and why I like chocolate pastries for breakfast
On the map, Belfast and Caen are only a few inches apart. Enough to fit your thumb between. The bottom part of England is squeezed between the two, with some little bits of water cutting through it all. So you'd think I could make my way from one to the other in no time at all.
I left the dorm in Belfast at 8 in the morning and got to Caen (one time zone further away) at about 9 at night. Chalk most of it up to waiting and running around: first to drop off the dorm key, then to drop off Neal's bags at a friend's, then a half-hour to the bus depot, and hour to Belfast International, and a 2-hour wait for the plane. Then it was an hour and a half to Paris, an hour's ride down to l'Opera (where I caught a glimpse of the beautiful Lafayette and Printemps Christmas displays), an hour's wait for the train, and finally two hours to Caen.
I stayed at a small and very cosy place called Hotel St. Etienne. I arrived to find a guest refusing to leave the room I booked, and an apologetic receptionist offering me a bigger room for two nights at the same price. Bonus! I got a double room with full bathroom for 23 Euro a night. It was a typical European hotel: a tight winding staircase, worn wood stairs, cramped but clean quarters, and views onto one of the most incredible cities in the world. My last two nights were spent in the room I booked originally - the attic. I had to bend into the last bit of staircase, and then again to get through the door. I could stand up fully in only two places in the room, and could just about put my feet up on the bed from the cleverly placed commode. But the view! The view! I popped my head out the skylight to find myself on the rooftop, with the pigeons and antennas, looking out onto the rooftops and across to the Abbeye des Hommes just a few streets away. It was breathtaking, like something out of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I giggled the whole way up the staircase at the sheer wonder and strangeness of it all.
My first day there I'd planned to just walk around and get my bearings. But one thing led to another, and before you know it I was on the bus to Courselles-sur-Mer, an hour away. Such a beautiful ride through the countryside, scattered with memorials and war cemeteries and fields and sheep, sheep, sheep. And then we turned the corner at Luc-sur-Mer and there it was, the English Channel, so incredibly blue and vast and unexpected - something I'd waited so long to see. Turns out it was one of many times that I completely misread the (incredibly complicated) bus schedule, and the kind driver offered to drive me up to the Juno Beach Centre as I was the last passenger at the last stop. A winding walk around the sailboat canal and across a parking lot and there it was, the first D-Day beach I've ever seen, not the one my Grandfather landed on but still a Canadian landing point and still something beyond words, almost sacred. I collected shells for each of the cousins, a film canister of sand, pictures of the waves, the beach, the leftover bunkers, the memorial markers. I wrote my Grandfather's name in the sand at my Grandmother's request, and headed back to the city centre to catch the bus back. The Juno Centre, closed for lunch, would have to wait till my next visit on Friday.
The next few days I walked myself out. That tends to be the way I travel alone - going round and round and round (what's with European cities and their need to build streets in a circle around the main square?) and getting lost, walking until my feet and my legs are cramped and I'm so hungry I can't see straight to find food. But I saw William the Conquerer's castle (turns out you can't actually visit inside the castle - there is no inside. Most was blown to bits during WWII) and the Abbey des Hommes, where 10,000 Caen civilians spend the D-Day invasion and the months that followed. There were knicks and holes and missing pieces leftover from the fighting.
I also spent a day at Memorial - Cean's 'Museum for Peace' - which gave the history of WWII and the repercussions of war on civilians and the rest of the world. I saw pictures of Caen after the invasion - nothing but a few broken walls, with rubble piled high in the streets. It was unrecognizable as a city, and I wondered how they managed to build it all back up again. I looked, as I always do, for pictures of my Grandfather everywhere. I don't know why - what are the chances I'd see him, one soldier among so many? But I though I caught a glimpse of someone who looked just like him on an old roll of film, and I didn't stay to watch it again to make sure. I liked keeping the idea that it might be him.
On November 11th (which turns out to be a holiday in France, BTW), I headed out to Juno Beach again, this time for the Remembrance Day ceremonies. I met up with Canadians all along the way - some from Toronto, Sherbrooke, Victoria. We were all headed the same way, a busfull of Canadians in the middle of Normandy. Because the busses only ran in the afternoon for the holiday (unbeknownst to all of us), we had only about a half hour to explore the museum. I wish I'd had more time, or stayed later the Tuesday before. The Ceremony itself was beautiful: people came from across the beach towns, there were French veterans and school kids who sang each national anthem. During the two minutes of silence, I closed my eyes and heard the waves, the seagulls, the wind. I don't even have the word to describe it.
At the reception afterwards, a woman from a nearby town came by to chat with us. I mentioned to her that my Grandfather had landed at St-Aubin-sur-Mer on D-Day, and - due to distance and crazy bus schedules - I simply didn't get out to see the beach. And in a flash she was pulling me out to her car, this nice elderly lady, talking a mile a minute and whizzing us down the road. I had about 45 minutes to catch my bus, and in that time we saw the beach, the memorial, the road the soldiers took, the town, her B&B. She gave me a collection of postcards her son made using Canadian memorabilia washed up on the beach, and I collected a quick rock and another film canister of sand.
It was surreal, perfect. My trip had saved the best for last.