Today being Halloween, everyone is primed for a good ghost story. Or, even, a bad ghost story!
I’d be the last to judge what this story is. Honestly, it’s just a foggy memory now, a moment when something presented itself to me– be it ghosts, spirits, the weight of history and the responsibility of remembrance, or simply a stubborn curiosity that sets my mind reeling and senses on high alert when I know there’s a story to be told that I will never be able to tell. Curiosity. About things that aren’t yours to know. Maybe that’s what haunts us as much as anything.
Well, there’s a way to end your story before you start it! Ha!
Oops. Let me start over. Forget you heard that first part.
“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” William Faulkner
It was a dark and stormy night. As nights are want to be. I was in my early 20’s, working a summer job for a law firm that had ramped up operations to a nearly around the clock venture while embroiled in a high stakes courtroom battle involving big tobacco and wrecked human lives. Tobacco being the lifeblood of the NC economy for many years, the high stakes and potential for human wreckage on either side of this courtroom struggle created a true war theater atmosphere.
Teams of attorneys from NC and DC gathered. Court reporters typed furiously all day and transcribed late into the evening. Students in need of summer jobs were paid small stipends to be part of the grease that kept the wheels of corporate litigation moving smoothly. Sometimes these students served as “runners,” picking up documents and reports here, dropping off memorandums and documents there, acting as the pony express on a battlefield littered with lives and money. I reported for duty.
It’s no surprise that, as a small player and running messenger in this theater of struggle, I might find myself confronted by souls from another struggle for a brief but impactful moment. Historical harbingers. Etheriel reminders. Young souls, fated to find themselves caught in the theater of war at another time, who might simply whisper in my ear as I crossed their hallowed ground.
Let me set the stage:
It was 1989, a late summer night, and I barreled across the Battlefield at Guilford Courthouse on my trusty, albeit rusty, steed: a 1981 Honda Prelude. Red. My first car, bought used and lacking in air conditioning, because I could either afford a car with air conditioning or a car with a sunroof– there was no having both. I had my priorities and looked back with no regrets . . . although I spent many a summer sweating profusely. But that’s another story.
It was as hot as Hades, the moon was full, or nearly so, and (if you’ll forgive the dramatic observation) the hour was roughly midnight.
It had been a routine evening up to that point. I was leaving my evening shift, while dozens of attorneys and paralegals were still slogging away at desks in the years just before email made communication across town, or across the world, virtual and instantaneous. I was asked to make a late stop at someone’s home to pick up a court document for the office. That home was in the area around the old Guilford Battlefield.
I’d been to the battlefield park in the daytime before. I’d read the plaques, stuck to the manicured paths, seen the statues. I knew the textbook version of events. But I’d never really wondered about the soldiers, the actual lives being lived and lost on that battlefield. A total failure of imagination on my part– thinking history was the dull and dusty stuff captured on a weathered page.
My attitude must have offended those souls who knew better.
Enter my trusty steed, racing across the battlefield–sticking to the roads, but cutting through an area flanked by fields, scarred patches of ground where rocks and dark, rotten sticks jut up out of the soil where life’s struggles have planted them. A rugged spot with no paths and plaques to lead you safely through the textbook story.
It was a dark and balmy night, and I drove my Honda with windows and sunroof open to the elements, down a quiet road crossing the battlefield, flanked by split rail fences. But no sooner had I turned down this path than my anemic headlights yielded something astonishing. I was suddenly surrounded by dense clouds. The air was still and soundless, until the “whoosh, whoosh, whoosh” of my Honda pushing through the fog became deafening.
Was it fog?
Suddenly, it seemed that I was pushing through bodies of fog, regiments of fog marching through me in lines, in battle formations– ranks of shadowy soldiers still marching into combat.
The waves of fog rolled in, breaking upon me, pressing through me, every trembling cold hand, every thread-bare knee, every face, determined or terrified, unaware that time had entwined them with my century. Through the fences they marched, through the rough split rails into the grassy fields and into the scarred patches. Lanky and lovely, they marched where the dew would soon form on the grass, where now the smell of sulfur and flesh has given way to the smell of fresh cut grass and occasional car exhaust. They marched to the middle of the field and disappeared from view.
Dumbfounded, I barely idled down the road for a moment, confused but keenly aware that I was breathing deeply, filling my lungs with the smell of this soil that holds tightly is victory and loss. Humid, heavy air that, it seems, catches fast the impression of every hand, every face, every soul whose fate has been bound to her.
How had I ended up in this theater of war? Me and my careworn Honda, running messages for corporate litigators waging their own battles– I couldn’t even tell you today whether I stood on the side of the right or wrong in that battle. I was just the Pony Express, just the pawn to the deal makers.
I’m sure there were young soldiers in 1781 who found themselves on that battlefield with little more understanding of the power struggle at hand than I had that night in 1989.
