by Tom Cheche
Sometimes men do ask directions, and reap the rewards.
Shade kept us from seeing the sign. The narrow country lane, devoid of traffic, meandered through farmland of the Cotinten bathed in glorious autumn sun, highlighting roadside fields of squat, manicured apple trees but intensifying darkness in the occasional stretch through a palisade of looming shade trees. It was a rough board nailed to a tree hard by the roadside. Stark, unadorned, it reflected the essence of Normandy. The sign said simply, “Calvados.”
We were a hundred yards beyond the sign by the time it registered and we spoke. My wife and I exchanged glances but I knew, from the look in her eye, the answer before asking the question.
“You want to go back, don’t you?”
“Of course, I do.”
“We have a lot already, you know. I don’t think we have the budget or the luggage space for another bottle.”
“We can make room, trust me.”
I slowed the car and turned back towards the sign, a U-turn that began more than a year before on a train ride from Paris.
My wife and I had been together nine years and were taking our first European vacation. She was experienced, having been to France, Central America, Italy, and Japan. I had never been overseas, and placed myself entirely in her hands as we laid plans for a nine-day trip to Paris. She kept asking what I wanted to include on the trip, but I had no agenda. All of Paris would be available to me for nine days, and I was willing to graze the buffet.
History is my passion, and I have always been an atmosphere kind of guy. For me, being in the exact space, walking the same ground, breathing the air where momentous events have occurred is what excites me. I was looking forward to just walking the streets of Paris, the streets where Napoleon walked, where not so many years ago Nazi occupation forces had marched; these were the things I looked forward to.
A lifelong interest is World War II. My father, who died a year before, flew 50 missions as tail gunner on a B-24. Most were over southern Europe, but he participated in the Normandy campaign, flying missions in support of the D-Day invasion. Shortly before he died, he was one of several hundred surviving US soldiers and airmen who received a medal from the French government honoring their participation, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Pierre Salinger presented the medal, of which he and his family were enormously proud.
In part because of my interest in WWII, partly because of my father’s connection, and partly because of my total lack of sense of distances in France, I floated the suggestion when my wife persisted in asking what I wanted to see on our trip to Paris.
“Can we go to Normandy?” got me a bona fide double take.
“Normandy. Can we go there? I want to see the landing
beaches. I want to walk on Omaha Beach, to see the skies where my father flew. Is it possible? Can we arrange a side trip from Paris?”
We could indeed, and a two-day, overnight trip to the Normandy coast was set in motion. By train from Paris to Caen, a short train ride from Caen to Bayeux, a day at the cathedral to view the Bayeux Tapestry, an overnight stay at a hotel in Bayeux, ending with a day-long drive along the D-Day invasion beaches with a local guide, before a return train to Paris that night. It was a trip that had a profound effect on our lives. When I boarded the train in Paris I was a tourist, enthralled with the city, thinking I would like to return some day. By the time I returned from Normandy I had changed. I needed to return. My priorities had changed. I knew I would do everything possible to get back as soon and for as long as possible.
It began on the ride to Caen. Paris falls away quickly, surprisingly so, and almost immediately you are in countryside unbelievably quaint and pristine. The train rolls by tiny, ancient towns that appear little changed for centuries. The first one encountered is startling; soon, another. The stark, pointed roof Norman architecture, calling out from the Middle Ages, dominates. Each town a single main street, a cluster of ancient-looking Norman buildings in the shadow of a 900-or-1000 year old church, weathered, decaying, still a central focus of the community. One after another, after another, they fall away quickly as the train rolls toward the coast, each giving way to farm fields and orchards before, in the distance, another postcard town appears, flashes by, and disappears in turn. No fast food-joints line the roads approaching these tiny villages, no strip malls, no car lots, no neon signs and peeling billboards. The buildings are devoid of advertising, save the occasional ancient, faded pre-war advertisements for Suze.
I want the train to stop. I want to get out and walk through each of these towns, to wander through the cemeteries, to walk the streets; visit the churches; know, feel and taste the history of these countless nameless tiny villages. People lived here a thousand years ago, chain-mailed Norman knights rode these dirt roads, GIs and Tommies liberated these towns half a century ago. I want to know these places, up close. I know I must come back, I am almost certain of it before we arrive in Caen.
My wife may be the finest traveling companion on earth, but she is, after all, a woman. And all married men know women have an almost pathological need for their mates to ask for directions given even the slightest hint of uncertainty about where one may be at a given moment, no matter how familiar the terrain. Driving through our hometown and, distracted by the conversation, should I miss a turn, my Honey will suggest I ask for directions, which made the episode on the platform at the Caen train station doubly puzzling.
We debarked from Paris, and with only a 10-minute window, needing to find the gate for the train to Bayeux, I volunteered to find a conductor to get directions.
“We don’t need to ask directions.”
“We can find it ourselves, we don’t need to ask directions.”
“There’s a conductor over there, standing by that train. I’ll just go over an ask..”
