Monday, February 22, 2010

There and Back Again

We are back, dear friends!
Mont-Saint-Michel - Day 1
. This is about the point when the kids started squealing in excitement about actually, really truly being at Mont-Saint-Michel. Iris had been taking pictures from the back seat for most of the ride, but this one is just so great - as though you could reach out and touch it.

Absolutely everything about Mont-Saint-Michel is somewhat surreal, not the least of which is the secret code they give you to park in the "spend the night" parking, if you're staying in a hotel on the Mont. We all loved punching it in and entering this smaller lot near the fortified walls - it's on a raised causeway that the tide never overcomes - but watch out if you're parked below!

We settled into our terrific hotel room, in which the kids promptly and happily claimed the loft, set up a secret password, and declared that no grown-ups were allowed upstairs. They did all this in these great, theatrical whispers, though, so we quickly deduced that the password was "Mont-Saint-Michel rocks" ("because it's built on a rock," we heard Oliver explain - thanks!), but didn't dare use it. We walked the ramparts as far as we could go and then the kids started scampering up towards the abbey itself - we caught up with them in this open space garden area on the western end of the Mont. Iris would like Marnie to know that this is a picture for Marnie, and that both of her thumbs are, in fact, pointing up (!). She also composed a little poem: "Side by side/ The sea and sinking sand/ Lay together." Kind of nice, don't you think? This in the final moments before the tide would start to come back in.

The natural wonder of Mont-Saint-Michel is at least three-fold: 1) the bay it is in is enormous, and stretches for miles in every direction, 2) the imposing presence of the rock of the Mont itself, jutting out of this enormous bay, is stunning, and 3) the tide, the tide - it rushes in so fast and so completely - I suppose that it has to to cover that enormous bay. Then there are the views and the sounds and the every-changing sky and you start to understand why it was sought out as a spiritual place as of the 10th century when a small, very humble abbey was built on top of the Mont after Bishop Aubert of Avranches had a vision of Saint Michael telling him to build a sanctuary on the Mont. Oliver was equally moved to respond to the site, as you can see below:

It wasn't just the tide that rushed in at Mont-Saint-Michel. For reasons I still can't quite put into words, I was completely overwhelmed by emotion the first evening we were there. I was thinking about my Father, telling us as kids so many times about his coming here after WWII and about walking the streets and going up to the abbey. And (and this is the part that I don't think comes out well, but I'm going to try), and I felt the crushing weight of Mont-Saint-Michel being a witness to history (to my dad's one-person history, to the history of WWII in France, to so much more) without preserving any of the memory of it. Watching that tide come in so dramatically, pull out so dramatically, realizing that it does that twice a day every single day, that it doesn't care who comes and who goes, who's fought in WWII and who hasn't, who's had a brain injury and who hasn't, who's so far away and so trapped in a body that won't take him where he wants to go anymore when he used to go anywhere and everywhere in the world. Thoughts and feelings I'd been able to keep tucked away came barreling forth and before I knew it, I was crying in the hotel room. Is this what the Romantics mean when they talk about the Sublime and its simultaneous beauty and angst? well, whatever it's dubbed, it did a number on me. I really couldn't believe the power of those emotions and I wanted to stop but couldn't. But you know, amazing things happen sometimes when you cry in front of your kids - at first, everything stopped and they were very quiet - and then Iris came up with a plan. They would write their grandfather a letter telling them that they were here and looking out for Mont-Saint-Michel for him. I'll never forget lying there listening to them upstairs, and especially my little Eleanor who, when she heard of the letter plan, said forcefully "Hey guys, don't forget: I can't write!" I'd say I got over it then, but truth be told, that heaviness was with me the whole time, as I struggled to make sense of this incredible place within my thoughts about my Dad.

Mont-Saint-Michel - Day 2. The next morning, Iris showed her siblings her mad hotel breakfast skills (earned in the Czech Republic during last year's Winter Term trip!), and had everybody equipped with hot chocolate and multiple pastries in no time. We made the climb way, way up to the abbey and here paused on the West Platform (enlarged when three bays of the nave collapsed during a fire - the west façade is from the 18th century). You can see that the bay behind us is sandy (and enormous!) - when we had awakened a couple of hours earlier, there had been water all around!

