© 2009, 2021 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
I had business in Paris, after which it was playtime in Normandy, followed by more free time back in Paris.
Heading to Caen
It was a cold and rainy December day in Paris. My taxi arrived at my hotel, and as I got in, I noticed that the meter started at nearly €10. Holy frog's legs! It took us 15 minutes to get to Gare Saint Lazare station where, after some searching, I found the main ticket office. A very pleasant woman sold me a one-way, First-Class ticket to Caen. The next train was in 30 minutes, but the track number was only announced 15 minutes before departure, so everyone stood by the main departure board waiting. Voila, up came Track 23 for Cherbourg with Caen as the first stop. For a pleasant change, the First-Class carriages were the closest and I boarded helping a young mother with her luggage.
The carriage was very nicely appointed, and I grabbed a single seat by the window, facing forward. We pulled out right on time at 13:10 and after a slow start through the inner city, we soon picked up speed. The sun broke through and came right in my window no doubt making a halo around my saintly head! A Malaysian man sat in front of me, and along the way, he shared his English-language newspaper with me.
We had a smooth ride through the countryside and the carriage was nice and quiet. We passed numerous lakes, rivers, streams, and evergreen and deciduous forests. The farms all had manicured fields of green with cattle, sheep, horses, and even some donkeys. One farm had quite a few miniature horses, which was appropriate, as it was only a small farm! On one farmhouse roof sat a team of reindeer pulling a sleigh. We passed through numerous villages and one large town. Quite a few homes looked like gingerbread houses. As we got closer to Caen, I saw several clusters of wind turbines. First, there were 14, then 16, and then another six, most of which had their 3-blade propellers turning. The weather improved as the day progressed, and by the time I reached Caen, the sun was out.
Caen and Surrounds
We arrived in Caen, right on time. I exited the train station and crossed the street to the tram stop. The two lines were laid fewer than 10 years ago. The instructions for buying a ticket were in French only, but after I watched a few locals go through the process I had it figured out. The fare was a flat €1.20, which was a pleasant surprise. I rode to the stop called Académie in the town of Herouville Saint-Clair. My host had emailed me directions and a local map, and everything went well to that point. However, it took me some time to reconcile the local directions with the town map at the tram stop. Once I figured that out, it took 15 minutes to walk to the house of Jean-Claude and Brigitte. A few raindrops fell along the way.
Brigitte and her husband had been members of Servas International for more than 30 years, but had not had any guests for more than two years. She showed me to my room in the basement with a work desk, high-speed internet connection, and bathroom all to myself away from the others. Soon after, Jean-Claude came home and chatted a bit. He was a mechanical engineer by training, but now worked with a lot of information technology. He had numerous interests including beekeeping, alternative energy sources, and the problems facing poorer countries. Brigitte worked in integrated-circuit production. A year earlier, she reluctantly gave up ballet. They had three children, aged 25, 22, and 19, and the youngest, Tony, lived at home. The parents were a few years younger than me.
Around 17:00, nine people arrived for a 2-hour bible study program. (Jean-Claude was a Huguenot.) Several brought food, and after they ended their discussion we shared some strong—as in, alcoholic—apple cider (Normandy is a major apple producer), some savory snacks, some cake that contained bits of ham, and a traditional Normandy dessert consisting of rice baked for six hours in milk and cinnamon. After the guests left, we managed to squeeze in a small supper of split pea soup and bread. Jean-Claude and I talked until late.
[Next Day] For breakfast, we had large bowls of tea that one lifted with both hands, and toasted bread rolls with margarine and honey from Jean-Claude's bee hives. Throughout, the rain was very heavy, but it soon eased.
Mid-morning, Jean-Claude drove me to the famous Pegasus Bridge and the adjacent museum. On the evening of June 5 1944—the day before D-Day—British forces in gliders and parachutes landed in the general area to pave the way for the invasion force in Operation Overlord the next day. One of the main missions of the advanced party was to destroy most bridges and to capture, and stop the Germans from destroying, three important bridges that the allied forces would need to get inland from the coast. The Pegasus Bridge was one that was to be saved and it was the first target captured. Three gliders landed right next to it with 28 soldiers in each. (Three others landed not far away.) They captured the bridge and crossed it, and the house on the other side was the first one liberated in the Battle of Normandy. The restaurant now opposite that house was called "Les 3 Planeurs," that is, "The 3 Gliders."