“No, we can find it ourselves.”
“Sweetheart, we’re in France. We have 10 minutes to catch a train, and there’s a man over there dispensing information.”
“Well, go ahead then” and I detected an audible harummpf.
“Bonjour, Monsiur! S’il vous plait, Bayeux?” The conductor jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the train behind his back.
“Oh, Honey! Yoo hoo!” I pointed triumphantly to the train. It was too rare, too sweet a moment to pass up.
The guidebook said you can’t get a good meal in Bayeux on Sunday night, but the guidebook was wrong. Skate, in a tiny restaurant on a Bayeux side street, was remarkable. It was a lovely dinner in a charming, comfortable restaurant, topped off with a glass of calvados that was stunning.
Calvados is a distilled spirit, an apple brandy indigenous to Normandy, known as the Calvados region of France. Calvados can be fiery in its intensity, but at its best it is as if the quintessence, the soul and spirit, of apple is condensed and multiplied in its vapors. A superb glass of calvados can be nursed for hours for the sheer pleasure of inhaling the aroma carried to the nose on the alcoholic updraft rising from the glass. I had my first calvados in Paris earlier in the trip, but the calvados that night in Bayeux explained the difference between large batch, commercially- produced brandy, and the locally produced, farm-made, one-of- a- kind product only available in Normandy.
Think of it like bootlegging, but legal. All across Normandy, across the Cotentin Peninsula, throughout the Calvodos region farmers grow apples and distill those apples subject to their family’s individual and long-held recipes, into their own particular cidre, a hard cider, calvados, and pommeau, a blend of calvados and cidre. Each farm’s is as different as your mom’s meat loaf or potato salad is from mine’s, and it can’t be had at a store. You must visit each farmhouse individually, sample the wares and buy directly from the farmer. The calvados we had that night at the tiny restaurant in Bayeux had been made right in the neighborhood. If ancient Norman villages were calling us to return, so was the prospect of visiting those farms and tracking down the wild calvados in its native habitat.
Next morning our guide arrived at the hotel driving a small van. Frederick, at 24, exhibited a level of maturity and sensitivity not often seen in people his age in the US. He was born and raised in Bayeux, spent several years in England, then returned to Bayeux where he guides visitors across the vast Normandy region, tailoring his tours to the nationality of his guests. The invasion beaches stretch 60 miles along the coast, and his knowledge of the beaches, indeed the entire campaign area deep inland, was impressive.
Equally impressive, the depth of feeling the young man displayed. This was no rote presentation for tourists; Frederick, though only 24, radiated a visceral understanding and appreciation of the fact that his home had, a mere 50 years before, been a land enslaved. The invasion beaches and omnipresent vestiges of war had genuine meaning to him.
Those vestiges are omnipresent. Massive concrete bunkers, Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, remain silent, ominous reminders looking out over vacation beaches and summer resorts. The skeleton of Fortress Europa is visible everywhere. Coastal batteries of reinforced concrete, enormous gun barrels still pointing out to sea, sit surrounded by the plowed fields of Norman farmers. We crawled through silent fortifications; gaping holes punched through the reinforced concrete by allied naval gunfire allow sunlight to illuminate the cramped, dank spaces where Nazi coastal troops sat and waited for years, then died on June 6th 1944. Surprisingly, graffiti is almost non-existent.
Visiting the American cemetery in Normandy is powerful, moving. The vast burial ground sits high above the beaches. It is American soil; France officially gave the land to the United States, so every American interred there lies in American soil. You enter the cemetery down a sweeping, tree lined path leading from the parking area. It is beautiful and peaceful. The walk is long enough, and the massive trees still lush enough in October that for the final moments of the walk your senses are overtaken by the green, the serenity, and the quiet. We walked with Fredrick who said nothing, gradually dropping back behind us a few paces. He knew, we did not, he wanted us to be alone, and did not wish to intrude as we turned the corner.
We round the bend, a massive monument comes into view, before an enormous reflecting pool. But to the left, what stops us in our tracks, what causes a gasp, is a sea, an enormous, vast sea of white crosses; row after row after row. Tears come. My wife and I stand there with tears in our eyes, and for a time no one speaks.
Then the young Frenchman, old beyond his years, says very quietly, “For me, this is very sad. But very beautiful.”
The American servicemen buried in Normandy did not all die on D-Day. The cemetery is the resting place of American dead from all across the Western European Theatre. There are soldiers who fell on D-Day, alongside airmen who perished in the skies over Germany, or tankers who fell at the Battle of the Bulge. It is a chronicle of the war in Europe.
“Did you know,” Frederick says in a near whisper, “that all of the graves face due west, towards home?” I hear my wife sob, and the tears come again, unashamed.
It became a certainty that day: we must return. On the train ride back to Paris, it was decided; we will come back next year, and we will spend time here. We had fallen in love with Normandy for so many reasons, and now we wanted to return to visit those tiny, ancient towns, to wander through the countless remnants of the war, to breathe the air, walk the ground, feel the throb of history and culture of this place where the past is so palpable. And yes, to visit farms, meet the people, and bring home their calvados.
