Monday, August 10, 2009

Bordeaux - St. Lo (Pt. XXI)

Note to readers: This is the twenty-first part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XX here.

French border guards waved me through when I pulled out my American passport. They couldn't be bothered.

These were the early days of November: the skies were cloudy, the temperatures, cool. Winter was approaching. Days grew shorter and colder. In my spirit there grew a wistful anticipation that my time on the road, my soul-searching pilgrimage, my Grand European Tour, was coming to its end. But not yet . . . not quite yet.

I went to Bordeaux in the Aquitaine: famous for its wine and moderate climate.

Neanderthal came to the region, long ago, as evidenced by the cave discovered in 1881, where muscle-bound slow-witted Neanderthals buried their dead 80 thousand years before. But Cro Magnon, who came later, had little tolerance for competitive species, even older biological cousins. And so, Neanderthal went the way of the woolly mammoth and the mastodon and the saber-toothed tiger:  fallen before the onslaught of those who came in the wake of retreating ice.

The Celts settled the area around 300 BC, a mere two centuries ahead of marauding Roman legions, who subjugated and enslaved in order to control the tin and lead abundant in the area. Then the Romans too passed away. The Celts remain.

For me, Bordeaux was a brief sojourn. I hopped off the train, had a look around, made a quick pass through the museum, where French-only exhibits had little to offer. I knew already about Eleanor of Aquitaine and her role in the struggle for the throne of England. Eleanor wed Henry II in a political marriage that, nonetheless, produced children, including closeted homosexual Richard, Coeur de Lyon, and much-maligned King John. Richard and John were pawns in the high-stakes game between their parents. Eleanor spent most of her marriage locked up in a tower. Henry (schemer par excellence) knew well that softhearted kings were most often revered posthumously.

I went in search of companionship to a restaurant somewhere along the way. I entered, was greeted by a waiter. "S'il vous plaît, monsieur, parlez-vous l'anglais?" I inquired.

"Non," he said. He shook his head and turned away.

"L'espagnol?" I inquired.

"Non!" he replied, favoring me with a condescending smile. I spoke no French. He was through with me. I shrugged and left, angry.

Janelle, moi, et Rob
 But I found another place, where they were showing American basketball on the television and, where I met an Australian father and daughter (Rob and Janelle) touring France together. We shared pleasant conversation and food. They thought I was American Indian. I didn't deny it . . . they seemed to want it so much.

I spent one night in a drab hotel room. In the morning, I walked through a nearby open-air market where I haggled with an African immigrant over a hat to replace the one I had left in the church in Bergen. And then, I was back on the train. I was on my way to St. Lo where I hoped to see the Normandy beaches.


Normandy was where Eisenhower swallowed hard and pulled the trigger. Even that late in the war, he still feared the mighty Wehrmacht. He needn't have fretted so much. The cream of the German war machine was even then being destroyed on the Russian steppes, a thousand miles and more to the east. Never to diminish their bravery, but those GIs, Brits and Canadians, were facing mostly conscripted Ukrainians or Byelorussians.

On arrival, my hopes for a battlefield tour were dashed quickly enough. The beaches, Omaha, Juno, Sword, Gold, and Utah, are separated by miles. And I with no car, nor  desire to rent one, settled instead for a walk around the town. Just to see.

Memorial to Allied troops in WWII
St. Lo was the nerve center for Wehrmacht defense against the Allied beachhead. For six weeks, they fought in hedgerows. Pitiless fighting. St. Lo herself was reduced to rubble. Now, 50 years later, she is a nondescript little town in gentle French farmland.

St. Lo
The big rugby match was on tayvay when I went to the hotel to book a room. The clerk behind the desk would not be bothered, so intent was he on the game: France versus Australia with the World Cup at stake. Here is a key, monsieur. Go, go. You can pay tomorrow. His eyes never left the television screen.

Alas, France lost the match. When I arose the next morning to catch the train to Paris, there was nary a soul to be seen at the desk. I set the key on the counter and left. I'm sorry France lost, mes amis déçus. But merci for the complimentary night's rest. I am off to Paris. Au revoir.

To be continued...

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