Finding France, If Not the Language
Running my school’s French exchange was a social and geographical success: taking students and then family there introduced me to people and places in a lasting monolingual love-affair. I’d visited Paris on the educational exchange, journeying up the River Seine with pupils, but I got to the top of the Eiffel Tower with my girls – our trip to the Hard Rock Café another kind of pilgrimage where Conway Twitty’s white suit make-believed behind showcase glass. And I wasn’t after cheesburgers: when the Calvados was poured on that crêpe and torched until its edges charred, alcohol transcended flame to burn in my throat at a Honfleur restaurant where I wanted to eat outside as a busker sang Marvin Gaye. On Omaha Beach, sand was driven by wind and rain with the shoreline deserted and the otherwise quietness undisturbed. A cold chill pushed me towards that large engraved memorial stone to remind of my other home like a double chord played in the head, as if this should somehow harmonise and remind of those both living and dead. It was the very first school exchange which introduced me to Caen and Normandy, and the significance of the Second World War to those living there then and now. Visiting as part of The 10 Cities project organised by Devon Curriculum Advice and supported by a Euro budget, we took a small group of students for the educational experience and to make a film – all those made made in each city/country involved to be beamed to EU member states via the Olympus satellite. The Mémorial de Caen was a first introduction for me as well as our students to a profound meaningfulness of the horrors that took place there, and of course beyond – its flat expanse of concrete fronting the building like a Normandy plain where ghosts coloured the huge rectangle a faded headstone. This was considerably reinforced when we went to Pegasus (Bénouville) Bridge, hoping to film in the area, this the site of the first combat of the D-Day Invasion. It was there at the Café where we met its proprietor Arlette Gondrée – aged five at the time of the fight to secure the bridge – and asked if we could film in the surrounds. She informed us that no one was ever allowed to do this in her café, but learning a little about who we were and of our project she said she’d make an exception and we filmed a short segment inside, talking briefly with her. This is where the students and I learned of the deep sense of thankfulness there is for the liberation of that bridge, Madame conveying such with a palpable passion for my British students. I have never forgotten this moment, her sentiment asserting its message of empathy and belonging whenever I have heard warring charlatans intoning ‘sovereignty’ in their little-England narratives about Brexit.
(I hadn’t noticed the lone poppy outside the gate yesterday: the 6th June and the 77th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy. The above expresses my feelings about this history and comes from my memoir, soon to be released)