Trekking Across Northern France

Thomas D. Le


Who would want to venture into the dead of winter eight thousand miles from home, sometimes in lacteal opacity, sometimes in smiling sunshine, and sometimes on a drizzly night, shivering and happy to relive the harsh winters of those long gone days in the Midwest? I have seen shows of hardy tourists who vacationed in ice hotels north of the Arctic Circle in the wintry world of frost and snow. However, I will submit that few would have the foolishness to brave the frigid wind of Caen, the biting cold of Troyes, and the crisp freeze of Paris all within days of each other and still have the pluck to call that a perfect vacation. Yet upon reflection, the adventure was no more foolish than the inroads made by the Vikings in the ninth century who had taken a similar path to the heart of Champagne and eventually settled down in Normandy.

Troyes

Last winter I retraced the Vikings’ progress, almost on a whim. Now I had visited France many times over the years in spring and fall. But this time was going to be different. My friend Jacques the neuropsychiatrist, who made the medieval city of Troyes his home, the city known as the stained glass capital of the world, was going to support my application for the “Knighthood” of the Commanderie du Saulte Bouchon Champenois. This organization was founded in the Champagne-Ardenne region in 1975 to uphold the tradition of promoting champagne as the king of all beverages. Jacques himself is a Commanderie Chevalier of long standing, a champagne connoisseur, and a poet in his moments of reflection. He had implied that I could not possibly be living until I became a Chevalier of the Commanderie. I could argue philosophically with him about the merits of a simple life, but I could sense the strength of that argument being sapped by his joie de vivre, and his contentment at being a man of the world. So before I began to fight, I had surrendered my will to resist. It was not as if membership would constitute sybaritic splendor. The simple question remains, Why go through life handicapped by a stoic worldview and daily drudgery while letting the finer things pass you by? A thousand excuses I could conjure up. A thousand no’s I could say. But why should I? Why would I or anyone pass up an opportunity to receive a title, indulge in dreams, and let the imagination carry him back to the times of knights and damsels, of dungeons and dragons, and of swashbuckling adventures that dazzled posterity? It is hardly defensible to lead a spartan existence knowing that the world has new horizons to explore, daring things to try, bold experiences to discover.

So on that sunny February morning I stepped into the Charles de Gaulle Airport terminal after a long overnight flight to find Jacques and his sister Jeannine among the waiting crowd. We rejoiced at seeing each other again after a long absence. The familiar road to Jeannine’s house in the southern suburb of Paris appeared unchanged. The air was crisp and invigorating, and the fascination of good old Paris remained intact. I had grown fond of its beauty and charm; and though familiarity had somewhat dulled my sense of anticipation, the elegance and grace of the city had not diminished.

The next morning Jacques and I boarded the train to Troyes and its treasures of stained glass embedded in a multitude of cathedrals and churches. Troyes the medieval gem still harbored its picturesque wood frame houses, its narrow cobbled lanes, and quaint old buildings. With one foot in the past, Troyes has the other well into the present. Its Museum of Modern Art boasted an excellent collection from Modigliani, Derain, Dufy, Vlaminck, Kandansky, Malevitch, Chagall, and more. And Jacques’ home itself was still the proud depository of some of the original works of modern artists of the School of Paris. Later in the day Maryse came to join her husband from her Paris office. Maryse and I had communicated via e-mail for months, but this was the first time we met. Urbane and sedate, Maryse was comely, a bit reserved, and likable. She had come to participate in the intronization for a couple of friends from Paris and for myself at the Commanderie du Saulte-Bouchon annual fête. Jacques and Maryse made a compatible couple being both mature and worldly-wise, and lovers of art, music and literature. The conversation at the dinner table that night, however, revolved around the Saulte-Bouchon event, which was expected to be Troyes’ crowning winter festival.

By eleven the following morning, some two hundred and fifty Saulte-Bouchon guests had started streaming into the ornate Salle des Fêtes of the Troyes City Hall, including the twenty-seven new members to be intronized. The grand ballroom was decked out in festive colors. On the stage standards and arms of the Commanderie dominated while a constant din of conversation filled the cavernous chamber. At the stroke of noon the procession began, trumpet-blaring heralds and standard bearers in the lead, followed by the Grand Master, the Vice Grand Master, the Seneschal and other dignitaries in their gold-trimmed blue capes.