Some years ago, the original bridge was replaced with one that opened up to let larger boats go up the canal. The old bridge was moved to land nearby and a museum was added. It was most interesting and included a 10-minute film about the landing and capture. We walked around the grounds, which contained half of an original glider fuselage (made entirely of wood) and a full-size replica of a glider. At the bookstore, I bought some brochures and a "cricket," a small metal clicker that the invading force members used to signal each other.
After lunch, my hosts dropped me off at the "The Memorial, a Centre for History." I started out with a 35-minute film on the Battle of Normandy. The very large screen was split vertically with different original black and white movie footage shown on each side. One side showed the Allies preparing and executing the landing while the other showed things from the German perspective. Original and augmented sound made it very realistic, and I kept thinking of the opening scenes of the Tom Hanks film, "Saving Private Ryan." In one especially moving scene, the gun cameras of a German fighter showed allied soldiers literally being "mown down" as the plane raced along the beach with guns-a-blazing. Then halfway through the run the film cut to the present day in a light aircraft going at low altitude up the same pristine beach all in color. Then it switched back to the fighter's deadly run. There was no dialogue to speak of just the original English and German in some scenes and a few titles and newspaper headlines. The soundtrack was quite loud and very effectively portrayed the "fog of war." To be sure, it was a stunning start to my visit.
From there, I moved to a display called, "The Failure of Peace (1918–1939)." That involved walking down a gentle spiral ramp reading text and looking at photos on a timeline for that period.
Next came an interesting exhibit on the Cold War and I spent quite some time reading the text (which was shown in French, English, German, and occasional bits of Russian). I was especially impacted by the following paragraph: "The Allies, united against Hitler during World War II, were soon to split in two antagonistic blocs (1947–1991). On the one hand, the USA, whose ambition was to win over the world to its liberal model and establish a social order based on the law of supply and demand, private enterprise and faith in God. Against this messianic stance, on the other, the Soviet offspring of Marxism-Leninism promoted the idea of a fair deal for all in the best of godless worlds. In a state-run, planned economy, the individual gave way to the collective. The classless ideal of the Soviet giant and its satellites faced American hedonism."
Some exhibits were temporary and a new one had recently opened for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was most interesting. I browsed in the bookstore until the museum closed at 18:00 and after nearly four hours there I stepped out into the cold night air and walked several hundred meters to the bus stop.
Back home, I entered a nice warm house with wonderful smells coming from kitchen. Supper was served soon afterwards, and we had soup with bread and cheese—Normandy is the home of one of my favorites, Camembert—and salad with oil-of-walnut dressing.
[Next Day] I got off the tram at stop Saint-Pierre right in the heart of town and there right by the stop was a bank with a cash machine. And it was every so ready to hand over €240. (Don't you just love that when that happens!) Next on my To-Do list was to visit the town tourist office to see if there was anything special going on. Well, don't you know, a sign on the door said it was closed on Mondays. (Don't you just hate that!) As I was translating the sign, a couple came up to get information as well. He was Irish, and she was French, from Breton, the neighboring province. They lived in Dublin, Ireland. We exchanged local information and went our separate ways although I did bump into them several times more around the town. (In 2010, I stayed several nights with them in Dublin.) Fortunately, I had enough maps and information, so I headed off.
I walked some back streets and came across a Christmas market, but it was still being set up and nothing was open. Right opposite I spied a bakery that opened out onto the street and although I really didn't need to eat anything, the food looked so good and the food sirens called me over. Resistance was futile, so I bought a baguette with ham, cheese, and tomato, which the young woman toasted lightly on a grill. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled! Ten minutes later, I was at the Hotel de Ville (town hall), an impressive building. I went in, got some tourist brochures, and sat in a nice warm lounge reading about the things I was about to see.
First stop was Abbaye-aux-Hommes (Men's Abbey) and the adjoining abbey church Saint-Etienne, which William the Conqueror started building in 1064. He was buried there in 1087 and I paid my respects telling him that he wouldn't believe how the Brits had let things go since his day. And except for the Channel Islands, they didn't even own Normandy anymore! And as for their international cricket team, well "girly men" came to mind! I took photos of some great stained-glass windows.
