Places

Where Journeys Begin and End: Southampton

August 4, 2017

The Queen Mary 2 leaving the dock in Southampton.

The story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is all about the magical, crazy, eye-opening, summer that forever changed the lives of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  And yet it came very close to not even happening at all.  The girls’ journey almost ended before it began, right here in the ancient port town of Southampton.

When the Empress of France docked here on June 21st, 1922, Emily and Cornelia were in a real bind.  By the time they reached the English shore, Cornelia was extremely ill with the measles, and the tell-tale spots were starting to form on her skin.  This was a very precarious situation for her, because, in 1922, if the health inspectors got wind of her illness, they would have had her quarantined and sent to a German hospital/camp, where – Cornelia feared – she would “be nursed by a Valkyrie”.

Luckily for Cornelia and Emily, a couple of the conquests they made on the crossing from Canada to England just happened to be those dashing young doctors, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub.  Risking their budding careers, Paul and Joe pledged to keep the girls’ secret, and had even managed to score some meds from the ship’s doctor without raising suspicion (can you imagine passengers being able to do that with the shipboard medical staff these days?).  Those had helped keep Cornelia’s illness in check, but they couldn’t conceal the truth much longer.

Joe had gotten off the ship in Cherbourg, France, but Paul stayed with the girls and helped Emily slip Cornelia through customs, immigration and the dreaded health inspection, then into the care of Cornelia’s parents, who had come to the dock to meet the girls’ ship.  From there, according to the book, Otis and Maud Skinner, along with Emily and Paul, took Cornelia to a hotel a few blocks away, where they stayed for ten days while Cornelia went through her illness and recovery.

As a nod to their experience, when I arrived in England on the QM2 back to start my own journey with the girls, I had stayed in Southampton for a night before heading on to London.  I figured it would give me a chance to explore this historically significant port, and also try to retrace the path of my 1922 traveling companions.

I had already booked a room at the White Star Tavern, which was right in the heart of Old Town, close to the piers.  This was a new experience for me, as I had never had the opportunity before to stay in a pub.

It had been a surprise to me how few of these pubs-with-lodgings still existed in the UK.  I thought those charming old tavern inns like the one at the beginning of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were to be found everywhere.  It’s a true shame that they aren’t.

After getting settled in at the White Star, I went for a walk around town.  My first stop was South Western House, a beautiful 1897 building that now housed condos, but had been the hotel where the Skinners and Emily had stayed in 1922.

The girls had given a specific enough description that, even with the passage of 95 years, I could work out that I had the right place.

“The hotel was one of those British terminal ones, part caravansary, part ticket office, right on the tracks, the sort that gives the impression of having engines running in and out of the potted palms.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Some internet searching for the place they described had turned up the South Western House (formerly “Hotel”), a six story turn-of-the-century building adorned with white stone Victorian flourishes that resembled frosting on a cake.  It was a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century, playing host to celebrities and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth.  The hotel is also famous for welcoming many of the first class passengers – including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – on the night before the Titanic sailed from Southampton.

During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the Headquarters for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day, which was launched from this port.  According to legend, a lot of the plans that went in to effect on the 6th of June 1944 were formed in this building, with Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.

Once again, another piece of the girls’ story is tied to World War II.

On the far side of the building, the railroad tracks which once carried those “boat trains” filled with passengers, were still set in the ground, though a bit unkempt from lack of use (the main railway station for Southampton is now located about a mile away).  Cornelia and Emily had been right about just how startlingly close the hotel was to the tracks.

I circled back to the front of the building and stepped into the South Western Café.  Though it was clear that things had been altered in the decades between when the girls were here and my visit now, one could still make out the remnants of an elegant showpiece of a restaurant dining room.  On the walls, there were enlargements of vintage photos of the building, some circa 1920s, and I studied them all with delight as I explained to the woman working at the host desk about my project.  At this, she stepped over and unlocked some nearby doors, inviting me to go through into what had been the lobby of the hotel.  Needless to say, I was delighted.

Its furnishings were sparse, but what was now a foyer for the residents of South Western House, had retained the sumptuous marble paneled walls and columns, and high, elaborately carved ceiling mouldings worthy of a grand hotel. I was able to picture a front desk where Otis had checked into their rooms, and a seating area flanked by potted palms where, over a cup of tea, Maud had beguiled and staved off the Empress of France’s doctor, who had come to check out rumors of a sick Cornelia.  I could even imagine Cornelia, in her hat with the red cock feather and big white veil, being whisked through the lobby to the very elevators I was standing in front of.

This had been unexpected, and I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse at the lobby.  I was very glad on that day in June that I was starting my travels abroad in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

Leaving the South Western Hotel/House, I turned back the other direction and followed along the perimeter of the Roman wall through the oldest part of the city.  A lot of it had been bombed in World War II and rebuilt, but the city was still rich with beautiful architecture from the Tudor period through the Edwardian.  Set within the paving stones of the sidewalks were brass placards inscribed with bits of Southampton’s history.  While the main tourist draw in Southampton seemed to be the Titanic connection, I was far more intrigued and moved by the placards noting that the Mayflower pilgrims had sailed from here, and how it was from here that many thousands of the D-Day invasion troops had been deployed.

It was staggering to contemplate how much history had been launched from this port town.

Later in the day, I ambled back over to the docks and watched the Queen Mary 2 as she pulled away from the pier, turning into the estuary, heading towards open water.  Already sensing even then how quickly this enchanted summer would pass, I had felt a little sad knowing that the next time I saw the QM2, it would mean that my journey was over.

As expected, that next time came way too fast.  Now here we were.  I had blinked, and suddenly it was August 4th, the day the girls and I would board the Queen Mary 2 and head back to America.

Little could I know then what a grand finale that voyage would turn into.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The White Star Tavern; South Western House, formerly the South Western Hotel; the lobby seems almost ghostly, but retains its graceful charm.

Bottom row:  A placard honors the two million American soldiers who passed through Southampton on their way to the D-Day landings; the Empress of France; the lighter which carried Joe Aub into Cherbourg, as noted by Paul Dudley White in his scrapbook.

People Places

Home Can Be More Than One Place

July 29, 2017

Dinner al fresco with Bruce, Francis and Sylvia Corrie (not pictured), some of my favorite people.

This one is a cheat.

And I’m glad of it.

My blog.  It was always supposed to be about the summer of 2017 and my journey with Cornelia and Emily.  As the days of that enchanted summer passed, I fell more and more behind with my blog posts, promising myself that I would do them once my travels were over.

It’s taken me almost a year to finish what I started, telling the tale of my enchanted summer, but as my “follow-up trip” a year later comes to an end, I’m finally in sight of the last post from that journey, just as I’m nearing completion of the book as well.

My first book.  It feels a bit crazy to be typing those words.  Rather a shock to the system.

Anyway…

In theory, this post is supposed to be about a couple of trips I made to the city of dreaming spires last summer.  But as I write this, I find myself reflecting on the two happy weeks I spent in Oxford this time around, which deserve more than just a mention in a postscript.

When I travel to England, I visit London.  I visit Cambridge and Brighton and wherever my journey leads me.  But when I travel to Oxford, I am not visiting.  I am returning home.

Last summer…

My first trip to Oxford was an overnight stay with Bruce and Sylvia, the parents of a former boyfriend of mine – Alistair – who is still a close friend.  In the book, I write about arriving in town and walking familiar streets, passing old haunts and ghosts from the two years I lived in Oxford in my twenties.  I spent that afternoon catching up with Sylvia and Bruce, with Alistair’s brother Francis joining us for dinner al fresco that evening.  The next morning I would meet up with Francis’ wife, Susie, for coffee and a chat before heading back to London.  Reflecting on that trip in the book, I write about feeling the ease and affection of family, as if it had been just a week or two since we’d last seen each other, and not the fourteen years that had actually passed since my last visit.  And how it meant so much that they still called me, “Girlie”, the nickname Alistair had given me almost thirty years ago.

The other visit came during the last few days before I sailed for the States, when I popped down to have lunch with Francis and Penelope Warner.  It was through them – or, rather, their study abroad program – that I came to England that first time around.  I explain in the book what an opportunity – what a gift – these two wonderful people had given me, along with their friendship.  I also recall three distinct memories of that day.

The first was, when I knocked on their front door, it struck me that the last time I had stood in front of number 27, I had been a young woman.  Where had the time gone?

The second was when I learned that the Warners’ daughter, Miranda, was in the UK, visiting from New Zealand, but that I had missed her by just a day or two – that she had been in Oxford, but was now up in Scotland seeing her brother, Benedict, and his girlfriend.  I have known Miranda since she was four years old, and though I refuse to accept that she could possibly be older than, say, sixteen, I had been very much hoping to see her.  Well, it would just have to wait for another time, possibly in another part of the world.

