MY LIFE – Normandy was wonderful

MY LIFE – Normandy was wonderful

I had been to Paris twice and it was nice, but Normandy was absolutely wonderful. It was everything I had hoped, but never expected it to be. Or as my daughter Barbara put it, “I thought they might have preserved a bit as it had been and the rest would have changed,” but it didn’t.

It was exactly as I had seen it in photos online, distinctive stone houses that butted right up against the sidewalks or roads with gated walls surrounding them, flowers everywhere, and mile after mile of fields full of wheat, corn, and leafy greens on either side of very narrow country roads with speed limits up to 60 and 70 miles per hour (90-100 kilometers, which sounds even scarier).

I know all of this because I just returned from a week out there, a gift from my daughters who, after our very enjoyable week in Quebec last year, had asked where I would like to go next. Without a moment’s hesitation, I had replied “Normandy.” And so, this year, that is where they took me.

People are funny about vacations, and the reactions I got when I told people where I was going were pretty much the same as in ’93 when I said I was going to Deadwood, South Dakota. Maybe not quite the same degree of stupefaction, but the same puzzlement, and the question “why?” this time followed by, “Oh, you want to see the D-Day beaches.”

The answer is more complex than that, because although Deadwood was a personal thing, Normandy was infinitely more personal.

In doing my genealogical research these past 40 years or so, I learned that many of my ancestors were originally from the Normandy area of France, and that my seventh great-grandfather, Claude Bouchard, was from the town of St.-Cosme-de-Vair, as were Louis Gasnier, my eighth great-grandfather, his wife, and their 2-year-old daughter Louise, whom Claude would marry years later in Quebec.

Claude was a young man when, accompanied by two friends, he left St. Cosme in 1650 and sailed from the port of Dieppe in search of a different life in what was then known as Nouveau-France. He married the aforementioned Louise 10 years later (yes, she was 12), they eventually had 12 children, and he died peacefully and was buried in Baie St. Paul, PQ in 1699. The rest, as they say, is history, with thousands of his descendants now living all over Canada and the U.S.

The idea of ever actually visiting his hometown in France was too fantastical to even dream of, but two weeks ago, there I was, with my daughters Barbara and Kathy and Kathy’s sister-in-law Cindye, walking on the ground he had once trod, visiting the grange built in the 1500s that he had known well in his day, and looking at the ancient church, parts of which dated back 1,000 years, where he had no doubt also worshipped.

We had landed in Paris, and then with Kathy behind the wheel of a rental car, made the four-hour drive to our gite (rented vacation home) in the country town of Lantheuil. To say it was lovely would be doing it an injustice. Restored from the remains of a 12th century building complete with its own wall and a gated entrance, it had been modernized enough to be comfortable without losing any of its charm.

And so we settled in for a week of living among the French, driving into the nearby town of Creully every day, picking up a fresh baguette and maybe a brioche from the bakery, fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer, and then a block or two further up the street to the local grocery store for the necessities of life such as milk, cheese, paté, and wine.

We drove out to Les Vergers de Ducy orchards and distillery where Calvados is made and where I was able to purchase effervescent apple juice that required popping the cork just like with wine or champagne, allowing me to look like one of the adults as we sat around our living room eating cheese and paté in the evenings.

We spent one day touring the area that contained Omaha and Utah Beach, Point au Hoc, and the American Cemetery. I had been there 12 years earlier with my sister Joan, but the whole area had changed in the interim, with extensive landscaping and a visitor’s center, none of which altered the heartbreaking solemnity of the place. Point au Hoc is where around 200 U.S. Rangers had scaled the rock-faced cliffs to rout the Germans who were dug in at its top. Only about 90 of them survived. The entire area has been preserved, minus the weaponry, with bunkers and bomb craters left as they were 75 years ago.

We spent another day, the hottest of the week ... probably of the year ... walking around the city streets of Bayeux (no, we did not see the famous tapestry, but we saw the cathedral ... from the outside) in temperatures that soared to 102.2 F. We were there primarily in search of a fromagerie. Normandy is famous for its cheeses and that day was all about cheese. We finally located the cheese shop and Kathy was able to buy enough cheese to constipate the lot of us for at least a week, before we finally climbed back into our air-conditioned car and headed back to the gite. We returned to Bayeux again the day before heading home because as it turns out, except for the D-Day beaches, it was the only touristy area around and we needed a few souvenirs besides the booze from Calvados to take home.

More about St. Cosme next week. It was amazing.

Rhea Bouchard Powers is a writer from Cumberland.