Next, it was back across town and up a hill to Abbaye-aux-Dames (yes, you guessed it, Women's Abbey). That was the creation of William's wife, Mathilda. It was a much smaller affair, but then she wasn't Mathilda the Conqueror either! She was buried there in 1083.
William was born illegitimate and took over as Duke of Normandy at age eight. He married Mathilda, a distant cousin, against the wishes of the pope, and later, William built the two churches as a sort of penance to get back in the graces of Rome. Of course, that all happened before he hopped across Le Manche (the English Channel) and kicked Harold's butt at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. (The battle actually took place at Battle some six miles inland. Soon after, William authorized the construction of Battle Abbey on the edge of the battlefield.)
I went back down the hill to mid-town and there dominating the center set on a rocky hill was The Château. William built it as his fortified castle and lived in a palace in the grounds. I spent time in the small but interesting "Museum of Normandy," which traced occupation of the area from way back in pre-history. I stopped in at the bookstore and bought booklets on William and Caen. I also toured a small exhibition on the reconstruction of Caen after WWII. (Apparently, 75% of the town was destroyed.) The churches and castle were impressive, and made even more so as admission to all was free.
Light rain fell as I left the castle and headed back into the shopping zone. I stopped off at a Spar Markt (a German convenience store-cum-mini supermarket chain) to do a little shopping. I looked over all the shelves of products not so much as to buy but rather to have a basic French vocabulary lesson. I bought a mid-priced bottle of red wine for my hosts, a bottle of tawny port from Portugal for me, two blocks of Milka hazelnut chocolate, and a bag of salted peanuts. That pretty much took care of my four food groups!
I had a 3-minute wait for my tram home, and managed to get a seat. A few raindrops fell as I walked home. By 16:00, I was dressed down, sipping coffee, eating chocolate, and working on this diary. It had been another good day and I'd covered all I'd planned. I got comfortable on the lounge and read one of my new booklets, on William the Conqueror, while sipping a small glass of port. The wine was adequate, which meant I had only four small glasses in the evening.
Brigitte came home from work, and we talked while she prepared supper, a bacon and egg pie baked in the oven. Cream is a major food in Normandy and the egg was whipped into lots of it. Brigitte went off to a yoga class, and Tony ate early as he had guitar lesson. Jean-Claude had been in Paris all day at a meeting, so he came home late, and he and I ate together while sipping glasses of port. We talked about many things. Everyone was back home by 21:00, and Tony gave us a little concert on his acoustic guitar. Lights out at 23:00.
[Next Day] Breakfast consisted of tea and bread with jam and honey. By 08:15, everyone was out the door, and I packed my gear. It was moving day. Some high-priority email had arrived, so I slipped into work mode for a bit. By 09:15, I was packed and ready for my 09:30 pickup. It was 7 degrees C out and calm although more than a little rain had fallen during the night.
Moving to a New Host
My next host, Martine, arrived right on time, and we drove to her house where we talked over coffee. I unpacked in my nice room, which had a big skylight that let the sun right in on me as I sat at a work desk. At 12:30, we lunched on breast of turkey with mushrooms in cream followed by fresh fruit. Martine was a retired librarian who kept busy on numerous projects. She had a steady stream of guests via Servas (mostly young people), and she provided housing for immigrants without papers. Mid-afternoon, she had a meeting during which I settled down to several hours of work.
Rain fell steadily but at 16:00, we decided to go for a walk anyway. We went to the canal and then along it for quite some distance before finishing at a retired friend's house. He invited us in for tea. We hung our wet coats in front of his nice big fire. Another friend was also visiting him, and we all chatted for some time before we were driven home. It was still raining gently.
Back home we worked at the dining table, Martine writing Christmas letters and me working on this diary. We sipped glasses of port to stimulate our creativity. Early evening, Martine's friend, also called Martine, arrived to join us for dinner. She was a retired teacher of children aged 5–10. We ate fresh-made crepes, filling them with cheese, ham, or applesauce, and washed them down with some strong apple cider. We talked of many things.
Later, I read an English-language newspaper that catered to the large and growing population of expat Brits living in France. (In Normandy alone, it was estimated that they owned 11,000 properties, and with a planned 10% increase in top-income tax brackets in the UK slated to start soon even more were considering a move across The Channel.)