But my most vivid memory of that visit was, upon seeing me for the first time in twenty years, Francis Warner’s first words to me were, “Welcome home.”  It was one of the best moments of my summer.

I knew from those two brief sojourns to a city I had, indeed, once called home, that I needed to really be in Oxford for a time.  So for this summer follow-up trip, I AirBnB-ed myself a charming basement flat on the Woodstock Road near Summertown in North Oxford.  Here I was right in the thick of my old stomping grounds, and I would spend two weeks reconnecting with both people and a place I love.

And Oxford delivered.  So many happy moments.

There was the evening when Francis’ band was playing in the neighboring village of Kidlington, where I got to be with half the family as we listened to Francis and his son Johnny rocking the night.  Sylvia and Bruce introduced me to their myriad friends who had come to enjoy the music.  I caught up with Debbie and her husband, James, both of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  I showed off a few of my newly-learned dance moves from those lessons I’d had in Florida in the spring, as I grooved to Jonny and the Jive Tones.  And I chatted with Johnny, along with Rebecca (Bex) and Alexandra (Zana), members of the next generation in the Corrie clan, who had all been small children the last time I’d been around.

And then there was the afternoon I went to the Warners for tea, where Penelope had outdone herself, serving homemade scones and three kinds of cake to me and the other guests to the party, Lucy Warner Stopford and her husband, John.  Being the same age, Lucy and I had become friends during my study abroad year, but we’d lost touch once I went back to the States.  A quarter of a century and a lot of living later, Lucy and I didn’t miss a beat as we filled each other in on our lives.  It was especially wonderful to discover that Lucy is still very much Lucy – always the brightest light in the room.  Over tea, she asked me to sit for her painting class.  Lucy is an award-winning artist, as both a painter and a sculptor, and I considered it a great honor and privilege to be invited to sit for her and her fellow artists.

I spent one wonderful morning “touring” around town with Bruce, starting with tea in Blackwell’s Bookshop, then on to visiting important places in the colleges which make up Oxford University.  There was a quick hello with James’ and Debbie’s son, Tim, as he was studying for his exams, then a visit to the astounding Museum of Natural History where Bruce had worked in his youth, before we headed up for lunch at home with Sylvia.

On another day, Susie and I managed to get squeeze in some time for a good chat over beverages at the coffee house on South Parade.  Her beautiful, ethereal spirit made me wish I lived in Oxford full-time, so that we could have “girlfriend natters” on a regular basis.  That evening, I would find myself a block over at the Dew Drop Inn, having a pint with her husband Francis, and – poor Francis – a girlfriend natter with him as well (that dry cider is stronger than you think).

I even had the good fortune of being in town at the same time as Tom Fremantle, who had returned to Oxford a few months prior, after living for a few years in China.  Think Indiana Jones, only with an English accent.  Tom is a fearless adventurer and brilliant writer, and it is his books which had first inspired me to take my journey with the girls. Over drinks one evening at the Rose and Crown, Tom was able to not only give me some good advice about my book, but his words would also end up pointing me in the right direction for my next project.

There was also an unexpected turn in Oxford – my discovery of Forro, a lively, rather up-close-and-personal Brazilian dance.  While Oxford seems like an odd place to learn Brazilian street dancing, I figured “Why not?”, and went along to the Monday night classes and social dancing at St. Giles Church.  I have warm affection for that lovely little 12th century church, partly because I was once kissed amongst the headstones in the churchyard by a gorgeous Australian (she writes with fatuous modesty).  Later in London, I would continue with Forro, even giving it a go when I visited Birmingham.

And wouldn’t you know, happening upon that poster and giving the dance a try would lead me into my next book project?  It’s a wondrous thing, how the pieces sometimes line up.

Those two weeks in Oxford were also filled with the delicious minutiae of everyday living – shopping errands to the drugstore and grocery store, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors, walking into town on the same pavement I’d traversed all those years ago.  All of the little everyday, unexciting things that let a person know they are home.  It is those moments which penetrate the most, and last the longest.

If you have managed to read all the way to here, I can only thank you for your patience, and for indulging me as I prattled on with my highly-personal reminiscences.  Not only is this post a cheat, but I suspect it’s of interest only to me.  But I’m okay with that.  I’m giving myself this one.

Still, at least I can leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve ever read, which have resonated with me for almost thirty years.

“Home can be more places than one.  The pity is having to choose.” – C.W. Gusewelle

Photos:

Above, Middle:  Sitting for Lucy’s portrait class, with varying results — from generously young-looking, to Mary Tudor-ish, to still a work in progress.  I dig them all.

Top Row:  Cows in the foreground, dreaming spires in the background of Christ Church Meadow; a game-changing poster; the St. Giles Churchyard.

Bottom Row:  The old Dew Drop Inn has been glammed up; the reassuring blue door of number 27; Tuesday night Forro dancing in London.

Places Things

A Realm of Enchantment

July 27, 2017

On Tuesday, July 25th, I woke up in Paris.  One three-hour Chunnel ride later, I was back in London, and within an hour of that, I had the keys to the Chelsea flat back in my hand.

It was good to be in the flat again.  It was almost like coming home.  But it didn’t feel the same as it had the first time.  These were two separate visits, not a continuation of one.  I hadn’t expected that sensation – to borrow a phrase from the girls, “it hadn’t quite the flavor I anticipated.”  But neither did it dampen my enthusiasm for the place.  I was thankful for this last week I was getting, and was ready to make the most of it.

On my first full day back in London, I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the BP Awards for 2017, and one of those winning portraits in particular.  It is a study of Dr. Tim Moreton, a former Registrar of the National Portrait Gallery, painted by a wonderfully talented artist, Lucy Warner Stopford, who also happens to be a longtime friend of mine.  I had learned about her prestigious honor when I was visiting her father and stepmother in Oxford (which I cover in my next post, “Home Can Be More Than One Place”).  In the Gallery, I studied her compelling portrait, dazzled by the palette of colors Lucy had fused together and formed into Dr. Moreton’s likeness.  I then took some time to view the other BP Award winners before returning to Lucy’s work, where I hovered for a good half an hour, for the sole purpose of boasting to other museum-goers that I knew the artist.

After that satisfying experience, I walked up to New Bond St to the Allies Statue, an outdoor art piece which is comprised of a wooden park bench on which sit life-size bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It captures the friendship and mutual admiration of those two men who brought us to victory in World War II.  What is especially compelling about this piece is that the artist left space between the two men’s sculptures, so that a person can join them on the bench.  I was looking forward to that.

I arrived at the block of New Bond street where the statue is supposed to reside, only to discover that there was construction work taking place right in that spot, and the statue has been moved into storage somewhere.  This was an annoyance I hadn’t been expecting, and I was pretty darn disappointed.  With as much as World War II was figuring into my journey, I had really wanted an opportunity to visit the sculpture and take a seat, but it would just have to wait for another time.

I had far better luck on another outing I was excited to make, to the Globe Theatre to see “Much Ado About Nothing”.  It would be my first time attending a performance in the replica of the famous Shakespearean theatre since it opened in 1997.  “Much Ado About Nothing” is a play I already like, but this production sounded especially intriguing because it was set in 1914 Mexico, with Latin music and dancing.

It was an engaging, spirited production, and I have to think the men, especially, enjoyed their costumes.  Instead of sporting Elizabethan stockings and frills, these actors were dressed as caballeros, with cowboy boots, gun belts, a scruffy appearance and all of the boisterous swagger that goes with it.

The Globe Theatre itself lived up to all of my expectations – the building had been meticulously recreated, and the experience was as authentic as one could hope for, right down to when the audience members standing in the stalls got spritzed with light rain during the performance.  But no one seemed to mind in the slightest.

From there, the days slipped by fast, and the next thing I knew, it was Monday, July 31st, the day of my move from the flat in Chelsea to the Grand Hotel, where Cornelia and Emily, along with the Skinners, had stayed.  I would remain there until Friday, August 4th, when I would catch the boat-train to Southampton and board the Queen Mary 2 back to the States.

(Okay, so “boat-train” is an antiquated term from Edwardian times, referring to trains that ran to a port for the specific purpose of catching a passenger ship.  But it applies well to my particular journey plans.  And also, I just really enjoy saying, “I will be catching the boat-train…”  After all, how often does one get the opportunity to utter those words?)

On the morning of the move from the flat, I woke up feeling terribly, feverishly sick.  Up until that day, I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle, but the months of traveling had finally caught up to me.  It was a nuisance, to be sure, but I could feel only gratitude that it was happening now at the end.

I managed to get everything together in time to catch the river bus one last time from Chelsea to Embankment, and was still holding up fairly well when I entered the Grand Hotel, even feeling excited for the novelty of being steps away from the West End instead of a couple of subway rides.  Not that I would have the strength to take advantage of the situation.

