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.  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 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), which hosts 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 tides that rolled in fast, should first make out a will, because there was no guarantee they would make it there 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.

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.  Despite 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 arrived at Mont St Michel, I took a few moments to remove my shoes and step 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.

All quite picturesque, but the hike was rather rough-going.  The incline itself is steep, and made none the more pleasant 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 Abbey.  My favorite bits were the brass sculptures which appear to be parts of an enormous mythical, eagle-like creature that lives within the Abbey – 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 there, 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 wheels in back, 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 that 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 it is those ancillary experiences that I recall first and foremost 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)

People Places Things

A Fishing Village With a Great Divide

July 13, 2017

Twenty miles west of Dieppe along France’s Normandy coastline is the town of St. Valery-en-Caux.  It is in this picturesque village that Cornelia and Emily spent numerous days honing their French skills, and filling their afternoons with bike rides through the countryside and swims in the sea.

It was with a lot of affection that they wrote of St. Valery and its people.  From their stay in Madame Corue’s charming and homey pension to their adventures with Therese, the daughter of the local wine merchant, it’s clear that Cornelia’s and Emily’s time here was one of the best parts of their entire summer.  Which made me eager for my own visit to the town, to see how much I could step into their world and share their memories.

I arrived in St. Valery-en-Caux on a cool, gloomy, drizzly day, but the weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  So after getting settled into my hotel in the Place du Marche (the market square), I hurried out to go exploring.

Cornelia and Emily don’t mention in the book specifically how long they stayed in St. Valery, but it was probably at least two to three weeks.  They wrote extensively about their time here, providing detailed descriptions of the town, so there was a lot for me to look for.  And I had given myself just three days to cover it all.

I began with a stroll around the bassin, or “inner harbor”.  Right in the thick of it all, the Henry IV house was there, exactly as Cornelia and Emily described.

“There was a 16th Century gem with leaded casements and ornately carved beams known as the Henri IV House, no one knew why, but it was a popular belief, or hope, rather, that the amorous monarch spent a night of love there.”

And then it was back around to the other side of the bassin for a stroll along the promenade, where the girls most likely went in for their swims.  I crossed my fingers that the weather would improve enough for me to swim at least once while I was in St. Valery.  It was a biggie on my checklist, but I would need a sunny day for it.  But it wasn’t looking good.

The next day was a repeat of my first – cold, gloomy, blustery, with the added attraction of choppy seas.  So I opted to climb up one of the hills to get pictures of paths that the girls had talked about:

“Rising on either side of St. Valery were great chalk cliffs, twins of the Dover ones… along the edge of these cliffs went winding paths, worn by the generations of lonely women who, of an evening, after their work was finished, would pace the high promontories, sometimes knitting a sock or crocheting a bit of lace, their eyes searching the horizon for the sight of a home-coming sail.”

The day before, I had noticed a set of stairs cut into one of the hillsides flanking the town, and now I set off to climb them.  Taking a different route through town to the stairs, I came upon something I hadn’t seen, or noticed, on my first day’s outing.

There, cut into the white cliff that the girls had written of, were the remains of a Nazi bunker. 

It was an ugly, concrete rectangular box, which would have served as a great vantage point for scouting and for firing weapons.  Suddenly I felt very much on my own.  The girls weren’t with me now.  Cornelia and Emily wouldn’t have ever laid eyes this atrocity.

It was in this moment that I first began to understand, and what would be made painfully clear in the days which followed, that the idyllic village which the girls had visited was not the place I was seeing today.

I felt as if a defining line had been drawn between their experience and mine:  the line of World War II.  And as the days went on, in spite of the nice moments I would have, and the charms which St. Valery offers today, that line would seem to widen into a chasm.

A bit unnerved, I made my way up the hill, stopping at the point along the steps which sat directly over that hideous bunker.  I was standing where Nazis had once stood.  It had happened before, in my past travels through Europe.  I knew that for a fact.  But this was the first time that it felt so personal.  The sensation of time and space blurring was not a welcome one now.  I took a few photos from that spot, but didn’t remain there long.

I made my way up to the top of the cliff, and found a winding dirt path that ran along its edge – well-worn as if it had been tread by those fishermen’s wives that the girls had written of.  Cornelia’s and Emily’s world did exist in this place.  At least some of it did.  I was just happy that this one lovely, poignant detail from the book was still intact.

Whatever miscalculations I might have made with Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey timeline, I was in no doubt that by Thursday, July 13th, they were in St. Valery.  As if to reward me for my efforts in bringing the girls back here exactly 95 years later, the heavens offered up a sunny day, just warm enough to go swimming.

I walked along the sea wall to where steps lead down to the shoreline.  The girls had prepared me for the rocky beach, but even their use of the word “agony” didn’t seem strong enough for the punishment my feet took as I made my way to the sea.

At first, the water was cold to the point one might call bracing, but soon it seemed to get better and was really quite pleasant.  I swam for about half an hour, and had wanted to stay in longer but the tide was coming in, pushing me most fervently back to shore.  I obliged its wishes, allowing the waves to deliver me to water’s edge.  Once again I traversed the brutal rocks, and made my way back up to the sea wall, where I sat soaking in the sunshine as the summer breeze dried me off.

There was still one major item left on my St. Valery checklist, the one I had been putting off.  Leaving my happy spot on the sea wall, I walked around to la Place de la Chapelle.  It had been important for me to find the church that Cornelia and Emily visited in 1922, and I was pretty certain it would have been situated in the “Chapel Square”.

Only that church didn’t exist anymore.

A late 20th century church now stands in la Place de la Chapelle and as soon as I entered, I knew I had the right building, or at least the right location.  This church, like the one the girls had visited, was dedicated to la Vierge Marie.  I found further confirmation of my hunch in the form of a large picture of the former church, displayed on the vestibule wall.  In the corner of that picture was the shrine to the Virgin Mary that the girls wrote about.