[Next Day] I had a nice, large, comfortable bed and I slept quite well. And I was almost enthusiastic about getting up when my alarm went off at 08:00. By 09:00, I was seated in the kitchen sipping a cup of Joseph Tetley's finest tea and having a French vocabulary lesson from the teabag box. Several slices of toast with strawberry and pomegranate jam and a glass of grapefruit juice rounded out the fare. I read a few brochures in preparation for the day's adventure.
Mid-morning, we drove north to the coast and went west to the village of Colleville sur Mer, the location of one of the two US war cemeteries in Normandy. I talked at length with the young Frenchwoman at the information desk and once she figured I was really interested she opened her "private" drawer and gave me a detailed booklet on that cemetery as well as one that gave an overview of all 24 spread around the world in some 15 countries.
We started the tour with a film that followed the lives of several soldiers who died there and included interviews with members of their families. Next came a walk through a large set of panels each with text and photos and/or video about some aspect of the whole landing and push east. I found one story in particular very interesting. It was about the four Niland brothers. Two were killed at Normandy, and a third was captured in the Pacific. A fourth was also in the armed forces but the military command had him shipped home. This formed the basis of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan."
The rain was still coming down steadily and as it didn't look like easing off we headed out with our rain gear. The cemetery was located on a plateau 100 meters higher than the beach and 1 km inland. We walked down a path that lead to the dunes and then out onto Omaha Beach, which along with Utah Beach were the two US beachheads during the invasion. It would have been a challenge to go from landing craft through the shallow water 100 meters across the open beach to the low dunes and then up the hill even without having someone shooting at you!
Back up the top, we walked to a large memorial then out to the edge of the cemeteries. Some 10,700 Americans were buried there. As with my previous visits to US war cemeteries—in Luxembourg and the Netherlands—it was a very moving experience. After that, I had no interest in visiting any of the invasion museums in the area, as they were somewhat commercial and romantic about the whole episode, not to mention full of cheap souvenirs.
We started talking about how a bowl of soup and bread would be good right about then, so we set out to find a restaurant. Being low season there were few tourists out and almost all eating-places were closed. We finally found one open in the heart of the village of Arromanches, site of the Canadian landing at Juno Beach. (We'd passed the British Gold Beach on the way, and their Sword Beach was just a little further east.) We each had a rather good omelet. Just in front of where we parked we could see ruins out in the water of the temporary "Mulberry Harbor" breakwater and docking facility that the allies brought with them and assembled there as part of the invasion.
Back in Bayeux, we stopped by the museum for several hours to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It was 70 meters long and 1 meter high and was made around 1070. In 68 panels, it depicts the events up to and during William the Conqueror's invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings. Included in the admission price was an audio wand in a variety of languages. The narration was most interesting. We also toured an exhibit on the life and times of Normandy in that period. I stopped in at the bookstore to rescue a booklet on the Domesday Book (inventory of England) that William commissioned in 1085.
By the time we drove home, it was quite dark and there was heavy traffic and rain. Once inside, we hung up our wet clothes and sipped glasses of port to warm us up a bit. Just for something completely different, I picked up a book Martine had on the invented international language Esperanto and gave myself a lesson. Not long after, a series of guests arrived, and we chatted over glasses of port. One brought a large bowl of soup that she'd made, and we ate that with bread, cheese, and pâté. Afterwards, the group started a meeting of a charitable activity with which they were all involved, and I retired to my room to write up this diary to the sounds of Andrea Bocelli.
On to Avraches
[Next Day] Martine's friend, Monique, a medical doctor, joined us for lunch. I spent several more hours writing in my room. Then at 16:00, Martine drove me to the Caen railway station where we chatted for 15 minutes before saying our goodbyes. It had been another great hosting experience. As I waited for my train, a young woman sat next to me with her pet carrier basket. I thought she had a cat, but when she opened it on her lap out popped Gary the very fluffy rabbit. They were off to visit her parents who apparently just adored Gary.
Train number 52817 arrived at Track D, and I boarded. My carriage was very nicely appointed and even had vertical racks in which up to six bicycles could hang. We headed northwest and then south stopping at Bayeux, Lison, St.-Lo, Courtances, and Folligny.
We arrived in Avraches right on time, at 19:07; so far, so good. I got off the train and went into the station. I found a timetable on the wall and looked at the possibility of going closer to Mont Saint Michel the next day by train. However, as I was writing down some notes the stationmaster came over to tell me that she was locking up the station. Fortunately, there was another timetable posted outside. I turned around to see how to get into town as someone in their infinite wisdom had built the station some distance from the town, or vice versa. And there right in front of me was a thick fog. Don't you just hate that when that happens! Just then, an African man came waltzing over from a house across the street desperately in need to help me despite the fact that he didn't speak any English. Then he called over his friend who was quite drunk, but who tried hard to help by flapping his arms to show me that the shortest way into the city center was to fly. Very funny, I thought and thanked them for their wisdom.
I headed out on what looked like the exit road and just when I thought I was lost, right out of the fog shone the beacon of "Our Lady of the Hamburger," McDonalds. Yes, I was back in civilization or perhaps in Heaven! Needing some sustenance as well as directions, I went in, and don't you know, the manager was ever so helpful and spoke English quite well. I rested for 10 minutes eating a bacon cheeseburger and sipping Coke.
With my batteries recharged, I headed back out into the fog. Now the internet site had stated quite clearly that the hotel I'd booked was 2 km from the station, so I was ready for a hike. However, what they omitted to mention was that it was uphill at an incline of 75 degrees. (I exaggerate, of course; it was probably only 60!) I got to what I thought was the top of the hill, but found that was just the resting point for the Everest Stage 1 climb. I saw a sign going off to the left indicating the town hospital and with my heart jumping out of my chest that seemed the way to go. However, I pressed on in the opposite direction to Centre du Ville up several more inclines. I failed to find the street I was looking for and asked a series of locals, but they gave mixed signals, and I went around a bit until I came to the tourist office, which had a town map, yes! That got me headed in the right direction, but things still didn't look quite right, so I stopped to ask a man walking a dog for some help. The dog replied, "Go straight ahead to the roundabout, woof! Take the second right, woof! Then you'll see the hotel on the left, woof!" Wow, I thought, a streetwise dog! Well, I took his woof for it and headed in that direction again up an incline. However, the street name still didn't match my written directions.
As I walked up the dark and foggy street, I had visions of nefarious creatures lurking in the shadows ready to knock me unconscious, take my blood, and sell it for money to buy drugs. Just then, another beacon shone through the fog. I had come upon a pâtisserie and it was still open. And, don't you know, the owner was every so kind as to step out into the street and show me the hotel sign some 200 meters down the road. I thanked her and bought some juice and pastries.
I was running on empty when I entered the lobby of the Hotel Altos. The front desk clerk had been expecting me and welcomed me in English, and had just started to dial the phone number I'd given in my on-line registration. Of course, that was my home number, so it wouldn't have done him or me any good if he'd gotten through. Anyway, I had reached my destination for the day and my underclothes were soaking with perspiration despite its being very cold out. (Don't you just hate that!) My reservation was prepaid, so he explained the breakfast rules, gave me a wifi internet access code, and directed me to my room. I asked about getting to the abbey the next day and he replied that as it was off-season my only option might be a taxi the round-trip cost of which would rival my two night's hotel bill! I decided not to think about that until the following morning.
I entered my room, and the temperature was such that I looked in the closets for some antifreeze just in case my internal plumbing froze up during the night. The room itself was decent although in the middle there was what looked like a bed only it was smaller! I fired up my laptop and tried to connect to the internet. No luck. I tried repeatedly without success. As I'd had a similar problem at my last host, I decided the problem might be at my end, so I gave up for the time being. On to Plan B.
I ran a hot bath and got in only to find that the tub was quite short at one end. (Don't you just hate that!) It hit the spot though and I soaked awhile. Then as I got out of the bath, I slipped and had a fatal accident. Ha, got you, didn't I? With my luck that evening, an accident would have been a natural progression, but I digress.
I consoled myself with one of the pastries I'd bought on the final stretch to the hotel, while listening to an album by Duffy. Then I worked on this diary. What really pulled me through was knowing how much pleasure my readers would have reading about my trials and tribulations. (The Germans have a word for that, "Schadenfreude," pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.)
I worked on this diary and then on an essay I'd started writing the day before. Lights out at 23:15, ready for a long and deep sleep.