I spent most of the next few days lying in bed, in various states of consciousness.  Occasionally I would venture out for something to eat, or to soak up some sun in the Embankment Gardens while my hotel room was being cleaned.  I knew that if I didn’t baby whatever illness this was, and really take care of myself now, I would be sick at sea.

By Thursday, twenty-four hours before I would be leaving London, I was finally starting to feel better.  After being cooped up for three days, I decided the best thing for my recovery now would be to get some fresh air and sunshine.  I started the day by walking over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was quite a haul, but I didn’t mind – it was just good to be out of doors.

I never can approach the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral without thinking of that iconic photograph from World War II, which had stiffened the backs and strengthened the resolve of the British to fight on.  Thank God it survived the Blitz.

After my visit to the cathedral, I took my time meandering back through central London – wandering through Covent Garden, strolling along the Strand, then making my way down to St. James Park, where I whiled away the afternoon.

There was nothing new or particularly exciting in anything I was doing.  But everything about the day was amplified.  It was all in sharper focus because I would be gone from it soon.  I was completely connected to this time and place, as I felt – and tried desperately to hang onto – every moment as it passed.

That evening, I was happily still energized and feeling well enough to attend the performance of “Queen Anne” at Theatre Royal Haymarket.  It was the first time in at least 20 years that I had been there, and I was glad I had made the effort to go.  The play itself was good, and just being at the theatre allowed me to spend a little time with some lovely memories from my twenties.

After the play, I walked back from the theatre through Trafalgar Square.  The daytime crowds of tourists had pretty much dispersed, and the lions and fountains of the square were left to the young, flirty people.  I made my way down to the Thames, where I stood for a long while gazing across it to the South Bank, which was bustling with lights and music and voices and bodies, all under the watchful London Eye, as the twilight disappeared into darkness.  Sometimes life is perfect.

I could’ve stayed forever.

 

Photos:

Above:

Top:  Swans grace the lake in front of Bletchley Park.

Middle:  Dr. Tim Moreton, by artist Lucy Warner Stopford; afternoon tea with my friend the artist, fittingly at the National Portrait Gallery; Lucy tidying up after making a start on a portrait of me!

Below:

Top row:  “Much Ado About Nothing”, playing at The Globe Theatre; Shakespeare would be shocked at the lack of bawdiness in the crowd.

Middle row:  Packed and ready to leave the flat; last look at my cozy London home; leaving Chelsea by boat.

Bottom row:  Herbert Mason’s iconic 1940 photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament, from the Jubilee (Embankment) Bridge; finally scoring my photo with the Allies, a year later.

People Places

The End of the Story

July 24, 2017

My next to last day in Paris, Sunday, July 23rd was the final day of the Tour de France.  The city had been dressing itself for the occasion with barricades and banners, and it looked like the cyclists would have a beautiful day to fly through the streets of Paris.

That morning, I had wandered down to the Rue St Honore to get some photos of the first pension Cornelia and Emily had stayed in, and the building where the American Drugstore was located (the setting for a hilarious incident involving Cornelia’s bedbugs bite).  While I was there, I figured I would slip around the corner to the Rue de Rivoli and snap a few pictures of the racing route, which ran along there on its way to the Champs-Elysees.  The cyclists weren’t due in for a good while, but there were already some crowds forming.  I found an opening along the barrier railing where I could stand with an unobstructed view, and I spontaneously decided that I would stick around and watch the race.  The days of checklists and playing tourist were done with now.

Nearby, stationed on a large concrete block which served as an anchor point for one of the mile marker banners was a group of three friends – Tracy, Jo and Lee.  Tracy and Lee were English, while Jo was a transplanted New Zealander currently living in England.  They told me that they had staked out the spot on “the island” early in the day, and they had brought a bag of provisions so they wouldn’t have to give up their prime real estate.

We started chatting and having some laughs.  Pretty soon, they graciously let me join them on their island, gave me some of their wine and made me their friend.  And that’s when my day turned glorious.

We laughed a good deal more as we mused over the parade floats – is it worth it to be in the parade if you have to dress like a giant french fry? – and shared our mutual admiration of the ultra hunky police forces.  We joked about our selfishness in not sharing the island with others (I had been their one and only, extremely lucky, exception).  And they told me about their crazy bike ride up the Champs-Elysees that morning, with police closing in on them from the front and behind.  They were zany and fun, and I found that my spontaneous decision to watch the race had proved to be one of the best of my entire summer, as I ended up spending the rest of the day and evening with my wonderful new friends.

After the race, we walked up to the Place de la Concorde and attempted to catch a glimpse of Chris Froome, the triumphant Brit who had pulled off his fourth win.  We ended up getting mashed into a crowd of hot, sweaty fans, a few of whom were rocking some lethal body odor.  Even that we found hilarious.  We then walked down the Rue Cambon and found a restaurant where we scored some dinner and, far more importantly, used the toilets.  Later, we walked up to the Arc de Triomphe as the sun was setting, just as hints of impending rain were starting to appear.

It had been a thoroughly marvelous day, immense fun, and a real high note to go out on.  I had made some sensational new friends, the kind I knew I would cross paths with again someday.  The trio had an early start back to the UK in the morning, so we snapped a few pics and said our goodbyes at the Arc, agreeing we would keep in touch.  Which we have.

I awoke the next morning with a sad, sinking feeling throughout my body, knowing what was in store for today.  Though I still had about a week left in London before I made the voyage back to the States, this was the day when my journey with Cornelia and Emily was officially over.

We’d already had plenty of splendid moments together, here in France, but I decided that on this last day, I would spend it visiting some of the girls’ favorite places, just as they had done during their last few days in Paris.

First, I would swing by and at least get a glimpse of the Comedie Francaise, where Cornelia and Emily, and the Skinners, had attended multiple plays.  It had been a big part of the girls’ experience, for Cornelia (the budding actress) especially.

I had been avoiding this particular part of the story, despite its significant presence in the book.  The reason being, my sense of humor has very little overlap with the French sense of humor, and I was filled with dread at the thought of having to sit through any sort of performance, be it in French or English.  So when I arrived at the theatre and discovered that the Comedie’s season had not yet begun, that there was no play on at the moment, I was wildly thankful for it.

Was that wrong of me?

With a new spring in my step, now that I had dodged the Comedie bullet, I proceeded on to the Left Bank and the Gardens of St Julien le Pauvre, and it was easy to see why the girls loved those gardens.  They are situated right across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral, and there is something utterly enchanting about the graceful simplicity of their design.

As an added bonus, the gardens are right next to Shakespeare and Company, the English bookstore – which had existed when the girls were there, but not at that location.  Thinking about it now, it is surprising that Cornelia and Emily didn’t mention Shakespeare and Co, because they did talk about shopping for reading materials at the book stalls which run alongside the river.  Those same permanent, collapsible book stall are still there, although they sell as many souvenirs and prints as books now.  As long as they remain.  There is something so very Parisian about them.

Stopping in at Shakespeare and Co, I was very pleased to find that it hadn’t changed much since my first visit to the store almost thirty years ago.  The place was still teeming with visitors, many making purchases – it was a joy to see that the bookstore was thriving.  For one crazy moment, I thought about checking into becoming one of the writers in residence, who are allowed to stay (as in sleep) in the bookshop as long as they put in some hours working there, too.  But cooler heads prevailed.

From there, I crossed the bridge and walked over to Notre Dame, where I had started my tour of Paris with the girls just a few short days before.  The cathedral was timeless and magnificent against the light gray sky, and for a long time I stood studying the intricate stonework of the façade, and the girls’ much-loved rose window, the jewel in the center of it.  And then there was just one other thing I needed to do here at the cathedral.

This was where I had to say goodbye to Cornelia and Emily.  

The last illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is of the girls standing in admiration of Notre Dame.  For me, it has always symbolized the end of their journey.  And so I had always known, even on that day back in May when I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in New York, eagerly saying, “This is it, girls, here we go!”, that we would eventually come to this moment, in this place.  I just hadn’t foreseen that the end of the story would get here so fast.

I sat down on one of the low walls framing the square in front of the cathedral, and I really didn’t care if anyone saw me mumbling to myself, or my tears.

I spoke to Cornelia and Emily, the girls, first.  I thanked them for the decades of laughter, for igniting my passion for travel, for being kindred spirits, for sharing their journey with me, for being with me on my first adventure abroad, and for coming along on this journey now. And even though I knew I would see them again at the Grand Hotel in London, and I would bring them along with me on the voyage home, this was where we were really saying farewell, just as the two of them had done with each other ninety-five years ago.

For Cornelia and Emily, there in 1922, it wasn’t goodbye forever, as they would remain lifelong friends.  But it was goodbye to a journey that could never be duplicated.  Just as it was for us now.

