The fishing village of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue perches on a peninsula on the northeast corner of the Normandy coast. Just a kilometer off the shore lies Ile Tatihou, 28 hectares of sheep fields and rocky beaches. In fact, when it's low tide, you can drive to the island. A hydraulic-powered amphibious vehicle carries visitors to the 17th-century fort, bird sanctuary, and maritime museum without ever leaving land. Or you could jump aboard one of the tractors that magically appear where hours before boats sailed. The farmers tend the oyster beds: rows upon rows of mollusks in black plastic-mesh pillows held a foot off the ocean floor by stakes. The tourist duck rolls down the lanes between what must be tens of thousands of coveted shellfish. Then the English Channel returns, the sailboats and windsurfers and fishing boats come back or go out, the teenagers jump off the docks into the steel-blue water, and agriculture becomes aqua culture again.
Last weekend, we got smart like the Parisians and fled to the coast. We spent two nights right on the water, in an apartment above a seafood store and restaurant, and one night at an old farmhouse in Brittany. After weeks spent visiting cities in Spain and France, the ocean wind and country silence cooled and soothed our overheated and overstimulated souls. For me, the voyage was also a chance to relive my childhood visit to the French coast and countryside — with my own 10-year-old at my side.
Once we spun ourselves off the peripheral road that rings Paris, it didn't take long to lose the crowds. We opted for blue highways over toll roads, not just because we're cheap but because you see the country that way. Cows grazed in undulating fields of green. In fact, we felt like we could be in our usual summer haunt of the Midwest — except instead of big, old 19th-century red barns, 14th-century stone farmhouses pimpled the landscape.
The excursion was a trip down memory lane for me in general. When I was about my son's age, my parents brought my brother and me to Europe. All summer, I've been reliving that transformative experience — as the parent this time. In Normandy, the feeling was especially acute. Thirty-eight years ago, my family also wearied of the tourist treadmill and took time out for some beach relaxation here. I remember vividly those epic tides — the ocean disappearing into the distance — and the pools of marine life they left behind.
I also remember the bunkers in the dunes. Out of all the provinces in France, my husband picked my childhood haunt because of D-Day. He's fascinated by the horror and heroism of war.
Now I'm not one for nostalgia — for my own past or anyone else's. But history hangs heavy in Europe, in a way that's both tangible and ghostly. Almost 70 years since the Allied troops landed here, you can still see the Atlantic wall that the Germans built and the tanks with which the Americans breached it. The countryside is beatific and beautiful, but once you've visited one of the several museums dedicated to the events that began June 6, 1944, you can just imagine what it was like for dazed paratroopers, or shell-shocked infantrymen, as they fought their way through the old farms that had survived so many centuries — and would mostly weather this firestorm too.
I came away from the exhibits and memorials with new respect for the soldiers who turned the tide against Hitler. Still, the images most burned in my mind are the photos of the small cities and towns that were destroyed, their historic buildings reduced to jagged, shattered, pockmarked ruins — mini Dresdens. People lived here. What happened to them?
Sobered, we made our way past Omaha and Utah beaches to Saint-Vaast. We didn't have the address for our lodging, so we just drove to the end of the road — and there was La Criée du Tomahawk, named after the fishing boat that every day provides its fresh, delicious wares. Halyards clanged against masts as a strong wind blew across the then-high waters. By Friday night, as Cole chowed down a huge lobster he had picked out from the living pile that morning, we were actually cold even in our jeans and hoodies — blessedly so, after the heat of Paris.
The strangest thing for me about this journey has been realizing that I have become my parents. As my father was, I have been sent to Europe by my university to work. Like my mother, I struggle to remember the French I learned so many years ago and be the spokesperson for the family. As I was, my son seems both confused by and, possibly, proud of my mangled communication skills. I remember how moved my parents were by the rows upon rows of white crosses at the American cemetery, how my mom loved the fresh flowers of the Paris markets, how I loved to drink the chocolat, how my dad loved the wine. In some way, I think I'm here to claim a powerful, happy moment of a past that eventually broke.
I'm clutching a security blanket. All those years ago, Mom bought us a colorful striped beach spread that lasted forever. In fact, I may still have it somewhere, soiled but intact. It followed me to beaches in Rhode Island, New York, Michigan, Florida. I had forgotten where it came from — until I saw its brethren for sale at a shop in Saint-Vaast. They were not cheap. But all trip, we'd been needing linen for picnics. And the memories that could and would be woven into that cloth... Cole picked the color. I hope it lasts him as long as its predecessor did me.
For company and for the class I'm teaching, I've been reading M. F. K. Fisher's memoir The Gastronomical Me. It's a coming-of-age story about an American woman who sails back and forth between California and France, finding her self, independence, freedom, love, and, most of all, appetite. Fisher, who also wrote a book called Consider the Oyster, is the godmother of foodies, a woman who had a deep appreciation for the origins of ingredients and a zest for experimentation. Fisher made cooking an adventure, not a domestic chore. She served the antithesis of comfort food: "My meals shake them from their routines, not only of meat-potatoes-gravy, but of thought, of behavior."
We travel because, if we cannot change the world, at least we can change where we are in the world. And sometimes, travel teaches us more about our homes, and our selves, than about destinations.
Photos by Bud Shankle
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Evelyn McDonnell has written or coedited six books, including Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock 'n Roll, Rent, and Rock She Wrote: Women Write about Rock, Pop and Rap. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways is her latest book.
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Evelyn McDonnell is the author of Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways