Monthly Archives: May 2014

A solemn state of confusion…

The city of Bayeux is an anomaly in France. It was one of the first places to be liberated during the battle of Normandy, so it still has the majority of its older buildings intact, unlike nearby Caen and Saint Lo, which were leveled during the months after D-Day in 1944, and because it is used as a jumping off point to visit Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword, and Gold beaches, it attracts many British, American, and Canadian tourists so almost everybody speaks English to some degree.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the town is very busy with visitors and in anticipation of the flood of dignitaries that are due to arrive on June 6th to mark the occasion. There were many American, Canadian, and British flags flying alongside of the French ones in every corner of the city, and signs saying “Welcome to our liberators” and “70 years of peace” and “Official D-Day store”.


I had hired a car to take me to some of the memorial sites and cemeteries to pay my respects.

It’s hard to stand among the graves in Bény Sur Mer and not be affected by them.


The perfectly straight grave markers on the meticulously kept grounds stare back at you announcing the names, ages, ranks, and units of the fallen. So many young men from the Winnipeg Rifles fell on D-Day and during the months following at the battle of Caen. So many were in their early twenties with some as young as nineteen. I found the marker for Gunner Charles Patrick O’Connor, 23 years old, from my mother’s side, and plant a small Canadian flag, and then do the same for Private John Patrick O’Connor, also 23. I’m old enough to be their fathers.


Then it was on to the Juno Beach Centre,


a non-profit museum run by the Canadian government. A very tasteful facility that recounts Canada’s part in World War Two, with interactive exhibits including one that I thought was showing how small France was…


… but then I thought about it, and it was showing how big Canada is.

The museum has kept some of the German pillboxes intact,


and when you stand at the water on Juno Beach, and look up at the concrete bunkers, it’s rather intimidating. I can’t imagine the terror that must have gone through those young men as they crossed the 50 yards of sand.


I went on to Omaha beach, and finished at the Battle of Normandy museum in Bayeux.


I think about the coming 70th anniversary of the landings, and how few people are left that lived through it, that remember the war. The generation of children being born today will probably never meet or know anyone who lived during the 40s, so these monuments have to stand as reminders of what the world went through and to never let it happen again…

Parts of the Bayeux Tapestry was surely meant for that purpose at one time too. An account of the horror of war during the Norman invasion of England, with severed bodies littering the margins depicting the Battle of Hastings at the end of the tapestry. But today, it is more of a curiosity than anything. I hope that the Battle of Normandy doesn’t turn into one too.


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Pressing all of the buttons in Mézidon…

After saying our goodbyes to Mark and his dog Oscar… “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? No, you can’t come with us, we don’t have a ticket for you on the train… HEY, come back with my shoe!” … we headed to the Mézidon train station which would take us to our next destination.

The train systems in Europe take a while to get used to, and with the exception of the mistaken platform in Westbury, so far we had been doing pretty well. There are nine separate train systems that we have to deal with on this trip, and it can get a little confusing.

We started off with the Eurostar which is an international bullet train with customs and expensive tickets, then the Underground (or tube) in London, then some British Rail trains with a company called North Western, a different British Rail company called Cross Country, an RER train in Paris that is a commuter train kind of like the Go-Train in Ontario, the Paris Metropolitan (or Metro) which is Paris’ subway system, and some of the different types of trains under France’s SNCF system which includes the TGV trains which are the high-speed trains used all over France, an Intercities train which are trains that go direct between major cities, and various TER trains that service every other town in France.


Mézidon was one of those “every other towns” so we would be taking a TER train. This was also the only leg of the entire trip where we didn’t have specific boarding passes, only a confirmation number that we needed to enter into a ticket machine, or redeem at a ticket booth. We had used the machines at various stations on the trip, and used a ticket booth in Roscoff, so we were confident that we knew what we were doing.

Our train was due to leave at 11:59am, so we got to the station at about 11:15, plenty of time to get the tickets and get to the train in the tiny three platform station…


When we arrived, there was no machine… and the ticket office didn’t open until noon.

We were screwed.

All we had was a confirmation number in an email showing our destination. We found a different machine that wasn’t a yellow SNCF machine, and we pressed buttons on it, hoping to glean some information. When that didn’t work… we tried again… and then a third time, staring blankly and looking at all of the menus that couldn’t help us because it was a machine for a different system.


It was getting close to our train time, and there wasn’t anybody around to help us except for the heavily armed police that had wandered into the station and looked like they were itching for a chance to use their assault rifles and machine guns. I’m sure that not having a valid ticket and just a confirmation number wasn’t considered an egregious enough offense to warrant the use of ordinance, but I didn’t feel like taking the chance.

We decided to wait on the platform and board the train travel the 10 minutes to Caen (where we were due to transfer trains), validate our confirmation at that much larger station, and continue on our journey to Bayeux. If we were asked for our tickets during that 10 minute trip, we would try to explain what happened and hope that they chalked it up to dumb foreigners syndrome and not shoot us.

Just before the train arrived, I spotted a yellow vested SNCF official, and I ran to him to try and communicate our problem.

“Bonjour monsieur! parlez-vous anglais?”


“oh….. merde…. uhhhhhhh…… I…. can’t get a ticket” *hand gestures and flailing*

“Ticket?” and he pointed to the closed ticket counter.

“No, I have a confirmation number, but can’t get a ticket…” and I showed him the email on my phone.

He looked at my phone, and then looked at me in bewilderment…

I sighed, not knowing what to do, and then I spied the Google Translate button. I hit that, translated the email, and showed him again.

“Ahhh, oui” he said, and then pointed to the ticket booth… looked at the display for trains, looked at my phone again, looked at his watch, and then stared at me for a moment and said… “ohhhhh. Merde!”

Then he motioned towards the station and said something to the effect that he would talk to the train manager, which he did when the train arrived and they let us ride to Caen without a proper ticket, which was very nice.

We were able to find a machine at the Caen station and withdraw our tickets, and when we arrived in Bayeux, the first thing we did was withdraw all of the remaining tickets for SNCF trains so we wouldn’t be caught again.


We then got a taxi and went to check in early at the Château de Damigny which was a large, lovely building…


…with the remains of a castle wall behind it, complete with battlements and embrasures in the crenellation (arrow openings).


The first night we had a lovely dinner cooked by the proprietor and shared with his wife and some of the other guests in the B&B. We all talked about our trips so far, and we got some good advice on some of the places that we were going to see in the next couple of days.

The next morning we went into the city and stopped at the museum that held the Bayeux Tapestry, and followed the very fast audio tour of the thousand year old embroidery that told the story of William the Conquerer.


Then it was to the Bayeux Cathedral and the expansive vestibule that houses a giant pipe organ


many murals and stained glass depictions of the saints…


… and a brand new church bell that is to be installed on June 6th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the landings at D-Day.


We then wandered the streets of the town looking into shops and cafés and bought some souvenirs and some foodstuffs for an evening meal before heading back to the Chateau to consume cheese, breads, and pâte with some Breton cider I brought from Méry Corbon.


The next morning at breakfast there was a new couple who had just arrived the night before… from Winnipeg! The conversation was a lively one with many comparisons of experiences and some advice about some of the sights and where to eat.

That morning I had hired a car to take me around the countryside to Juno and Omaha beaches and to the cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer in order to visit some relatives.


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