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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Andrew Hamilton, Junto's travel editor and a frequent visitor to  France, got all tied up in a during a current tour in Normandy. Fortunately, it was in a foulard. Hamilton reports for the Writers Clearinghouse News Service from Rouen, France, on how he was....

Bound for Normandy,
 Tied Up in Silk

I've been around this French thing for forty-five years and I never realized that French guys wear scarves. Like, not just muffler-style scarves, but écharpes of cotton and vicuña and polyester and viscose (whatever that is) like a woman's scarf. I saw them on maybe half of the guys who weren't actually engaged in construction or garbage-collection, so I went into the Galeries Lafayette and got the cheapest one they had, a blue cotton job for €9.99. The next one up was €25, and they ran on up to €500 but nobody in the store took me seriously when I looked at them, because I was wearing brown fabric trail boots and a cotton shirt from Cabela's and some sort of faux-suède St. John's Bay wind-breaker, which is JCPenny's house brand. Not that the jacket wouldn't have cost €200 at any glassed-in store in France instead of the $29.99 I paid for it.

I think the scarf is called a foulard, because I've seen them announced that way in shop windows, but écharpe is probably better because I think foulard is a cloth pattern and not the tie. I studied the French guys for the way you tie it on, and almost everyone just doubles it and runs the bitter ends through the bight. Some guys go for the old 60's one-turn-around-the-neck, ends trailing fore and aft, and a few guys do what I'd call a two-in-hand, like a four-in-hand without running the loose end through the loop but letting it dangle over. Some guys use an actual four-in-hand, but those 'guys' are really all the manniquins in shop windows.

I felt sort of goofy walking around Paris in this foulard, but after a while you see that it feels pretty good around the neck, and what the hell, it's France and everyone else has one. I wore it when I rented a bicycle in Bayeux and pedaled out to the invasion beach and the front brake on the bicycle had too much grip and I somersaulted over the handlebars the first time I applied it, in Laurent-sur-mer, landing on two old knees and one old elbow, no harm done any deeper than a centimeter or two toward the bone.

My old man was a newspaperman and in 1940 he was working as a copy editor on the San Francisco News, a Scripps-Howard paper . The News was the only newspaper that supported the Longshoreman's strike in '34, and it had L'l Abner on the comic page, and regular dispatches from Colonel McCormick on the editorial page, along with Ernie Pyle. It had really white paper and really black ink-- it looked like what a newspaper was supposed to look like, and its ink smeared off on your hands if you read it a lot.

So a couple of years later, my old man was a U.S. Navy press censor, the guy who cuts sentences out of press dispatches if they displease the admiral or reveal ship movements. In 1944 he was in London, and for some reason they assigned him to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, which was pretty odd for a naval officer. The best I can piece it together, CBS had invented some sort of radio transmitter that would allow them to transmit from the beach, arriving with the support outfits in the second wave, and the old man was the logical choice to go with it. On Omaha Beach everything got screwed up and the support guys landed under fire and got shot up bad, so he hit the beach and made it up to where he could dig a hole to hide in. He had been given an M-1 carbine with a broken front sight and anti-gas overalls and one of those folding shovels, and availed himself of the shovel. The BBC in the meantime had got to Eisenhower at the last minute, complaining about unfair competition from the CBS transmitter, so it was never allowed to operate.

I guess my dad hung around Normandy for a while, because he ran into all the big boys, censoring their dispatches. He ran into Ernie Pyle and got to tell him that he'd never had to cut his columns much on the News copy desk, and he told me that A.J. Liebling had a really high whiney voice, which sort of disturbed my picture of AJ Liebling. So with this in my DNA, so to speak, I figured I ought to look around Normandy.
Ernie Pyle

I went to Carentan, where the 101st Airborne had a big fight with Panzargruppen 16 on June 12-15, and I stayed in a place called L'Éscapade where it turned out that for an extra €6 for breakfast you got the best terrrine ever, left over from last night at the restau, plus a selection of cheese and sausage, along with the usual coffee and juice and sugary buns. Best breakfast ever, about thirty dollars for the room.

