Bon Jour mes amis -
Hello from inside my monolingual cone of silence
I’ve always thought I could never do one of those silent retreats but given my lack of French I haven’t exchanged more than a few words with anyone in a week. So please forgive me, and bear with me, if I go on some. (And on that note – thanks much to all of you who replied to my last message, it really is awfully nice to hear from people.)
Since last I wrote I have been anxious about returning to the saddle, resolute about the shape of the rest of this journey, sentimental in my Irish goodbyes, joyous to be back on the road and a bit emotional about the D-Day history of Normandy.
I landed in France last Sunday – the 23rd - a month since I last rode in earnest (that is, into Tendby, Wales). I needed the rest. I needed to feel grounded and connected. I needed to be surrounded by gregarious, interesting, English-speaking people. I needed some space away from the day-to-day logistics of this trip to allow ideas percolate and decisions to be made.
I had expected, in my rest, to get a lot of writing done but I’ve only published three posts since last we met. Visiting the Missing – The Merano Jewish Museum & Synagogue is the one I am most pleased with however I fear it may be a touch maudlin. The others are: On the Divide: The Cities of Trentino-Alto Adige/South Tyrol (Blozano/Bozen & Merano/Meran), and Along the Adige River Toward Old Austria,
I did get some Irish travelling done with a quick run to Northern Ireland. Twenty years ago I was part of the advance team which brought President Clinton to Derry – I was keen to see how the city had changed and, back then I didn’t get to Belfast (but for a brutal Thanksgiving Day piss-up courtesy of Guinness).
Derry is still a tough-going working class town but now with more cultural institutions and tourists. Belfast is, and I mean this is the best possible way, boring. It deserves a bit of boring after what it’s been through.
In both places it seemed the official tourism line was Anything But the Troubles – want to know about the Titanic or William of Orange or the Ulster Plantation System? Step right up, just this way. Telling the story of the Troubles is clearly still too caustic for official voices so it is left to private and partisan ones.
In the Bogside of Derry and Shankill Road in Belfast the murals remain – some having turned toward peaceful messages but many yet commemorating men who are seen as either martyrs or terrorists depending on your sectarian perspective. The conversation about the future of Northern Ireland may be in a lull but I don’t think it’s over.
I returned to Kilkenny via Dublin sharing a festival courtesy car with American author Jane Smiley and her husband Jack – pardon the name dropping but, come on now – pretty cool. They were both lovely. We talked of Australia (Jane wondered why the people of Adelaide think so little of their city – they live there even when the festivals are over, I said - and whether the journey to Perth was worth it – depends on what you want to see, but, mostly - yes). Not surprisingly for an Iowa person she has Chicago connections, I mentioned that I grew up in the Skokie part of Evanston, “I see,” she said, “why you moved to Australia.”
Back to Kilkenny for the last few fantastic days of the Festival and Co. Carlow for the madness of preparing to go again. Then I was alone again and aboard the Irish Ferries ship The Oscar Wilde (I booked with them, in part, just for the name). I had splurged on a cabin and expected to share but it was mine, all mine. After a month in a family home the quiet was both welcome and strange.
A hammering rain greeted me in Cherbourg and so I chose to stay a night in town. It was an excellent choice which set me up for an almost perfect week – or at least a week which most perfectly matched the dreams I had of this trip when I was planning it.
In Cherbourg I collected cycling brochures from the local tourist board and visited the Liberation Museum where I brushed up on my D-Day knowledge. I learned, or was reminded, that this port – which I’d just sailed into – was a major reason for the invasion happening as it did. That I am planning on riding from here to Berlin has a certain historic resonance to it. I was struck too by the idea that it was from here – this secured port and the materials it could deliver to the front lines – that the beginning of the end of the Holocaust originated, that the countdown to the full brutal truth being known began and that soon those who could hold out until the troops got to them would be, forever more, Survivors.
Over the course of the week I have ridden though the notorious Normandy wind and rain to Utah Beach, Isigny-sur-Mer, the German Military Cemetery, Pont du Hoc, the Normandy American Cemetery and on to Bayeux. Along the way I deeply appreciated the way riding through the countryside connects me to it and gives me the time and space to think and feel whatever I might. Mine was not a dashing visit from one site to the next, made TV-like through a window, coming and going from an artificial, air conditioned, snack-filled, nap-inducing environment. I rode through fields and villages which witnessed such carnage, such horror, such bravery and sacrifice. Each night I camped and, as I lay in my tent, I wondered if I was sleeping on blood-soaked land.