“… before her altar, a touching assortment of offerings, some dating from days past, some freshly recent… Some were in payment for a vow made when a ship had been nearly lost in a tempest, some waited there in prayer for those who had set forth gaily with the fishing fleet but had not returned.”

Knowing that I was standing where the girls had been, but not exactly, I became a bit weepy for what had been lost, and that chasm between our worlds.  I lit a candle for Madame Corue and Therese and all of the inhabitants of St. Valery who in 1940 would’ve had to witness a brutal battle for their town, then its surrender to General Rommel and enemy forces.

What had never occurred to me in my first hundred readings of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, was all too painfully apparent now:  At the time Cornelia and Emily would’ve been putting words to paper about the people of St. Valery, these dear souls would’ve been living under Nazi rule and undoubtedly enduring losses about which I could only speculate.

That connecting strand between the girls’ world and mine now felt twisted and strained as it stretched across the widening divide between our experiences.

Soon after, I returned to the sunshine.  The day was still bright and lovely, and as it was to be my last one here, I made the most of it, taking pictures of the shoreline at high and low tides, and of fishermen bringing in their catch, which they would then sell right there on the dock.

From there, I trekked over to other side of the harbor, and meandered through narrow cobblestone streets lined in ancient buildings which had been spared from the bombs that had taken down so much of the village.  As I made my way along a picturesque medieval street, I met a lovely older lady who spoke to me as I was taking photos.  I managed a brief conversation in French with her, asking about the age of her home and complimenting her on its beauty.  I couldn’t tell if she had made sense of anything I said, but she was very gracious nevertheless.

It was a happy note on which to end my days in St Valery, and I was awfully thankful to have it.  For tomorrow I would be heading to what was surely to be a profound and emotional experience:  the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery.

 

Photos:

Above:  A medieval street in St. Valery which was spared by the bombs.

Below, top row:  Fishing nets and lines rest along the bassin; white cliffs and a Nazi bunker on a sunny day; a well-worn path overlooking the sea.

Below, bottom row:  The rocky beach; a new church on an old foundation; a photo of the original church’s interior.

People Places

First Beguiled, Then Regaled

July 11, 2017

I pride myself on traveling light.

Anyone who has done the “backpack thing” in their travels, learns quickly to be a minimalist when it comes to packing.  My first time out, the rule amongst our study abroad group was, “Bring as much as you want, buy as much as you want, but you have to carry it.”

Which is worlds away from Cornelia’s and Emily’s sojourn.  By the time the girls arrived in Dieppe, France, they were each traveling with a steamer trunk, a large suitcase, at least one enormous hatbox, and various other smaller pieces of luggage too numerous to count.

What is most amazing to me about this is that they never seemed to give a thought to the idea of moving around with such a mountain of stuff.  Whereas for me, each new item, each new bit of weight added to the bag, gives me pause.  It’s all about being able to move as effortlessly as possible from place to place.  I can’t even begin to fathom traveling with a steamer trunk.

Now, after a month of being happily unpacked in London, it was time for France.  Time to start handling my luggage again.  I had managed to stash all of my belongings in one suitcase and one carry-on, but the bags had turned out to be heavier than I was expecting (after all, I was traveling with a number of books).  So, despite those wonderful quartets of wheels on the bottoms of my suitcases, I wasn’t looking forward to pulling them around for two weeks.

My travels with Cornelia and Emily were to begin with a trek through Normandy, before heading on to Paris — just as they had done in 1922.  And like the girls, my first stop was an overnight stay in Dieppe.  For Cornelia and Emily, Dieppe had merely been a layover, a place to bed down for a night before they traveled to the village of St. Valery-en-Caux the next day.

I’d come over on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, just as the girls had done.  In Newhaven, I’d met Anne and Alan, a lovely English couple who were meeting their daughter, Stacey, in Dieppe.  And I’d interfered in a spat involving a darling young woman and her sulky boyfriend (see previous post for all the scintillating details of the crossing).  Aside from those two brief encounters, this was to be nothing more than a day of logistics for me – making the train, making the boat, getting to my pension (hotel), confirming my rental car.  Tomorrow would be the day that my adventures in France would really start.

As I was bouncing my suitcases off the ferry and onto the dock in Dieppe, I couldn’t help but be in awe (and, truth be told, somewhat jealous) of Cornelia’s and Emily’s situation, living in their glamorous Golden Age of Travel, where every terminal and train station was teeming with porters who would swarm their luggage, whisking them off to the girls’ next stop.  Those lucky ladies never had to carry anything more than their handbags.

But then again, in Dieppe, it wasn’t so glamorous for Cornelia and Emily after all.  The girls got smooth-talked into letting a porter haul their luggage to their pension in what turned out to be, not a taxi, but an ox cart, while they walked along behind him.

“We, who had seen ourselves whipping through the city in a handsome equipage, found ourselves progressing on foot, and high heels, stumbling and lurching over the cobble stones behind a glorified wheelbarrow.  It was a much longer trek than our cicerone had led us to believe, and in the heat of the afternoon sun we became disheveled and exhausted.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

From what I had worked out from the book, the girls had stayed at one of the pensions on the long beachfront street, which I had seen from the deck of the ferry as we were coming into the harbor.  They hadn’t been kidding — it was a seriously long hike from the dock to their hotel, and I felt for them.  Especially in those heels.

For my one night in Dieppe, I had booked a room at the Chambres d’hote Atypik, which appeared to be quite a bit closer to the ferry landing than where the girls had stayed.  But on arrival at the dock – just as Emily and Cornelia had discovered – I learned that my pension was actually a greater distance than it seemed.  Which was no great crisis, except that there were no taxis waiting to meet the boat.  Perhaps because there simply weren’t many passengers who came over sans car, no cab driver bothered to cruise the dock.  And there was no Uber in Dieppe.

There wasn’t even the option of the ox cart like the girls had.