“We would come back again, but it would never be the same.  Our breath would come fast and our eyes smart when the Eiffel Tower rose again in the evening mist, but that would be because we remembered it from these months.  There would never again be a ‘first time’.  Our hearts were young and gay and we were leaving a part of them forever in Paris.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

I then spoke to Cornelia and Emily, the women.  I thanked them for writing a book with wit and style and lyricism that I could only hope to emulate.  And I thanked them for buoying my spirits when my faith in my book – or, more often, myself – had faltered.  I had often felt their presence along the way, when that crazy symmetry between our journeys had appeared.  And numerous times, I had needed the guiding spirits of those two women who were made of guts and sand.

I finished with, “I don’t know how this book will turn out, what it will be.  I know it won’t be as funny as yours.  It simply can’t be.  But I want it to be wonderful in whatever way it can.  I want it to be a tribute worthy of everything you’ve given me.”

I sat there, quiet, unmoving, for a while longer after.  It had been even harder than I expected.

Anything that happened beyond this point would be anti-climactic, nothing more than a brief mention in a postscript.

Or so I thought…

 

Photos below:

Top row:  Views from within the gardens of St. Julien le Pauvre.

Bottom row:  Shakespeare & Co bookstore, stalls and wares line the Seine; a year later in Birmingham, I reunite with Jo (middle) and Tracy (right).

People Places

Touring France’s Greatest Palace, a.k.a. The Battle of Versailles

July 19, 2017

The iconic Hall of Mirrors is supposed to be right here.

Wednesday, July 19th was blazing hot in Paris.  Figuring it would be easier to endure the heat outside of the city, I decided this would be my day to visit the Palace of Versailles.

Their outing at Versailles is part of one of the biggest, happiest days for Cornelia and Emily in all of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  It is when those engaging young doctors from the ship, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub, make a reappearance.  The men have arrived in Paris, and take the girls to Versailles in the afternoon.  That evening, back in Paris, the four go out to a fancy dinner and a show.

I was eager to get out of the Paris heat as soon as possible, and caught a morning train to Versailles.  I had been to the palace once, many summers ago, during the Eurail youthpass/backpack month of my first time abroad.  It had been cold and rainy that day, and my traveling companion, Stephanie, and I didn’t attempt the gardens.  So I was eager to wander the grounds on a day when – though hot – the weather was cooperating.

Emerging from the train station at Versailles, along with what seemed like a thousand other people, I made the short walk over to the palace, where I was able to quickly and easily buy a ticket.

… and then stood in line for an hour and a half to get in.  Apparently all of the tourist attractions in and around Paris are like this.  Those lines at Notre Dame should have clued me in.  No more simple ticket taking and in you go.  There was high security, with a preliminary bag checkpoint, a metal detector/body scan, and another bag check through a conveyor belt scanner before one gained entry to the attraction.  It’s what it is now, completely understandable, sadly necessary, I said to myself.  But it can put a person off wanting to do anything.

Still, this was for Cornelia and Emily.  And as I had nowhere else I needed to be, I could and would tough it out.

During that hour and a half in the snaking line, I got to know the lovely women from Long Island who were standing behind me.  They had come over for a party that was being given in honor of one of their daughters, who had married a Frenchman.  They lived in the States, and his family is in Normandy.  It was his family hosting the party.  The women were fun and funny and made the time pass quickly, and I was so thankful to be in line with them.

Once I’d finally made it inside, I joined a huge, ridiculous mass of people touring the palace.  Every room was wildly crowded, and I didn’t linger in any of them.  Instead, I focused on trying to hustle through the palace as quickly as I could.

It became almost comical, the size of the crowds and the unsavoriness of the situation.  I felt extremely grateful that I’d seen everything before – otherwise I would’ve felt rather short-changed by the experience.  Then again, I had been looking forward to my second visit to the historic Hall of Mirrors, but…

It didn’t take me long to hightail it out of the Hall of Mirrors and into the fresh air of the gardens.  The revitalizing breeze and return of personal space put a spring back into my step, and I started the long stroll to Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon and medieval hamlet, which I especially wanted to see.  The day which had started out so beastly hot had turned partly cloudy and more comfortable, with light winds and spots of sprinkling rain to cool things down, so I felt certain that both destinations were within reach.

But more important things first.  I had on my phone a snapshot of the picture of Cornelia with the doctors, from Paul White’s photo album.  With this, I was able to locate the spot in the gardens where Emily took the picture of the other three, and I got my picture made there.

It was one of the top, best, closest moments of being with the girls – in their footsteps, matching their experience – that I would have.  As an added treat, I was also getting to spend some time with Joe and Paul.  I had gotten to know something about these young men through the research I’d done at Harvard, so I was very pleased to finally be meeting up with them here.

It was lovely to start my tour of the gardens on such a high note.  Perhaps that is why I was so devil-may-care about exploring the other four hundred square miles of them (okay, more like three).  I didn’t have the intel – or, at the very least, the good sense – to rent a golf cart to get around in.  Despite my best efforts that day, I left a massive amount of gardens and grounds undiscovered, which will just have to wait for another time.

Still, I managed to walk to the Petit Trianon and squeeze in a quick tour, and then it was on to the medieval hamlet, where I sat for a bit enjoying the charm of it all before starting the heinous walk back to the Palace.

I made it as far as the enormous Apollo fountain at the top of the Grand Canal, where I sat down on the edge, took my shoes off and put my feet in the water.  It wasn’t as cold as Lake Michigan or the Thames, but about ten minutes of soaking my feet did a world of good, and I felt refreshed enough to continue the walk back.

Overall, my day had been a success.  I had spent time with Cornelia and Emily and their doctors, gotten a photo which meant the world to me, seen the elusive Petit Trianon and hamlet, and put my feet in one of the Versailles fountains (which, I must confess, is an immensely satisfying notion).  Also, I was coming away with some useful knowledge for next time:  no palace, grounds only, in a golf cart.

Travel tip:  The gardens are free, with gift shops and cafes of their own, and there’s no waiting in line to get in.

As I made my way back to the palace, I passed the bodies of numerous collapsed tourists which were sprawled out on the grass and benches along the way.

Defeated by Versailles.

I made it to the top of the palace’s terrace steps and found my Long Island ladies sitting there.  They were completely worn out, and said that when they saw me, I looked as tired as they felt.

Versailles defeats everyone.

 

Photos below:

Top row:  The third and last leg of the staggeringly long line; joining the others in the garden; the serenity of the grove.

Bottom row:  The “mill” in Marie Antoinette’s pretend village; the Long Island ladies take a breather (note the collapsed tourists in the background); close-up of collapsed tourists — definitely defeated by Versailles.

Places

Bienvenue à Paris

July 18, 2017

I’d said a fond farewell to Rouen, and on a hot, sunny afternoon, I arrived in Paris, where I would be staying for a week.

Almost a quarter of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay takes place in Paris, and there was a lot to cover.  During their stay here (for what I figured was about two months), Cornelia and Emily took summer classes at the Sorbonne, and worked on their French.  In addition, Cornelia was taking acting classes with one of the leading men of the French theatre of the day, Emile Dehelly.  The girls often attended French plays and, probably in part due to Otis and Maud Skinner (Cornelia’s famous actor parents), being in Paris as well, Cornelia and Emily mingled with the theatre crowd, including stars from the Comedie Francaise.

I didn’t know how to recreate the girls’ summer in Paris, nor did I feel compelled to create any big experiences for myself.  But then it was not my first time visiting The City of Lights.

From a spur-of-the-moment weekend away with a boyfriend, to a month-long stay in the Latin Quarter, I had built up a good stockpile of memories from various visits over the last thirty years.  This time around, though, I would simply be a tourist, taking in nothing more than a passing glance at this monument or that site, as I made rapid-fire stops at a long checklist of places which had meant something to the girls.

I decided to start at the heart of the city:  Notre Dame Cathedral.  Even late in the afternoon, there was a massive line to get into the Cathedral.  Thankfully, Cornelia’s and Emily’s only mention of Notre Dame was in regards to visiting the rose window, which could be done from the outside.  It may have been a cheat, but I figured it counted.  Done and checked off the list.

From there I went over to the Right Bank and walked along the Rue de Rivoli and past the Louvre, being wildly grateful that Cornelia and Emily hadn’t mentioned actually going inside that behemoth of a museum.  And then it was on through the enchanting Tuileries Gardens, to the Place de la Concorde, where Cornelia and Emily had passed through on their first day in Paris.

Check.  Check.  Check.

I was definitely short-changing a large part of the girls’ journey, but it wouldn’t have mattered how long I stayed in Paris – I simply couldn’t follow in their footsteps here.  Still, I did my best.  I was able to power through most of the Paris checklist, hitting all of the “biggies” – the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysees, the Eiffel Tower.  But it was those moments and places which were more personal to Cornelia and Emily that brought our two journeys together, and became my memories of our trip to Paris.

