Memorial Day Amongst The Graves of Normandy and God’s Town of the Frying Pans

PART ONE

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.

Villedieu-les-Poêles

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.

A nifty portrayal of the Place de Republique back in the middle ages. Notice that the Church of Notre Dame anchored the town center then, just as it does today (pictured below).

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.

John McCrae’s poem was written after WWI, but it rings true as a remembrance for fallen soldiers of any era.

Strasbourg, France. . . once upon a time

On the border of France and Germany, in the enchanting region of Alsace, sits the ancient town of Strasbourg. She’s the sort of beauty that can bring tears to your eyes– really.  The ancient cathedral that pops up like a startled giant as you turn the corner of a tight, wending alley;  the rustic half-timbered houses that are painted in cheery colors as a brace against the moody fog of winter mornings in Europe; the myriad small, exquisite restaurants nestled into the tiny crannies of the old town; and the thriving modern art that pulses of youth and energy.  This is the town of Strasbourg to me.  A fairytale town, both in and out of time– existing somehow as a real, brick and mortar (or wattle and daub) city, but also, so clearly, a space of literal enchantment where you are transported back to a different time, a different world, both fabulous and fierce.

And this is one of the reasons why the terror attack this past week, on the edge of the Strasbourg Christmas market, strikes hard with a poignancy and earthy tragedy.  It shouldn’t happen in such a beautiful place.  Senseless violence in a fairytale city.  It shouldn’t happen.

But it has happened before in this place and others of its ilk.  Because what is the stuff of fairytales, anyway?  Dire cruelty always runs through their marrow: just after the achingly beautiful characters capture our hearts, just before we convince ourselves that there is a happily ever after, we get to the bones of the story.  And, there at the core, we find violence, malevolence, jealousy.  Ugliness.

Strasbourg has known its share of ugliness over the centuries: famine, border wars, plague, the German occupation of  WWII.  There was even The Dancing Plague of 1518– in true fairytale fashion, a plague that was by equal measures farcical and grotesque.  (Honestly, look it up– it’s a bizarre episode that has  zombie-overtones and a  possible psychogenic explanation.)

What I can’t decide today, my heart aching for Strasbourg (and for all of us in a world marred by cruelty), is whether this fairytale cycle of ugliness and hope, of cruelty and resilience, lifts me up in a moment of sadness or deflates my sense that our better angels will ever truly win out.

All I know is, while hope doesn’t prevent the ugliness, the cut to the bone, it refuses to end the narrative there.

 

Van Gogh: Prodigal Art

Art in the Autumn #2   — via Daily Prompt: Facade

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Stolen Van Goghs recovered, Associated Press

I woke up this morning to the news that two Van Gogh paintings, stolen 14 years ago, have been found in Italy.  (The news blurb can be found here.)  After 14 years, there was no expectation that these paintings would ever come back home to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, and it’s fair to say that the museum director was absolutely giddy with excitement when the news broke: “‘The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for,'” said museum director Axel Ruger. ‘We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years.'”

If Mr. Ruger had a fatted calf at hand, or if artwork was inclined to dine, for that matter, I’m sure a great feast would be in the works.   In fact, I imagine that a great feast and homecoming celebration are in the works anyhow–centering around the returning art, but fattening up the people who are ecstatic to welcome it.   How could you not celebrate the return of two Van Gogh paintings?  At the very least, you must revel in the return of the property: reportedly worth over 30 million dollars.  But beyond the quantifying, there is the qualifying value of Van Gogh.  The beauty, the daring, and  . . . that other thing about Van Gogh.  That thing, that hard to explain thing.    van-g-starry

Is it me, or is there something radically personal about Van Gogh and his art?  In every way, he and his art are prodigal.  And because of that, they are life.  Your life, my life, each moment of life that is extravagant.   The simple beauty of the crisp starry night that we had here in Florida last night– so mundane, I suppose, but so vibrant when you actually look up to notice it (and though the sky is not swirling, the breeze on your cheek gives the world that effect, if only you will notice).    van-gogh-1

Or the moment when you look in the mirror and actually see yourself today, as you are and without judgment, erasing the 20-some years of what you thought you looked like (and maybe  what you still look like in the right light, with your hair done just so, and your makeup expertly in place)– but at 50 years old, in the stark morning light, before you have raised your facade to meet the world, you find new movement to your face and new tones in your skin.  The jowls are sliding here, the eyes crinkle there, the furrows are surely evolving from expression lines to permanent fixtures.  You see the shade of your ancestors in your own face– and you recognize the movement and energy, and changing moods, of Van Gogh’s own self portraits.   (Some people try to uncover a descent into madness in his shifting self portraits– I see only lighting, only mood, only the natural movements and shifts of life. Changeable; life is nothing if not changeable.)

On the prodigality of his art, it is interesting to note that the two works that are returning home are early works– a traditional seascape and landscape with church.  They are lovely, but don’t show the hallmark of his later works–the lavish, thick paint (a month’s wages spent on one painting!) and movement that so well expresses mood and vigor.  If the earlier works capture moments in everyday life, the later works both capture and release those moments, those energies.

Sure, his work is pretty and bright, but that’s not what instills such fervor in his followers.  Why has my family pursued him in Paris, shadowed his footsteps in Arles, and greedily devoured his work in the form of a birthday cake?  What inspires that devotion?

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We shadowed his footsteps in Arles.

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We  devoured The Starry Night, in birthday cake form.

It’s the capture and release that gets us.  The energy remains.  We feel the life, experience the life, rather than just observing it.

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Self portrait, after ear mishap.

Or maybe it’s the sheer prodigality– in every sense.  Van Gogh went full throttle into his art–whole tubes of paint smeared across a canvas, skies that move and refuse to stand still  on a static canvas, and his proclivity for running headlong into his own canvases (on good days and bad, with ear or without).  Full throttle.

Did you know that Van Gogh left school early (out of financial necessity) to work as a dealer in an art gallery?  When that life turned sour, he threw himself into his faith and began to teach and then minister in the Church.  But in time it was clear that he didn’t fit the Church’s mold and he was released from his post.  He turned back to art, but as an artist, not a dealer.  Full throttle, he painted himself into the canvas, he became the creator.  

But, eventually, disaster.  The well told tale is of an unstable artist who died at his own hand, mad and destitute.  But that’s just one narrative, and recent investigations have brought that story into question. . . because, even in death, he won’t stand still.  Prodigals have a way of returning.

And, today, we can celebrate the fact that their art does too.

In the streets of Arles.
In the streets of Arles.

 

Throwback Thursday: Van Gogh

Café Terrace at Night

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Left: Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (on Place du Forum)  Arles, 1888

Right:  Same spot,  ‘Le Café La Nuit’ on Place du Forum in daylight, Arles, 2016

The spot may be less picturesque on a bright spring morning in 2016, but it’s still vibrant enough to cast its light into the darker streets.  Notice the yellow shirt on the passerby?  In my mind, it’s really a plain white tee that takes the gold cast once he steps within the fabled space of the Café Terrace .  After he strolls on past,  it resumes its ho-hum identity as a plain white tee.  (How could it possibly be otherwise?)

A little Van Gogh magic– it’s powerful stuff.