When the dignitaries had installed themselves on the stage, the Grand Master delivered a short welcoming speech and summarized the history and mission of the Commanderie. Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for. One by one the applicants (or postulants, as they were called) were summoned forth to form a line facing the audience. All except one were French from various walks of life. There were businessmen, government officials, and industrialists, even an Army field-grade officer. Such a diverse coming-together of people from various parts of France and the United States would not be an everyday occurrence. The knights-to-be were now confronting a barrage of flashes and whirring from cameras and camcorders. The initiation rites involved more than standing there and looking dignified for the camera. Unbeknownst to me, they also included opening a bottle of champagne with as little fuss as possible, and filling a flute without spilling while holding the bottle between the thumb in the recess and the palm around its body. With equal sure skill, the candidates passed the test with flying colors, thereby earning their rightful places in the confrérie of champagne enthusiasts. In formal recognition, the Grand Master conferred the honors of chevalier to each postulant by tapping on the shoulders with his gnarled cane. Each new chevalier received a heavy gilded medal around his neck hung from a gold- edged blue ribbon, and a certificate of membership from an attendant who came behind the Grand Master. Then as a group the new chevaliers pledged to defend champagne as the wine of kings and the king of wines. More camera flashes and taping continued for interminable moments until a final wave of applause marked the end of the exercise.

A Mexican band filed in and played dance tunes as final preparations for the four-hour-long feast got under way. Several couples started to dance, and the dignity of the intronization now gave way to conviviality. Jacques whispered that more than a dozen different champagnes were going to be served during the leisurely banquet. For the life of me, I could not tell. All I could tell during the gastronomical meal was that the diners kept emptying their glasses and they kept being refilled with a different champagne each time. The next thing I knew I was explaining physics in French to my new Parisian friends! Needless to say, that’s what a dozen brands of champagne could do to you if you gulped it down as if the world were ending tomorrow.

How did I feel now that I was a chevalier? Practically the same as before; only I was impressed with the way champagne was held in such esteem in this land of chalky hills. The banquet temporarily recessed after the last course to allow the guests a little respite, then would continue well into the night with more food and dancing. While Jacques, Maryse and their Parisian friends went back for the sequel, jet lag kept me away. As I reviewed the day’s happenings, I found the experience quite an eye-opener. Here in the heart of Champagne-Ardenne, tradition, civic pride, and a local product with a premier worldwide reputation combined to form a delightful amalgam that is very fun, and very French.

Caen

Seventy-five percent destroyed during June and July of 1944 shortly after the Allied invasion, Caen has risen from its ashes to become a moderate-sized modern city, with scarcely any relics of its medieval past. The most notable remains from the war were a hill-top castle still lording it over the downtown district, the reconstructed St. Peter’s Church in the town’s center, and the ruins of another bombed-out church still exposing its carcass to the elements near the new City Hall plaza. On the Normandy beach about ten miles to the north the Allied landing had taken place some sixty years earlier, an event that is memorialized by a monument in the American cemetery sitting on a beautiful piece of land along the ocean front.

For years after the war, questions persisted about the necessity of the city’s bombardment from both sides. The Allies wanted to deny the Nazis the use of Caen as a command and control center, and the Nazis seemed to harbor the same desire. So the Allies took the initiative with their superior airpower, and under pressure the Germans withdrew farther west, the better to shell it when the Allied troops moved in. The cost to the town was enormous: between 5,000 and 8,000 civilian deaths, tens of thousands injured; 8,000 homes destroyed; 10,000 seriously damaged; 50,000 people displaced and traumatized. The central sections, which formed 75% of the town, were totally razed to the ground, and a major part of its historic district annihilated. The town’s infrastructure was nearly completely demolished. There were no water, electricity, natural gas, gasoline, transportation, or communications of any kind. Two million cubic meters of rubbles covered virtually all of its streets, not to mention the thousands of hidden mines that continued to wreak havoc during reconstruction. Food supplies, and supplies of any kind were critically short. The port facilities, factories, mills, bridges and dams were partially or entirely destroyed. To make matters worse, the winter of 1944-1945 was among the harshest on record. After liberation, the returning and surviving townspeople were wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to abandon Caen and rebuild it nearer to the coast. But the Caennais pulled together. What was left of the existing Vichy government structure cooperated with the Resistance, which had just emerged into the open from its guerilla warfare against German occupation. Together they rebuilt their city literally from its own ashes.