Thursday night I am certain I was sleeping in a place – had I been there on 6 June 1944 - where I’d have witnessed scenes which would have followed me into oblivion. Camping Omaha Beach is situated on the western headland of the very long Omaha Beach. A concrete German bunker in the campground houses goats and holidaying French kids were playing on what was probably once a gun placement.
The French have gotten on with using these spaces for the living but don’t think for a moment they have forgotten about the dead. In all the rain I took few photos this week but had I they would show Normandy to be a place of slate-roofed, stone villages adorned with flowers and wind-whipped quartets of flags (those of France, Great Britain, Canada and the United States). Memorials and remembrances – official and private alike – abound.
At the German cemetery I felt mostly … indifference to begin with and then maybe a little anger. Some of their dead were boys far too young to have had any agency in their fates but many were men – Nazi men. In the guest book I wrote “They have the dignity of graves, their victims only ash.” As I was leaving a coach load of German retirees arrived, one spoke to me about my bicycle and I regretted not yet having enough German to ask him about his visit.
The American cemetery is profoundly beautiful and there I felt a deep sadness – to look at this sea of graves – of all these lives sacrificed – of all the futures lost. I allowed the scattering of Stars of David to lead me around the graves – taking the time to read the names as I went. There was a quartet of markers which, I thought, said much: on the front right – Adolf Greenburg of California died 24 June 1944, behind him Edmond G. Sokolowski of Connecticut died 9 July 1944, to the left Vito Monticciolo of New Jersey died 2 August 1944 and in front of him “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms Known But to God”.
These were American boys, yes, and a reflection of the immigrant nation they came from – but, these were also descendants of Europe. Much is made of the idea of that the Americans came thousands of kilometres to help people they didn’t know – and there’s truth in that – but I’d put good money on none of those three Americans being more than two-generations removed from somewhere in the Yiddish homelands, Poland and Italy. More than likely all three did know people, relatives, who were suffering under the Fascists.
I will admit to feeling different for the Jewish boys and men here … they died, as Jews, fighting Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarentino’s Inglorious Basterds I do hope most of them died with Nazi blood on their bayonettes.
I left my sadness and thoughts of war and death at the cemetery gates and rode into the sunny afternoon with a relieving sigh. I thought the best way to honour those brave, crazy, ignorant, terrified boys and men was to enjoy this beautiful day with a light heart and a happy internal dialogue. I whistled and sang my way into Bayeux – greeting the cows as I went.
Bayeux – the first city liberated after D-Day and spared much of the destruction – is compact and beautiful. Today I saw the Bayeux Tapestry – telling the story of William the Conqueror’s triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I was reminded that the same stories of war and loss, bravery and sacrifice have been played out way too many times.
And lastly this … for my most devoted readers, those who have stuck with this email to here. While the week has been nearly perfect it has also been largely silent. I have had basic communications in my miserable French but I haven’t had a proper conversation since I left Ireland a week ago.
Having made the acquaintance of Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, in Kilkenny I’ve been reading his Selected Poems. I my silence I have found myself leaning on this from Samurai Song:
When I have no friend, I make quiet my friend
Musing on this line while riding I’ve made it more my own by changing quiet to silence.
When I have no friend, I make silence my friend
Quiet, I think, is about hearing – the night is quiet – but silence is about speaking – I can speak quietly but I cannot speak silently. My week has not been quiet but it has been silent – for even when riding I have the clackety of the bicycle chain, the whirr of the tyres on the pavement, the lowing of cows and squawking of seagulls. And when I am near people I am surrounded by the babel of their conversations – only I, in my monolingual cone of muteness, am silent.
But in the silence I have befriended I find that, in truth, when I have no friend I make my pen and my notebook my friend and through them I’m making myself my friend, my future self perhaps, as she is the only likely audience for my prolific scribblings.
And so … on that, perhaps, over thought note – I bid you adieu.
I hope you are all well and happy.
30 August – Benouville, France