We spent the weekend anxious and unsettled. We were worried about the Judgment of History.
What will Wikipedia say about us in the year 5000…about the US…about our wars and our economy? Will we even rate a footnote?
Not that we know more than anyone else. But it amuses us to imagine it…guessing that history will be a shrewder judge than today’s analysts.
We had time to think about it inasmuch as we were captive on the W B Yeats…a ferry making its way from Dublin to Cherbourg over 18 hours…and then spent another six hours in solitary reflection, driving down to our house south of Poitiers.
We’re pleased to report that life on the W B Yeats has returned to normal. We took it often from Ireland to the continent…and it was always a pleasure. But during the lockdowns, the vessel was almost deserted…plying the North Atlantic like a ghost ship. On Saturday, though, it was back to its old self — jolly and comfortable.
There are four categories of travellers: young families, retired couples, Polish truck drivers, and lovers.
It’s vacation season, young Irish families head for warmer temperatures in France. Some, with trailers attached to their cars, will drive all the way down to Spain or Italy. On Saturday, children of all ages ran around the decks, scarcely supervised. No doubt, when the heads were counted on arrival in France, a few must have been missing, having fallen overboard somewhere off Land’s End.
There were French retirees, too, coming home from their holidays on the Emerald Isle. You can’t mistake the French; their clothes are much cooler, chic-er, than the Irish. The women wear scarves and are so elegantly turned out that they could walk off the boat directly into a garden party. They are thinner too…and look like they have been dressed in at the Bonmarche especially for their trip.
The Polish truck drivers, meanwhile, have taken the trip so often, it must have lost its charm. They gather in the ‘Truckers Bar’…eat and drink copiously…and then retire to their staterooms to rest.
It was the lovers — perhaps on their honeymoon — who caught our eye. A pair of them is sitting in front of us as we write. He’s hefty…and not so young. He eats a dessert or two…drinks a large glass of Guinness, and then another, to flush them down. He has a goatee beard, glasses…and dark hair.
She is his opposite. Model-thin…blonde…with nothing to eat in front of her. She has passed the first blush of youth, too. But the two act as if they had just found love for the first time in their lives. He holds her tight. They look out at the sea. He strokes her shoulder. He kisses her on her lightly fleshed cheek. He caresses her narrow neck. He is the ardent lover; she the object of his affection.
Oh my…now he’s tousling her hair…and whispering in her ear…
…we’re going to have to move…this is too distracting!
The D-Day route
The voyage begins in the late afternoon. The custom is to assemble in the bar, have tea, and watch the ship pull out of Dublin Harbour. Then, we settle into our cabins and prepare for dinner, a civilised affair in a nice restaurant. After dinner, we re-join our accommodations, and spend the night in maritime serenity…rocked gently to sleep by the swells of the North Atlantic.
In the morning we went back to the restaurant for breakfast…and there were the lovebirds again…looking a little tired. Perhaps the Moonlit night had not brought them the same quiet repose as it has afforded us!
Soon, it was time to disembark. Our job — and the real purpose of the trip — was to bring our old horse van back to France where it would undergo treatment for old age and malfunction. So upon hearing the captain’s command, we found our vehicle on a lower deck and made our way out onto dry land…at Cherbourg. Soon after, we were driving down the Cotentin Peninsula on our way to Poitou.
The main road out of Cherbourg is long and straight. It’s the same route taken by the US Army in the Second World War. For this is near where US and allied troops landed on D-Day…and then found themselves bottled up on the peninsula. Nowhere else on Earth have dead people been turned into such a tourist attraction. Signposts advertise the American cemetery…the German cemetery…the Canadian cemetery along the way. Billboards offer to help us ‘Relive the D-Day Experience’.
Our old friend Stanley, a carpenter with whom we worked in the 1960s, had no desire to relive that experience. He had lived it the first time, in 1944. As a young soldier, he landed at Omaha Beach.
‘Stanley’, we once asked him, ‘What was it like? What were you thinking?’.
‘I wasn’t thinking a damned thing. I just was running as fast as I could to get across that beach. We were sitting ducks out there.’