Like at the Café de la Paix, next to the opera house.  Otis Skinner had taken refuge here from the girls as they obsessed over an upcoming date with their handsome young doctors.  I spent a lovely afternoon here sipping an aperitif, people watching and enjoying one-on-one time with Otis’ memory.

And then there was the morning when I stopped in at The Ritz.  I was in search of the restaurant where Cornelia and Emily had brought their new dogs along to lunch.

Ah, the dogs, Lili and Gamin.  Brussels Griffons (think Verdell, the fluffball in the film “As Good As It Gets”).  Cornelia and Emily had seen some in London, and had searched for weeks until they found a couple to adopt for their very own.  The pups went everywhere with the girls, and were always greatly fussed over.  This emboldened Cornelia and Emily to have lunch one day at The Ritz.  Needless to say, things didn’t go quite as planned.

The Ritz has multiple dining options, but in speaking with the staff, who were all very kind – even interested – in my story, we determined that the girls must have eaten where the restaurant L’Espadon is currently located.  It is sumptuous and elegant, with the stately atmosphere of a restaurant that has a long, rich history.

Dressed in their finest daywear and wielding Lili and Gamin, the girls were immediately greeted by the major domo, who gushed over the pups and placed the foursome at one of the best tables, seating them in chairs of pale rose brocade.  Lili and Gamin sat in their own chairs, dining on chopped filet mignon, as Cornelia and Emily “ate under the rapt scrutiny of every other occupant of the dining room.”  The girls felt a bit too embarrassed to eat much, but it was still a lovely lunch… until it was time to leave, and Cornelia picked up Lili from her chair.

“I hadn’t lifted her five inches before I hastily dropped her back again, for there in the center of the pale rose brocade, was a small, round puddle… [and underneath Gamin, Emily discovered] the twin of Lili’s puddle.  We sat there, silent and horrified, not knowing what to do.  We lingered endlessly over our coffee, hoping that maybe, as Emily optimistically suggested, it might just dry up.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

But it didn’t.  Eventually the girls paid their bill and, casually dropping their napkins over the wet spots as they picked up the dogs, “… managed to make a fairly dignified exit as far as the hall, but from there we scooted like rabbits across the lobby and out the main door.”

I had come at an off hour, but even though L’Espadon wasn’t open, the staff let me go in and take pictures.   If just the look and location of the restaurant wasn’t enough to convince me I had the right place, the dining room was filled with rose brocade chairs! Of course, it couldn’t possibly the exact same fabric that had been on the chairs 95 years ago.  But no question these chairs looked like the ones which Cornelia’s and Emily’s dogs soiled that day.  I was thoroughly delighted.

Having no dog of my own to take for lunch at The Ritz, I opted instead to dine at Angelina.  Famous for their works-of-art pastries, Angelina had been known as Rumpelmeyer’s in Cornelia’s and Emily’s day, and it is here that Emily met up with her school friend, Agatha Clarke, for afternoon tea.  During my week in Paris, I indulged in Angelina twice:  Once for lunch, where I discovered that even the sandwiches are pretty – mine resembled a bouquet.  And then once for afternoon tea, or, in my case, afternoon hot chocolate, probably the best I’ve ever had.  This I paired with Angelina’s signature pastry since 1903, the Mont Blanc, a jumbo-sized confection made of meringue, whipped cream and chestnut cream “vermicelli”.  It’s a wonder I didn’t collapse right there from sugar shock.

On another day, I paid a visit to the pension where Cornelia and Emily had stayed, a one-time mansion belonging to one of Napoleon’s most loyal friends, a gift from the emperor himself.  It was here that the girls learned to tango in the parlor, and where Cornelia was bitten by bedbugs the night before the girls’ big date with Drs. White and Aub.  The infamous 18th century bed Cornelia slept in is long since gone, and happily these days, the hotel is known for its exquisite garden instead.

I would later learn from Emily’s writings that while the girls were living here, that once a week, they would go out with the same taxi driver, telling him to drive in any direction, ten francs worth, and then they would walk home.  Each time he would drop them at a different location.  This seems like a wonderful way to explore Paris, or anyplace, and the girls’ intrepid spirit during their stay here at the pension added to my fondness for the place.

It also reminded me of how important it is, when one is traveling, to really be in a place.  Otherwise, there’s no point in making the journey at all.

As if my days of playing frantic tourist hadn’t been enough to remind me of this already…

As for Cornelia’s and Emily’s date with their beaus, they and I meet up again with Dr. White and Dr. Aub, as we all pay a visit to the Palace of Versailles, in my next post.

 

Photos, below:

Top row:  The Cafe de la Paix and the Opera national de Paris; lunch at The Ritz; Gomez, as good as a Griff can get.

Middle row:  Reminscent of the Harmonia Gardens from “Hello, Dolly”, the iconic Angelina tea house; what you get when you order a sandwich at Angelina; scrumptious, stylish, intensely-caloric and totally worth it, Angelina’s afternoon snacks.

Bottom row:  The converted mansion where Cornelia and Emily stayed, now the Regent’s Garden Hotel; the parlor where the girls learned the scandalous new dance called the tango; the hotel garden, one of the most beautiful in all of Paris.

 

People Places

On the Trail of Saints and Sinners in Rouen

July 17, 2017

Above:  A glorious light show illuminates the facade of Rouen Cathedral.

“We decided to break the trip and enlarge our cultural vista by stopping off in Rouen for the night, and why our experience in that historic town didn’t leave its mark on the rest of our lives is proof positive that there must be a special Providence set apart to watch [over] the faltering steps of such ninnies as we.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

I was looking forward to being in Rouen.  This was a day when I could really reconnect with the girls, and I was eager to do so.  I’d been on my own the last few days, and had been missing my traveling companions.

I started my tour of Rouen just as Cornelia and Emily had, walking in their footsteps to the Vieux Marche,  where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431.  This had been one of the most powerful, profound moments of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.

“… at last we were in the old Market Place, standing on the spot where that guileless girl from Domremy was burned to death.  It was Emily’s first experience of the sort.  She stood in the center of that beautiful and heartbreaking square murmuring, ‘This is the place.  This is the very place.’  And quietly, unpremeditatively, we both stooped down and touched the cobblestones.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Gardens have replaced those cobblestones, and in their center is a placard marking the location where Joan of Arc was executed. Standing there, knowing what this moment had meant to the girls, I couldn’t help but feel a bit overawed myself.

After a while, I continued our tour down the Rue de le Gros Horloge (Street of the Big Clock) to the magnificent Rouen Cathedral, where I discovered that it was closed until 2pm.  I decided to use that time to get some lunch, as well as a few answers, hopefully, to a mystery I needed to solve.

I started with lunch, consisting of a scrumptious surimi baguette, which I ate in a lovely shaded garden area adjacent to the cathedral.  It took me some time to realize that I was lunching amidst a number of fragments from the cathedral’s facade which had been blown off during World War II and never put back.  The cathedral had taken a major hit on April 19, 1944, and two buttresses were all that had kept the whole building from collapsing.  Repair work from that assault continues to this day.

After my lunch in the garden, I went to the tourist office, and threw a question at the staff that – they admitted themselves – they’d never been asked before:

Did anyone happen to know where the red light district of Rouen was located a hundred years ago?

The reason for my question stems from one of the most hilarious passages in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, involving a mistaken address which landed the girls at the doorstep of a brothel, which they believed to be a respectable pension where they could bed down for the night.  Astonishingly, the madam of the establishment provided the girls with a room.  A quick reminder:  Cornelia’s and Emily’s book is a work of non-fiction.  This really happened.

“… beckoning us to follow, [she] led us down a hall.  It was lined on either side with smallish rooms, rather elaborately decorated.  Some of the doors were open, and we caught glimpses of the other guests who seemed quite surprised to see us and we were indeed surprised to see them.  They all appeared to be young women in very striking evening dresses.  This was certainly unusual, but we concluded they must all be waiting to go out to a dinner-party… I couldn’t help thinking that this was an eccentric sort of pension, and Emily remarked that it lacked the ‘homey’ quality of the one in St. Valery.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

So where would this house of ill repute have been?  To my delighted surprise, the staff seemed to have at least a fairly good guess as to where the red light district was located.  They marked the area on a map for me, which I followed down to a neighborhood which did seem a little rough, by French standards – meaning that it didn’t look picture-postcard beautiful.  I couldn’t know which building had once been the brothel they stayed in, but I was pretty convinced I was in the right area.  Satisfied with these results, I headed back to the cathedral.

On the way there, I overheard an English woman saying something to her friends about having to check out some amazing place.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “interesting…”  So with only the barest of introductions, I latched onto her group, and tagged along with them into the courtyard of a large half-timbered building.  In the middle of the courtyard, what appeared to be construction work was taking place.  But on closer inspection, it turned out to be an archaeological dig.  I had never seen a dig up close.  An unexpected first.