A Visit to Mont Saint Michel
[Next Day] Unfortunately, the sleep was neither long nor deep and I was wide-awake at 08:00. I snacked on the remains of a pastry and the last of my juice. I walked (uphill, of course) the 1 km to the center of town passing my local bakery. I waved to the proprietress as I passed, and she waved back. I arrived at the tourist office soon after 09:00 and waited until it opened at 09:30. A very helpful young woman pointed out the possibilities with regard to getting to and from Mont Saint Michel. As I was too late for the morning bus and train, I had to take a taxi there, but could return via bus-bus or bus-train. She called a taxi, which arrived in 10 minutes.
Despite the very cold temperature, the sun shone brightly as we left the town. In the low-lying areas, the fog was still thick. My driver seemed to be training for a Grand Prix as he put the cab through its paces on the narrow country roads. The temperature down near the coast was 1-degree C. The bay was shrouded in fog, but the upper part cleared for a minute, and we got a spectacular glimpse of the abbey and island seemingly floating on the fog.
The driver dropped me right at the base of the Mont and cheerfully charged me €40, about what I'd expected. I dropped by the tourist office to get a small map and brochure. There was no fee to enter the walled town and no English guided tours were available, so I was left to make my own plan. The many tourist shops were opening, and the patisseries were setting out their freshly baked goods. It seemed to me a good idea to find a nice warm place and a hot drink. Auberge Saint Pierre looked as good a restaurant as any, so I went in and in my best French ordered a large mug of hot chocolate "si vous plait."
The narrow main path meandered up a steady incline through the little town between the shops and restaurants. However, when I got to the entrance of the abbey near the top a sign informed me that it was closed just for the day. And all because of a monument/museum workers strike. Don't you just hate that! Well, they say that something good comes out of everything and, in this case, I saved the €8 admission charge. I chatted with other disgruntled tourists, which included a group of young Japanese guys from Tokyo and a Dutchman from Nijmegen.
Plan B involved walking around the town's ramparts taking photos of the church on the rock above and the mudflats exposed by the low tide. At sea level, I walked several hundred meters along the causeway to get a good photo of the whole island, which was about 1 km around. Then I walked out on the mudflats near the base of the fortifications. A sign warned of quicksand, so I made sure I followed the footsteps of the people ahead of me, that is, right up until those footsteps disappeared!
Although I'd seen and done everything, I had several hours to wait for the next bus. At 13:00, quite by accident I was back at the same restaurant I'd visited earlier. I had hot soup on my mind and the menu there offered three kinds of potage: vegetable, onion, and fish. My bowl of vegetable soup came with a basket of bread and a spoon so large it was almost too big to fit in my mouth (and we all know how big that is). The soup was just like my grandma would have made if she had been French. When I'd entered, the restaurant was quite busy, but I spied a table for two (for me and my imaginary friend) right next to the open fire. Now when I say "next to" I was almost on top of the fire, and boy was it toasty. When it died down a bit, I grabbed the hand bellows and blew some life back into it. All that was missing was a dog at my feet (and maybe some hazelnut chocolate, potato chips, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree).
I ordered a café au lait and tried to explain that I wanted less coffee and more milk plus extra sugar. That seemed to work out okay, and I enjoyed the coffee although I had to use up some of my own sugar supply as well. (My travelling jacket and outer coat have many compartments in which I carry a stash of emergency rations and equipment. Over 30 years of travel, I've made quite a list of things to take on each trip and to carry on my person.)
I bought a nice souvenir booklet and a small poster of the island for my office wall. Then I waited for the 14:35 bus to Pontorson. An older Italian couple was also waiting for the bus, and they asked me if I was German. Once we figured we had Spanish in common, we switched to that and chatted until the bus came. The 9-km ride was through the countryside in the sunshine. I got off at the train station to wait more than 90 minutes for a bus to Avranches. Inside, I got talking to the stationmaster who was very friendly. He told me that he could get me to Avraches 40 minutes earlier, so I bought a train ticket. Then I asked him about the projected go-slow train strike the next day and I think he was so bored there having nothing much to do that he made some phone calls to find out the latest news. Some 20 minutes later, he came out to the platform to give me a copy of an itinerary he thought should work to get me back to Paris. Such service!