Well, I told myself, the girls had arrived at their pension on foot, so it only makes sense that this is what is happening for me right now.  Synchronicity.  Instead of attempting to locate the phone number of a taxi service, then order one, which would involve me having to speak French, I would just hoof it to my pension.  It would be a bit of a hike, but it was certainly walkable.  And after all, I had just the two pieces of luggage, which were on wheels.  And I was wearing flats.

With that, I summoned up some fortitude and started across the parking lot.  I hadn’t gone more than a few feet when I heard Anne and Alan call to me.  They had met up with daughter Stacey, and were just getting into her car.  They offered me a lift which, after one feeble attempt at declining their offer, I accepted most gratefully.  “Sorry, Cornelia and Emily,” I thought to myself, “but forget synchronicity.  I’m not going to walk to the pension if I don’t have to.”

Immediately, as I had with her parents, I liked Stacey, and her dog Luna, too, who rode in the front seat with Stacey and Alan.  Stacey punched in the address I had for my pension, and within a few minutes, they were dropping me off at number 3 rue cite de limes.  I thanked them heartily and we joked that maybe we might run into each other in town.

As they drove off, I turned and, ringing the doorbell, braced myself:  no avoiding it now — it was time to start speaking French.

Laurent, one of the proprietors of the pension, answered the door, and was as warm and kind as anyone could hope for.  Inside, he introduced me to his wife and co-owner, Isabell, who was equally lovely and gracious, especially about my abysmal French.  Laurent gave me a quick tour, and then showed me to my room.  I was enchanted — the pension exceeded its photographs and was as charming and welcoming as its owners.

My room was large and comfortable, with a cozy, shabby chic vibe, and an enormous soaking tub in one end of the room.  I was already wishing I could stay for longer than one night.

After I got cleaned up a bit, I headed into town, and hadn’t been walking for ten minutes before I ran into Anne, Alan, Stacey and Luna.  We had a good chuckle about it, then ended up spending the rest of the day and evening together.

The sun had come out and it was warm and lovely.  We sat at an outdoor café and had a couple of drinks, over which I got to know Stacey as well as her parents.  Stacey was a few years younger than me, a powerhouse fitness instructor living in Paris with her French husband and her kids, and she was an absolute riot.  Everything she said was zany and funny, and she was full of energy.  Her parents were an equal match for her marvelous sense of humor, and we all laughed uproariously there at the café for a good two hours.

As the afternoon turned into evening, we took Luna for a walk by the beach, along the crescent of hotels where Cornelia and Emily had stayed (I had told my new friends all about my travels with the girls — thankfully, they hadn’t been put off by this).  We then ambled past the Cathedral and into some of those magical, winding cobblestone streets.  After a while, we stopped for dinner at a seafood restaurant close to where we’d earlier had drinks.  We dined on different flavors of marvelously fresh mussels and wine, and once again we laughed so much it made my sides hurt.  It was superb.

After dinner, I bid farewell to my friends, and made it back to my beguiling pension feeling energized and excited for whatever adventures might lie ahead.  In my cozy room, I wrote in my journal about my travel day to France and about how it had been unexpectedly brilliant.  I’d had the good fortune of falling in with three wonderfully witty people, who had turned a necessary layover into a real occasion.

You just never know how a day will go.

 

Photos:

Above:  That dollop of pure bliss, the gorgeous tub in my room at the pension.

Below:  The breakfast room of the pension, featuring Isabell’s homemade marmalade, and where tea is served the French way – in a bowl; the boat-filled harbor, framed by a blue bridge and a blue sky; one of Dieppe’s graceful churches basks in the sunset atop its white cliff.

People Places

Crossing the English Channel, Not Without Incident

July 10, 2017

Somewhere around July 10th, just after Cornelia and Emily visited Mr. Wells’ house, they left for France.  Which meant it was time for me to pack my bags, leave my lovely London flat, and catch the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, just as the girls had done 95 years before.

The first half of my journey with the girls was over.  It had gotten here way too fast.

On the morning of the crossing, I took a train that put me in Newhaven at 7:10am, and sitting in the waiting room to board the 9am ferry by 7:20am, along with about a dozen others.  It seemed that the staff had no imminent plans to let us on the ferry, so I went into the café to order some breakfast.  It was too early to manage anything substantial, so I opted for tea and wheat toast.  A very nice woman named Anne who had been looking at the menu alongside me ordered the same thing, and we chatted for a bit about our travels.  She and her husband, Alan, were going over to look for a second home in the Normandy countryside.  In Dieppe, they were to meet their daughter, who was driving up from her home in Paris.  I told her about my book project, and she was very kind, and interested in my journey.

When our food arrived, we moved to separate tables which weren’t very close together.  A moment later her husband joined her at her table, and I heard her telling him about me, explaining that I was a writer.  It took me quite by surprise to hear myself referred to in this way.

Up until then, whenever I had spoken to anyone about what I was doing, it was always in almost apologetic terms, that this was my first attempt at writing a book, it was a new thing for me, I was giving it a try, etc.  But Anne had only heard, within all of my spluttering, that I was a writer.  That is how she saw me, defined me.  To her, I was a writer.  It was a lovely, unexpected gift which I hadn’t known I needed.

After I finished eating, I went back out to the waiting room and sat down in one of the long rows of seats.  Directly behind me was an attractive young woman with a darling manner and funky style, sitting with her boyfriend who could have come from Central Casting, if anyone had been looking for a nerdy, intellectual type with long scraggly hair whose clothes suggested he had just rolled out of bed wearing them.  He was intermittently griping about having to sit around for so long, and was blaming his girlfriend for his present predicament.  I could hear her quietly trying to reason with him, and I considered interjecting into the conversation that we were all here way too early thanks to the ferry company’s boarding requirements, but this was England, and I didn’t want to be the pushy American butt-insky.  So I kept quiet and listened to him snipe at her until he finally stomped off, stating that he wasn’t going, and she was left sitting there, fighting back tears.

