Last Word, Memoirs, Travel

Punjabi in Paris – Normandy Notes 1


Yes, I do realize that Normandy is not in Paris and so, technically and pedantically speaking, the Punjabi can’t be in Paris if he is in Normandy. You are quite right. Wrong, too. For it is entirely possible that he was in Paris when he wrote the Normandy Notes. In actual fact, he is writing this in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in the Canadian Prairies, far, far away from Paris and Normandy. So why, you ask, does he title it thus? You don’t ask, I know, but I shall give you the answer. It is because I am writing this as part of a series and I am being helpful. See, it becomes easier to search for the complete series, for I know how much it means to you to come over and read my writing, if there is a common search item or tag to link all the pieces together. Yes, I could have used Tags and / or Categories and I will, but how many of the lay readers, who have pretty much been laying down on the one job they’ve been given here, to read, will be able or willing to use Tags and Categories for searches? (Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed the alliterative titles. You have? ‘Swonderful! )

View from the bathroom window in Vire, France. Somewhere out in the distance is Caen.
View from the bathroom window in Vire, France. Somewhere out in the distance is Caen. And the beaches who will always now be known as Utah and Omaha.

Having settled all that quite confusingly, but to my satisfaction, I shall move on to Day 10.

We arrived in Vire in the evening of Day 9. Tired and hot from the wonder that is Mont St Michel we drove through valleys and narrow streets climbing up and up until suddenly we were in this wonderful square and our hotel was right in the centre of it. The Hotel Saint Pierre is delightfully old-fashioned on the outside and delightfully ultra-modern on the inside. The room was spacious, the bathroom too. Whoever had been in charge of remodeling had made excellent use of space. It was spick and span. The bathroom window opened wide onto the centre of town and beyond you could see the valley spreading wide below you as you took a crap.

SMEGLISE_07
Crowds throng the village square in Ste Mere Eglise to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their liberation by strange soldiers who came out of the night sky.

Yes, it was a truly fantastic view of the valley and surrounding land. Far away to the North East as we gazed upon it lay Caen, the D-Day objective that really took 2 months to control. The beaches called Utah and Omaha lay ahead tomorrow. For tonight, we broke open a little bottle of calvados, (we were in calvados country, after all..) took a shot each and went to sleep.

Day 10 started early. I wanted to leave as early as possible for the 1 hour drive to Ste Mere Eglise, the little village that just happened to have Route Nationale 13 running through it and thus became an important strategic target for the Allies. For “Utah” beach lay away to it’s East and the RN 13 led away to Carentan and beyond to Paris. The Allies needed to control this highway if they were going to link forces and so on the night of June 6th, 1944 at 1:51 am, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division dropped in from the sky to take control of the village away from the occupying Germans.

During the planning phase, I had suggested that we not go to Normandy on June 6th. “The crowds will be terrible.” So we were there on June 8th, 2014, 70 years and 2 days after the historic paradrop. The plan was to drive to Ste Mere Eglise, see the re-enactment of the parachute drop which was scheduled for 11am and then head over to the beaches, Utah and Omaha. I also wanted to visit the cemetery at Collevile, something the others surprisingly did not show any enthusiasm for. But we all agreed to visit a museum or two.

June 8th, 2014.

0845: We pack into our Peugeot 308. We decided not to waste time having breakfast for the drive from Vire to Ste Mere Eglise was listed at an hour long. We planned to be there by 10am, have a quick breakfast and head over to see the parachute drop in full costume.

0925: Realization starts to dawn on Dad that he may not be the only person in the world to have read about World War II and the D-Day landings and that Ste Mere Eglise wasn’t just a small village that he could visit at leisure.

0935: Surrounded by cars, motorbikes, jeeps, fullscale WWII vehicles, full of people in full WWII battle dress. Stopped dead on the highway 14 kms from Ste Mere Eglise.

1015: Total progress on the highway limited to 500 meters

1100: Another 500 meters covered.

Lt Richard Winters' kit - Dead Man's Crossing Museum. St Cômte du Mont, France.
Lt Richard Winters’ kit – Dead Man’s Crossing Museum. St Cômte du Mont, France.

1115: Reached an exit ramp. Driven by lack of coffee, no breakfast, sitting behind the wheel for 2.5 hours, I was in no mood for any conversation. We entered the village of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

11:17: Excited cries from the back seat pointed out Dead Man’s Corner Museum. So focused had I been on Ste Mere Eglise and that I had completely ignored the story of Lt Richard Winters and the battle for Carentan.

11:20: We pulled over, parked and looked it over. Swarms of people in full WWII battle dress were all around us. 500 yards up the road was a small shop, with the customary tables set up outside and colorful umbrellas spread shade. A group of people sat at one table, empty coffee cups in front of them. I decided they spoke English, so went over and said, “I’m dying for a cup of coffee! Where did you get those?” They said, “In the store. She has croissants too”. Then I knew they were Americans. For only the Americans call a shop a store.

The genial lady behind the counter, did not speak English too well and I do not speak French at all, so we got along perfectly. Five minutes later we were sitting outside drinking fabulous coffee and eating fresh croissants by the side of the road, with the mid morning Norman sun shining brightly over the umbrella. Another testament to the quality of the coffee and the friendliness of the people of France.

