Our last night in Ireland was spent in Cork, drinking Murphy’s, the local stout, while drifting between the pubs near our hostel. We caught a bus to Rosslare the following morning to meet the first ferry to France, Cherbourg to be precise, and watched the rain drip down outside the window as we passed through the river ports on Ireland’s south east coast.
Boarding the Irish Ferry, amongst a trickle of other foot passengers, we sat down at the nearest available table, one of a long line stretching through a corridor, its carpet a dirty red. Fruit machines had been placed in the small space between every set of bolted down furniture.
The captain’s voice eventually crackled down the public address system, warning of typically rough seas, the engines quietly started, and we left the British Isles. The sea was initially soft and we went quickly beyond the sight of land. Standing on deck, watching Ireland fade, I turned to see the ship’s jail, an occupant bashing on the door. I had never been this far out to sea, where land is forgotten and the ship becomes a world unto itself.
The calm seas eventually became rough, not long after sunset. The ship was pitching heavily, an angry spray occasionally splashing against our window. The glass front of a duty free shop ran alongside the corridor. Its bottles jangled with each dull thud of the prow, and occasionally broke. I watched people walking down the corridor bump into tables as we rose, and the opposite wall as we sank. Most were leaving the cabaret bar at its far end.
We had not reserved a cabin, to avoid the surcharge, so I sat up late, avoiding my uncomfortable bed. Claire had fallen asleep on the carpet beneath our table, wrapped in a sleeping bag liner. Other cabinless passengers wandered through the ship. After the bar closed they seemed lost, and staggered past, bodies bent, leaning in anticipation of the ship’s next roll. Some stopped nearby, knees bent, eyes vacant, realising there was nowhere to go.
Claire and I eventually lugged our bags down to reclining seats, located in the depths of the ferry, where the more gentle rock of a rough sea sent us slowly to sleep.
I woke up hazy and bedraggled midmorning, to the murmur of activity through my earplugs. The sea was calm now, and blue, reflecting the shadows of a few small clouds. France soon became visible and my excitement mingled with naïve fear. I had never been outside the English speaking world and fretted about the loss of easy communication, conjuring up improbable images of confusion and disorder. French passengers I hadn’t noticed before became interesting.
A man, his face tight around reading glasses, scolded one of his two children in French, for knocking a balloon into the path of other passengers. He then dragged the child out of sight and administered a token spank. The child, once released, ran to his mother in tears, while the man sat down around a corner, to read away from the sight of his misbehaving children.
We arrived at Cherbourg and disembarked, getting a little lost in the ship’s stomach along the way. I passed unstopped through immigration and we followed signs through the city’s streets, to its distant station. I asked an attendant, the French tricolore painted across her cheek, at what time the World Cup Final was being played that evening, in a mixture of gestures and spastic French. From there we boarded a train to Bayeux, home of the more famous tapestry.
At Bayeux we ambled into the Hotel de la Gare, the Station Hotel, only half interested in what we assumed would be a too expensive room. A short man, his small, damp nose framed by a neat black moustache and round spectacles, appeared from the entrance to a domestic kitchen. I muttered a hesitant “Parlez vous Anglais?”
He said yes and I soon discovered, in English, that we the rooms were affordable, and included breakfast. Perspiring more heavily now, the man took us excitedly to our room, up a few flights of rickety steps. He let us put down our backpacks before indicating that the hotel could arrange D-Day tours, if we were “eentwehsted”. We were. He disappeared down the steps and returned a few minutes later, clutching a photo album. Apologising constantly for “deesturbing” our privacy, he showed us what the tour included. We agreed to go the following day.
It was early evening by now, although the sun, floating high above our window, gave no indication. The football started at eight, so we wound our way down to the town centre, through narrow streets flanked by wheat coloured walls, and, after a quick meal, found the locals filing into the out of place Pub Fiction.
La Marseillaise was bellowed over frothy €5 pints and the game started. A haze of cigarette smoke slowly filled the room. I watched the scrappy football only occasionally, unable to rouse myself to support the foreign side, and found myself more interested in the subdued audience, who only responded to a song thumped through the speakers at crucial moments. At half time we left.
We walked around the town as the sun set, slowly making our way to the cathedral. It was visible above every other building, but adorned rather than dominated the town. Ramshackle shops and homes cast pastel shadows on the city’s dark waterways, their moss covered waterwheels still in motion.
Strong coffee, croissants, carefully sliced baguettes and strawberry jam greeted us in the hotel’s café the next day. We ate slowly, watching locals file in for a calvados or lager before work.
After a quick walk around town, hunting for an internet connection, we returned to the hotel and waited to be collected for the D-Day tour. The small, sweaty gentleman who had checked us in the previous day materialised and introduced us to “Samyouwel,” our guide. We climbed into a people carrier and headed first to the D-Day museum in Arromanches, where the prefabricated “Mulberry” port vital to Allied supply lines had been constructed.
Samuel, dressed neatly, his hair carefully combed and parted, drove silently for most of the journey, only answering our sparse questions. He let us out at the museum, told us when to return to the vehicle, and suggested we synchronise watches.
The visit was neatly timed to coincide with the screening of an original newsreel, about the construction of the “Mulberry” port at Arromanches, in the Channel’s rough water. Its authenticity was pleasing, the newscaster’s tone conveying the overriding importance of a now geriatric history. Released from the small cinema we looked at original uniforms, tacked onto smiling mannequins, and pondered a pilot’s emergency rations.
We were then taken to the intact German bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer. The range of the guns still here, slowly rusting, would have extended to the landing beaches a few miles away. The Allies bombed the area before D-Day, with coordinates supplied by the French Resistance, but missed the camouflaged bunkers. Instead, the bombs disabled German communications, making it difficult for them to target the landing fleet. They surrendered on D + 1, intimidated by the spectre of 5000 ships on the horizon. Samuel described this with a fair amount of precision. Claire and I scratched around inside the thick, steel reinforced concrete for a while, while an English school group clambered onto the guns for a photo.
There are nearly 10 000 precisely arranged gravestones at Colleville-sur-Mer, America’s D-Day cemetery. We stopped there next, and wandered slowly through the little white crosses and occasional Star of David, reading on them the names of strangers, carved subtly to obscure the light and cast a shadow.
Samuel then took us, via Omaha Beach, to Pointe du Hoc, also a German fortification. The bunkers here are collapsing. Chunks of concrete sit upturned like monoliths. Barbed wire collects at the bottom of gaping bomb craters. It resembles the site of a forgotten civilisation.
It was our last stop. Samuel, happy to have finished on time, drove us back to the hotel. We wrote that evening in our hot room and the next morning, after strong coffee, packed up, walked to the station, and caught another train.
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