Shortly after he disappeared, a staff member called us all to get on the bus which would shuttle us to the ferry.  The young woman remained seated as the rest of us went out to the bus.  Once aboard the shuttle, I sat down and watched for her, growing angrier every moment at that stupid guy, if she had decided because of him not to go.  Almost at the very end, the sniveling boyfriend appeared and headed towards the back of the bus.  A few passengers later, she got on and, in what I considered to be an act of providence, sat down next to me.

Not for nothing had I been raised by strong-minded women and attended a strong-minded women’s college.  The idea that a moody, mopey guy could spoil a woman’s travels was a personal affront to me, and I wasn’t going to let that boob in the back of the bus get away with his behavior.

I forced conversation on her, and after a minute or two of polite chit-chat, in which I learned her name was Katie and this was supposed to be a fun, quick (omitting the word “romantic”) getaway, I dove right in.

“I’m sorry to be so forward, and if I’m making you uncomfortable, but we’ve all been there with the pouty boyfriends.  And right now you need a girlfriend to have your back about the situation with that guy of yours.  I overheard everything in the waiting room.  He was so off-base, and I’m glad that you didn’t let his childish behavior stop you from going on your trip.”

Without giving Katie the chance to protest my interference, I continued, “But I’m telling you now, that if he says one more word of complaint at any time – about anything – for the rest of your trip, you need to just leave him where he is.  Ditch him right there where he’s standing.  He shouldn’t get to spoil your fun.”

This made her laugh a bit.  I said, “I’m not kidding.  If your girlfriends were here right now, they would be saying exactly the same thing to you.”  She agreed, and told me that she was still bothered by him, but that she was going to enjoy her time away.  This was supposed to be a happy thing for her, and she was going to make sure it was.

About this time, we got to the ferry and went our separate ways once on board.  I figured she had met up with the whiny boyfriend and he was still being enough of a douchebag to upset her, because a while later, as we were leaving the port in Newhaven, I saw her standing alone on the top deck, looking wistful and rather sad.  But I didn’t attempt to approach her again.

I, too, was having my own issues as the boat pulled away from the shoreline.  I was struck by the sadness of leaving a country which was a home to me.  It was that same feeling I got every time I was at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, stepping on a plane bound for another country.

But it was more than that now.  I looked out at the chalk cliffs we were leaving behind, and knew that the next time I set foot on English soil, my journey would be over.  The girls’ story finishes in Paris, so at the end of July, when I stepped onto the Eurostar train at the Gare du Nord, I would be declaring an end to my travels with Cornelia and Emily.  They were not only my old friends at this point, but my close friends.  My traveling companions.  And, as I was quite certain that I would never replicate this journey, I knew that we would never again travel together.

The weather had grown cold the night before, and it became increasingly gloomy as we headed out across the channel, so I went inside and did some refresher reading on the Dieppe portion of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  It had been a much prettier day when Cornelia and Emily sailed.  They wrote,

“Dieppe, with its church towers, its snug, deep harbor, the line of summer hotels bordering the wide plage (beach), and the 15th Century chateau crowning its white cliff, is a charming port of entry into France.  It all looked just as it should…” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

It took four hours to cross from Newhaven to Dieppe.  Aside from running into Anne from the café in Newhaven, and chatting some more with her and her husband Allen, there was nothing terribly exciting about the trip.  There seemed to be a lot of families on board, who were headed over for a few weeks of holiday.  They already looked worn out.  Nowhere on the boat did I encounter anyone who was teeming with enthusiasm about their upcoming plans.

When we got close to port, I went out on deck to look for Cornelia’s and Emily’s Dieppe.  Happily, it was there.  One of the first things I saw was a church atop one of the cliffs, its tower rising proudly above the town below.  I saw the wide “plage” and the crescent of hotels which lined it.  And there, crowning the white cliff was the chateau, somewhat obscured by newer buildings which had sprouted up around it, but still proud.

It all looked just as it should.

I also saw Katie, standing at the rail, this time with her boyfriend, his arms wrapped lovingly around her.  She looked a lot happier than she had been.  She noticed me looking at them and smiled up to me.  I gave her a thumbs-up sign with a questioning face and she nodded.  Her boyfriend saw the exchange between us, and if she hadn’t mentioned our conversation to him before, then she was probably about to enlighten him now.  Because a bit later, when we were getting off the ferry, he very graciously smiled as he let me off in front of him.  I gave him a wan smile in return, just to make sure he knew I had his number, and that I was personally rooting for his girlfriend to leave him by the side of the road the first chance she got.

Next up: Arriving in Dieppe, and my first night on French soil.

 

Photos:

Above:  The white cliffs of the English coastline slip away.

Below, top row:  Cornelia and Emily, beginning to show some wear, arrive in Dieppe; a lovely young woman is wistful and sad over her barnacle of a boyfriend.

Bottom row:  The beach and chateau at Dieppe; a vintage poster, just to add a bit of color.

People Places

In the Company of Friends Old and New

July 8, 2017

Definitely one of the highlights of my summer with Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough was the day I went to Easton Glebe, the one-time home of H.G. Wells.  You might recall from an earlier post regarding Margaret Sanger’s papers, I briefly mentioned that the girls had gone to Mr. Wells’ house for lunch one day – a heady and (not surprisingly) embarrassing experience for them, as it turns out.

“Father had met H.G. Wells in Switzerland a year or two before the war… My pride in my parent increased considerably when [H.G.Wells] wrote inviting us all to spend Sunday at his country place.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

In 1922, the year of the girls’ trip, H.G. Wells and his family were living at Easton Glebe, a graceful Georgian home on the Easton Lodge estate, which belonged to Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick.  This home would be the setting for his novel, Mr. Britling Sees it Through, and Emily would later recall in her writings that when she stepped from the house onto the terrace and walked through the garden, she felt as if she were walking through the novel.

The girls’ day at Mr. Wells’ house is one of my favorite parts of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and I wanted to get as close to their experience as possible (minus the humiliations they both suffered while they were there).