I ate at a different restaurant one night and when I came back and the woman asked me if I wanted dinner I said "j'ai déjà bouffé", which is perfect French and translates into something like "I already scoffed", and she made a face and told me that I shouldn't say that, and she turned around and told the other girl what I had said, all scandalized. I asked her what was wrong, and she said it was mal-poli, and that I must say "manger." I told her that, sorry, I learned my French en brousse, quoi, en Afrique même, and she said, well, it's OK, then. But, tell you what, it's pretty charming to run into a corner of France where someone thinks "bouffer" is mal-polite. I was prof du Lycée for two years in the French school system, and if I ever heard a Frenchman refer to eating as anything but bouffing I can't hardly remember when it was.

So from Carentan I walked on the only randonné route that started in town, and walked down the designated route toward Méautis. This turned out to be the route the 101st took to some sort of accrochage, and where General Teddy Roosevelt Junior had a heart attack on June 15 and croaked under a pear tree. Tell you what, Richard, you would get a kick out of this shit. I passed one guy on the whole walk to Méautis, a guy cutting down wood with a chain-saw, on the top of a hedgegrow, and when I said "ça va" he said "ça vai, je prefoir." I didn't know what he meant, so I said, "hunh?" He said "Je prefoir travailler." I think he was talking some sort of patois where prefoir means prefère, and that he was saying he'd rather be working than not working, but I'm not sure, so I just said "hein!", and continued my stroll.

I come into Méautis and look for a place to get a beer, but there's no place past the crossroads, everything is dead in these villages since people got cars, I guess. It turns out that the main square in front of the church is called "the Square of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr." because that's where he had his heart attack, or somewhere nearby. It turns out that Teddy Roosevelt Jr. was an arthritic brig general who landed with his guys on Utah beach, gave a famous Henry V-style speech just before the landing ramp went down, hobbled the 12 miles or so to Méautis to congratulate the 101st and had a heart attack under a pear tree and died.

I walked back to the crossroads and feeling all 101st Airborne I asked the cross-eyed guy running the place if he had cigarettes to sell, but they didn't have any, so I ordered a big beer for outside and he came outside and rearranged the plastic resin chairs so I could sit in what was passing for the sun. There was one guy inside, the village doofus drinking a pastis. Nobody asked me whether my old man had passed through censoring the press in 1944, but I let it go. If these guys don't want to know anything about living history, then I am not going to take my sweet time to pound it into them. Then the cross-eyed guy came out and offered me a Marlborough out of his own pack, which is sort of nice. You never hear stories like this when people are bitching about the French.

That bocage country, from the beach to Méautis, it's sort of eerie. In March there's no vegetation on the hedges, they're all cut back to sticks and you can see for miles, but you can see that in June it's all closed in and there could be guys shooting machine-guns at one another across fields no more than one or two hundred feet wide, not even the length of a football field, or maybe six or ten feet from one another over the same hedge. The hedgegrows start out four or five feet high, perfect cover even without the trees. I walked back toward Carentan mainly on tractor roads, because the mud paths weren't all that inviting, and came upon the Cross de Méautis, which is listed on all the maps. Just a cross made out of concrete off to the side of somebody's farm, with a plaque saying something like "this cross if for all the boys who got killed hereabouts for liberty."

Hey, I have a question for Junto's wine guy, Don Merlot. What does he think of Gris de Boulouane? This was about the only corked wine I ever drank during two years south of the Sahara, other than something called Pisse-Drieux, which is named for exactly what it looks like it was named for. I was in a restaurant last night in Rouen, a cous-cous place that turned out to have the best cous-cous imaginable, and their entire wine list was various flavors of Gris de Boulouane. I, myself, passed on it, and drank my usual demi-rouge, vin de pays, but I'd like to hear what somebody who is into wine thinks about that Gris de Boulouane. This restaurant had bottles of it on display in a glass case up in front, and they seemed to be proud of it. Boulouane is appararently a place in Algeria. You know what gris means, gray. It's sort of a rosé style of wine.