The monks of Mont-Saint-Michel had a knack for names (the mound or mountain of Saint Michael is a good start) and indeed dubbing the 13th century constructions (the cloisters, the refectory, and three levels of various ad sundry rooms) "The Marvel" has worked. As Oliver said "They don't call it 'The Boring' after all!" - we scampered through every room, and talked about the engineering feat of building such a huge mass architectural mass on a rock; about the Mont's impenetrability during the Hundred Year's War; about its changes during and after the French Revolution when it exiled its monks and served as a prison; about its post-Monuments Historiques life with its hundreds of thousands of visitors a year (if not more!).

I will say that the tourism in Mont-Saint-Michel is pretty soul-crushing. The minute you step onto the Grande Rue (the main medieval street stretching up the Mont), you are assaulted by every souvenir and kitsch tschoschke imaginable. The kids succumbed pretty quickly to the medievalalia (how many variations are there on the plastic sword and axe?), but the results were fun. I had promised myself that I would go with the tourist flow here in honor of the millions of medieval pilgrims who had come here (and probably themselves experienced souvenir shops on the Grande Rue) - it was still a challenge. I cannot imagine this place with summertime numbers of visitors - it was already pretty crowded here during the low season. Wow.

And then you see something like this, from your position suspended between sea and sand, and you forget everything.

But not for long. For Mère Poulard awaited us for our final dinner on Mont-Saint-Michel. Yes, that is a bowl of chunks of butter between the basket of eggs and the copper mixing bowls (how else to get the omelettes so fluffy, we should ask? The high tourism factor brings with it the occupational (recreational?) hazard of bad, expensive food - we had had a pretty measly meal the first night (though the setting was great), and the mussels at lunch were shrunken and not so great (though the view was great). But I will say the Mère Poulard absolutely came through: the omelettes were ridiculously fluffy (really, think pillow thick), and the food scrumptious. Something very tragic-silly happened here which is that my camera ran out of juice and I'd forgotten to bring the battery recharger. Urgh! Else you'd have a great shot of dear Oliver looking down at his omelette with glee and expectation. We all walked the dimly lit medieval street of Mont-Saint-Michel after dinner, with Iris whirring away on the little music box she'd bought that day (it plays "La Vie en Rose" - her choice!), and then went back to the hotel to watch some Olympics coverage, all five of us in the big bed. Perfect.

Saint-Malo - Day 3. You know that scene in the movie A Christmas Story, when the narrator tells you that often things that turn your whole experience upside down occur when you least expect it (this comment comes right before the neighbors' dogs eat the Christmas turkey)? That was us in Saint-Malo, jauntily humming along, eating a great crêpe lunch, visiting the cathedral, walking along the ramparts, making our way through the museum, completely ignorant of the fact that a nasty stomach bug was about to unleash its fury on my poor Oliver. We should have known, as his mood became more withdrawn and sullen. Instead, I just chided him for being a poor sport and neglecting to note how cool the model ships, prow sculptures, and maps were. We were a little bit thrown off by Iris also being in a bad mood: I'd been very moved by seeing a plaque on the floor of the cathedral commemorating the spot where Jacques Cartier had knelt to be blessed by the bishop of Saint-Malo before going out to find Canada. There was even a Mont-Saint-Michel connection in that François Ier had met Cartier there and charged him with explorations in the New World. There were maps of Cartier's voyages and models of his ships, but Oliver and Iris were having none of it. It would turn out that Oliver was sick, but Iris was just cranky: "Why is Canada so important to God?" she asked sullenly about his being blessed by the bishop. !!! Oliver sat out the last three rooms, made it outside and then completely lost his lunch on the place Chateaubriand. My poor little guy - he was to throw up four more times before he felt well enough to walk and get in the car. Few things make you feel farther from shelter than taking care of a sick kid on a busy street. Mac found a bottle of water and did his best to keep the girls away - but Iris was deeply concerned for her brother, and Eleanor was insistent on her solution to this whole situation: "He just needs a carousel ride!" That actually got a smile out of Oliver. In the end, he and I waited out the bug on a bench nearby while the girls rode the carousel. Consequently, this is my only visual record of Saint-Malo. !!!

