Trains, the metro, and automobile
The trip began at the wrong train station. You’d think that would be hard to do.
The main train station in Montpellier is, and always has been, the gare St. Roch. We were vaguely aware that a new train station was under construction nearby, and indeed, in July, 2018, that new train station did open just south of the city. But we had never given it a thought, until suddenly, we had to. On a Sunday morning in April, as Catherine and I walked into our usual train station, up on the screen that listed all departing trains, our train was not listed. I was pretty sure about the departure date, and with they twenty-four house clock there’s no confusing the time. I looked at our tickets and sure enough, instead of listing ‘Mont St. Roch’, the departure station was listed as ‘Mont Sud’— that new station. Damn.
I knew from past train errors, that if you can recognize the mistake early on, you just might have time to fix it.
I called Annie (we had taken the tram to the train station), and channeling her French/Thai heritage (the former enabling fast driving, the latter a worse than French disregard for the rules), she picked us up at the gare St. Roch,and soon dropped us off at the gare Montpellier Sud de France, the official name of the new train station; we fast walked through the terminal, and as we descended the escalator, our train, a TGV to Paris, pulled up to the platform.
Still, being at the wrong train station was not as bad as what happened on our last dad/daughter road trip. That was in the Fall, 2015, when back then she had to still sit in the back seat of the car, in a booster seat, no less. That time we spent two days driving across the south of France, across all of Spain, to eastern Portugal. The second day ending very late, the car stuck in the mud, us lost and unable to locate our friends, until we were rescued by the Moldavians.
For starting and ending this trip, from Montpellier to a little north of Paris, we took the train, eliminating the monotonous South to North, then back South drive. In Paris we had to change train stations, from the gare du Lyon to the gare St. Lazare, easily done on the metro line 14. We rented a car for getting around Normandy.
Against pilgrimages, artistic or otherwise
Rodin, Picasso, Monet, Hemingway, and so many others: because of their past contributions to the arts, today they are grist for the mill of the Artist-Tourist Industrial Complex, the ATIC. The ATIC leverages the fame of an artist to attract visitors to a particular location to view not the work(s), but the place where it happened. But let’s face it: if you aspire to a particular discipline and you need to, you must, travel to a particular artist’s home, shop, atelier, studio, cafe, or grave, you probably haven’t got it in you. Or perhaps better said: going there isn’t going to put it in you, give you it: the Muse, the inspiration, the mojo, the creativity, the ideas, the discipline, it-cetera. Now if you want to see these places just because, and you’re not expecting anything magical to happen, then by all means, go and enjoy. But if you do go, understand that you’ll be mobbed.
Catherine and I visited Claude Monet’s home and garden in Giverny, where he lived for the last part of his life. Monet was a painter of the Impressionist school, whose paintings you have seen on coffee cups, wrapping paper, umbrellas, and maybe in art galleries in the form of paintings. Yet I was optimistic: Catherine and I had been to Monet’s Orangerie Museum in Paris in 2008 and loved it (well, I did; she was just over a year old, and asleep in the stroller). And I had been interested in coming to Giverny ever since I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, sometime in the early 1980’s, which exhibited many of his works while living here; I even bought the book written for the exhibition.
It was a lovely Spring day, cool in the morning, becoming warm and humid by midday. But the visit to the home and gardens was disappointing, and a waste of time. There was a long line to buy tickets (had Annie been along she would have seen to it that we had bought tickets ahead of time, and simply gone to the head of the line, flashed the phone with the digital tickets, and sauntered in). There were a lot of people everywhere, and this was on a Monday in April. The crowds filled all the rows of the many rows of the garden. Every single room of the house was crowded. There was a backup on the second floor, where everyone stopped to look at a bedroom.
Not an aspiring painter who was hoping to capture something by visiting Giverny, I had hoped for something a little more serene, thereby perhaps getting an inkling of what the place was about. No chance of that. That Japanese bridge over the water lily pond? It’s crowded with tourists taking pictures. Want to sit on a wooden bench and take in a view of the blooming flowers? Your view will be the full moon of peoples’ butts, bent over taking close up pictures. For many it seemed they were taking it all in through the screen of their smart phones, and it was uncommon to see someone just sitting there and looking.
The best part of the day was the walk from Vernon to Giverny and back, a couple of kilometers each way. We walked next to the Seine, and all around was the intense green of early Spring, the occasional proton-electron circling cloud of gnats or a passing cyclist. We had baseball gloves and tossed the ball back and forth as we walked and talked.