A year later, nearly a week into our return to Normandy, the U-turn sent us back toward the sign on the tree. We had already seen much, but not nearly enough. We visited tiny cemeteries, and ancient, out-of-the-way villages, walked small town streets, became flies on the wall in cafes, met locals in neighborhood bars in towns barely big enough to be on the map. We crawled through WWII ruins, and into a dripping, 6-thousand-year-old tumulus lit with a naked light bulb on a rainy, ominous, frankly scary afternoon. We visited enough farmhouses, met enough farmers’ wives, and sampled enough calvados that we were approaching our budgetary and luggage limit for bottles we might bring home. Still, this one beckoned.
Farmhouse is misleading if your frame of reference is farms in the USA. A farmhouse in France can be many things- it might be humble and rustic, or it might be a spectacular chateau. In Normandy, reflecting the mood of Norman architecture, some farms have a fortress-like quality. This one was definitely fortress-like.
Turning off the road at the sign, we crossed a bridge over a culvert onto a narrow stone path through trees that, until that moment, obscured the “farmhouse.”
“Jeezus,” I said, “some farm.”
A stone wall with turrets loomed in front of us, running a good 30 yards to either side, an ornate archway leading into a courtyard. Old walls with lichen splotches, the turrets may have been more ornamental than functional, but they caught my attention. My wife’s attention was caught by a large cat that appeared in front of us and led the way through the arch into the courtyard. Needing a cat fix after a week on the road, she urged me to follow.
The courtyard said parking lot. Several old vehicles were parked on the fringes and the place had a very slight air of neglect. Once it had been spectacular.
I parked the car and was scouting the silent courtyard looking for an obvious place to find calvados, my wife scouring the area for the cat, when a door opened at the far side of the yard, and a tiny, old French lady came flying out the door, slamming the it behind her.
“Bon jour, monsieur, et madame. Bon jour! Bon jour!” she called across the courtyard. Waving emphatically, she greeted us with an enthusiasm reserved for long lost relatives.
She was quite old, this buoyant and cheerful lady. She scampered across the yard, continuing to issue greetings, and I finally responded in my primitive and highly embarrassing French,
“Bon jour, Madamme. S’il vous plaît, avez-vous calvados?”
“Oui, Oui, j’ai calvados.”
She started to turn and gesture for us to follow, but stopped, paused, and turned back to me. She grabbed my arm, held it, and looked me in the eyes. Her expression turned serious.
“Oui, madame, Americain.
Yes, I told her, I am American, and she continued to hold my arm.
“Merci, monsieur, merci.” And the elderly French woman began to thank me. Thank you for what your people did for us. That is what she said.
I did not understand everything she said, she spoke quickly, and my French is almost nothing, but we communicated. She thanked me not for me, but for my country, for my father, and for what his generation did.
Standing in the courtyard of this elderly French lady, I looked back at the arch under which we had passed, and so real I could see their faces, I saw my father’s generation, kids 18 and 19 years old, their helmets kicked back on their heads, confidant and cocky and victorious, walking under that same arch 55 years before, telling a young French woman, “It’s OK lady, those bastards ain’t coming back. You’re OK now.” I felt goosebumps
I told her my father had participated, had been an aviateur, had died little more than a year before, she understood and I saw sympathy in her eyes.
She wore a dowdy farm dress and an old sweater, and on the sweater, over her heart, was a tiny enamel pin. She pointed to her breast. It was, she explained, her late husband’s veteran’s association pin. She was very proud of the pin, and kept pointing to it. It was 55 years since D-Day and every day this elderly French lady still remembered the young American boys who set her free, and her husband who fought the Nazis. She had no idea an American would visit this day, unless, who knows, perhaps they visit often? But she wears that pin every day, and she remembers.
We bought calvados and pommeau. She thanked us again, and we thanked her, hoping she understood how very much it meant to meet her and share her story. I looked at the arch one more time before we got into the car, to fix in my memory forever that image of the GI’s coming under the arch.
We drove out onto the country road, saying nothing, processing the experience.
“We should have taken her picture,” my wife finally said.
“I know, I just thought of that. It never entered my mind while we were there. I wanted to hug her. I still do.” It was an extraordinary connection. Years later it remains the most cherished of our memories of France.
We nursed that bottle of calvados for several years, always toasting the memory of the elderly French lady. When it was gone we saved the bottle. The label had no address, but we saved it anyway as a remembrance, as if discarding it would be discarding a connection, hoping to visit her again on our next trip.
Almost every year since we have returned to France, and the conversation has always started with Normandy. But there is so much France, so little time. Most recently it has been the Dordogne, and Languedoc. But we always think of Normandy first, and revisiting the lady in the fortress farmhouse, hoping she is alive and well.
Perhaps this fall.
Tom Cheche‘s story won the Bronze Award for Travel Memoir in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
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