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One Last Pin in the Map

August 12, 2017

New York City at sunrise, from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

It was over.  All of it.  The starting trek across the US.  The weeks of research in New England, filled with Cornelia’s and Emily’s “rapturous plans and lyric anticipation”.  The quick visit to Canada for the “false start” part of the story.  Sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2.  The month in London, followed by the fortnight in France.  And then the last hurrah on the QM2.  It was quickly becoming my past.  My three and a half months of traveling with the girls – my dear friends at this point –  was at an end.  Saturday, August 12, 2017 had arrived and my enchanted summer came to a close as the QM2 pulled dockside in Brooklyn.

On September 9th, less than a month after we arrived in New York, The Greatest Generations Foundation reported that Colonel Douglas Dillard had passed away at the age of 91.  He was very fortunate, really.  To have lived such a long life, and been well enough only weeks before to cross an ocean, speaking to crowds and enjoying a marvelous vacation, was a blessing, for sure.  But even understanding this didn’t stop me from being terribly saddened by the news.  RIP, Colonel.

After stopping in to see my QM2 friends Matt and Marianne, I would spend the autumn following my enchanted summer in the idyllic New England town of Hudson, New York, living in a converted 1900 schoolhouse which sits between two cemeteries – and in the process, make a new friend in the artist-owner, Laurie.  There I would finish the first draft of my book at 1:28pm EST on November 9, 2017.

In early 2018, I would spend three months in Lake Worth, Florida with Cornelia and Emily – not the girls in the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but the two accomplished women who wrote it.  Doing my best to emulate their wit and style, and occasionally whispering a plea for their help or guidance, I edited and worked through various drafts of my book, trying to sort out what the journey had been about.  That is, I worked on the book in between making good on my promise to Steven the World War II veteran.

I needed to learn the foxtrot.  And so shortly after I arrived in Lake Worth, I signed up for dance lessons with Grigol Kranz, a brilliant pro dancer and teacher, as well as a witty, wonderful, and extremely patient soul, who managed to get me dancing passable versions of every dance I would need for the ballroom on the QM2 – the most important being, of course, the foxtrot.

From him, I even learned the tango, just as Cornelia and Emily had done in 1922, when it was still quite new – and quite scandalous.  They had been taught by a fellow hotel guest, Jacques Ventadour, in the parlor of their Paris pension.  This was symmetry I found extremely pleasing. 

(In addition to somehow teaching me to dance, Grigol worked overtime as therapist on some of my rougher writing days, and his bright spirit would lift mine when I was doubting my work or myself.  He also gave me a marvelous gift:  some of his other students.  They are an amazing group of intelligent, charismatic, talented, beautiful women – Jean, Anna, Carolyn, Susan, Jill, Bimika, Andrea and Hannah – whom I’m thrilled to have as my friends.  Grigol and my dancer friends, along with pros David and Alexis at Palm Beach Ballroom Dance Studio, would end up turning those three months of work into lots of a brand new kind of fun.)

On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76.  In the summer of 2018, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, and one of the last things I did while I was in London was stop in and pay my respects.  I whispered to him how sorry I was that I would never get to ask him about the phenomenon of time and space blurring.

But maybe, just maybe, that me from thirty years ago can find a way to ask the him of thirty years ago about it, as we pass each other on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, Cambridge.  Because time is not linear, and everything is happening at once.

In May 2018, I would once again sail to England on the QM2, traveling with some familiar faces, and making new friends along the way, most especially Patrick, Anette and their darling daughter Flora, as well as Kate and Greg (my nomad role models) and their golden doodles Lucy and Gracie.

I would spend a couple of weeks in Oxford (see my post “Home Can Be More Than One Place”) before returning to London, to the same flat I’d lived in the summer before.

The plan had been to finish the book in London, but it seemed that there were too many people to see and too much fun to be had.  In addition, I would continue my dance lessons with the kind, talented group of teachers at the Karen Hardy Studios, as well as attend weekly forro dancing lessons at the Lighthouse Bar in Shoreditch, learning this Brazilian street dance from the brilliant, fun foursome of Chinedu, Graziela, Gala and Jonathan.

