Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Bayeux Tapestry and D-Day Remembered on Normandy's Beaches

Monday, July 27, 2009
Normandy, France

We awoke to the complete silence of the French countryside. Indeed, it was so quiet that, as Llew remarked, not even the sound of the chirping of birds could be heard. From our bed, as we opened our eyes, to a glorious day, we saw the vast expanse of green stretching ahead of us to the fields and meadows that our friends, the Lesrouxelles, call home.

Hotel Cocagne, their homestead, comprises eight acres, most of which are farmed out for the growing of corn while much is covered by grass to make haystacks that form winter fodder for Normandy cattle. (The word 'Hotel' in the name of their house, by the way, does not mean that it is a hotel in the English sense of the word. 'Hotel' in this part of France, refers to a warm, harmonious and conmfortable homestead and all the houses in their region have names that are preceded by the word 'hotel'). There is a main house in which the family currently dwells and two other buildings (one large barn and another storage area). These ancient buildings will, no doubt, be modernized and utilized in creative ways by Florence who is an architect by profession and has already worked her magic on the main house by building a vast extension to it that ties perfectly well with the ancient stone work of the original structure.

While Florence had left for the day to start work at her own architectural firm in nearby Marigny, Jacques took care of our breakfast needs and we ate the first of many delicious morning meals with them: crusty baguettes with thick Normandy butter and home made apricot jam from Florence’s own kitchen—just super!

Seeing the Famous Bayeux Tapestry At Last:
In my correspondence with Jacques over the past few days, I had informed him that I dearly wished to see the Bayeux Tapestry which reposes in not too far away Bayeux—a small medieval town that we had passed by on the train. Jacques told us that it was a half hour drive from Quibou and Hotel Cocagne. We used the drive past fields and farms and grazing cattle (those easily recognizable black and white Normandy cows were everywhere), to catch up with Jacques whom we were seeing after ten years. He had last visited us in Southport, Connecticut, with Florence just before they got married and long before the birth of their kids. We had so much to talk about and there was so much Jacques wanted to show us. He was particularly keen to introduce us to other members of his family—both he and Florence have a large number of siblings and their kids have cousins galore so that they never lack for company.

The town of Bayeaux lay shrouded under rain clouds when we arrived there. Indeed, there was a steady drizzle that also played on the old stone homes as we parked our car and walked towards the grand and very impressive Cathedral. I had heard of the famous Tapestry, about 15 years ago, when Llew and I had spent a week in Normandy with our French friends, the Leclercs, who have since moved to live permanently in Goa. In fact, it was while Jacques was driving us from Normandy to Paris, fifteen years ago, that we had passed by the town of Bayeaux where another mutual friend called Celine had pointed out to us that the town was famed for a “tapis”. I knew the French word “tapis” as meaning “carpet” in English and I had no idea that what she meant to say was “tapisserie” which means “tapestry” in English. In the years that have passed since then, I have learned much about this famous Tapestry—the first fact being that the word ‘Tapestry’ is a misnomer for it as it was not woven, as tapestries are, on a loom, but actually embroidered using a needle and woolen thread.

The Bayeux Tapestry is widely believed to have been embroidered by contemporary Normandy Queen Mathilde and her ladies-in-waiting around the year 1070 to commemorate the historic and very significant event of the victory of Duke William of Normandy over the Anglo-Saxon King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Now, I had, with my friend Stephanie, visited both Battle (where the actual battle took place in 1066) and Hastings, the seaside town in Kent where Harold was based—so I was keen to see the Bayeaux Tapestry for that reason as well. Also, I remember that when I was an undergraduate student of English Literature at Bombay’s Elphinstone College, at my very first class on the History of Literature, our professor, the late Dr. Homai Shroff, had told us that if there was only one date in English History that we could possibly commit to memory, it ought to be 1066 as that was when English History as we know it first began. So, I have never forgotten that date.