A young Japanese man approached me on the platform to confirm he was waiting at the right place. He'd left Japan more than three weeks earlier and had ridden the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow, which took a week. He rode 3rd class and shared a day/night compartment with soldiers going home for a break. He was headed to Cherbourg to catch the ferry to Poole, England. In a week, he'd fly back to Tokyo. He graduated university back in September and would start his job in April next year. We chatted on the train until my stop.
It made a big difference when I arrived in Avraches in daylight and without fog. And apart from those advantages, I had found out about a shortcut to town, so I headed off on that. The good news was that the distance was halved. The bad news was that it was even steeper than the way I'd gone the night before. Maybe more than 90 degrees! Well, not quite.
I stopped off at the tourist office to pass along information about the abbey's being closed and the actual cost of the taxi ride. I also picked up some information about hiking the cliffs on the old customs inspectors' trails near Cherbourg. Then it was up Constitution Avenue to Patton Circle in the middle of which was a large monument to General George Patton, famous U.S. tank commander in WWII. A tank from that war stood next to the monument. Once he'd liberated Avranches, Patton pushed out across France to Germany. On the edge of the circle stood two lesser "monuments," Boulangerie (Bakery) Patton and Pizzeria Patton, of which George would have been ever so proud. I stopped in at my local bakery to report on my day's activities and to buy drinks and some food. The proprietress cut a very long baguette in half and filled it with ham, cheese, and tomato.
As I approached my hotel, I found a group of 20 people blocking the entrance and holding a large banner. Apparently, they were protesting about something, but with the front desk clerk's limited English I was unable to find out what their grievance was. As far as I could tell there were no "Go home Yanqui!" signs.
After I freshened up and rested, I took my laptop downstairs to the lobby where, lo and behold, the wifi signal was very strong and I was connected to the outside world. A lot of business and personal email was waiting, and it took some 90 minutes for me to deal with it. The manager dropped by to chat and to offer me a ride to the train station the following morning, but only if the breakfast rush was over and he had a spare body. It was a generous gesture. Back in my room, I got into some writing on my laptop and had to force myself to stop and go to bed. Lights out after 23:00.
Back to Paris
[Next Day] Being a Saturday, there was less traffic on the main street outside my window. However, I still woke up before my 07:30 alarm. I packed my gear and took care of some email that had arrived overnight and was down at the front desk by 08:30. As there was no one available to drive me to the station, I set off for my 2 km morning walk.
The town of Avranches was coming alive and the coffee bars were busy, and I stopped at a bank to refresh my Euro supply. Then I got to the steep shortcut to the train. The good news was that there was no ice. That would have resulted in a very quick trip down the hill and numerous broken bones. The bad news was that an earthquake must have occurred during the night and made the hill even steeper. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) The trip was slow but uneventful; however, at the bottom, the footbridge over the freeway was rather slippery. I managed that, but in the last few steps did an unscheduled "pas de deux with pirouette," which earned me a respectable 8.2 score from the judges standing nearby.
The train station was dark, and things looked ominous. However, it was unlocked so I went inside happy to find two others planning to travel. The good news was that the 09:49 train to Caen was running. (The only other trains scheduled that day were at 17:55 to Caen and 19:08 to Rennes.) At 09:15, the ticket agent arrived, and he was ever so happy to sell me a ticket to Caen and then on to Paris with only a short stopover. So far, so good, and I settled down to my petite de juener (breakfast) of pastry and lemon drink. (The last of the great gourmands!)
There was frost covering the tracks as the six of us stood on the cold open platform. The 09:49 arrived on time and was a very warm and comfortable train. I faced forward at a table and spent the 1:45-hour trip looking out the window. The sun shone brightly as we bumped along picking up speed. There were farms, farms, and more farms with green fields and contented cattle and goats. The aftereffects of all the rain were evident. Creeks were swollen, and fields were flooded. A conductor came along and as he spoke to me in French, he waved his hands, so I thought he wanted me to sing. Apparently, he was not that kind of conductor!
In Caen, I had a short wait for the train to Paris. The train was an express, and we raced through the countryside arriving in Paris Gare St. Lazare right on time at 13:45. I quickly found the Metro station nearby and headed out on the Green Number 12 line. I changed to the Yellow Number 10 line and after a few stops, I came up to street level right across from the house of my friend Stéphane. The second part of my Paris visit had begun.