In Bayeux I rented the bicycle and rode it out toward the invasion beach on a really foggy day. I asked around town before doing this, I asked a café waiter who asked his friends hanging around and they all decided it was crazy, but when I left the café they all shouted "bon courage" as if they had invested in the trip and wanted me to succeed. I asked the waitress at dinner that night, an old gal who seemed fairly traditional to me until she told me the trip, while not something she would do, was "bien foutable." For those who don't know French, this translates, roughly, as "it's pretty fuckable," which sort of makes me wonder why the girl in Carentan had trouble with my saying "bouffer."

So I rented the bike and went on out there, about 20 km, I guess. There's some nice countryside and dead little towns all along the way, neat little romanesque churches everywhere and the occasional Norman chateau, but it was very foggy, so foggy that when I finally got to the beach overlooks you couldn't see the ocean but you could hear it loud.

The American cemetery at Colleville, it was kind of heartwarming because it was bourré, which is what you say about a dog with fleas, lots of people there, mostly French, it was a huge concentration of people for low-Normandy in late March as far as I could tell, even on a Sunday. Way more people than are visiting the tapestry celebrating William the Conqueror in Bayeax at the same time, True, it's free, and it would be a great view without the fog, and it's free where the various museums cost around ten bucks a hit, and there's the Hollywood/Sgt. Ryan factor, but still there are all those graves off into the fog, guys from Tennessee who died for the croque monsieur and the cheap ballon-rouge. The off touch is that to go through the memorial center you have to pass something like an airline check-in, everything but the shoes and the belt, empty your coins and your pocket pencil onto a place and pass through some sort of magnetic scanner, all run by serious French cops who aren't wanting to take any back-talk. I have to wonder what kind of Department of Homeland Security bureaucrat decided that this was necessary, in a country where crazy Arabs have been blowing up bombs and murdering random Jews and politicians as long as I can remember.

A lot of multi-media Dwight D. Eisenhower hagiography inside the memorial center. You have to thank Jesus that Ronald Reagan didn't achieve a higher rank, or participate in the invasion in more than his imagination. The Ike was plenty enough, thank you.

Bicycle back to Bayeux in the fog. They got sugar beets growing in the salty ground, and they got wind. On Sundays, that's about all they got. I left Bayeux at about 9:30 am and got to the first place open to buy a cup of coffee, or at least a Coca Cola, at 3:00 pm back in Bayeux. Don't do this trip on a Sunday in March, kids.

Back in Bayeux, I note that several places have things like "Welcome Veterans of the Débarquement" written on the windows, in old paint because by now almost all the veterans are dead. Thirty-forty years ago, when most of those guys were in their 50's, it must have been a carnaval around here. I think my own dad came through, and of course Ronald Reagan, who remembered taking them Kraut MG42 positions from behind. You'd think they'd take the paint off the windows, though, they do so many other things so well.

'Teddy' Roosevelt Jr.

I'm in Rouen as I write this. I was a little leery of this place, but ran out of other places to go to on the existent train lines. It turns out to be a pretty neat city, sort of chic in the Parisian manner, but haut-Normand. Everything is crowded together and it's a big lump of history, apparently, so you could begin to feel its essence in a week or two, maybe, instead of the year or two required to begin to feel Paris. They got all the chic Paris stores here, and I found a linen écarf, black and mostly blue checks with white lines running across, for a moderate price, and I tied it around my neck, at least in the cool morning hours. If I ever come back to this country I'm bringing a multi-button pea coat and leather shoes, and lose the Levi's, I don't care how many men are walking around in jeans here, about 99% is my guess. What sort of mass hysteria made them do this? They look like a bunch of braceros looking for menudo on a Saturday night in Salinas in 1964. It would take a hundred years to explain the them how silly they look, so I don't even bother.

(Andrew Hamilton's legal address is in California).