In the spring, I had learned that in 1950 the Easton Lodge estate had been broken up into pieces, and that the Countess of Warwick’s great manor house had been almost completely torn down (strangely, one wing of the house had been left standing, and had been converted into a home of its own).  But blessedly, Mr. Wells’ Easton Glebe still stood.

Going on the premise that it never hurts to ask, I wrote to the current owners of Easton Glebe, explaining my project and asking if I might imposition them with a visit to the house.  Quite quickly, I received a very kind reply from Vincent, inviting me to come for lunch one day when I was in England, and he and his wife Diana would be happy to show me around.  I was over the moon!

I had the exact day in mind for my visit:  Sunday, July 9th.  The obsessed, geeky part of my brain had pretty much worked out that this would have been the day the girls went to Mr. Wells’ home 95 years ago, given the “clues” they offer in the book regarding their timeline (and thanks to the calendars from 1922 and 2017 matching exactly, the 9th of July fell on Sunday in both years – how is that for synchronicity?).

Unfortunately, Vincent and Diana already had plans for that day, but were happy to host me on Saturday, July 8th.  So exactly 95 years (minus one day) after Cornelia and Emily visited Easton Glebe, I was arriving in that same driveway, pulling up to the lovely Georgian house that H.G. Wells could recognize today as the one he’d lived in.

It was all a mirror image of the afternoon 95 years ago which Cornelia and Emily described – the beautiful, sunny day, the ride through the enchanting countryside, turning in at the gate marking the entrance to the house.

Sometimes life is perfect.

Vincent and Diana were warm and welcoming, and immediately put me at ease.  I presented my hosts with a first edition copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, along with a bottle of wine, and a framed copy of that photo from Margaret Sanger’s collection, of her standing between Otis Skinner and H.G. Wells.  Diana offered me something to drink, then took me on a tour of the house before we sat down for lunch.

Passing through the rooms which Cornelia and Emily had written about made my blood rush – this was the closest by far I would get to the girls, as well as Otis and Maud Skinner.  I did my best to stay in the present, to make conversation, and cover the profound reaction I was having, but I felt as if I was as much in the room with H.G. Wells and Margaret Sanger and my girls as I was with Diana.  I didn’t dare try to explain this to my hostess – certainly there was no need to have Diana worry that she had invited a crazy person into her home.

After she had shown me the house, we stepped out onto the terrace Emily had mentioned, and Diana pointed out the building which had once been the barn.  This is where the girls had played “the Wells game” (a version of volleyball), and Cornelia had inadvertently smashed the ball into the face of the Great Educationalist,

“…who was on my own side and no further from me than a couple of feet.  It was the only time during the course of the day his face changed expression… I was too horrified at what I’d done even to apologize.  After going over his face with his fingers and making certain his features were still there, the eminent worthy changed places with the person furthest from me, and the game continued…”  – Cornelia Otis Skinner

That’s the sort of embarrassment one doesn’t forget.

When the estate was divided up, the barn had been separated from the Easton Glebe property and was made into a home.  A wall with a gate divided the two properties, and peeking through the wrought iron, I could just make out the fountain area and steps where Cornelia and Emily had been photographed in 1922.

We then had lunch in the same dining room where Emily had gotten her turn at being utterly humiliated.  As she had stood to leave after their lunch that day, Emily somehow had become ensnared in a servant’s bell cord which was attached underneath the table, ripping it loose from its mounting.  To her bewilderment, the cord wrapped around Emily’s leg, and Mr. Wells had to crawl under the table and untangle it from her.  The rest of the party had sat in silent mortification, all except Cornelia, who had smothered her face in one of the curtains to silence her peals of laughter.

As Diana, Vincent and I enjoyed our lunch, I once again attempted to splutter out my gratitude for my hosts’ unbelievable kindness and hospitality, in letting a virtual stranger barge into their home.  Vincent and Diana explained that they’ve had a number of Wells enthusiasts come to the house over the years, including the H.G. Wells Society, and I told them about enlisting the society’s help in my attempt to solve the mystery of the Great Educationalist.

We dined on coronation chicken and salad made from Diana’s garden, followed by strawberries and cream – again, fresh from the garden.  Delicious, and all so marvelously, quintessentially English.  It was simply sublime.

After lunch, we sat in the sunshine on the terrace for a little while, where Diana worked out that the photo of Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells was taken in front of the doors to Mr. Wells’ study.  She was intrigued that in the photograph, there appeared to be a pergola that had framed the study doors, which was no longer there.  She and Vincent felt that this was a very smart idea, as the study faced west, and that room often became intolerably hot in the afternoon.  They seemed most pleased with the idea that they would put in a pergola like the one which had been there before.  This gave me a good deal of satisfaction – after all of their kindness towards me, I was able in return to give them a bit of practical history that could prove useful to them.  It was a drop in the bucket compared to what my wonderful new friends had given me on that lovely Saturday afternoon, but at least it was something.

Below, top row:  Arriving at the house; the elegant Georgian dining room; new friends Vincent and Diana.

Bottom row:  Mr. Wells at play; the best photo I could get of the barn, with Siggy, one of my two canine hostesses; above, the doors to the study, where the pergola once stood and below, Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells.

People Places

Winchester and the Evolution of the English Gentleman

July 4, 2017

A Regency gentlemen’s suit, from the Victoria & Albert collection.

You just never know how a day will turn out.

There were multiple reasons for me to visit Winchester, England, and for me to be excited about it.  The first was that it was where Otis Skinner had taken Emily Kimbrough one day while they were staying in Southampton, waiting for Otis’ daughter Cornelia to recover from the measles.

The second reason was that it would give me the chance to revisit Winchester Cathedral (not to be confused with the similar sounding Westminster Abbey in London).  It had been more than a quarter century ago that I was here, working as general backstage crew on a production of a play written by Francis Warner, the Oxford University professor who ran my study abroad program.  His plays are really more like works of poetry, whose lyrical beauty I didn’t fully appreciate in my 20s, when I was here with that production of “Byzantium”, the story of the emperor Constantine.