Today none of the hardships of post-war reconstruction is visible. As the capital of Lower Normandy, Caen is awash in Calvados, apple cider and Camembert cheese. It now boasts a university, the World War II Memorial and Library, a rail and bus transit system, a pedestrian downtown shopping district, and excellent restaurants, well known for their tripe and seafood, which tourists from the British Isles love to patronize.

Moving back further, it is from this northwest region of France, which in the ninth century had been taken over by the Vikings, that one of their descendants, William the Conqueror, launched his expedition to Great Britain in 1066, in the aftermath of which the English language acquired its Romance lexicon via French. William had his chateau built in his domain in Falaise about thirty miles farther south. Because William became the English King after the conquest, and still remained the French Duke of Normandy, the relations between Great Britain and France over time became complicated. After the French nobility and royalty at the English Court finally severed their ties with France during the twelfth century, territorial claims and increasing animosity in time led to on-again off-again wars during the Middle Ages and well into the 19th century. The two countries found themselves embroiled in hostilities during the Hundred Years’ War, and again at opposite poles during the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and right up to Napoleon’s Empire. They became allies only to fight the Germans.

Today Caen is linked to Portsmouth in England by a ferry line several times a day. Across this swath of Normandy, the memory of the Allied liberation of France lives on in the resurgence of Caen, on the beaches, and in the blockhouses and gun emplacements that still dot the landscape. The only invasion modern Caen is now facing comes from hordes of tourists from the British Isles, and other parts of Europe.

To this rebuilt city the Duke, as I called Jacques’ brother, brought me from Paris. The Duke is a bon vivant, easygoing and with the disposition to share music and wine. Comfortable to be with, he excels at French cooking and karaoke singing. It is not certain how and where he learned to cook, for Beatrice, whose roots in Normandy went back centuries, never taught her pharmacist husband the art of French gastronomy. To me his mussels should earn a blue ribbon with the special kind of tangy sauce he concocted.

Leaving his downtown pharmacy in the care of Beatrice, herself a pharmacist, the Duke took me to the Normandy beach nearby this winter day. The beach was windy and cold, bleary and bleak. The Musée du Débarquement 1944 stood watch on the water’s edge to commemorate the momentous event with a tank parked in front. The town at this time of the early afternoon was virtually deserted, with only three souls in sight, an elderly man out on a leisurely stroll, the Duke and me. The tourists that would normally swarm into this little town in the summer had well kept their distance. Walking along the sandy beach and peering out to the remnants of Allied bridges now half submerged in the swells and braving the howling wind, I reflected on the meaning of it all. The three pebbles I picked up might well have seen waves of young men rushing ashore to an unknown destiny sixty years ago. Then I wondered why twenty-five million people had to perish and untold cities reduced to rubbles before the futility of war became clear.

Paris

Soon my peripatetic inclination brought me back to the city on the Seine that had captured the imagination of people the world over. Paris is to me not just a city, but many tapestries of history, culture, literature and art woven with delicacy and elegance. In this heart of France romance breathes everywhere, on the banks of the Seine, on the bridges, on the streets, in the alleys, in the buildings, in the quartiers, in the neighborhood restaurants and cafes. Such a rare mélange of joie de vivre, sophistication, charm, and vitality hardly exists elsewhere.

This time I decided not to lose myself in art, immured in museums and churches, but to explore the resting place of the famous dead. Not the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Georges Pampidou, the Musée Rodin, nor Notre-Dame, the Sainte- Chapelle, the Sacré-Coeur would be on my list. Not even the culture-rich Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where Sartre, Camus and Prévert used to hang out at the Café de Flore, where the literati of the 1920’s camped at Les Deux Magots, and where Jacques and I stood at the Place Sartre-Beauvoir in awe of the streams of tourists that poured in on double-deckers and on foot in their pilgrimage to the Gallic mecca of post-war French philosophy and literature. Not even the Quartier Latin, where I used to sip coffee to relive the graduate school days in the Midwest. It had to be one of the many serene wooded areas where the cares and battles of daily life had ceased forever.