US and allied forces landed at beaches all up and down the peninsula — Omaha, Utah, Pointe du Hoc…and built a makeshift harbour at Arromanches. At Sainte Mere Eglise, US paratroopers from the 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment came down right on top of the Germans. Local resistance fighters had set out flares to guide them, but one of the flares set a house on fire and the light from the fire helped the Germans see the parachutes coming down. Many soldiers were riddled with bullets before they got near the ground.
Private John Marvin Steele was one of the lucky ones. His parachute got tangled up on a church spire. Hanging on the side of the church, he played dead. He was soon captured by the Germans…but escaped in the confusion. His story was recalled in the movie The Longest Day.
None of the objectives for D-Day were achieved. But Allied troops and materiel kept coming and they were eventually able to fight their way down the peninsula and break out across the open roads of Normandy.
In search of lost time
Today, there are museums all along the way, including a museum dedicated to the civilians caught up in the war. There’s also a museum for the Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating another invasion across the same English Channel, but in the opposite direction. In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, crossed the channel and conquered England.
But we had no time for museums. We were driving south.
After the Second World War France enjoyed a marvellous period of peace and growth. There was a 30-year boom — known as the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ — when everything in France seemed to work well. Indoor plumbing, central heating, and mechanised farming became widespread. French cinema, fashion, and technology were widely admired and copied. France even anticipated the internet by more than 20 years with its ‘Minitel’. French food, too, was regarded as the best in the world.
Warren, another old friend of ours, had been a Second World War photographer and later worked for Look magazine. He moved to Paris in the 1950s.
‘Those were the wonderful years’, he recalled, wistfully, many years later. ‘France was cheap. It was open and dynamic…and the quality of life was unmatched.’
‘Every year, we would motor down to the South for the summer season. We had a Citroen DS…you know, those wedge-shaped cars…one of the wheels could fall off and it would keep running.
‘We would stop at nice restaurants along the way. It would take a few days to get down to Nice, but it was worth it.’
‘When you “motored” to the South’, Warren continued reminiscing.
‘You would organize your itinerary so as to arrive in the best restaurants for lunch or dinner. There were a lot to choose from…and bars and brasseries too. You would stop for lunch…spend a couple of hours eating…drink a bottle or two of wine…a white to begin, followed by a rich Burgundy or Bordeaux with the meat course…and, of course, later, a shot of cognac with a cigar…That was really living’.
‘Motoring’ to the South was very different from what we were doing on Sunday. We were headed south, but we weren’t motoring. We took the highways…the ‘autoroutes’…and only left them to stop for gas or a cup of coffee.
‘Everybody is in a hurry today’, Warren explained.
‘Nobody has the time to “motor” anywhere. And they don’t have the time for a good meal. It’s fast travel and fast food…the faster the better.’
In four hours, driving our horse van, we crossed much of France, from Cherbourg to Tours…then south of the Loire River. Almost all of it was done at about 70 miles per hour…and almost all on the auto-route, paying tolls in exchange for avoiding traffic lights.
It was only after we got off the highway and passed the magnificent Chateau de Touffou, where David Ogilvy lived his final years, that we saw the traces of the Trente Glorieuses. Now we were on secondary roads, passing through small towns with their restaurants, bars, and gas stations — where people used to gather in the evening — now all closed.
In 1981, Francois Mitterrand was elected president. His government nationalised key industries and imposed a system of controls and regulations that have bedevilled the French ever since. The economy slowed down…but the pace of life picked up. People no longer had the time for ‘motoring’. They took the new freeways, as we did, racing to their next destination. Nor did they feel they had the time…or perhaps the money…or the taste…to appreciate a couple of hours of mid-day dining. Restaurants soon found their traditional customers ‘too busy’ to enjoy a leisurely meal. Fast food replaced fine food.
And then, the small, quality restaurants began to go out of business. Now, in many towns in France, as in the US, it’s hard to find a good restaurant.
In the 1990s, David Ogilvy invited us for dinner. He was perhaps the greatest ‘ad man’ who ever lived. We were flattered…and keen to meet him. But we were busy and had to put it off…and then, finally, when we were ready to get together, it was too late. We came for dinner and found that David was indisposed, his wife explained that he had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and no longer socialised. A few months later, he was dead.
‘Tout casse, tout passe’, say the French. Everything breaks and goes away.
For The Daily Reckoning Australia