Standing in a three-foot-deep trench was a woman looking over piles of bones, measuring each of them, while another woman crouched next to a full skeleton in a grave, examining it and making notes.  Wow, now it really was a first.  I had never seen human remains before, let alone any dating back to the Great Plague of thirteen-hundred-something.

After this quick, surprising detour, I finally made it to the cathedral, where my first order of business was to locate the Joan of Arc chapel.  Cornelia and Emily had each lit a candle here, which Cornelia recalled:

“I placed [the candle] on a little spike beside the others which flickered before the shrine of Joan.  She hadn’t been canonized for very long and it was sweet to think of her coming into the eminent name of St. Joan.  For all my Universalist forbears, I went down on my knees to thank her and France and God for letting me be there.”

Of all the moments of “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” that I wished to capture for myself, this was the one that I felt most deeply.  I lit a candle for Cornelia and Emily, and placed it on a small altar with some others.  While I didn’t drop down on my knees, I did sit in a chair in front of the chapel of St. Joan, and gave thanks to her and Cornelia and Emily and God for letting me be there, for leading me into this joyous adventure.

That night, I returned to the cathedral – or, rather, the square in front of it – where a large number of people were gathering to watch what I had been told was some sort of “light show”.  This proved to be an anemic description for the wondrous piece of performance art it was.  It turned out to be one of those bold, mind-bending entertainment pieces, where enormous images and animation are projected onto the side of a building.  I had heard of such a thing, but this was the first time I had ever experienced it.

Set to classical and medieval music, this production told the story of France.  It was exquisite, breathtaking, inexplicable.  And on a beautiful, warm night, just to make it perfect.

Delighting in the spectacle, I was fervently wishing that such a thing had existed when the girls were here – how they would have been dazzled!  But most likely Cornelia and Emily would have missed it, anyway.  It was now close to midnight – by this time, the girls would probably have turned in for the night at the brothel down the road, where they “slept the sleep of babes.”

Photos:

Top Row:  A placard marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; strolling along the Street of the Big Clock.

Middle Row:  Lunch in the cathedral garden; unearthing the bones of 14th century plague victims.

Bottom Row:  Rouen Cathedral by day, featuring the tower which the girls were coerced into climbing; Cornelia and Emily once again visit the chapel of St. Joan.

Places

On Shifting Sands at Mont St. Michel

July 16, 2017

Everyone who’d ever been there said I had to go.  My friend Allen told me it was a longtime dream and goal of his to make it there.  I had seen pictures of the place since I was a kid, and it truly is one of the world’s most magical sights (and sites).  But still, I wasn’t all that fired up about it.  It sounded like a nice idea, but it wasn’t something I’d been looking forward to with bated breath.

Nevertheless, after spending the night in the Normandy town of Combourg, I had a spring in my step as I loaded up Claire the car and got on the road early to my next destination.

Mont St. Michel.

A quick bit of history on this fabled island and its Benedictine monastery:

Part fortress and part religious sanctuary, the monastery dates from the eighth century, a combination of imposing Romanesque and fantastical Gothic architectural styles.  The small village below the monastery has a population of 50 full-time residents (as of 2015), who host around three million visitors a year.

For hundreds of years, the faithful have made pilgrimages to this holy place.  During the Middle Ages, pilgrims would walk across the bay at low tide, which was extremely dangerous.  It was said that those who braved the quicksand and quickly rising tides should first make out a will, because there was no guarantee they would make it to the island and back safely.

In the 19th century, France built a road to Mont St. Michel that made it possible for more pilgrims as well as tourists to visit, but there was a major flaw in the design:  it blocked movement of the seawater, which was not only unhealthy for the Couesnon River’s eco-system, but it caused a massive silt build up around the island.  In 2014, thankfully, the road was removed when a new causeway was opened, which allows the water to once again flow freely and restore the natural balance around the island.

So…

It was still fairly early when I pulled into one of the car parks by the recently constructed bridge, but the place was already filling up with tourists.  In spite of a few dark looming clouds, I joined a healthy crowd of fellow visitors on the walk to Mont St Michel.

My first view of this mythical, magical-looking place had not been what I expected, but it was hardly a disappointment.  The day was gray and foggy, and when I looked out to the island, all I saw was a low series of rocky shoreline.  There was no monastery, no spiked tower soaring into the heavens.  Nearly all of the island was lost inside a cloud, and the Abbey had completely vanished from sight.  It was really wonderfully enchanting…

Not being as intrepid as those pilgrims from the past, I opted out of trekking through the marshes and quicksand of the bay, and made my way to Mont St. Michel across the 1.6 mile footbridge.  As I neared the island, the gauzy blanket surrounding Mont St. Michel began to loosen its hold, and by the time I was nearing the end of the causeway, the haunting, otherworldly fortress was completely visible.

When I first stepped foot on Mont St Michel, I took a few moments to remove my shoes and venture onto the sand in the bay, and walk out a bit between the island and the mainland, so that I might connect even just briefly with those centuries of faithful visitors.

Soon it was time to start the real sojourn, and I joined the masses of other visitors who were strolling through the utterly charming, postcard-perfect medieval streets of the village.  The narrow cobblestone streets were lined with heavenly looking patisseries and baguette shops, souvenir shops catering to every taste level (I say this with affection, as my own personal taste tends to run to the lower end of the souvenir spectrum).  There were quaint tavern-looking bars and beautiful restaurants, and occasionally there would be a doorway or a passageway leading to an inviting, winsome hotel.

The scenery is all quite picturesque, but the hike itself is rough-going.  The incline is steep, and was made none the more pleasant on the day of my visit, by the sheer number of people making the same ascent as myself.

Moving up the winding, constricted street, shoulder to shoulder with a sea of other tourists, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was visiting Mont St. Michel in the wrong way.  Instead of coming for the day en masse with a large portion of those three million visitors, the island would be much better seen and explored by staying on the island in one of those gorgeous hotels, enjoying good, unhurried meals in the lovely restaurants, and seeing the sights before and after the waves of tourists had passed through.

Aiding in this plan, the evening tides often come in high enough to cover the causeway, turning Mont St. Michel back into a proper island.  This undoubtedly must empty the streets, sending the tourists scurrying back to the mainland.

That’s the way to experience Mont St. Michel but, at least for me, it would have to wait for another time.  Right now I had a mountain to conquer and a marauding horde to overcome in my quest for the summit.

And it was in the middle of this climb that I had a meltdown as I neared the top of the steep incline, which involved an old, beat-up piece of emotional baggage, a movie star, California’s iconic Pacific Coast Highway, and a nun carrying a lawn mower.  Was I experiencing enlightenment?  Was this tourist’s daytrip really a pilgrimage after all?  Hmmm… That’s a story for the book.

Post-meltdown, I eventually summited, and toured the remarkable Mont St. Michel monastery.  My favorite bits were the brass sculptures which appear to be parts of an enormous mythical, eagle-like creature that lives within the monastery – a claw here, a beak there.  I also loved the narrow passageways between the buildings.  It was all spectacular and sublime, ancient and mysterious, and strangely ethereal.

I managed to make my way down and get back off the Mont just as the real throngs of tourists were starting to show up.  Once I was back in the car, I plugged in the address for my hotel in Deauville, the famous, glamorous seaside resort town where I would spend my last night on the road, before taking Claire back to the rental car office in Rouen.

On the way to Deauville, I made an unplanned stop along one of the country roads, at a funky antiques-salvage store.  It was the Route 66 sign in the window that had caught my eye and piqued my interest.  How could I possibly pass up the place?

There I met Gabriel, the owner of the establishment, who seemed to be a huge fan of Americana, which made up the majority of the items he had for sale.  He showed me around and I met his two lovable, languid dogs, who also spoke (well, understood) only French.  Thankfully, my French was strong enough that day to converse a bit with them as well as their owner.  I was even able to understand Gabriel when he explained that he wants to go to the US to buy an Elvis-style Cadillac convertible.  He already was the owner of an extended-cab truck with double back wheels, which he had parked out front.

Gabriel was what could best be described as a French good ol’ boy, and he shared his thoughts on the world with me.  Turns out, it would be one of the best conversations in French that I would have with anyone.  Not only because I wasn’t really called upon to have to speak much myself, but also because I managed to grasp a lot of what he was saying.  It was all about French politics and what was currently happening in the country.  “Les jeunes sont perdus” (“the young are lost”), he kept saying.

I was thrilled I could understand this.  Finally, I felt, I’ve made it to France.  It was one of the most rewarding moments of my entire trip.  Or at least during my week on the road.