Contrast is the first law of all art
On their own, the works of humankind or the works of Nature can be stunning: Nike of Samothreace, the redwood trees of Muir Woods north of San Francisco, the Jefferson Memorial, or the Grand Canyon. Then, every once in a while you come to a place where the human hand and effects of Nature are juxtaposed in an exceptional way: the Golden Gate Bridge bracketed by the hills of Marin County and the white structures of San Francisco; Frank Loyd Wright’s Falling Water, the stone columns and cantilevered concrete among the trees and over the stream; a tall golden statue of Buddha, rising above a green canopy of trees in Kanchanaburi, Thailand; a small, almost impossible to reach blue roofed and white walled Orthodox chapel, built into the chalky cliffs on a Greek island.
Finally, maybe a few times in life, there is this same juxtaposition, but now unique and profound.
I saw it first from a distance.
We had left Vernon and been driving west across Normandy for a couple of hours; as I was saying something to Catherine, I happened to glance past her and saw off in the distance the faintest grey silhouette against a hazy, white background, the flat horizon broken by the skyward reaching form of what could only be Mont Saint Michel. Of course I knew immediately what it was, but even expected, it was startling and wonderful. There was nothing at all around—it stood alone, lonely and apart. The views and the drive lasted another thirty minutes before we finally reached the parking area, where a shuttle would take us on to the island. What was it like, two hundred years ago, six hundred years ago, to traverse that same distance not in thirty minutes at 90 km/hour, but instead to walk many hours, even days, with the sand and the flats and the mont and the buildings always in view? What did the pilgrims, the invaders, the visitors think? What did they feel?
Mont Saint Michel is built on a granite outcropping island, where the Couesnon River flows into the English Channel. The upward reaching of the rock, the buildings, buttresses, and gold spire, all contrast with the expansive flat of sand and water, which stretch to the horizon. At low tide you can to walk to island, but at high tide, these are some of the highest tides in northern Europe, the mont becomes a true island. It’s almost always windy, and the weather changed from sunny to cloudy to rainy to sunny, again every few minutes.
We had arranged to stay on the mont for two nights. We parked the car, shouldered our bags, and made our way to the shuttle bus, which drove us to within a few hundred meters of the wall and entrance to the mont. The shuttle was crowded, there were tourists walking along the bridge, and inside the walls the narrow streets were full of people. Some tourist sites are crowded with tourists, and that can be a reason to stay away, but sometimes there are exceptions, and this was certainly one. We hiked about half-way up until we came to our hotel. The check-in desk was the same place as the hotel restaurant cash register, and after a few minutes, we were lead back out into the street, climbed a little further up, then turned onto yet another, narrower side street, then into an easy to miss door, then into our room.
After unpacking, we walked up to the entrance to the abbaye, then along the walls, looking out over the sand flat. We discovered hidden gardens, terraces, cemeteries, tucked away restaurants, and pathways leading nowhere. By now it was later, and the streets were nearly empty. At 7:30 we went to dinner at du Guesclin, and our table had a view of the bay. I started with a kir Normandy, Catherine and I both got wonderful fish dishes as the main course, we shared a crème brûlée for dessert, and finished up with cognac (not Catherine). We talked a blue streak, questioned each other about everything, made predictions and prognostications. After dinner we went out on the east facing walls to watch the tide come in. Although overcast, at this time of year and at this higher latitude, there was a enough light to see the wave of water coming in covering the sand, returning the mont to its island status for the next six hours.
The next day we toured the abbey: a surprisingly pleasing, not depressing series of chapels, halls, libraries, and inner gardens. In the gift shop Catherine bought Annie a birthday present, and I contemplated, but rejected buying a red/gold mini-tapestry. That afternoon we took a tour on the sand flats around the mont: about thirty of us, barefoot, stepped out onto the wet sand, sharp rocks, gooey mud, and quicksand, following our guide out on to the sand. The wind tasted salty and tangy, it was cold, wet, the sun shone, then it poured down rain, then the sun came out again, until it started raining, until…. As we walked the guide talked about the local history, the tides, the movement of the sands, displacement, and the principles of Archimedes. He had us run in a small circle to liquefy the ground, allowed himself to sink up to his knees, then demonstrated the process of quicksand self-rescue.
After landlocked Switzerland, with the horizon always interrupted by mountains, it was wonderful to be out in the open, an eternity of sand and sea and sky all around.
We left early the following morning. We had breakfast at the hotel, settled up, then walked down the narrow, not yet crowded streets, out the walls into the wind and sunshine. We took the shuttle to the parking lot, and were soon on our way to Granville. I caught only few more glimpses before losing sight of the mont; it was still wonderful to see. It was all that can be wonderful, the positive possibilities of humankind, no need for anything supernatural.
