Thursday, July 30, 2009

Knocking Around Normandy with Jacques--and a Minor Accident!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Normandy, France

Today was a day for relaxation—or so we thought! Since we had no particular agenda, Jacques thought we ought to take it easy and see some aspects of his French country lifestyle that we might find both curious and fascinating. We were game, and placing ourselves in his hands, set out to enjoy a day of his making.

We started off with the kids, of course, who joined us at breakfast—a very casual affair with baguettes and jam and good Normandy butter and cups of rich French roasted coffee. The country air had enhanced our appetites and we decided to indulge fully. I loved chatting in French with little Marius who could only say one word in English (“Yes”) and ending up responding to all my questions with that monosyllable!

After showering and dressing, Llew and I joined Jacques in his car to travel to our first stop—Florence’s office in Marigny, merely five minutes away, where she runs her architectural business with an all-female team. It was great to see her in her professional milieu with the various maquettes of her current projects spread out all around her. We spent a while examining the work in which she is currently engaged, then set off to visit Place Westport in Marigny which is named for the town that is just next door to our own in Connecticut. Westport played a major role after World War II in the rehabilitation of Marigny by raising funds to rebuild it. In recognition of its effort, the square has been named after Westport and there is a plaque in the center that recalls this extraordinary trans-continental bonding.

Next, we headed towards the German military cemetery not too far away as Jacques wanted to show us that despite the fact that the French and the Germans were bitter enemies during the War, post-War efforts of cooperation and friendship have resulted in the care and maintenance of this German cemetery on French soil. The cemetery is beautifully designed and, rather like its American counterpart, a place of serenity and comfort. About 3,000 German soldiers lie buried in this part of Normandy, their names marked in the ground with small grey stone plaques. The remarkable design of this place is enhanced by the three stone crosses that punctuate the vast grounds at regular intervals. What was also remarkable about this place is that, unlike the American cemetery, there was not a soul in sight. Indeed, it was entirely empty though when I had spoken to Valerie, Florence’s sister, who works in the office attached to the cemetery, she had informed me that hundreds of Germans visit it, especially those on vacation in France.

Our next point of interest was Saint Lo, the small French town that was once liberated by American military man Howie who is well remembered in the Mairie (Mayor’s Office) with a special exhibit on his contribution to the war effort.

Jacques had some work at the Mairie after which we went to a small restaurant to grab a bite. With large baguette sandwiches and wonderful cider, we enjoyed our meal and set out for yet another excursion—this time to the home of Jacques’ sister Helene which happened to be designed and constructed by Florence and her creative office team. Helene herself was at her beach side home and we were, therefore, unable to enter Florence’s creation—but we did admire it from the outside. It was wonderful to see how proud Jacques is of his wife’s handiwork and how supportive he is of her endeavors.

It was at Jacques’ suggestion that we arrived home by car only to set out again, this time on bicycles to see Jacques’ brother Henri’s farm that was about a half hour’s bike ride away. Llew, Jacques, Jean, Marius and I set out and what a lovely ride it was—we went past miles of golden fields that lay slumbering in the late evening sunshine. Cows watched us warily from the meadows as we pedaled past and Llew had a fright, at one stage, when a dog bounded out of a farmhouse and nipped at his ankles nearly knocking him off his bicycle. As Llew put it, “The last thing I wanted was to be bitten by a dog in France!” Again, little did Llew know what awaited me at the end of the evening!

Well, it was great to see Henri and to meet his wife Marie-Laurent who invited us into her lovely ivy-draped farmhouse which had been built by Jacques’ father and was the home in which he was born. We sat down to cool glasses of orange juice and cheesy nibbles and later watched the cows being milked by machine (though not computerized) under the supervision of Henri’s oldest son Paul. Marius and Jean were thrilled to be a part of the operation and we saw them ushering the cows into their stalls together with Paul. Truly, it was an enlightening experience for us city folk—to see the rural lifestyle of these French dairy farmers. They are marvelous sons of the soil who by no means lack poise or sophistication for all their country ways—indeed they use modern means of marketing to get their wares to the consumer and are always considering means by which their output and their income can be increased. So they are, in the final analysis, savvy businessmen who run rustic operations with the assistance of every one of their children.

It was on our ride back to Jacques’ place for which Jean had left earlier to set up the fire for a barbecue that Jacques and Florence had planned for us for the evening that I had my little mishap. While cycling downhill, with the wind whipping at my ears, I found it tugging at my baseball cap that was on my head. Since my cap threatened to fly off, I tried to keep it on my head and apply my brakes at the same time. Being that I was on a slope, I ought to have applied my brakes slowly…but the flying cap caused me to lose control of my bike and, next thing you know, there I was falling flat on the ground and knocking my head against the ground. My glasses flew off, my trunk twisted and it was all I could do to scramble up while Llew (who was right behind me on his own bike) rushed to help me out. Well, there was I, an untidy heap, certain that I had hurt my dignity more than any part of my body! I told them that I was quite okay, but Jacques insisted on biking back home, bringing his car to take me back as well as one of the boys to take my bike home.

It was not long before I had an ice pack applied to my head (brought to me by Jacques) and Llew’s hand pressing down to keep the swelling at bay. Seated around the barbecue table, the aroma of grilled meats wafted to my nostrils and I ate hungrily—there were merguez and other sausages and the wonderful Tandoori chicken that Llew had marinaded with the ingredients that we had purchased earlier in the afternoon from local supermarkets. The meal was delicious and preceded by Pommeau, the French liqueur that is a combination of calvados (apple brandy) and cider. It was great. I had taken a pill to keep down the pain in my head and so decided to stay away from alcohol. However, it was towards the end of our meal, that I felt uneasy and decided it would be best to get to a hospital and have a doctor assure me that the bruise on my head was no cause for concern and that there was no internal bleeding.

Well, after the cheese course, off we went to the hospital at Saint Lo, that was founded by an American called Paul Nelson just after the War when attempts were made to rebuild the SainteLo community. There was no one in the Emergency Room when we arrived but within minutes the place sprang to life as the nurses and paramedical staff got to work obtaining details and insurance information from me. It was not long before Doctor Patrick Minville came to my assistance and there I was, having to explain what had happened in French. I have to say that I was most embarrassed but when I informed him that my French friend Jacques was waiting outside and would be able to explain more about my accident in better French, he assured me that he had understood every word I said and that I had done just fine. I have to say that I was very proud of my linguistic abilities indeed.

Not long after carrying out preliminary examinations, Dr. Minville told me that everything looked good prima facie, but that he wished me to have some X-rays done to make sure there was no internal damage. About 10 minutes later, I was in the Radiography Department and X-rays were conducted by another paramedical man who directed me most politely, in broken English, to do his bidding. About another half hour later, after my pictures had been obtained and studied, Dr. Minville returned to tell me that all was well and that there was no cause for concern. He told me to expect a bad bruise upon awakening—a bruise that would change color with each passing day. He prescribed paracetemol for the pain and told me to return home and get a good night’s rest for all was well.

It was a great relief for me and for everyone else to know that there would be no serious repercussions from my fall. Jacaques, Llew and I returned to the farmhouse just after midnight and hoped that this would be the last of the many adventures that this trip seemed determined to offer us.

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