Sated, Boo and I decided to visit the museum. Mom decided she was going to sit and wait for us. For the next 45 minutes Boo and I walked through the house which is now a museum, swapping stories and factoids gleaned from our own but very different readings of WWII history.

Wondering at the weight of a GI helmet.
Wondering at the weight of a GI helmet.

1300: Sitting in the car with the map spread in front of us art Dead Man’s Crossing, we debated on the best plan of action, since all our plans had been rendered totally ineffective by the widespread enthusiasm of locals and tourists alike to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the invasion that signaled the start of the liberation of France and the end of the War. Using the highway / parking lot to try get to Ste Mere Eglise didn’t seem very appealing. It was only 14 km away, but it would take nearly 2 hours to cover that distance.

Options:

1. Forget about Ste Mere Eglise and head out to Omaha. Check out the museums, head back home to Paris.

2. See if we could get to Ste Mere Eglise before the next re-enactment at 3pm. Then head over to Omaha, skip the museum and head back home to Paris.

Finally there, well over 4 hours behind schedule.
Finally there, well over 4 hours behind schedule.

Just then a little green Peugeot drove by. The Frenchman wearing a baseball cap, looked at us and energetically leaned out of his window and gestured to us frantically. “Follow me”, he seemed to be saying. I threw the map over to my wife and quickly drove after him. My Beloved Bangalan said “I hope he knows where he’s going. But how does he know where WE want to go?” 50 meters ahead the green car had turned off the main street and headed off down a narrow lane. I followed him to a t-junction. The green car smartly turned right and I did too. 2 or 3 minutes later we were bouncing over a grass tractor track through a field.

Temporary display in the field just outside Ste Mere Eglise. The Last Word, The SloMan and the Peeved Punjabi can all be seen in this photograph. Actually, LeggieLefty too.
Temporary display in the field just outside Ste Mere Eglise. The Last Word, The SloMan and the Peeved Punjabi can all be seen in this photograph. Actually, LeggieLefty too.

Like two little fighter planes, my blue Peugeot followed the little green one, weaving past farm houses, cutting across dirt tracks and through little lanes. 10-15 minutes since the initial gesture at Dead Man’s Crossing, the green car was driving into a fenced parking lot. I drove in with him and we both jumped out. He rattled off an excited stream of French at me, with his wife and two small kids staring at us. All I could repeat over and over was “Merci Beaucoup, Merci”.

Pvt John Steele hung there for over 2 hours as the fighting raged below him in the square. Some of Ste Mere Eglise was on fire that night and there were people fighting fires and the paratroops arrived in the middle of their fire-fighting efforts.
Pvt John Steele hung there for over 2 hours as the fighting raged below him in the square. Some of Ste Mere Eglise was on fire that night and there were people fighting fires and the paratroops arrived in the middle of their fire-fighting efforts.

We were in the parking lot at Ste Mere Eglise, less than 400 meters from the Airborne Museum and 600 meters from the village square.

We were greeted by a crowds of people thronging the square, with long lines at barbeques. The village square isn’t really that large, it was just dwarfed by the volume of people.

High up on the side of the church hung a replica of Pvt John Steele, with his parachute stuck on the spire. The people of Ste Mere Eglise do not want to forget. They keep that there to remind themselves not to forget. To that end, the church has replaced it’s stained glass which now commemorates the parachute drop.

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The stained glass windows of the eglise have been modified to always remind the people of Ste Mere Eglise of the night they were liberated by strange soldiers who came out of the night sky.

One of these days, I want to go back, without the crowds. Just to gaze upon the square, look up again where Pvt Steele continues his lonely vigil and to sit inside the eglise itself and think of the courage, the loss, the hope, the anger, the anguish, the fear that must have been on display on the night of 6th June 1944.

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9 thoughts on “Punjabi in Paris – Normandy Notes 1”

  1. ““Follow me”, he seemed to be saying. I threw the map over to my wife and quickly drove after him. My Beloved Bangalan said “I hope he knows where he’s going. But how does he know where WE want to go?” – Ha ha ha!
    While not being able to handle crowds makes me think you no longer are a pure Punjabi, “delightfully ultra-modern on the inside” is a purely Punjabi expectancy, when they spend money. 😛
    Enjoyed this, and loved the first para. No, you could not confuse me. It ‘swonderful!

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    1. I had no problem with the dated hotel we lived in in Paris. I’m really not much of a Punjabi. The Hotel St Pierre stood out because the interior was unexpected given the outside of the building and the little village we were in.

      And yes, I do not handle crowds well.

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  2. Quirky, smart and interesting. Loved reading this. Wish you could have seen the paradrop reenactment. Enjoyed this lovely trip into history’s greatest invasion. 🙂

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    1. I feel I did not bring out my own feelings in this piece. The sheer sight of the crowds dressed in WWII uniforms, the jeeps, the full scale reenactments, the sight of that parachute and the stained glass windows…..it was an unbelievably emotional feeling.

      In Part 2 of the Normany Notes, there may be a surprise for you…… 🙂

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