I came away from this day feeling as if it had been an incohesive one – a peculiar mix of random, disjointed stimuli.  And despite my awe at the majesty and beauty of the entire place, it is those ancillary experiences that I recall first when I think of my visit to Mont St. Michel.

In my next post, I meet back up with Cornelia and Emily in Rouen, site of one of their most hilarious, infamous adventures…

 

Photos:

Above:

The causeway leading to the isle of Mont St. Michel.

Below:

Top Row:  Too cozy by half — the path to the monastery; timeless passages and corridors.

Middle Row:  It’s all about the selfies and texts; solemn and graceful, the monastery chapel; a seagull perches atop a “birdcage” containing a mythical golden eagle-like creature.

Bottom Row:  An enormous gazing ball adorns the lawn below the monastery walls; a “pilgrim” explores the bay at low tide; the Mother Road, a la Francaise.

Places Things

If It’s Two O’Clock, It Must Be Bayeux

July 15, 2017

Road trip!

During my time in Normandy, I needed a rental car in order to visit some of the more remote villages I had on my list.  This was my first time driving alone on foreign soil, but (naively) I’d always felt up to the task.  For some inexplicable reason, I had been under the misguided notion that I could find my way through the French countryside simply by using old-school road maps.  I clung to this belief in the weeks, then days leading up to the “Time in the Car” portion of my summer journey, and staunchly fended off the international smartphone data plans which would provide me with satellite navigation.

It was only when I was picking up the car at the Rouen train station that doubts began to creep in about how I might manage reading an unwieldy paper map while simultaneously driving, and I was beginning to suspect that this road trip could (and probably would) end in any number of disastrous ways.

Thankfully, there was a guardian angel looking out for me somewhere because, by some act of Providence, the rental car assigned to me came equipped with a built-in navigation system.

Now, it was set up to deliver instructions in French.  But, summoning every last bit of French I could remember, I managed to work out from the car manual how to get my navigator speaking to me in English.  And not just that, but I had my choice of what kind of accent my navigator would have – either British English or Australian English.  Without pausing to dwell on the “oversight” of there being no American English option, I selected the Brit because he sounded a bit like a butler, which made me feel rather elegant.

The rental car itself was a Renault (this being France and all), just spacious enough for me and my luggage.  Its exterior color was an unmissable “rouge clair”, which translates roughly to “screaming red” in English.  Not even the most retina-burning shades of fingernail polish could rival the car’s neon glow, so the pressure was on for me to get through my road trip without putting any nicks in the paint job.

It had been in Claire the car that I had visited St. Valery-en-Caux, and then Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.  After an afternoon spent on the hallowed sand and soil of the D-Day invasion, I was emotionally spent by the time I was in the car and on the road to Bayeux, which was my next destination and stopping point for the night.  God bless that navigation system, for it made quick work of my journey, and delivered me without incident to my hotel in the center of the city.

Stepping through the hotel’s front door, I instantly fell head over heels for the place.  Housed in an ancient building – a converted something-or-other – the hotel was a sublime mix of medieval architecture and swinging modern furnishings.  My appointed room was huge, with three tall windows and a fireplace.  The bed was modern groovy – padded white vinyl with some sort of remote-controlled colored lighting effects built into the underside of the frame.

(It would turn out, unfortunately, that I would never figure out how to work the remote, and in the end I would be too tired to pursue the matter.  Oh well.  I wasn’t cool enough for the bed anyway.)

As soon as I dropped my bags, I hit the streets of Bayeux, and it was love at first sight there, too. Creamy yellow sandstone buildings, ancient, narrow cobblestone streets, a gorgeous cathedral.  It was one of the prettiest cities I had ever visited.

If Bayeux wasn’t already wonderful enough, I discovered walking around town that when it came to restaurants, I was spoiled for choice.  It took a while, but finally I elected to have dinner at a place where I could have some of those delicious mussels in curry sauce.

It was a cozy place, with the tables quite close together.  To my left, there was a French couple who were very polite and very patient with me as we exchanged a bit of small talk in their language.  On my right side was a German family complete with two adorable dogs, one of whom put his paws in my lap and gave me kisses. The family was friendly and we were able to speak a little as well, in French — a second language for both of us.

After my day on the Normandy coastline – the French soil where that watershed battle between Americans and Germans known as D-Day had taken place – Bayeux had brought me back to a happier time: now.  The French, the Germans and my American self all enjoyed our food and wine together, and there was only friendship amongst our tables.

It was just what I needed to reaffirm that goodness and the human spirit can – and always will – prevail.

After a heavenly sleep that night, in the bed that was way too cool for me, I was ready the next morning for a day of balls-to-the-wall sightseeing that would make any “12-countries-in-6-days” tour company proud.  I hit the ground running, starting with a hot-footed trek through the Bayeux Cathedral.  While perhaps not as storied or famous as Notre Dame or Rouen, it is exquisite, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and worth every moment of the eight and a half minutes I spent touring it before heading onto the next stop, which was a biggie:  The Bayeux Tapestry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this iconic piece of needlework, especially what sort of reaction I would have to it.  Like most people, I find that when something is historic, legendary, and altogether a huge deal, it’s a real roll of the dice whether or not it can live up to one’s expectations, and what sort of response it will elicit.

Take the La Brea Tar Pits, for example.  One would be lead to believe, simply from Bugs Bunny’s insatiable quest to see them, that they would be “all that”.  Not so.  As many of us have learned upon making that pilgrimage, it’s really a pretty serious letdown.  Yes, the Tar Pits have geological significance (luckily for everyone’s sake, I can’t expound on what it is).  But, for me at least, the whole thing looked like nothing more than a pond with a cloudy black puddle in one corner.  I found myself more excited over a random pool of tar that had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot.

As for its power to inspire awe, the Bayeux Tapestry seemed a bit iffy, and so I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

Happily, I found the tapestry to be both exceptionally beautiful and interesting, impressive in its scope (but who wouldn’t be dazzled by 68 meters, or 230 feet, of intricate needlework), and I applauded not only its artistry, but marveled over the amount of effort it must’ve taken to produce the piece.  I was so taken with it, in fact, that I even lingered over the tapestry for longer than the allotted fifteen minutes I’d given it – to the point of robbing myself of precious time in the gift shop – before I headed out to where Claire the car was waiting to get on the road to Falaise, our next stop.

As I steered Claire out of Bayeux, I got it into my head to switch the accent on the navigation system from British to Australian.  I was now on Day Five of my isolating Time in the Car, without even Cornelia and Emily to keep me company.  After St. Valery-en-Caux, I had veered off their path, with every place I visited a detour I had designed for myself.  These were my travels.  I was on my own, and wouldn’t meet up the girls again until I returned to Rouen.

Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for Aussies, I figured it would be nice to have someone from the land down under keeping me company as I drove.  With just a little bit of imagination, an Australian navigator could perhaps start to feel like a companion, almost-kinda-sorta like having a boyfriend in the car, riding shotgun and sharing the journey with me.

At first, it was nice.  But soon, I began to feel like my Aussie boyfriend wasn’t so much navigating, as he was telling me how to drive.  Which I really didn’t care for.  Whether it was something about the accent, the voice of the speaker, or just my imagination, it really seemed as if the Aussie was second-guessing my driving.  He began to irritate me, and I grew increasingly annoyed with him each time he told me to turn here or stop there.  It wasn’t long before I had to pull Claire over to the side of the road, and go back to my reliable British butler/navigator.

Still, we made good time to Falaise.  The town of Falaise is famed for its statue of William the Conqueror and his predecessor Dukes of Normandy.  Being a descendant of William the Conqueror – one of many, many millions of descendents – this visit to my grandfathers’ statue was a sort of mini-pilgrimage.  Leaving Claire at the first certain parking space I could locate, I made my way through town over to the square where the monument stands.  Just a few steps away, there was a mammoth castle which perhaps needed exploring.  I took a few minutes to study the figures who encircled William the Conqueror, as well as the Big Duke himself, before making a start towards the castle entrance.  Thankfully, cooler heads quickly prevailed and I chose instead to blow it off.  After all, I’d already done a cathedral, a tapestry and a statue today.  And I can take only so much culture before “museum legs” set in.  That’s what Cornelia and Emily call it.  They suffered from this affliction during their travels as well.

Plus, I still had miles to go before I slept.  So I hustled back to Claire the car and got on the road to Combourg, a neighboring town to Mont St Michel, which I would be visiting the next day.

Full disclosure:  I stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to Combourg.  Yes, in France.  I was in France, with all of that fabulous French food, and I went to McDonald’s.  In my defense, I need say only this:  Coke with ice, free wi-fi, and a respectably clean restroom stocked with toilet paper.

And a parking lot for Claire.

It had been a hectic day, but I managed to make it to Combourg while it was still afternoon.  Combourg turned out to be a handsome little town. The hotel I had booked turned out to be quite nice, with an unexpected sort of New England feel to it, and I managed with half-French, half-English to communicate with the staff.  I was finding that as time went by, at least I wasn’t including as many Spanish words in my sentences as I had been early on.