After Mont Saint Michel, our next trip, logically and naturally, must be to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Cardin, Vuitton, and many lessor knowns: the hit parade of twentieth century fashion designers is dominated by the French. It’s unclear what it is in the soil or water or culture, but it’s here. The sense of fashion, and more importantly, taste, is not reserved for the rich: it cuts across classes. I’ve seen women bus drivers in Toulon better dressed than some of the female executives I worked with in Silicon Valley. All the men wear scarves, although this seems to bother entire swaths of North American men: I once made the mistake of putting on a scarf while visiting friends in Wyoming; all the local men in the room did a double take, shifted nervously, and were suddenly anxious to get back to their sheep farms.
In researching our trip, I learned that Christian Dior was born in Granville, about an hour’s drive from Mont Saint Michel, and on the way to Bayeux. His home had been converted to a museum, and while it doesn’t open for the season until May, the gardens are open.
We drove for an hour on the back roads of Normandy, never far from the water, until we came to the Dior home, Les Rhumbs. The weather held, and it was sunny for our tour of the grounds. The home overlooks the English Channel, and we walked the gardens, then, as we must, we walked down to the beach. Here, where France meets the ocean, is so different from where we live in the south: there the vegetation is sparse, the colors muted by the heat, but here instead the dense green lushness of Normandy feels almost like a jungle. The coast was rocky, the water blue-green, and as always, Catherine gathered some rocks.
We left Granville for Bayeux, and since we had several hours before check-in time at our hotel, we went to the American Cemetery in Collevile-sur-Mer. We didn’t go to the main cemetery, but instead turned off the main road and parked in a grassy area overlooking Omaha Beach. We walked down to a flat area, where there is an obelisk monument to the American First Infantry, and further down is memorial to the Fifth Engineer Special Brigade. The waters in the channel were calm, but in the variable weather of that area, a rainstorm quickly moved in, and we returned to the car and drove into Bayeux.
We checked in at the Hôtel Bayeux, filled with a surprising number of Americans, and the next day were up early and after breakfast, went directly to the main cemetery. What can be written about this place that has not already been said? It was a beautiful, perfect, still April morning: there were few people because of the early hour, the grass and foliage impossibly green, no sign of rain, barely a ripple on the waters of the channel. The fantastic beauty made the death all the more poignant. It must have a similar day when war reporter Ernie Pyle wrote, on June 23, 1944:
The Norman countryside looks exactly like the rich, gentle land of eastern Pennsylvania. It is too wonderfully beautiful to be the scene of war. Someday I would like to cover a war in a country that is as ugly as war itself.
This time we walked all the way down to the beach. It was enormously wide. There was another monument, this one dedicated to all the field medics who we killed trying to save the wounded. The beach was wonderful, unimaginable as a place of so much horror. There were children running around, Catherine drew in the sand, gathered rocks, and went to touch the water of the English Channel. Several horse trotting rigs went by. We were in a painting by Renoir.
Buried in the American Cemetery are two Roosevelts: Second Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt and Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. They were not the sons of the president at that time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but rather the sons of Theodore Roosevelt, president from 1901 – 1909. Quentin was a United Stated Army flyer who was killed in July, 1918. The Germans buried him near where his plan crashed, in Chamery; his body was later moved to lie next to his brother. Theodore, Jr., at age fifty-six, was the only general to go ashore in a landing craft in the first wave; he landed at Utah beach. His son, Quentin Roosevelt II, was also in the first wave of landings, at Omaha Beach.
The four sons of Franklin Delano Roosevelt also served in World War II, all in combat roles.
That afternoon, after a lunch at le Pommier in Bayeux, we went to the Bayeux Museum, to view an 11th century newsreel in the form of a tapestry, commissioned by the victors, the story of yet another war, complete with channel crossings, although this time the other way. It doesn’t seem like humans have made much progress, and it struck me that no victory is ever final: hate and racism are alive and well.
Our last night in the north and in Bayeux, we ate at L’Assiette Normande in Bayeux; Catherine ordered the round of Camembert, cooked and served in the traditional round wood container, which was a sort of Norman fondue dish, in which to slather and smother all the vegetables and fries. I had the usual series of courses: a kir, a shared entrée, a local fish dish with wine; and a shared dessert, and cognac.
Saturday morning we returned the car in Caen, caught the train to Paris, took the metro from the gare St. Lazare to the gare du Lyon, and were back in Montpellier in the evening. Gare St. Roch. But at that hour the trams were running less frequently, and instead of waiting, we walked home.