But the main reason I was eager to visit Winchester was that, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there was a big exhibition happening at their Discovery Center, which included a couple of her handwritten letters, some rarely seen portraits of Austen, and a silk pelisse (a Regency-era overcoat sort of garment) believed to have been worn by her.  In anticipation of my visit, I had stayed up the night before to finish streaming the last episodes of the 1995 miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice”.  In Winchester, I would be able to peek at Jane Austen’s personal things, then offer remembrance and a word of thanks at her grave in the Cathedral, all hot on the heels of my evening with her Mr. Darcy.

It was a lovely morning with Jane Austen at the Winchester Discovery Center.  I pored over every item in the exhibit, from the astonishingly small coin purse she had made for herself, to the movie posters from the myriad film productions of her works.  But what meant the most to me was reading her letters.  The writer of all those enchanting novels was herself fearless and unapologetic for who she was and what she was doing.  If Austen ever had self-doubt, she didn’t record it anywhere.  She is my hero.

After the exhibit, I headed to the Cathedral.  As I was walking through its gardens, a tall, nice-looking guy in his 30s came up and spoke to me.  I had noticed him earlier when we crossed paths on the High Street.  He introduced himself (let’s call him James), and asked if we could go somewhere for coffee.  It was flattering that this young man was interested in me, but I tend to shy away from situations in which I might get labeled a “cougar”.  So I declined, but thanked him for the sweet invitation.  He then asked if we could at least just sit in the garden and talk for a bit.  That I could do.

James and I found an unoccupied bench, where we sat and talked about his job, and about my book project, and I gave him my website info.  He was like so many of the young men I remember from my years living in England – just very polite and very charming.

That is something that young Englishmen have always had over young American men:  they really, really know how to romance women.  They go about it in such a gentlemanly way.  And yes, most of the time, it’s just a line.  But it’s a very good line.

We had been chatting for maybe ten minutes when he leaned in and kissed me.  It was sweet, and it was lovely.  Then he kept on kissing me.  Part of me thought that I probably shouldn’t let this continue.  But the other part of me could only think of how this would make a good story for my book.  Utterly mercenary, yes, I know.

He was cute, he was charming and this was nice, so I let it go on for a bit.  But then when James suggested we go somewhere a little more private, I was done, and told him that I really needed to get in and tour that Cathedral.  He asked if he could see me again.  I told him that I was leaving for France in just a few days, and James said he would keep in touch with me, with the hope that we could meet up again before I returned to the States.  We said our goodbyes, and I walked away feeling more pleased than not about the encounter.

Back to Jane Austen.  Inside the magnificent, towering Gothic walls of Winchester Cathedral, I took my time visiting dear Jane’s grave marker.  For decades, I have laughed and cried and taken comfort in this remarkable writer’s words. I never tire of hearing her voice.  She is my role model as a writer and as a woman.  There at her grave, I thanked her for everything she has given me.  Which is a lot.

As I wandered in and out of the transepts and back down the nave, studying the Cathedral’s breathtaking architecture, I thought back with great fondness to the people and that play all those years ago.  I could picture it so clearly, and it was wonderful to bring those memories to life again.  But all too soon, it was time to get back to London.

After an obligatory stop at the Cathedral gift shop, I headed back to the train station, but not before picking up some scampi and chips, soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in newsprint, from the local chippy.  It was the first one I’d come across since arriving in England.  In a land of smoothie bars, fast fusions, and generally healthy eats, this beautiful, traditional fish and chips shop may be one of the last remaining holdouts.  I salute them.

Back in London, I arrived at my flat in Chelsea to find that I had received a lovely email from young James, telling me how pleased he was to have met me.  Darling.

But then there was the postscript.  He explained that he had taken a naughty picture of himself to show me just exactly how excited he was about it, but that he was too much of a gentleman to send the photo without asking me first.

Excuse me?

Strangely, it wasn’t so much the thought of receiving my first unsolicited dick pic that bothered me as much as it was the “gentleman” reference.  Is this what distinguishes a gentleman these days, that he asks first before sending a nude selfie?!

With that, my Jane Austen day evaporated into mist.  And poor Mr. Darcy. The quintessential English gentleman had just been run through with a sword.

But I refuse to let them go without a fight.

So as a public service announcement, I am saying to all young men everywhere – well, men of all ages, for that matter – exactly what I told James in my very clearly-worded reply that day:

No, thank you.

Actually, forget the “thank you” part – it should just be, “no”.  NO.  Believe me.  Trust in the truth and accuracy of what I am saying to you now.  Because I cannot emphasize strongly enough that no woman ever, ever, ever wants to receive a picture of your penis.  Not a single one of us.

If you choose to ignore my words, as James eventually did (a story for another time), you proceed at your own peril.  After all, the ether of the internet is forever.

 

Top row:  Delighting in every detail of the Jane Austen exhibit; the lady herself, whom I hopefully didn’t cause to spin in her grave.

Bottom row: Awesome in the truest sense of the word, Winchester Cathedral; scampi and chips for the train ride home.

Places Things

The Eternal Embarrassment of Safety Pockets

July 1, 2017

The Victoria & Albert Museum.

An incident which I consider to be one of the funniest in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay involves an item known as a “safety-pocket”.  A forerunner to today’s money belts, this Victorian accessory served the same purpose for female travelers in the late 19th century, safeguarding their passports, money and important papers.

