Trenches and French Churches

The Vimy World War One War Memorial in FranceThe kids tossed Chris’s football around in the pasture. They barely noticed us leave the driveway. It made me happy to see them enjoying these new friends.

Luc resumed his role as tour guide and race-car driver. He describing everything that zoomed past along the highway – including the little wooden-cross memorials, the site of which didn’t surprise me.

We arrived at a heavily forested place that looked like a regional park. Hundreds of thin trees lined the roadway, their leaves fluttering in the strong wind. The lumpy sea of grass reminded me of moguls on a ski run. It felt peaceful and surreal. We pulled into the parking lot and Luc grabbed Donnas purse. “Not safe to leave this in the car.” He said, tucking it under his arm.

She asked: “Luc, why does the grass look like that?”

“The bombs.” He pointed to a small red sign with a cartoon of a small terrier which warned people not to let their dogs run freely. “They haven’t found all of them, so be careful.” At this point Donna and I still wondered where the heck we were. He explained this was Vimy Ridge, the site of a World War I battle where French and Canadian armies defeated the occupying Germans. He lead us toward the trenches and I was amazed they were still there. Over the years the sand bags solidified leaving them perfectly in tact and they looked exactly how I’d always pictured them. The grainy and sepia toned images in my head gave way to reality – lush green and blue skies under the afternoon sky. It was sad to imagine a bunch of guys killing each other here. With Donna’s purse still hanging on his shoulder, Luc kneeled down in the trench. We joined him, getting a feel for what these boys endured – claustrophobia at least. The armies fought very close to each other – in an area not much wider than my driveway.

Back in the car, we continued down the road and came upon a large gate. Luc slowed down. “Ahhhh, shit.” he said under his breath, “She’s closed.” The mammoth white towers of the Canadian Soldier Memorial loomed in the distance. He stopped the car and in spite of holding up traffic, he explained how it was built to show appreciation to the thousands of Canadians who gave their lives helping the French.

In no time, Luc zipped us into the town of Douai. We barely managed to keep up with his speed-walking on its sidewalks. At a small park, he pointed out a huge old cannon. He explained how guns like this were built in Douai for Napoleon’s wars, then asked for my camera and snapped a photo of Donna and I behind it.

Back inside the car I realized I’d not been on a ride like this since the county fair. Luc pulled in front of a church. Once inside, he bee-lined to a font of holy water where he made the sign of the cross. There was a full-on service in progress and as the priest spoke, Luc explained how this 500-year-old church had been destroyed by bombs in 1944 and took forty years to rebuild. He kept on talking and pointing things out regardless of the sermon in progress. I expected to see turning heads and dirty looks, but there were none. Back in the car, Luc hesitated a moment before starting up. He glared into his rear view mirror so I figured an angry deacon had followed us out. Instead he pointed to the Albert Einstein effect the wind had created on his head. “Sorry about the hair.”

We returned to Luc’s home in Raimbeaucourt where the French kids, still in their Sunday best, played soccer with our kids. “I got to drive a tractor!” Chris shouted from the pasture as we pulled back into the farm. He ran to the car and explained the chores they’d done including gathering hay bales and milking cows. It was the most excited I’d seen him all trip.

Luc told us dinner would be served in an hour. Donna and I returned to our room and layed down on our bed. It was the first time we’d relaxed all day.

“Another dinner?” I asked, staring at the brick ceiling. Donna didn’t respond, I assumed she’d nodded off.

I twinge of guilt came over me. Earlier that morning, I’d wished we could have stayed in a hotel, where a maid might be our only interface with others. I wanted freedom to do as I pleased. I’m glad we came here and got to experience something so special.

And this was only the beginning.

NEXT: While Sipping Pernod

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