How thrilled I was then to arrive in Bayeux, despite the rain and chilly weather, to see the former seminary building in which the tapestry is displayed. My Met ID card got me in for free but Llew and Jacques paid the 6 euros each to enter the space. A room had to be constructed especially to display this 70 meter long work which comprises 58 panels, each one of which tells the story of the bloody battle that brought England under the rule of the French and forever changed the culture, language and administrative systems of the country.

With a most useful audio guide in English that gave us the entire story, panel by panel, we were able to appreciate both the historic events that led to the cataclysmic upheaval as well as the artistic details and superb craftsmanship for which the tapestry is famed. Indeed, all the key characters (Edward the Confessor, then King of England, Harold his cousin, William his French cousin, and his brother the Bishop) are clearly delineated on the tapestry as are a vast number of cavalry and infantrymen that formed the rank and file of this battle. William came to be known as The Conqueror and the peculiar love-hate relationship that has existed through the centuries between the English and the French began.

Viewing the tapestry took us over an hour; by which time, we were ready for lunch that we grabbed at a nearly café with its lovely tree-shaded al fresco tables. Both Llew and I had the Croque Monsieur (France’s famous toasted cheese sandwich) which we washed down with some really good Normandy cider.

On to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy:
We were not able to linger too long over our meal, however, as we were headed towards the Bayeux cathedral to see the inside of it as well as the Bayeux War Cemetery for Bayeux was the first French city to be liberated by the Allied troops after they arrived on Normandy soil. In fact, Jacques felt that we should hurry on for the half hour drive towards Coleville-Sur-Mer, as I had told him that the next item on my agenda while in Normandy was a visit to the D-Day Beaches and American Cemetery of Normandy which I had last seen portrayed on TV during the recent 65th anniversary celebrations of the famous landings that liberated Europe from the Nazi scourge.

Though these war cemeteries are dotted all along the sea coast of Normandy, the one at Coleville-sur-Mer is the largest and most frequently visited and was the scene of the solemn commemorative ceremonies that took place here when Barack Obama arrived to represent America, a few weeks ago. Once again, we found the drive very soothing, almost therapeutic, and as Jacques pointed out places of interest, we realized how little rural France has been touched by modernity.

Then, we were at Coleville where we parked our car and found ourselves surrounded by people who had traveled across the Pond and the English Channel to pay their respects to the departed dead many of whom were their own late family members. Once we went through the security that led into the Visitors Center, we became fully wrapped up by the emotion that the venue unleashes. Just past the Center, we entered a museum where we saw so many items from those war-torn years as well as letters, photographs and other such memorabilia that belonged to another era. In these war-ravaged times, when America is still fighting for the righteous causes to which it is so seriously committed, it was poignant to remember how much was sacrificed on this soil and how much was achieved by these brave actions. Indeed, images of the film Saving Private Ryan—those devastating opening scenes when so many thousands of soldiers became cannon fodder--lingered in my mind as I entered the cemetery and saw the thousands of white marble crosses and stars of David that mark the spots upon which their remains lie buried.

A total of 10,000 odd soldiers died during the D-Day Landings on June 6, 1944 and another 1,500 remained missing. They are commemorated on an adjoining wall where their names are recorded in alphabetical order. Beautiful pink roses bloomed all over the cemetery and the American stars and stripes flew at halfmast in the salty sea air. The sound of the waves were never very far from our ears as they still thundered in across from England where the ships that brought the soldiers to these shores had embarked. The setting was perfectly serene and wonderfully evocative of those turbulent times, now, thankfully, only a memory in the minds of both those who served in the call of duty and those who benefited from their sacrifice. We watched a group of American high school children who laid a wreath on the sculpture that recalls the fallen dead and missing and as the last post and the American national anthem was played, we felt privileged to be included in the very moving service.

On Omaha Beach:
A short drive later, we arrived at Omaha Beach where the offensive had been launched following the landings on D-Day. Today, it looks like just any other beach. A few kids frolicked in the waves while sunbathers enjoyed the warmth of the day and walked their dogs along the wet sands of the shore. The temporary ports that were set up within weeks to facilitate the landings can still be seen though only fragments of them remain jutting out like a pier into the waves. The landings are remembered by a memorial stone on the sands.