At the very beginning of the Our Hearts, Cornelia explains that her mother has coerced her into wearing one for her journey abroad, describing it as, “a large chamois purse that dangled at the knees in the manner of a sporran and was attached… to an adjustable belt around the waist.  It was worn, supposedly inconspicuously, under skirt and slip…”

But Cornelia’s slinky, skin-tight 1920s wardrobe is no match for this bulky object, which not only protrudes from the outline of her dresses, but also tends to swing out of control at the slightest movement.  Her only consolation comes when she discovers that Emily has been forced by her mother to wear a safety-pocket as well.  There is a darling illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay of the girls showing each other those dreadful appendages that have been fastened onto them by their mothers.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for these items to become a terrible embarrassment to the girls.  It happens when they try to make the best of the fact that the ship they’re traveling on to Europe is stuck on a sandbar and listing to one side.  They attempt to dance on a slippery, tilted floor with some nice young men whom they had met earlier in the day.  Cornelia explains:

“Gradually I became aware that something soft and strange was bumping against my knees… [My partner] began glancing downward uneasily and I realized that something was, in all probability, hitting him too.  Then, with a wave of horror, it dawned upon me what was happening.  That mortifying safety-pocket of mine had got swaying and was rhythmically and indiscriminately thudding first against my limbs then against those of the mystified young man.”

At that same moment, Cornelia sees Emily, her face beet red, walk off the dance floor with her partner.  Clearly the same thing has just happened to her.  That pretty much spells the end of the safety-pockets.

On my first sojourn abroad, my mother sent me off with a 20th century version of the safety-pocket, which was a pouch suspended by a cord worn around my neck, that hung down to my waist.  So instead of flapping beneath my skirt (as if I was wearing skirts as I backpacked through Europe!), my pouch bounced beneath my shirts and tended to give me the appearance of being roughly five months pregnant.  The next time I traveled, I went with the much-derided fanny pack, which strangely enough has suddenly made a (presumably short-lived) comeback in the fashion world.

I decided early on in this project that I wanted to make the safety-pocket one of the subjects for a blog post.  Riveting, I know.  Hey, they can’t all be tabloid-salacious.  But don’t worry, there’s one of those coming.

Safety pockets.  Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to locate a photo of anything that resembled the illustration in Our Hearts.  But in my research, I had come across references to early women’s pockets in some books and articles from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Collection, which sounded similar to Cornelia’s description of their safety-pockets.  And yes, there are whole books written about the evolution of pockets.  Makes my post seem electrifying in comparison, doesn’t it?

Armed with these bits of information, I headed over to the sublime V&A Museum.  It was buzzing with large crowds who were there to take in the Pink Floyd exhibition and/or view a collection of over one hundred garments from designer Balenciaga – just two of many focus-pulling attractions the V&A had on offer.  My plan was to knock out the safety-pocket question first, then spend some time looking at the pretty fashions before having tea in the Gamble Room.  It was going to be the most lovely, girly, prissy day.

I went to the general information desk to ask one of the nice ladies behind the counter where I should inquire about an item in the textile and fashion archives.  She asked for specifics, and I explained that I was doing research on a safety-pocket, and stated ever-so-helpfully, “It’s sort of a 19th century version of a fanny pack.”  The woman blinked a bit at what I said and then hastily pointed me in the direction of the textiles hall, saying, “they might be able to help you better”, while another woman passing nearby with a group of school kids in tow looked at me somewhat disapprovingly.

There wasn’t any sort of research desk in the textiles and fashion area, so I stepped up to the reception counter where a couple of staff members were collecting tickets from a steady stream of visitors to the Balenciaga collection.  The young woman noticed me and moved over to help.  Once again, I explained what I was looking for, again making the fanny pack reference.  She hesitated, then got the young man’s attention and she took tickets while he helped me.  For the third time I went through my spiel, at which the young man drew in his breath before breaking into a wry smile.  In a flash, it hit me why everyone seemed so perplexed and a bit put off about helping me, and I was mortified.

Had it really been so long since I lived here that I could have forgotten about the word fanny?  How that gentle American word for backside, as innocuous as “tushy” or “derriere”, to the English, is a vulgar slang term for lady parts.  Though not as bad as the c-word, it’s still quite crass, pretty much on par with the kitty-cat word.

I had just been a potty-mouth in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I had basically been telling everyone I encountered that I was looking for a “pussy pack”.  On realizing this, I apologized profusely to the two people at the counter and then explained again, using the proper English term “bum bag”.  At this, they suggested I speak with one of the curators, who didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, and then gave me the names of a couple of books they had on display which might contain what I was looking for.

I checked out the two books, but couldn’t find any photos which resembled the illustration in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”.  Still stinging a bit from embarrassment, I decided not to seek out a curator, and gave up the search.  I even skipped on tea in the Gamble Room.  I wasn’t feeling very prissy anymore.

Cornelia and Emily had been humiliated by safety-pockets, so in keeping in sync with their journey, I suppose it’s only fitting that I should be humiliated by them as well.  There seems to be no end to the trouble those silly things can cause.

Top Row:  Cornelia and Emily expose their shameful secret in an illustration by Alajalov; my vintage, sweat-stained travel pouches.

Bottom Row:  The closest thing I ever found to a photo of a safety-pocket; the Gamble Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I didn’t have tea.

People Places Things

The Day Saw Advances, None Miraculous: Spelunking in the National Archives

June 30, 2017

I’ll get right to it.  I am almost OCD in my drive to explain every pop culture reference (of which there are hundreds) and solve every puzzle within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  During my time in England, this zeal led me to making an appointment at the British National Archives at Kew, where I hoped to cross off a number of items from my laundry list of questions.

Kew is best-known for having some of the finest gardens in all of the UK… but there’s no time to discuss that here.

After arriving at the Archives on the day of my appointment, and following the check-in protocol (which involved stashing everything but my phone, notepad and a pencil in a locker, then placing those remaining items in a see-through bag and passing through a check point where it was all inspected by a guard), I found the research cubby assigned to me, which was supposed to contain all of the materials I had requested.

