You will ask yourself what the D-Day beaches, the allied graves in Normandy, and divinely sanctioned frying pays have to do with one another. It’s not a glib pairing. It’s the stuff of Normandy– and a reminder this Memorial Day, not only of the great sacrifices that have been made by the few for the many, but that the most harrowing of military struggles take place in someone’s backyard, on someone’s city streets, where craftspeople, chefs, and families gather amongst the pots and pans of life.
It’s easy for Memorial Day to be about abstract ideals and abstract heroism when you’ve never had war on your doorstep, or never lost a friend or family member in war.
One Memorial Day, 2008 I believe, we caught the ferry from England to France and lingered for a week in Normandy. As a military family in the early 2000’s, we knew the sting of loss in our communities, yet we knew the loss in our community paled compared to the numbers lost in World War II. It was impossible to live a short jump from the beaches of Normandy and not feel drawn to the site of the largest amphibious invasion in history . . . and the resting place of thousands of American and Allied soldiers lost during that invasion.
So we set out to discover Normandy, visit the American Cemetery there, and also enjoy some sorties to Mont St. Michel and to St. Malo (in Brittany).
And the frying pans? We made camp for the week in the charming town of Villedieu-les-Poêles: literally, “God’s town of the frying pans.”
I offer, here, short notes on what we saw that week, including the American Cemetery, its thousands of graves forever resting, forever watching, above the sands of Omaha Beach.
We booked a large family room at a hotel in town. The room had ample space and a small loft area– exactly what you need when you are on the road with young children for the week and gale force storms have been forecast. Room to move and play should you have to sit inside– that’s imperative if you aim to keep your sanity.
Villedieu is a beautiful, ancient village, anchored by a market square and the Church of Notre-Dame by the Place de la Republique.
Here in “God’s City of the Pans,” a long tradition of metal smithing has flourished over the centuries. The town is famous for a foundry that makes bells that ring in the cathedrals throughout France. It’s even more famous for . . . you guessed it– frying pans and cookware. The much lauded Mauviel factory, world famous for copper cookware, is here. The factory is still family owned and surprisingly small. The pans are produced to a high standard, as they have been since 1830. Today the work is largely automated, but hand finishing and close inspection ensures quality. These pans don’t come cheap, but a visit to Mauviel and Villedieu will put the price tag in perspective. You pay for quality, for careful craftsmanship, and for tradition.
About that tradition: Villedieu has been a center of copper and metal work since the Middle Ages. The association runs so deep that the residents of Villedieu have long been called “les sourdins” (“the deaf”). Lifetimes of hammering away to shape metal did produce a population that was singularly hard of hearing.
You foodies may want to read David Lebovitz’s article on the Mauviel factory, here. Yes, Lebovitz–the chef turned author, and over-the-top Francophile–has made a pilgrimage to Villedieu and made off with a passel of pans. If you ever get the chance, I suggest you do the same.
Now to transition from Villedieu to the Second World War and remembrance: with a silent film reel from the Allied troops taking the town in 1944.
Normandy’s American Cemetery
The gale force storms that had been promised for our vacation week picked a disappointing, but somehow entirely appropriate day to arrive. They struck with full force on the day we drove to overlook Omaha Beach and visit the American Cemetery. There were few other cars in the parking lot, and, as best I could see, only two other people making their way from their car down to the cemetery– a very elderly gentleman on a walker with what looked to be a family member. I assume he was a returning soldier, and I can’t tell you how it touched me to watch him slowly make his way from his car, fighting against wind and rain. He had known worse in his life.
I’m ashamed to admit this next bit. If I could fib about it without feeling I’d doubly disrespected those fallen souls who rest by the beaches of Normandy, then I’d do it. But they would know. So . . .truth time. My daughter and I chose not to leave the car. The weather was wicked beyond belief. Still. . . I regret that.
My husband and son (then three or four years old), made a mad dash out to the gravesites to pay respects. Perhaps I should have kept my son back in the car: when my husband explained the cemetery and headstones before them, my son did his best to show his understanding by clutching his chest and falling to the ground. It was earnest four-year-old parlance for the tragedy. Still, it was not ideal. My husband scooped him up quickly and they made their way back to the car.
Our reverence was real, but the day had not gone to plan.
We headed for the hotel, so the boys could put on dry clothes and we could sit out the storm– there was nothing else to be done for it. But we talked about the place, the sacrifice, and the absolute necessity of it in turning the tables on Hitler and the Third Reich. We weren’t sure how well the history resonated with our young children– or whether we wanted it too, as gory and disheartening as it was.
Back at the hotel, when the children climbed to the loft to play Legos as the storm raged outside, we were heartened when a lone Lego figure was catapulted from the loft amid cheering and jeering, and we heard “Take that Mr. Hitler. Don’t come back!” as the tiny terror bounced his way down the stairs.
It was a small, good thing in a day that had gone sideways. We remembered, in our own way.
I’ll leave you with a moment of respect at the graves of Normandy– a video of “Taps” at the site– as well as a poignant wartime poem. In a few days, I’ll return with some notes on the second part of our trip, to Mont St. Michel and St. Malo.