandelier in case you’re not cozy with your class. Le Genty Home itself feels like a haunted house. It has tall walls and thin corridors. Though I’m the only tenant who appears in the restaurant downstairs for breakfast, I hear footsteps and doors closing and people chatting at night. This is eco-friendly country in France in the age of the planet’s rebellion, so the lights are kept off. I make my way through hair-pinning passages and closet-width staircases to the door of Room 6. It never wants to lock or unlock because the door’s shape has warped from the temperature of the season. Wooden radiators blend into the background because they don’t think they’re good enough and they aren’t. Windows look out at the bank that shares a wall with Le Genty Home. Outside, the bells of l’église de Mortagne-au-Perche ring. They seem to ring constantly, but I presume that today they ring for Sunday service.

I’m more lonely than usual. Since I landed in France, I was able to be with friends. Now I’m on my own for the next little while. Alice and I agreed that it would be better if I return to Courgeoût in the Spring when there are more people there to teach me to do the work she needs done. The same day that I parted with La Maison Landon, Connie left for the south of France.

I went on my first adventure with Connie to the enchanting abbey of Mont Saint-Michel and the emotional site of D-Day at Omaha Beach. Connie only knows the essential words in French, so I did all of the translating while we acquired our rental car for the trip. It was my first big hurdle in getting something important that we needed since I’ve been here. I was nervous when Jeremy, our Peugeot rental agent, asked for 700€ as a security deposit. I wasn’t 100% certain that’s why he was asking for it. Jeremy didn’t speak any English and he followed the masterful pedagogical technique of the French which is to never slow your speech and to never speak any clearer. When I asked him to, he repeated himself but with the exact same cadence. Sometimes I would tell him I didn’t understand and he would move on. I didn’t stop asking comprehension questions about the 700€ for Connie’s sake, as she was the one who paid for our rental. We ended up renting a car that was too big for just the two of us, but other than that there were no other communication errors.

It had been a while since Connie had driven a stick shift. As Connie was fighting with the car’s emergency break I thought, Of course they gave us a stick shift. I didn’t ask for anything different. I found Connie to be a very capable woman. She lives in Alaska, after all. Living in that state alone should bestow certain skills. I guess it comes with the snow, the bears, and the fly-in-only territory. She seemed anxious and ecstatic during our trip.

“It’s a sign! We were meant to be on this journey together!” she’d say, after we spotted our fifth rainbow in the sky. An arc-en-ciel in French.

I smiled and said, “Yeah, we are.” Rainbows are common in Normandy, but Connie had a way about her.

She particularly disliked the roundabouts, because she swore when we encountered them. In France, as a clever design to improve traffic conditions and to get people where they need to go, they have roundabouts. You yield to oncoming traffic on the left, then you take the appropriate exit to a big circle in the direction you want to go. Connie said,

“It feels like we’re driving in circles.”

She’s the kind of person that can be funny without even trying. The beauty of a roundabout is that if you miss the exit you can continue around. We didn’t do that though. We missed our exit on the first roundabout we came to and were headed down a road that would take us out of the way. We decided we needed to turn around to avoid losing time. People who drive stick know that every manual car has a slight difference with the mechanism of shifting into reverse. As the rainy season came down on us on some country road, Connie tugged and jerked the stick, groping for its magic button to try to get the car into reverse. As a car pulled up in front of us, face to face with our lights, Connie said,

“Oh, no! You’re going have to get out and push,” a chuckle rising.

I had already begun to be impatient with her because she had been questioning GPS directions after I’d given them. I asked her, “Is the hood going to be hot?”

“No!” she said, laughing at my ridiculous question. We had been driving for maybe 5 minutes in the rain. I wasn’t like any person from Alabama she’d expected. Any other son of country-and-farm-raised Alabamians would know what to do. Annoyed, I got out and walked to the front of the car and deliberately avoided looking in the windshield of the car parked in front of us. I waited for a car to pass by on the road we came from and I squatted down low, leaning my full weight into the grill of the car. For a moment, I was afraid the car wouldn’t move at all and we’d be stuck. I’ve always been underweight for my age group and I’ve never been particularly strong. Thankfully, the car started rolling backward. As two cars approached the rear of our vehicle on the main road, Connie yelled,

“Oh, shit! Stop!” I looked up and saw a mixture of joy and nervousness on her face. She was loving this.

The rain was cold. The lights of our observers shined up my ass and I could hear Connie’s voice reeling. I waited for the cars to pass us by and I leaned in again. Connie righted the car on the main road. When I climbed back in the car, Connie was cackling. It was hard to stay mad.

“I can not believe we had to do that!” she said, laughing.

“You mean meI had to do it.” I said.

“You wouldn’t have known to do that if I hadn’t told you.” Got me there. “This is good for you. These are things you’re going to learn as you travel, you know? They’re skills for later in your life.” she said through bursts of laughter.

“Thanks for that, Connie.” I said, fighting the urge to laugh with her. The absurdity of it all got the better of me and I couldn’t help but giggle.