The only item in the cubby was a book written in the early 1900s about the mail route that ran through southern England.  I had hoped that it might be a starting point for enlightening me on who was at the reins the day the Skinners and Emily rode on top of an old mail coach to Hampton Court.  All that I had to go on was that the man looked like Rudyard Kipling, and was a member of the British peerage.  But the book offered no information about the Royal Mail route to Hampton Court, or the four-in-hand club members who drove the coaches.  It was a bust.  Not a promising start to the day.

The other items I had requested, a staff member informed me, would have to be viewed inside a special room with stricter access.  Wow, classified info!  It would take twenty minutes or so for someone to bring the materials to the room.

I used that time to access a record that I had learned of in earlier research, which would verify the exact dates of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.  It was a crisp photo image of a page from an immigration log book, with a header showing that the “Empress of France” had docked in Southampton on June 21, 1922.  Below this header, the list of the ship’s passengers included the names Emily Kimbrough, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White.

It was a victory tinged with defeat.  I was thrilled to have proof that I had worked out the correct year of the girls’ journey, but this information simultaneously deepened another mystery for me.

It had started with that photo in Margaret Sanger’s papers of the girls with The Great Educationalist in the garden of H.G. Wells’ house.  As far as I could tell, Cornelia and Emily went the rest of their lives never knowing the identity of that man.  I wanted to crack this case, and had enlisted the help of the H.G. Wells Society in my investigation.

I sent them all of the information I had, along with a copy of the Sanger photo.  Within a week, they had gotten back to me with a name:  F.W. Sanderson.  He had been a longtime headmaster at the Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and Mr. Wells had thought so highly of the man that he had written a book about him, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster was certainly an educationalist, and a portrait of Sanderson which I located seemed to resemble the small, blurry image of the man in the photograph.  Jackpot!  It simply had to be him.

There was just one problem.  F. W. Sanderson died six days before Cornelia and Emily arrived in England.  I wish I was kidding.  Six days!

It seems that on the evening of June 15th, 1922, F.W. Sanderson had just delivered an address to the National Union of Scientific Workers at University College, London.  Suddenly, right there at the podium, he dropped dead of a heart attack just as – does this surprise you? – H.G. Wells, who was moderating the event, asked him his first question.

Just for good measure, while I had access to the periodical records, I pulled up Sanderson’s obituary, and then some:  all of the London newspapers had carried the story of his shocking, unexpected death.

For weeks I had clung to a crazy, desperate hope that one of those two dates had been recorded wrong, but there was no mistake, and no question about it now.  F. W. Sanderson couldn’t have been the man Cornelia and Emily met.

Unfortunately, he had been the one and only name proposed by the experts who know H.G. Wells the best.  There were no other viable candidates.  If H.G. Wells scholars couldn’t sort out this mystery, then there was no chance I would.

For a good while, I was disheartened by the fact that I would never know the identity of The Great Educationalist.  Truth be told, I’m still a bit bummed about it.  But then again, Cornelia and Emily never knew the answer, so it’s only right that I shouldn’t either.  It’s in keeping with the symmetry between their journey and mine.

After the partial win with the immigration record, I was ready to enter the inner sanctum of the special reading room, and hopefully locate the source of a seemingly unlikely story.

A staff member let me into the small, locked room where a few others were inspecting photos, ancient-looking papers, and other bits of history.  I sat down to a set of large log books labeled “Secret” and “Most Secret”, which contained the correspondence of a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper to his superiors in the British intelligence office during World War II.

This was follow-up research to the visit I had made a few weeks earlier to Bletchley Park, where Hugh Trevor-Roper had been stationed for part of the war.  I had been searching there for the origin of an odd reference I had come across on Wikipedia, claiming that Mr. Trevor-Roper had discovered that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used by the Nazis as a codebook for their Enigma machine.

Say what?

In the Spring, I had contacted the editor of the digest cited as the source of the reference, and he had referred me to a college history professor who was the author of the article itself.  I got in touch with the professor, who couldn’t recall, let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information.  All we could conclude was that the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book (which the professor had never heard of).  It was highly implausible that the professor could have invented the story himself, given that it included the title of a book he didn’t know existed.

This proved nothing, though.  And I wanted to be certain of the truth.  The answer, the proof, had to be somewhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers.   So I scoured the top secret logbooks, but came up empty-handed.

How could that professor have stumbled upon a discovery which I, who had spent months actively looking for that same information, couldn’t locate?  It was wildly frustrating.

But I came away from those logbooks feeling more unsettled by something that I hadn’t known to prepare myself for:  my first experience reading about World War II in the present tense.

It caught me completely off guard.  I felt like I’d been sucker-punched as I read Hugh’s missives about upcoming Nazi military campaigns which, he noted, were being financed with assets stolen from the Jewish community, while they themselves were presently being rounded up and sent to work camps.  Presently?  Work camps?  A passing reference to an unspeakable horror.  And it was happening right there, in that moment as those words were being typed onto the page.

There were notes on spy operations involving Agents ZigZag and Snow, two names I knew from the history books.  But here in these pages, those men were alive, moving in and out of intelligence reports which were tracking their current movements.

Page after page, there were details of events that I had only ever studied in the past tense, with the reassuring knowledge that the Allies had triumphed in the end.  But within these logbooks, those uncertain, frightening days in 1943 were happening in the here and now.  Once again, I found that the edges of time and space were blurring, but this time it was not a welcome experience.

It had been a roller coaster of a day, my first foray into serious research.  I was wrung out by the time I left Kew, thankful to have the strain on my brain over and done with.  It was time to get back to the spirit of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, to the lighthearted pleasure of traveling and seeing the sights with the girls.  Which I would definitely do.  There was just one more thing I needed to check first…

In my next post, I make an ass of myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

(Fans of the TV series “Deadwood” might recognize the title of this post as a line spoken by the infamous Al Swearingen, owner of The Gem Saloon.)

Top Row:  My work table in the National Archives; illustration of a mail coach, the only useful bit I found in the entire book.

Bottom Row:  Passenger list from “The Empress of France”; a book of reports written by Hugh Trevor-Roper.