Dinan - Day 3. The beautiful, peaceful medieval city of Dinan is only half an hour away, and Oliver slept most of the way. We really didn't know which way things were going to go, so we didn't even talk about the next day, and if we were going to go to Fort La Latte or not. I've learned that kids can be surprisingly resilient (lest we forget the Great Stomach Bug of December 23, 2009 when, upon our return from D.C., all three kids threw up all night long, and yet were fine the next day for Macmas Brunch - well, fine enough to sit up and watch TV the whole time, but still!), so we just enjoyed getting to know our gorgeous room in the Bed and Breakfast (splendid!). Oliver was very shaky for dinner (didn't eat a thing), but lion-hearted as he was, he made it possible for us to enjoy a fantastic meal at a restaurant called Le Cantorbery in Dinan which had a roaring fireplace, exquisite food (Mac had his first blanc mange!), and a very kind staff (they made him puréed carrots). And so we had another late-night walk down medieval streets, this time with anxious hopes about the next day...

Dinan - Day 4. ... which dawned bright and sunny. Oliver definitely felt better and first words were "I want to go to the castle."

So we breakfasted in a sunny room decorated with enormous copper bowls and walked the streets of beautiful Dinan for the morning. Oliver felt better by the minute, and everything was possible again. Mmm, I'm enjoying looking at that breakfast feast again...

We found beautiful English Gardens behind the Saint-Saviour church and Oliver and I talked Harry Potter while the girls ran around from tree to tree and Mac filmed some of the breathtaking views onto the river below and the ramparts above.

It was sunny and warm, and so we decided to picnic outside - a pleasure to come as spring does.

Fort La Latte/CapFréhel - Day 4. And then, we were off for the most exciting, astounding, amazing part of our vacation: Fort La Latte! A 14-18th century fort built atop craggy rocks on the dramatic wave-crashing coastline of northern Brittany. The 1958 film The Vikings (starring Kirk Douglas!) was filmed there - and we were sooo eager to get there!

As you can see...! There it rises on its cliff behind us, waves crashing on the rocks below it. Before us, there is a neolithic standing stone that is about 10 feet tall - it's come to be known as Gargantua's finger, and Iris was certainly impressed. Oliver and Eleanor both were so focused on being invading knights that they charged ahead. At this point, still photographs are hard-pressed to do justice to the site: there are the sounds of wind and waves, the dizzying heights, the multiple views. I have a short series of short videos for you to end this "compte-rendu" of our vacation (forgive my prattling commentary, I can't seem to be quiet while filming!) - enjoy, dear friends and family, and see you soon!

Here we are entering the Fort itself (drawbridge one of two!):

Here is Oliver as an invading knight - I love how Iris runs across the screen wanting to see the next thing.

Here Iris and I are at the very, very top of the Fort, in this tiny crow's nest of a spot, and she just decided to start talking and walking. She looks as though she's trying to sell us something: "Hello, I'm Iris, and I'm here to tell you about the revolutionary new crossbow from Ragnar Unlimited..." She cracks me up here!

And finally, after that dramatic rain, the Breton weather surprised us as it always will, and we saw the lighthouse on Cap Fréhel in a whole new light:

Thus ended week one of our winter vacation: drama and adventure, history and memory, the show on the road. To bed, wishing everyone well!


  1. Oh, my dear friend! Your blog is wonderful. I am there, right there with you - on the Mont, in Saint Malo. Hope dear Oliver has recovered well. I love traveling along with you. What wonderful experiences for you and Mac and the wee ones. We, too were on a carousel yesterday. Micah and Alex enjoyed riding around on the one in the Indy Children's museum on their big stationary horses (I think Alex actually sat on a deer, but who's counting).
    I miss you lots. Love, Julia

  2. Hi dear Julia! Believe me, we thought of you at Mont-Saint-Michel - brave soul! Huzzah for you and Alex and your adventures!