My longtime traveling buddy Daron and I would get a week to run around London, a couple of decades after our first “Cornelia and Emily” visit to the UK.  I’d also get an all-too-brief visit with my friend and fellow writer, Betty, who was over from Hawaii to visit with her son and his family.  And I got some – but not enough – hangout time with my ex-pat neighbor Sabrina and her beautiful poodle Tigger.  There were shows and dinners and drinks and, of course, afternoon tea…

As always, it wasn’t easy to leave England, to get back on the ship, when the time came to leave.  But it helped that I had Grigol and Marianne with me, and that I made some amazing new friends, including Matt, Nick, Ciaran, Margaret, Christelle and Andy.  Most happily on this voyage, I discovered I was sailing with some other friends from the past – Amy and her daughter, Hannah; Maite and her daughter, Hannah; and Vicki and Bill, my fellow spa-rats.

It was another magical summer.  Though it meant I would return to the States short of my goal – a completed book – my time had been extremely well-spent.  The stars had aligned, and I had found my next book idea.  All because of that promise I had made.

So here’s how it worked.

Thirty years ago… I dated a guy in Oxford, and through him and his family, I met Tom, who would give me the idea for my first book.  And it would be Tom who, over drinks one night this past June, would implant in my brain the notion that I needed to find an inventive angle for my next book, which was to be about my upcoming travels.

Meanwhile, a year ago…  I make a promise to learn to dance.  Ballroom dancing leads me to social dancing, which leads me to other dances – bachata, then forro.

Meanwhile, this summer… In reading tributes to the late, great Anthony Bourdain (which he was), I am reminded of how he learned about the world through food, and it made me realize I had my own way to see a place and learn about the culture… through their dance.

All those bits and pieces had fused together to become my next book project.  And in 2019, I shall begin “A Twirl Around the World”.

But first I have to finish this first book, which I’m calling “Enchanted Summer”.  In a few weeks I will be stationing myself back in that schoolroom in Hudson, and only emerging when I have a completed manuscript.  If I appear to go missing, check there first.

 

Photos below:

Top Row:  Colonel Douglas Dillard, holding a picture of his WWII self which appeared in Life magazine (photo courtesy of John Reidy, The Greatest Generations Foundation), with Matthew at Chicago’s Union Station; my room in the old schoolhouse in Hudson – the perfect place to write a book.

Bottom Row:  With Daron at the artist Christo’s installation in Hyde Park; Stephen Hawking’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey; afternoon tea with Grigol at Fortnum and Mason.

People Places

A Momentous Occasion

August 10, 2017

The World War II veterans with QM2 Captain Stephen Howarth (standing, center) and “bellhops”.  Seated:  Stuart Hedley, Joseph Reilly and Michael Ganitch.  Standing:  Steven Melnikoff, Douglas Dillard, Bruce Heilman and James Blane.  – Photo courtesy of Jim Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation

“… we had on our best crepe marocain [dresses] and they always gave us a tendency to feel dangerously alluring.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Time to get back in the fancy clothes.  Go to afternoon tea.  Dress for dinner.  Evening gowns and opera gloves.  On Friday, August 4, 2017, the QM2 would sail from Southampton to New York, and I was to be aboard.

I had taken the boat-train (there I go, using that term again) down from London Waterloo that morning, forcing myself through check-in and onto the ship.  But saying goodbye to my summer with the girls, and to England, had made me sulky.  Standing on the top deck of the ship, looking back at Southampton, I thought to myself about how my story was over, and this voyage back to the States might as well have been a flight from Heathrow, for all that it mattered to the tale.

Even the tantalizing notion of getting to be prissy for nine straight days wasn’t enough to lift the cloud over my head.

At least the pressure was off, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have to “try”.  I could just lounge around and read and not talk to anyone.  That’s one of the beauties of travel:  No one knows who you are, so you get to choose who you want to be each time you are in a new place. 

This time, I would be the quiet, keep-to-myself, person.

That settled, I went to my stateroom to unpack.  There, on the dressing table, was a brochure introducing the seven World War II veterans who were newly-announced featured speakers on my voyage.  And that changed everything.

Suddenly this afterthought of a voyage had become a glittering grand finale, a last chapter that would really top off my enchanted summer.  “A momentous occasion,” as Cornelia and Emily would say.

It started the next morning, when I spotted and barged in on five of the veterans having breakfast.  They were never able to shake me after that.  I was like a stalker, but the men seemed to take it in their stride.  Every morning I made a point of getting some time with them at breakfast.  At noon I would attend their lectures.  And in the evenings, I would dance with them in the ballroom.