Père-Lachaise, tucked away on a hill overlooking the east side, contained the remains of some of the greatest names in the art, theater, literature, and poetry of the Western world. As I walked the winding streets of this old cemetery from one level to another reading each headstone, I realized this was a world populated by people who had helped shape the cultural scene of their days. Not far from the entrance George Sand’s jilted lover Alfred de Musset lay in an unassuming plot. Farther up the hill Molière, whose comedies still move me to tears with laughter, occupied a centrally located sepulcher, as if to proclaim with Shakespeare that the whole world was a stage. Here too rested Balzac, whose full-length sculpture adorned the garden of the Musée Rodin, and whose studies of human nature ran the gamut from private, political and military life to philosophy. On this hill lay actors and actresses among whom Edith Piaf, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Sarah Bernhardt. Foreign celebrities from the controversial Oscar Wilde to the legendary Jim Morrison were buried alongside lesser-known names. Marcel Proust too found here his permanent home. His novel in seven parts married the passions and anguish of his time to create the locus of the individual’s genius and the period whose aspirations he personified.

But the most famous, the best tended of all gravesites in Père-Lachaise must be the tomb of Frédéric Chopin. I arrived there at mid-afternoon after an arduous trek through the terraces of the hill, to find a couple of young German-speaking women absorbed in their silent homage to the Romantic composer and pianist, whose stormy relationship with George Sand lasted almost to the end of his thirty-nine years. Lingering beside the white marble tomb that showed all the care of a manicured site, embellished with fresh bouquets of roses and other flowers, I could not help feeling the poignant irony that contrasted the man who was lying below and the other of George Sand’s lover, Musset, farther down the hillside, whose non-descript tombstone and grave looked as forlorn now as his life must have been tormented over a century and a half ago. I was saddened by what fate had meted out to a man whom the French Academy had admitted to the Pantheon of great French literary minds.

I left Père-Lachaise cemetery, divided between the memories of the two George Sand lovers. Sometimes it was Chopin’s charming Nocturnes that dominated, sometimes Musset’s haunting verses, as in the opening of his Nuit d’Août :

O Muse! que m’importe ou la mort ou la vie ?
J’aime, et je veux pâlir; j’aime et je veux souffrir ;
J’aime, et pour un baiser je donne mon génie ;
J’aime, et je veux sentir sur ma joue amaigrie
Ruisseler une source impossible à tarir.

O Muse! What does it matter, life or death?
I love, and want pallor, I love and want the pain;
I love; my genius for a kiss I won’t disdain;
I love, and want to feel on my cheek wan
That stream from endless spring forever drawn.

Alfred de Musset, August Night

And always there was the unspeakable wonder about their loves for a woman writer, a brave avant-garde feminist who claimed for the woman the right to passion against social conventions, prejudices, and moral precepts.

Cultural Paris was a great deal more. Slicing this gem in two is the lovely Seine traversed by some three dozen bridges. The most spectacular is the ornate Alexander III, which connects the Esplanade des Invalides on the left bank, and the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais on the right bank. With its imaginative baroque lampposts and statues, the bridge casts a striking silhouette whether under the bright sun, under a moody overcast sky, or under the glow from its own lights.

This time, however, I was looking for another bridge, the one that was immortalized by Guillaume Apollinaire, who united modernism and traditional romanticism. I was wondering what kind of a bridge had inspired Apollinaire to write Le Pont Mirabeau :

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine
Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure.

Below Mirabeau Bridge flows River Seine
Just like our loves.
Must one recall it to my mind that when
Pain went away then joy would always come.
And when the night arrives and sounds its bell,
The days are gone, but here I surely dwell.

Late one afternoon, I was there, on a rather unremarkable structure. Yet I knew that it was not the material object that mattered, but the missing human being. At first the rush-hour traffic swirling around and spilling onto the Mirabeau bridge claimed so much of my attention it was hard to stay focused on the poem. But once my senses had tuned out the movement and commotion around, the poem resurfaced in my consciousness.

Looking down from the bridge, wrapped up in reverie, I followed the Seine slowly flowing past, and carrying to the sea the rhythm of the poem’s refrain: “And when the night arrives and sounds its bell, The days are gone, but here I surely dwell.”

22 December 2004

  See Amsterdam, Venice of the North   See Paris The City of Light   See Paris Romantic   See Renaissance Florence   See Lovers' Venice   See Troyes, the Medieval City   See Troyes Revisited

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