On All Hallows’ Eve, moving toward All Souls’ Day, I pay these soldiers my respects. How their timeline crossed mine, I’m not sure. Whether their corporeal spirits crossed mine, I’m not sure. But of this, I am sure: the universe gifted me an unbidden and unexpected moment of curiosity. A moment to lift the dull, dusty textbook story from its library shelf and place its real-as-you-and-me lives in my path. And, after shaking off the shock, I was amazed and grateful.
You can keep your slasher movies on Halloween– they unsettle my spirit and make my skin crawl. But I’ll gladly embrace the stories, the souls, and the power of curiosity whenever and wherever they choose to visit me.
I promised part two of the Normandy trip post many, many weeks ago … and I didn’t deliver. Life’s been busy around here, and as much as my mind has wandered to travels and French villages, I haven’t had the time to pull out the photos or push up to the keyboard. Today, I’m making the time- part of my determination to start making more time for the things that feed my spirit. I think we all need that these days. The news cycle, with floods, fires, earthquakes, evacuations, refugees, federal budget woes, and COVID deaths is overwhelming. We need to tell stories about beautiful places, people we love, and food that makes life worth living– things that, literally and figuratively, feed our souls.
So here I am. Stepping up to the microphone to sing a love song to St. Malo. And Mont St. Michel too. But, let’s be real, everyone ooohs and aaaahs over Mont St. Michel. It’s great, it really is amazing, but it’s Mont St Michel of the million and one photos, so you expect it to be great. St. Malo is lesser known and more rustic. It’s not overrun with tourists. You can wander into its ancient walls and believe that you are among the happy few to have discovered the enchanted city. You can believe that if you close your eyes for a catnap on a bench, you may open them to find yourself transported back in time and surrounded by buccaneers. It feels tinged with the magic of a place less discovered by the world, more authentically itself.
I loved Mont St Michel, don’t get me wrong. It was gorgeous and somehow both unbelievably majestic and vulnerable: set out on its solitary island, proud and alone.
We went off-season, on a chilly day, but it was still quite peopled. I can imagine that during tourist season it’s shoulder to shoulder, which is just no way to see a place. No way to appreciate its charms or imagine what it might have been like to live there in times past. I don’t hold this against Mont St Michel– it’s not her fault, after all. However, it makes visiting less vibrant than it might be. Kind of like wooing someone in a parlor peopled with a dozen nosy great-aunts. There’s just no way to have an intimate relationship. A wink, an appreciative nod, and a hope to come back someday and have the place to yourself, but that’s the best you can ask for.
St. Malo, on the other hand, seemed peopled only with locals when we were there. Although our visit was brief, it was lovely and we felt like we really got to speak with the place.
You say you know very little about Mont St Michel or Saint Malo? Well let me back up and offer you a quick primer:
Mont St Michel sits on the southern coast of Normandy. The site was first built upon in 708, with a small sanctuary. By 966, a settlement of Benedictine monks resided there, and the Abbey grew quickly.
As Abbeys were centers of learning and scholarship, Mont St Michel was soon home to a vast number of manuscripts and it became a popular place of pilgrimage nicknamed “City of the Books.”
The imposing structure that we recognize today seems to have taken shape starting in the 10th century. It’s no coincidence that the word “imposing” comes to mind, as Mont St Michel functioned as both an Abbey and a fortress over the ages. Sitting on the border between Normandy and Brittany, this was a strategic spot. Just as important is the position on the English Channel– the Mont functioned also as a fortress to fend off English attacks from land or sea during the Hundred Years War (beginning in the 14th century).
Under siege, the Mont suffered much destruction over the years, but was always rebuilt, perhaps more beautifully than before.
After the French Revolution, Mont St M was briefly a prison for priests who had fallen out of favor, then a reformatory for common law and political prisoners. Perhaps it was the French version of Alcatraz. (The French do everything with more style.)
In the late 1800’s, in a somewhat delapidated state, the Abbey was designated a historical monument. Soon, the causeway over the water was built, giving better access. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that a small monastic community returned to Mont St M, and by the 1980’s it had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you know a little history, it’s even stranger to see this place as a crowded tourist hub– this solitary isle of monks, soldiers, prisoners. If you are able to make a visit on a quiet day, jump at the chance! In the meantime, try a short video to whet your appetite: See a video view here: abbaye-mont-saint-michel.fr/en/Explore/Video
Moving on down the road into Brittany and the port city of St. Malo:
St. Malo’s history will carry you back to Roman times. By the 4th century, a Roman garrison was well established there. By the time Roman influence waned, Celtic settlers had arrived, soon followed by a monastic community in the 6th century. A culture flourished that was proud and independent. By the 17th century, St Malo began to grow a reputation for corsairs and pirates (or the vaguely more gentlemanly “privateers”– but we all know those are just socially sanctioned pirates and plunderers).
