Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Berck sur Mer to Courselles sur Mer

I never met my paternal grandfather. He died eight years before my first breath from an aneurism. Despite serving in two world wars, despite surviving the great depression with four kids, despite being skint several times and despite having his chest opened up by machine gun fire from left hip to right nipple and surviving two weeks with no antibiotics with the would held together with running stitch, it was a thin-walled blood vessel which killed him quickly but in its own time.

If I had no opportunity to know this small statured man, my Dad had little more for Pop died when Dad was 19. I often wonder at how their relationship might have blossomed as Dad bought grandchildren home, shared his highlights, laughed together. As it was, Dad fulfilled much of that role as the eldest, particularly to his only brother. Its not hard for me to conjure up the image of them sitting together in a quiet place at family functions. When I asked once, Dad told me they were “chewing the fat”, something the old man was denied by circumstance and bad plumbing.

Today, I think I saw my Pop wave to me in La Havre. I was standing on the dock where he arrived with mates toward the end of 1917. He looked young and cheeky and full of adventure. The sea spray was blowing across the dock from where it crashed on the outer sea wall, making the air more dense than usual. The inner harbour was quiet and a few of the old buildings remained where they were built nearly a hundred years ago, watching troop ships arrive and brave boys disembark from Australia via Panama via Glasgow : boys with wide smiles and rife for a rumble. Apart from the time it took to get here, what did they know of France or war or dying?

Pop knew a bit. He was here to chase his brothers killers from Gallipoli. It didn’t matter that they wore a different uniform. Growing up in the sunshine in Australia, danger was something talked about but rarely experienced and these boys didn’t see themselves as heroes, before or after. This was a job and hard work didn’t worry them and if they could have some fun in the process all they better. These were Ginger Mick and The Sentimental Bloke which CJ Dennis recorded for us.

These were my Pop and his mates.

The old dock in Le Havre
We spent most of our time at Le Havre at the dock. The Seine hurries past and into the sea after its long journey from Paris and beyond. Little wonder then that Parisians have been coming here for so long for summer vacations. They come for the air and choppy surf of the southern part of the English Channel. They change in the collection of dressing sheds spread across the ocean pounded round rocks which substitute for sand on French beaches. The sheds are all white, unlike the individually coloured sheds you might see on the Mornington Peninsular at the bottom of Victoria. Like most aging ports, much has gone into the redevelopment of the foreshore area with new car parks, speed hump controlled roads, large paved areas, new vegetation, purpose built shops and entertainment areas … and one toilet.

The crossing of the Seine, as we headed south, was spectacular. The Pont Normandy is a superb suspension bridge which rises in as steep an arch as any bridge I have driven across. The old Rolls Canhardly would never have made it up the slope to the apex. It’s a beautiful design and puts to shame even the Anzac Bridge in Sydney.

Early in the day we took in delicious country, green from summer growth still, despite so much of it now in giant rolls of silage. The cottages are more recent, with less stone and more brick and most of them with some form of rendering. Perhaps the proximity to the ocean requires more protection from salt spray erosion or perhaps bombardment destroyed their ancestors. Almost everything built is either white or a variation of it. The roads roll through the landscape at 90kms/h, making for pleasant driving. By comparison, our dashing later in the day on freeways at 130kms/h was frighteningly hectic.

We stopped at Fecamp for lunch, finally finding a restaurant which was open. It was about then that I discovered 100Euro missing which I had taken from an ATM in Berck. After recovering from the shock of it being missing, I remembered I had been in a hurry and had put in my coat pocket. Somewhere at a roadside toilet stop, it must have fallen out. I was not a happy chappy, despite having a delicious pizza served up to me. However, Sue, forever the optimist, took advantage of a tourist placemat which was a drawing of the local area and things to see. Taken by the sketch of the coastline, she suggested we detour to a small place on the coast with a near unpronounceable name.

Beach at Etretat
Etretat (pronounced ett-rar-tu) – a small coastal town of old buildings, narrow streets and a keen knowledge of its tourist potential. Without being trashy, they have maximised an amazing ocean frontage. Where the village meets the sea, a rocky pebbled beach is bookended by massive white/yellow cliffs, grass-topped and punched with huge arches which have gone back to the sea. At the very top of one, a church - Notre Dame de la Garde - looking over the English Channel. It was rebuilt in 1950 after being destroyed during the Second World War. Monet came here and painted. No surprise really. Adjectives fail me. You’ll have to look at the photos.

We arrived at our overnight stop - Courselles-sur-Mer - at six o'clock, a little later than planned but were welcomed by our host. Tonight we'll sleep in a quiet little sea side town which jumps and jives in the summer months but slips back into its shell come autumn. Our room has been purpose built for guests inside the walled courtyard of an older home and is decorated in quirky transfers of bees and flowers and the like. We walked down toward the English Channel and watched the sunset, found a restaurant and settled in with the good company of an American couple from Montana. Both had worked for the equivalent of the national parks, so we had an immediate accord in terms of the environment and politics. They even had children the same age as our three. Red wine and steak for me; sauce aux trois poissons for Sue.

Tomorrow, I’ll stand where my grandfather stood when machine gun fire split him open, just south of the village of Villiers Bretonneau, as he and his mates pushed the Germans back home and away from this small, rural village. I have his medals with me. I figure I might see him a little more clearly.

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