Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Final Approach to Paris

We spent our final itinerant days before returning to Paris wandering country roads through Burgundy and then into Lorraine and Picardy, through one little French town after another. Every one has grown up around its very own Hotel de Ville. Each town hall is proudly adorned in civic pride and window boxes trailing summer flowers. Bold red, white and blue “RF” shields for “République Française” are prominently displayed and on either side fly the French tricolor and the local flag.

As the center of much community activity, the Hotel de Ville is generally a vibrant bustling hub. Couples go to there to get married in a legally binding civil ceremony before heading to the church. It hosts a variety of cultural events, the infamous red tape and applications for myriad permits required for daily French life generally start there and in some villages residents can even drop by to pay their utility bills.

Also fixtures in each town center, no matter how small the village, are two memorials inscribed with the names of all its men who died in the First and Second World Wars. It’s always a shock to see so many names listed, especially for World War I, in hamlets whose entire populations couldn’t be more than a couple dozen. On previous trips to France, we’d visited the WWII beaches in Normandy and the heartbreaking American Cemetery overlooking the English Channel in Colleville-sur-Mer. On this visit we would pay our respects to those who died in World War I.  

We passed through Époisses, famous for its eponymous cheese (one of our favorites) on our way out of Burgundy, rolled over the gentle, fertile hills of Chablis under a fleeting sunny sky and made our way towards the city of Verdun.

Our trip has been a time of intense togetherness, as travel as a couple should be, and we’ve learned to read even more accurately than ever, each other’s needs and moods. In the waning days of our year, both of us subdued and pensive with no need to converse, we were content in the close-companioned silence that feels comfortable only in the most familiar relationships. The clear light of Chablis on its golden wheat fields and green vineyards soon gave way to overcast skies, reflecting not only our introspection but the somber scenes of war ahead of us.

Joe and I are both eldest children (he of three and I of eleven) and as I’ve so often found without knowing why, first-borns, like only children, generally have fierce needs for quiet and being alone. In my case, eighteen years in tight quarters with a family of 13 left me with a ravenous hunger for solitude. I savor my alone time and always have ever since I can remember. As an adolescent, I frequently retreated to the treasured tranquility of the bedroom I shared with my sister and where I developed the ability to lose myself in a Nancy Drew mystery or Rosamond du Jardin novel to tune out the beehive of noise and activity that was home. Joe has shared similar anecdotes. We’re natural introverts that silence restores and solitude refreshes much the way others muster vitality by being in the middle of the fray. We go inside for sustenance, to recharge our batteries, gird our loins and gather the energy we need to be social. I have to admit that I’ve often disappeared from business functions and family reunions for some short-term, restorative calm.

While there was nothing more lonely than living in New York City, surrounded by millions and not knowing a single soul, being swallowed by the great cities of Europe with Joe at my side was heaven. It was the two of us both against the world and embracing the world, like the heroes in a picaresque novel with no real need to be social other than with each other, each of us unambiguously appreciating the periodic need to be quiet. Such were my thoughts as we arrived in Lorraine and the evocative World War I killing fields.

Visiting the sites of war is not my favorite pastime. It is of great interest to Joe, however, and it is hard to resist anticipating all he teaches me in the course of our battlefield pilgrimages. We followed the N35 Route Nationale, dubbed “LaVoie Sacrée” (The Sacred Way) by the French and still carrying this nickname today into Verdun. During the almost yearlong battle for the city, this vital route provided the only access into the beleaguered center and to the front, all other roads cut off by German firepower. Endless monuments, graveyards and war sites line the route and after stopping at many, we eventually made our way to Fort Douaumont in the hills just northeast of the city.

Easily captured by the Germans in the early days of the Battle of Verdun, it remains a dangerous place. Signs along the pathways read: “Dear Friends and Pilgrims, For your own safety and out of respect for those who fought and died in Verdun, please keep to the footpaths and do not enter the fortifications. Take care of your children: the weapons of war can still kill!” A short drive from the fort and the apparently still live minefields, the Douaumont Ossuary sits high on a hill, overlooks a French military cemetery and houses the remains of over 130,000 unidentified soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield.

World War I was characterized by especially brutal human slaughter and the scale of destruction of the war that was intended to end all wars, was unprecedented. While the trenches and mine craters have been softened by time and the greening forces of nature have managed to reclaim much of the landscape, the scars remain nonetheless. We continued traveling west in warm drizzle down narrow country roads behind plodding farm vehicles while huge white dairy cows grazed on age-old farms whose mossy stone buildings appeared to have been there since the middle ages. While there was no direct fighting on these farmlands, I could only imagine the devastation experienced by those who had lived there. So many millions of lives were lost in the First World War and for what?

As we approached Paris in wistful silence, our introversion continued. It had been a sobering gray and dreary road trip with the sun remaining hidden and there was a humidity we hadn’t sensed since we’d left the US. We’d better get used to it, I thought. We’re eight days away from heading home to the closing weeks of a Washington summer where mugginess will be impossible to avoid. Yes, there will be the mid-Atlantic heat, haze and humidity to endure -- there will be the obvious weather adjustment but oh so many more. The lights and bustle of Paris were on the horizon and we counted on them to pull us out of our shells and lift our subdued spirits.

Pictures of our adventures:

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