Saturday, May 8, 2010

Armistice Day (St. Marcel)

Several merchants (including our dear Butcher - no lasagna this week!) were absent from the market today, but Monsieur le Fromagier was there was an Abondance de Savoie (very smooth and gentle, with just a hint of nuttiness at the end); a Pérail (so smooth and creamy, I was surprised to find out it's a sheep cheese!); and another cheese that I (argh!) missed the name of - but it's a blend of cow and goat cheese, and check out that funky rind; like stone, Oliver said.

The reason for the merchants' absence, and many other goings-on, was that today was Armistice Day - a very, very big deal here in Europe, especially in France. It's a holiday (had it not fallen on a Saturday, the kids would have gotten even more days off from school!) and celebrated in multiple ways. On May 8, 1945 (65 years ago today - I still remember the 50th anniversary: Mac and I were in Germany, Cologne to be precise - vivid memories) an unconditional surrender which had been signed in Reims the previous day was ratified in Berlin. This meant the end of the war in Europe, and the holiday is also known as V-E Day - as in "Victory in Europe Day" (V-J, Victory over Japan, is also a holiday, but apparently only in the state of Rhode Island - ???). May 8 isn't a holiday at all in the States, and I'll confess that I'm a bit confused by that (little matter of D-Day and the Normandy Invasion). Is it that Memorial Day (which began by celebrating Union soldiers!) encroaches? We were a bit puzzled, too, that the only flags we saw today on the Josselin Town Hall were the German, European Union, French, and Italian flags. Surely there are tales there. I wonder if it's a matter of V-E Day commemorating the 6 years that the Europeans did, vs. the victory that the Americans and United Kingdom consolidated as of June, 1944 (D-Day and following). Julia, if you're out there - can you help me understand?

In any case, this being Brittany, there were bagpipes and yes, "Amazing Grace" was played. There was no big announcement, just all of a sudden, while the five of us were shopping at the market (and that's rare, usually I just have Iris), we heard the strains of bagpipes and just followed the sound. The veterans stood at the top of the stairs and all of us thought of my dad (who fought in the Pacific during WWII, but still, looking at those men of his generation did a number) and of my uncle Léon, whom I never met, but who fought in the Battle of the Bulge - he, like my father, also from a tiny hamlet in coastal North Carolina - a long way from home there.

We commemorated Armistice Day by going to the Museum of Breton Resistance in nearby St. Marcel, an "haut-lieu" (main site) of the Breton Resistance. We'd passed the 1947 monument on highway N166 many times and we'd been eager to go for some time. It's a museum made up entirely of artefacts: helmets and uniforms and proclamations and canned goods and weapons and code transmitters and posters and hand grenades and telegrams and mines and maps and, outside, entire tanks (like this American one) and bunkers and a fleet of jeeps. The picture that emerges is one of the Maquis, who did so much to help downed airmen and conducted countless guerilla operations against occupying German forces. They were part of the greater numbers of the French Forces of the Interior (the famous FFI) that formed the heroic efforts of the Resistance. "Maquis" itself means, basically, "the bush" and we couldn't help but think of the forests of Brittany (including the mythic Brocéliande of Arthurian legend) and this long, strange chapter in which they served as bases for military operations. Several military operations, including Operation Dingson at St. Marcel, were marshalled to prevent German troops from reaching Normandy, so that the D-Day invasion could have its full effect on a lessened/weakened German presence. D-Day was June 6 and Operation Dingson began on the 5th of June. It was, of course, amazing to think of this enormous machinery of war and all of its crucial parts, no one group of soldiers knowing if what they were doing was decisive or unnecessary, but everybody risking their lives. I will confess to having almost no critical apparatus for WWII - I all too quickly recede into naïveté and/or horror (unlike my dear Julia and Mac whose insights have always been tremendous) - but the concreteness of this museum brought things down to a pragmatic and human level I've rarely experienced. The contrast would be the Caen Memorial Museum and its enormous 3-hour visit that has you walk down, down, down a spiral hallway into the darkness of the war. Here, today, we were instead in a beautifully lush forest of Brittany, able to walk outside and touch these tanks, walk into bunkers, and then (incongruously enough) watch the children play on playground equipment.

The kids really surprised us. They were completely into this visit - in very black and white terms. The Nazis were the bad guys and the French were the good guys without any complications of military strategy or anything like that. The realism of the bunkers and the bikes and the uniforms gave us (grown-ups) a glimpse of the drudgery of war - for the kids it was all about finding out "which side" each display depicted. It was really interesting to me, the terms on which they could understand all this. Good vs. evil is a pretty logical place to start, I would think. I don't know how I felt about their yelling "Vive la Resistance!" on the playground and their capturing invisible Nazis and locking them up - but it's not about how I feel, it's about how they're processing this, their first interaction with the history of WWII. (Iris was with me at Theresienstadt/Terezin outside Prague but, really, there, there was no way for her to understand what was going on - none of us can understand places like Terezin, really) They're pretty unusual in having a grandfather, that they've actually gotten to know, who fought in WWII - for most of their peers, WWII will be at a greater generational remove.

The afternoon stayed with the kids well into the evening. First thing when we got home, Oliver turned two shoe boxes and a pastry box into bunkers and made two soldiers who duked things out. He had it all worked out, what the bunkers were like on the inside, how long they'd been fighting over the coast of Brittany, everything.

Iris was a doctor who had healed lots and lots of soldiers, especially the paratroopers who had dropped down behind enemy lines and who had broken legs. She would even fix their parachutes. She's at such an interesting age: this may the first time she's understanding a little bit of what this WWII thing is (she said a couple of times that all of the bullets and guns scared her) - perhaps the first time she can start to feel the "historical weight" of something.

Eleanor, on the other hand, wanted to be Zorro. She's not quite there yet, but her idea of being a swashbuckling hero who saves the day is pretty swell. This is definitely what I would consider her idiom. This, the child who said "I keep my chicken bones for weapons." Ever ready. Today was cold (!), rainy (!!) and serious mostly, and I loved the kids very much for being so interested, and felt protective (so protective) watching them at their war games and barely allowing myself to think of what it must have been like to have been a parent during WWII. We consciously switched gears for the evening: Mac and the girls stayed home to watch "Up," and I took my little guy out to see Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc-Sec, which were absolutely extraordinary and filled Oliver will great joy (really cool and civilized mummies come to life). One of the final shots is of a retinue of mummies walking off to go down the Champs Elysées. That's where the parade to celebrate the liberation of Paris took place on August 29, 1945 - vive la Resistance, indeed!

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