St Malo was hard hit by WWII– German troops took the town as a garrison, and eventually set ruinous fires in the aftermath of D-Day. The Americans and Allies tried to help . . .but, in the logic of wartime, that help looked like bombing and shelling the area. St. Malo was liberated, but also devastated.
The walled city was a hollow remnant of its former self following the war, but it was rebuilt in the decade following. The original defensive walls (the ramparts) still stand, and the interior rebuilding was done with a mission of “restoration,” allowing the ancient aesthetic to be recaptured and still rule the day. If you walk the streets of St. Malo oblivious to its modern history, it’s easy to be . . . well. . . oblivious to its modern history.
But the exploits of earlier times are impossible to ignore. The old walled city juts out into the sea– it verily sings out its stories of pirates and adventurers. I understand that it was a sanctuary city: from the mid 1100’s, the town gave asylum to all who requested it. No doubt, thieves, buccaneers, and folk who hadn’t settled their debts flocked here. It makes for a storied place. Not sure if it made for a peaceful abode at the time, but it’s a lovely visit these days.
When we made a visit, back in 2006 or 2007, our children were small, so running around the walls or riding the carousel were the highlights of the day. And why not? It was a charming way to enjoy the city. I might have wished for a little more time to enjoy the churches and museums, but them’s the breaks. I’ll leave that for future goals on a return visit. For now, I’m happy with my memories of carousels and my own little pirates storming the ramparts.
I’ll leave you with a taste of St. Malo via a narrated video tour of the beaches, the ramparts, and a bit of the city. Enjoy! Bon Voyage!
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.
Outlook is everything. Better to be an optimist than a pessimist. This I won’t deny . . . however. . . I will say that life is complicated, and it’s better to understand finesse and grey areas than to see the world in stark terms of happy/sad, good/bad, obstacle/opportunity. To be sure, the “glass half empty or glass half full” test paints a certain picture, but as many people before me have noted, it’s far better to realize that the glass is in flux and ever able to be refilled. Ebb and flow, people. Is it even possible to live a balanced life without a sense that there will be ebb and there will be flow?
This is a roundabout way of coming to the topic of The Brothers Grimm, who occupied my thoughts last week on two fronts. First, I’ve been developing a few lessons on Fairy Tales– those richly complicated stories that seem to have have a Jekyll and Hyde personality in modern imagination. Are they adorable children’s tales where everyone lives happily ever after, or are they dark musings on our dreams and fears that sometimes delve deep into violence? Do they encourage good children to uphold social mores, or do they foment revolutionary plottings?
In a word: Yes.
The second reason the Grimm brothers showed up on the scene last week was new information to me. These literary brothers just celebrated the anniversary of their Deutsches Worterbuch. Their German Dictionary was a huge undertaking, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to do more than just record the meanings of the most used German words. They set out to record “the origin and use of EVERY German word.” Deutsches Welle, the German media outlet, has an informative article on this undertaking (here) in its broad scope and political overtones. Definitely worth a read.
How did these famous storytellers come to write a dictionary? Well, first of all, it may help to remember that they were “story catchers”– scholars driven by a desire to preserve stories and the cultures they grew out of. Second, they found themselves at a pivot point, not unlike characters in the tales they collected. The Grimm brothers were professors (anthropologists and linguists), suddenly jobless after the University of Gottingen fired a cluster of educators who refused to swear an oath to the new king or back the alteration of the constitution in Hanover in 1837. They took up the challenge of creating the first German dictionary, largely, because they had bills to pay. Their thorough approach was remarkable and reflected their love of the language: “especially enamoured with the letter A, calling it the ‘noblest, most original of all sounds.’ Unsurprisingly, their famous dictionary begins with a detailed linguistic history of the vowel” (dw.com). The brothers were thorough and reverent . . .however, this approach also ensured that the project would not be completed in their lifetime.
As careful to preserve the diverse dialects of Germany as they had been to capture and preserve the folk tales of their land, they were also keenly aware that this project wielded a certain political muscle in unifying the German Reich linguistically. They would compile one linguistic platform to bring together the diverse German-speaking states. I like to think that they took to heart the role of the trickster in so many of the fairy tales they had gathered: having lost their jobs to a certain political vision, they found a way to incorporate that vision into their new work. They were wily and triumphant . . . in the long game.
It was an ambitious undertaking that outlasted both the Grimm brothers and many iterations of the modern German state– only seeing completion in 1961. Many decades, many unpronouncable German words, and 32 volumes later.
If you have read this blog over the years, you will know of my struggles with the German language. And you will know that I am in the good company of Mark Twain on that front. Still, the Deutsches Worterbuch was a remarkable undertaking that has my utmost respect. Many a day, the project must have felt like a hungry wolf at Jacob and Wilhelm’s backs. But that, my friends, is a little red story for another day.