Thursday, December 31, 2009

Living History Touches Hearts Unexpectedly: A Postcard From France


Although this piece doesn't really fit in with my other posts on the Finger Lakes, I thought you would be interested in a little history lesson.

Everything about the Notre Dame Church, the focal point for the Mantes Jolie community in the Normandy region of France, is magnificent from its towering arches to its saintly statues.

Dating back from the end of the twelfth century, the church has stood proudly through history first being burned down by William the Conqueror in 1087 during a siege on the town that cost him his life. More recently in the twentieth century, the church remained intact while surrounding buildings were reduced to rubble after bombing raids in World War II.

It was in the narthex while my husband, Larry, was examining the old pictures depicting the devastation, when a sturdy woman in a navy cloth coat purposefully walked up to him and started talking animatedly in French, of course, but to no avail as neither he nor I could pick out more than one or two words. Yet the words that we heard—resistance and liberte—were part of what she was trying to say.

“You are thanking Americans for liberating you?” guessed Larry.

“Oui!”

Apologizing to her in English with some desperate sign language thrown in, we could do no better. We started out the door to meet up with our tour guide and the rest of the group, but she followed us with a determined look on her face. She marched right up to Nils, our guide, and initiated a lively conversation. At first puzzled, he regained his thoughts and began translating her message.

This lovely angelic looking lady probably in her late seventies or early eighties told us how much she appreciated what the American Armed Forces had done for France. She had not had bread for several years during the German occupation, and her first piece was from an American white loaf.

“Merci. Merci.” She nodded her head over and over.

She clasped her hands together and clapped to all of us spanning the entire group. As if that was not enough, she blew a kiss. What a moment of gratitude as she stood on the steps of the rebuilt hospital bombed during the war within a hundred yards of the church. As quickly as she had appeared, she walked off across the street head held high. We had never even thought to ask her name.

There wasn’t a sound uttered. We were simply stunned.

Nils had tears in his eyes when he explained that it isn’t uncommon to run into appreciative older people who lived through all the hardships of war. Although the younger generation like him has heard the stories, here was a person that had lived it first hand reminding us of our mutual history.

I don’t really remember what we did next because it took a little time to process what we had heard. That came later as Larry and I discussed it while having an espresso in a local cafĂ©.

“She had the same view of America as I have. We are good people, and do good things,” commented Larry. “ In recent years we have heard a lot about how we as Americans try to impose our way of life on others.”

Two strangers met in a church and cultures crossed briefly. That is the beauty of travel—not the food, the sights nor the museums, although they have their value, but a discovery when you are least expecting it. What leaves a lasting memory is that you have connected momentarily with a fellow human being.