These men – Doug, Bruce, Joe, Jim, Mickey, Stuart and Steven – were all charming, charismatic and strong.  They weren’t old men.  They were men, and much more than that.  They were heroes, and they were larger-than-life.  I write extensively about them in the book – from Bruce’s continuing cross-country journeys on his motorcycle, to Colonel Doug quietly telling me about liberating Flossenburg concentration camp – and every moment I got with them meant the world to me.

It was especially poignant for me to meet Joe and Steven, both of whom had been there on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day – in Normandy.  I could only think back to that day in July, when I was at Omaha Beach, walking in the footsteps of the soldiers… I hadn’t known it at the time, but I had been walking in Joe’s and Steven’s footsteps.

And it would be Steven – a.k.a. the Foxtrot King – who would inspire me to take up ballroom dancing, which would lead to… well, that’s a story for another post.  But I did take it up, because I made a promise to Steven that the next time we were together, I would be able to dance properly with him.  A year later, I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept that promise, and I’m ready to dance.

Without question, my World War II buddies were the stars of the ship, and the stars of my voyage, but there were other highlights during the crossing, involving amazing friends and wonderful memories I made along the way.

I go on quite a bit about these people in the book, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to have rockin’ tablemates at dinner.  They are the ones who will elevate your journey.

One of my favorite memories of the crossing was going up on the top deck with my tablemate Matthew one sunny afternoon, to practice what we’d learned in our beginning waltz class.  There, next to the shuffleboard and paddle tennis courts, we whirled around the deck, working on our steps as a fellow passenger attempted to play something on his guitar that we could keep time to.  Sometimes life is perfect.

There were the many nights on the ballroom floor, when I attempted that waltz, along with the cha cha, foxtrot and rumba, with the encouragement of my tablemate Marianne, who got me over my embarrassment and anxiety about “not doing it right”.  And while I might not have made it all the way to feeling “dangerously alluring”, I certainly became comfortable on the dance floor.  Twirling around in those party dresses of mine, I was able to enjoy myself out there, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t any good.

Two days before we were to dock in New York City, we stopped for a day in the charming port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  With Matthew, Marianne and our fellow tablemate, Robert, I made the trek to the deliciously picturesque Peggy’s Cove.  There we climbed on the rocks and visited the lighthouse, which we then followed with seafood delights at The Bicycle Thief restaurant back in town.

(Stopping in Halifax was a bonus – most of the crossing are straight shots from New York to Southampton and back.  But this special Canadian stop gave us a most-welcome extra day on the ship, just to make the voyage all that much more marvelous.)

And there was that one unfortunate late-night incident in the disco involving Long Island Iced Tea, and a bit of a snog with one of the guest piano players.  But it’s okay, as memories go, only because…

“… that conscientious drinker from Princeton brought me a hooker of straight brandy… I also have the distinct recollection of going out on deck with that Pride of Princeton and letting him kiss me.  Girls didn’t kiss much in those days.  Those who did were considered ‘fast’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner

Symmetry.  It took me until the end of the journey to match that tidbit in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but – for better or for worse – at least I could check it off the list.

The crossing back to the States had turned out to be a glorious end to my travels, thanks to the vets, and to some great new friends I’d made aboard the ship.  What an unexpected, happy surprise, just when I thought it was all over.  I was especially going to miss my breakfasts with the boys, and my evenings dancing with them.  It had become my habit, my daily routine.  How was I ever going to let go of all of that fun?

 

Photos below:

Top row:  A gorgeous day at sea; my single cabin, complete with dressing table and fainting couch; Matthew and I at the Captain’s cocktail party, before the complimentary champagne.

Bottom row:  Dancing with Steven the Foxtrot King; my favorite photo of my friends the vets, courtesy of John Reidy, The Greatest Generations Foundation; utterly charming Peggy’s Cove.

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 my follow-up trip this summer, 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 Corrie’s 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, Francis Warner’s daughter 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 Forro poster outside the St. Giles Church, 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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 language 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 a few 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.  Unfortunately, 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 out of a swim, choosing instead 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, of whom the girls had written.  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 welcome sunshine on my Day 3, just warm enough for me to go swimming.

Just before noon, 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.