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It was a typical weekend crisis in that part of the world: did we have enough veal, the right wine to go with it, and the appropriate cheeses for afterwards? We were on to the last smidgeon of goaty chevre, and what remained of the fragrant, Trappist-made, cow’s-milk specimen would not survive the first assault. My host and I jammed into his tiny car (almost a clockwork hand-winder) and sped to the coast, for on Sunday the shops close at noon because the shopkeepers insist on it.

Okay, Normandy had seen bigger weekend crises before. In 1066, a local boy named Guillaume set off from a nearby coastal village to become William the Conqueror. Nearly 70 years ago, the holiday beaches were overcrowded with boys from Canada, England and the U.S.A. routing the Germans. Today, young and old, the people that some Americans like to call ‘cheese-eating surrender-monkeys’, tend the Allied graves and plant flowers around the innumerable memorials that they built for their beloved rescuers. Even as the concrete fortifications of  the mighty, German, ‘Atlantic Wall’ are devoured by the sea, the Normans protect what they can, on and off historic beaches that will never again have names other than Omaha, Sword, Juno and so forth. Every church seems to have a stained glass window offering prayers of thanksgiving for the Allies.

The Normans speak French and carry French passports, but they see themselves as a proud race apart, and one finds their tiny-windowed, ancient stone houses displaying not the Gallic tricoleur but rather Normandy flags bearing the red, rampant lions of their forefathers. Those Francophone Vikings, devout Christians, seem to have invented the Romanesque architecture that they spread across Europe, drove the Muslim and Byzantine rulers from Sicily and formed the backbone of the Crusades. Today, tiny Norman towns too small for a café or a shop always contain a church whose bells seem to toll seven days a week.

When my hosts, a prominent English barrister and his marvelous Glaswegian wife, bought their second home in a tiny Norman village near the sea, they asked a local dowager if she minded having British neighbours: “of course not,” she exclaimed, “you are not Parisians after all!” High speed trains bring in droves of French yuppies, the Parisians coarse and noisy and pulling ghastly little dogs on fancy leashes – the kind that normal, burly, Normandy guard dogs could gobble up as hors d’oeuvres before a proper meal. Metrosexual Manhattan weekenders must get the same reaction from Maine lobstermen.

Not being fools they drink wine from all over France, but in homes they often serve local calvados, apple brandy of nuclear strength made by local farmers whom they have known for generations: nobody but a tourist or a visiting yachtsman buys the mass-produced stuff. What they eat is almost exclusively local produce: cheese made in regional monasteries, fresh vegetables and meat grown by local farmer cooperatives, oysters and mussels farmed in tanks or raised in the sea, fish caught that day, even strong espresso made by bashful girls who remember your name. The bakeries are of course each laden with Normandy apple tarts and fresh baguettes and perhaps fifty other calorific temptations that local people take for granted but which look to us like photos from posh cookery magazines. The bigger towns have grocers selling preserved food, but put up locally in glass jars of traditional Normandy sauces and other delights: no Ragu pour vous!

That weekend thousands of Normans and visitors slogged through the muck onto a nearby island to be stranded there until the next low tide, listening chiefly to Norman and Celtic music that their forbearers would have enjoyed a thousand years ago. Brought back to life, Guillaume le Conquérant may be puzzled by motorcars and electric lights and that bitter black muck served hot in tiny cups, but he’d recognize that Norman life and architecture and culture were much as he left them.

On our hunt for provender we passed through Tocqueville, a town of 300 souls with Count Alexis and his relatives asleep in the churchyard. A tasteful bust of the great man watches from across the lane, with the De Tocqueville family chateau a short stroll away. The handsome pile in which he grew up, with parts dating back to the 1500s, is still occupied by his family: it remains a private residence although the gardens are opened for visitors in late September.

The chateau survived the French Revolution, apart from the roof having been torn off the dovecote, a symbol of aristocracy. Dr. Kirk once told me that the revolutionary peasants blamed the rich people’s doves for eating their grain and so they destroyed many dovecotes and ate the doves before learning that the birds had mostly subsisted on insects which subsequently ravaged their crops. The attack on the dovecote, rather than the magnificent chateau, seems merely symbolic.

It is no surprise that Le Comte Alexis, so rooted in timeless Normandy, left us two great books on tradition and change: perhaps the best analysis of the world’s first ideological revolution and its horrors, and another of mixed feelings on a melting-pot nation built anew – not without traditions, but democratic, egalitarian and certainly lacking the old, familiar rhythms that survive in Normandy today. In both cases he was, as Exodus told us, a stranger in a strange land, and it must have assisted his keen observations.

Different countries have different ways of preserving what matters to them. A British woman and her American beau, both teaching English in Normandy, described a French bureaucratic and popular animosity to business that discourages start-ups: even though Geo. Bush II never said that the French lack a word for entrepreneur, they insist that he would have been correct to say it. Yet France has vast supermarkets but people prefer to buy local food from small, local shops. In Germany, says a Bavarian colleague in Kabul, permission to build WalMarts would be granted but locals object overwhelmingly, preferring to pay a little more and sacrifice some choice in order to preserve the small shops owned by their own neighbours. “It costs something to preserve the life we like,” he says matter-of-factly. The French, the Germans and other Continental Europeans puzzle over the Anglosphere and its overwhelmingly economic decisions: looking at English or American supermarkets, after Normandy, one shares their confusion.

In coastal Normandy today, modernity encroaches. The educated young sometimes move to cities, working nearby for the industrial nuclear umbrella that replaced the old umbrellas of Cherbourg, or further still. Ancient stone houses and outbuildings are renovated into holiday homes for outsiders and ugly new ones arise. But so far it seems to me, on a brief visit, as if the Normans accommodate change and weather the siege. In a thousand year’s time they may be much as they were, and are, still harvesting the bounty of the sea and the fields, still distilling their apple spirits, still flying their scarlet flag emblazoned with golden lions rampant that waved over England, Continental Europe and Jerusalem.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Perhaps Frenchmen work in the cemeteries and “tend the allied graves,” and perhaps have built “innumerable memorials.” But I think you imply that the graveyards for the World War II American dead should be credited to France. Other than the donation of the land by France, the American cemetery at Saint Laurent (as well as the other American cemeteries throughout the country) was designed and constructed, and is maintained, by the American Battle Monuments Commission at American expense. Your point, however, is well taken that the attitudes of those in Normandy well remember (for most now, well reminded, by the stories passed from their parents and grandparents) of the day that the Americans floated down from the sky. I walked the graveyard at Saint Laurent Sur-Mere which stretches along the bluffs overlooking the landing beaches. Its perfect rows of white crosses record the names of 9,387 men who will never leave France. Afterward, as our tour bus pulled away, the guide read a note from the visitor’s log that had been written by a French child. It went something like this: My school visited the graveyard today of those Americans who came to save France. There were so many of them, and so few of us there to say ‘thank you.’ The strains of a Glenn Miller waltz then slowly filled the perfect stillness.

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