Just next door is Utah Beach where more landings took place. Jacques drove us to Pointe du Hoc where the land forms a point that juts out into the English Channel. This point was well protected by the Germans who set up look out posts and guns on this promontory in order to diminish the fury of the Allied attack. The ground was pockmarked with fallen bombs and even today we could see the remains of the bunkers in which the Germans hid and concealed their guns. There is a poignant memorial at Pointe du Hoc that takes the shape of a single granite tower over a bunker that once surveyed the waves.

Indeed, our morning was deeply moving and I felt so privileged that we had the opportunity to visit these very touching memorials of awful times past. Five years ago, during the 60th anniversary of its liberation, Llew, Chriselle and I were at Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in modern-day Poland and, five years later, here we were in Normandy on the 65th anniversary of the landings at the very spot where the conquest of Europe by the Allies began.

We were rather subdued as we returned to the car and began the long drive homewards. Jacques was keen to take us to the farm of his brother Jean-Luc who has a most modern and very novel way of milking his 80 sheep on his dairy farm. As the mayor of his town, Jean-Luc serves two functions—mayor and farmer—and it was a pleasure to meet him and his wife Natalie and their sons Francois and Benoit. I must say that my French stood me in good stead everywhere I visited as these folks were most impressed by the fact that I could carry out perfectly good conversations with them in their own language and could thus steep myself, at least temporarily, into their culture.

Jean-Luc’s farmyard was indeed an extraordinary place. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy getting acquainted with the ingenious computer system, recently installed, that allows his cows to be milked automatically, without any human intervention at all, but Llew and I had yet another superlative experience awaiting us.

A Calf is Born:
Jean-Luc had casually asked us if we wished to see his new born calves. Well, how could we resist? So, off we went, following him to another barn, where we saw the most darling calves, about ten in all, gambol around playfully in the hay filled barns. And then, imagine our shock when we discovered that one of the cows had gone into labor and was just about to give birth! Since calves are born with their forelegs emerging first, followed by their heads and hind legs, we were stunned to see the forelegs already jutting out. Jean-Luc then jumped into the fray and began to help the cow by tying a rope around the calf’s forelegs and pulling.

Now I have to say, at this point, that a year ago, when Llew and I had visited Yorkshire to see the home of veterinary author James Herriot, I had been motivated to do so by the TV series All Creatures Great and Small that I had watched in which the birth of cattle was a frequent feature. In fact, Herriot and his vet colleagues were often required to push their hands deep inside the uterus of these cattle to find out the state of health of the animals and had often assisted in exactly this fashion. And now, a year later, here I was in Normandy, the home of European cattle farming, watching the actual birth of a calf. I mean this was no longer TV drama I was watching! This was reality and the real world birth was every bit as exciting and moving as those TV shows had portrayed. I was so deeply affected by these sights that I was speechless and could only watch mutely as creation occurred before my very eyes.

It was a difficult and rather lengthy first birth. When Jean-Luc’s efforts proved to be inadequate, Jacques jumped in to lend his brother support. Soon his young son Francois joined in providing a warm bucket of water and with their black lab Aurianne nosing around the cow, it was a strange sight to behold indeed. Before long, the calf’s legs emerged and then with one massive effort, out slid the head and the rest of the calf. I watched enthralled as the calf was taken to its exhausted mother who had dropped down on the ground for rest. As she made acquaintance with her new baby, she licked it tenderly and bonded with it. Truly, it was one of the most unusual things I have ever seen and both Llew and I were profoundly moved by this experience.

We said goodbye to Jean-Luc, returned to Jacques’ lovely farm, met up with Florence and this kids again and then sat down to a delicious dinner of salad (fresh from Florence’s garden) and roast chicken with a really yummy stuffing made tasty by the addition of raisins. French cheese followed in the next course, then pots of yogurt. All this was accompanied by delicious glasses of cider and an aperitif called Ricard which had an anise flavor.

It was much later that we finally ended our day having undergone so many massive adventures.

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