Our journey took us east through many small villages. I learned a lot about France just by driving through it. One of the important things to know is there are perhaps a deceptively small number of gas stations. This explains why we got a manual drive car by default – they’re fuel efficient. Distance is measured the way it should be, in kilometers. But for two Americans who struggle to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius, it caused some confusion. When renting a car to drive somewhere, we needed to know the total amount of kilometers for the whole trip so that we could be charged appropriately. We were also expected to bring our over-sized Peugeot back in good condition, with a full tank, and if we left pieces of mud or leaves on the seats or on the floor we had to vacuum it up. (And we did.)

Much of Normandy, perhaps all of it, is country side. Not even the terrain changed much in our two hour drive. There were rolling hills and farms for as far as my eyes could see. It was quite nice seeing that the planet was existing the way it should. I realized that almost all of the land that I saw was cared for by someone. Wherever they were, they would have to tend to every part of it. If you live here, you know how to farm. If you don’t know how to farm, you probably don’t live here. The first cliffs I saw belonged to the coast along the English Channel. In Normandy, there are no strip malls, no Top Golfs, no Cracker Barrels, no In-N-Outs, no laser tag, no billiards. If you appreciate nature, it can feel liberating. It can also feel a little empty, which is probably why when Europeans are asked about a town they emphasize the things a town has instead of the town’s population. Who cares how many people are there? What can you do there? I found it amusing that the one international McDonald’s Connie and I visited for a cup of coffee had a massive parking lot. Does a McDonald’s in France really need that much parking? Are they going to fill up on game days like the one at Auburn University?

I learned a lot about Connie during our drive to Normandy. Connie works seasonally in Bettles, Alaska, a fly-in-only territory but she lived for many years in Illinois. She has a son, 30, and a daughter, 24. She strikes me as a good Christian woman with a love for a universe permeated in God’s work. She’s divorced and she’s since seized new freedom in her life. She works for 8 months a year, in 4 month stints, and for 4 months she travels in 2 month stints. After her time with Alice was over, she said she would go to Paris, then to the south of France where she would be with her friend Nelly – whom she met in Bettles. Small world. She liked to say things like, “I’m here to tell ya,” and “You would just die,” and, “It’s over the top.”, and “I don’t like trash,”, and “God loves everybody.” The way she talked had an energy to it, a confidence and honesty that I found deeply comforting. She said what she thought as she thought it. It reminded me of home.

During one of Connie’s stories, I gasped.

“What?!” she said, startled.

“Look!” I pointed straight ahead at the horizon. It was far, but Connie searched. She leaned forward over the steering wheel. At the end of all of that country was a flat line that marked the shared sea between England and France, and peaking above it all was the towering abbey of Mont Saint-Michel.

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We parked our car and began the 20 minute walk to the gates of Mont Saint-Michel across its enormous bridge. I learned from Alice’s friend that around 2 PM the tide would start to come in. And indeed, as we left we saw the ripples in the water as small streams of ocean water began to lap up on to the land. I think the most gorgeous photos of Mont Saint Michel are when it is surrounded by the sea. This happens in the Spring. Connie and I had arrived at the abbey at 10 in the morning, so what we saw were groups of families and couples and children walking on the plane of sand. They were like little pieces of rice in the distance. The wind was strong that day. We made our way with hundreds of other French and American people across the island’s new bridge and to its entrance. I was excited! The abbey’s defensible position and tides allowed it to remain unconquered in the Hundred Years’ War, and since it’s obviously so hard to get to and to leave it was used as a prison during Louis XI’s reign. The outdated record of people staying on the island is 50 people. Mont Saint Michel rests in the bay at the bottom of the Manche department at the southwestern-most border of Normandy. All that is west of there is Brittany, the northwestern coastal region of France.

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Connie and I split up once we were across the bridge. She suggested it because she said I was faster than her, but frankly she was the quick one. I felt like the slow one on our trip because I try to read all of the signs to help my comprehension. We discovered only after we joined back up with each other at the entrance that we had both experienced completely different parts of Mont Saint Michel. I went up Mont Saint Michel and saw the abbey and the courtyard and the interior while Connie explored around it and found the boulangerie, the cemetery, and the beautiful surroundings. Connie said she saw a lot and was satisfied with exploring without having to pay anything. I think I paid 9€ for the view and the reading material. Unlike the Eiffel Tower in Paris, I think climbing Mont Saint Michel is worth it for views of the exterior and the view of Normandy/Brittany from the courtyard. The interior of Mont Saint Michel is not as interesting. There are few plaques to explain Mont Saint Michel’s construction and its acquisition of water, but all else is kept sparse for people traffic.

 

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When I was up in the courtyard of Mont Saint Michel, I took a moment to look out across France. I stood there and listened to the sounds of parents chatting and their kids laughing. I don’t even remember hearing waves. Perhaps I wouldn’t have heard them at that time of day. It was peaceful. The light of the sun seemed to glance off the country, the crown of which I now stood on. Out there, south of Normandy and beneath the rolling clouds were my next adventures. Soon enough the next fall will come and I’ll be looking out across the blue bay of Marseille and the Balearic and Mediterranean seas – whichever comes first.

Connie and I left together and continued our journey to Bayeux, the town 15 minutes south of where the United States forces landed on June 6, 1944 during World War II. As we pulled away from the great abbey and continued into Normandy, we saw another rainbow.

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