This was my third town in six hours.  Not normally the way I travel, but sometimes a full-on, hardcore tourist day is called for.  I got to set my own schedule and go anywhere I wanted to.  And it was all made possibly by Claire and my navigational butler (with help from the overbearing Aussie as well, I suppose).

 

Photos:

Above:  Looking up to the statue of William the Conqueror from the base.  In the foreground is William Longsword, his great-great-great-grandfather.

Below:

Top Row:  The Villa des Ursulines, second from the left (my room spans the three windows on the second floor); my way cool hotel room; no, it’s not a movie set, it’s Bayeux.

Bottom Row:

An imposing bit of the Bayeux Cathedral; the Cordeliers’ Gate, part of the ramparts surrounding the city of Falaise (Claire the car can be seen waiting outside the gate); photo-op with some of my kin (a small hint of the massive castle can be seen to the right of the statue).

People Places

Know Where You Stand: In the Footsteps of Heroes

July 14, 2017

Le quatorze juillet, or the 14th of July.  French Independence Day or, as we Americans call it, Bastille Day.  Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, after being blasted out of their beds by celebratory cannon fire, spent their Bastille Day in 1922 on a remote hillside near St. Valery-en-Caux waiting for the big gun to stop firing.  In the evening, they attended a fete along the seaside promenade, where they danced with the locals into the wee hours.  It proved to be one of their favorite memories from their summer abroad – their own “Summer of Independence”.

Ninety-five years later, there was no cannon fire to roust me from my sleep, and there didn’t seem to be any activity in St. Valery to suggest that there was to be a party on the promenade.  So I felt perfectly fine about stepping out of the girls’ footsteps, leaving St. Valery to celebrate without me, and spending my July 14th with the American heroes who gave their lives so that French independence could still be celebrated today.  Offering a brief apology to Cornelia and Emily for pulling them away from their fun, I invited them to come with me, even though where I was going didn’t exist during their travels, or even when they penned the book in 1942.

I would be taking the girls with me to June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the beaches of the Normandy invasion. 

My first stop:  the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.  I began my visit with a tour of the museum, which was a moving experience from start to finish, yet there is one thing which stands out in my memory above anything else:  In a display case captioned, “What They Carried With Them”, along with personal items and some tins of rations, there were two copies of Armed Services Editions of books.

In an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and popular books which were distributed to American troops, and how they contributed greatly to the morale of the soldiers, offering them an escape from the war.  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of the books selected to be sent to the troops and, remarkably, would end up figuring in a story from D-Day.  Recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion, the anecdote involves his return to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, where he came across a fallen soldier, arm outstretched, and how just a few feet from the soldier’s hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That tiny footnote in history is the main reason I wanted Cornelia and Emily with me for this part of my journey.

Spotting the two ASEs in the display case, I didn’t register what the books’ titles were.  Just them being there meant so much to me – they certainly didn’t have to be copies of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Those books had been important to a couple of the young men who crossed that day.  I just prayed that the books’ owners weren’t beneath any of those headstones outside, but I feared that it was what the books’ presence signified.

Leaving the museum, I found outside that the day couldn’t have been more beautiful – sunshine with a light breeze and an occasional puff of a white cloud drifting across the sky.  But even its loveliness couldn’t ward off the heart-wrenching sadness of the cemetery filled with American soldiers.

Though I had steeled myself and braced for the hit, I wasn’t prepared for the scope of what I was seeing, and I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of my body. 

Containing the graves of over 9,000 soldiers, the cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.  Its gently curving hillside slopes so that you can’t see an end to the headstones which mark the resting places of the soldiers – the crosses and Stars of David seem to go on forever.  A painful forever.

It is worth noting that the grounds of the cemetery are captivatingly beautiful, and immaculate.  A place worthy of honoring these greatest of heroes.  For a time, I walked in and out of the rows upon rows of grave markers, stopping occasionally to read them.  There were boys from every state.  Some had been killed that very first day, June 6, 1944, while others had died days or weeks later from their injuries.

I felt compelled to walk the perimeter of the entire cemetery, around each of the four corners, in order to pay at least a passing visit to every grave.  In the far corner, away from any nearby visitors, I cried for the young men who had died and then remained so far from home.  I cried for their lost potential, and for the pain their families had to bear.

I thanked them for what they had done.  They had fought for the most noble cause in human history.  They stood up against the greatest, most far-reaching evil the world had ever seen, and they saved us.  I told them I was so sorry they had to do it.  And I said a prayer and a blessing for them to rest in peace.

And then I remembered the soldier who had died on Omaha Beach with the copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay next to his hand.  It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I suddenly understood that he was somewhere in the cemetery, under one of the headstones.  Now my visit had become personal, about one young man in particular who had lost his life on June 6, 1944.  I wished that I could have known which headstone was his, and who that young man was.  But, really, he was all of them.

The day was slipping away, and there was still Omaha Beach to visit.  I only wished that I had allowed more time, and could have visited everything there was to see in this area teeming with history.  I would just have to come back again.  I was glad to have that on my to-do list.

It was a short drive from the cemetery to the beach, and soon I was making the turn onto the “Rue de la 1st Division”.  When I arrived, there were still loads of people out enjoying a day at the seaside, in the water and relaxing on the beach.  I parked at the top of a hill near the memorial to the 1st Division, and then walked down to the obelisk honoring those heroes.  Stopping there, I said a prayer of thanks to those young men who truly, literally, stared into the guns, unflinching and unrelenting.  Near their memorial stand remains of Nazi bunkers, where German soldiers mowed down those Americans as they tried, and eventually managed, to advance.  Seeing those bunkers got my blood up, and I spit on one of them on my way down the hill to the beach.

As I took my last steps down the slope and started towards the water, I met up with a golden retriever who was wandering around some old bit of bunker sticking out of the sand.  I stopped and petted the sweet fellow, then walked a few feet on, where I waded into a shallow pool made by the low tide.

Looking out at the Channel, it didn’t take much effort to see the landing crafts, and the soldiers coming towards shore.  I could feel them around me, running past me in the sand, and almost hear their voices and the noise of the guns, almost smell the smoke. They are still there.  Those brave young men invested too much of their souls into this place to just dissolve into the past.  I asked myself, what must the soldiers think of all these people here now, who are so carefree and unaware of their enduring presence on this sacred ground?

But then it occurred to me that perhaps – just maybe – this is the best way to heal the wounds of the past.  We move forward in joy, in peace, and in hope, filling the beaches of D-Day with laughter again.  Picnics, flying kites, playing in the water, soaking up the sunshine.  Hopefully it brings those soldiers some comfort.  It is what they would have wanted for themselves and their families.  Perhaps in its way, it is a tribute to the soldiers’ sacrifice.

After a while, I turned and looked back across the beach to the hillside, deliberately choosing to keep myself in the present moment.  I couldn’t bring myself to envision the young men attempting to cross the beach, some of them losing their lives, with the smoke and gunfire all around.

That young man with the copy of Cornelia’s and Emily’s book had fallen somewhere here in the sand where I now stood.

Fighting to remain in July 14, 2017, I focused on the families enjoying the beach, happy and relaxed, basking in the beautiful day.  And I watched delightedly as my golden retriever buddy made the rounds, saying hello to everyone he encountered.

Before I left, I wrote “Thank you” in the sand.  I wanted to make sure that the soldiers knew, even by my one little gesture, that they were remembered.  And with that, I put on my shoes and climbed back up to the memorial, taking the same hill those brave young men had taken.  It was my very humble way of honoring their courageous efforts and their fight.

Though my experience on this day was a world apart from Cornelia’s and Emily’s July 14th, my Bastille Day had proved to be one of my favorite memories from the entire journey.  Just like their Bastille Day had been for the girls.  Funny how it all comes around to that marvelous, strange synergy.

And I was glad I had asked Cornelia and Emily to come along with me.  Though their travels and their book pre-date this watershed moment in history, they are tied to this place by the soldiers who read, and were hopefully cheered by, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Still, on this day, my focus wasn’t on the girls or their book, and I didn’t follow in their footsteps.

Instead, I walked in the footsteps of heroes.

 

Photos:

Above:  The grave of a “A Comrade in Arms known but to God”.

Below:

Top Row:  Along with their cigarettes and rations, soldiers carried ASEs to D-Day; fresh flowers of remembrance for a soldier on the seventy-third anniversary of his death.

Bottom Row:  A bright and beautiful boy enjoying the day; looking across what must’ve seemed like miles of open terrain.

The title for this post comes from photographer Seth Taras’ iconic ad campaign for The History Channel, “Know Where You Stand” (below is one of his images from Omaha Beach, otherwise known as Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)