Today was a good day to fly the American flag on Hoop Doet Leven. We’d wondered what flag to fly. Technically, the boat is registered in the United Kingdom and should fly a British flag, the Red Ensign identifying it as a British civilian vessel. That is what it flew formerly. But we felt a tad foolish pretending to be Brits, couldn’t manage the accent or remember the words to Britannia Rules the Waves. On the other hand, there have been some uncomfortable moments in Franco-American relations (please don’t force us to utter either “freedom fries” or “cheese eating surrender monkeys” from the Simpsons). Nonetheless, we’ve been flying a rather large West Marine version of the Stars and Stripes from Hoop’s stern. We’ve never had a bad reaction. In fact, it has been just the opposite. It is surprising how often we are asked, somewhat stiffly, whether we are English. When we respond with “no, no, no” (a word never said just once; one waiter educated us about the difference between saying “no, no,” which means “no,” and “no, oui,” which for some reason means “yes”), and we say “nous sommes américaine” (we are Americans), the questioner invariably breaks out in a grin and asks if we’ve ever been to New York, which to most French seems to be the equivalent of the Emerald City in Oz, but with classier jeans.
Today is May 8. For the past three days we’ve been in Damery, a small town on the Marne River near the western edge of Champagne (we know, we’ve said a few times we’d be leaving Champagne “tomorrow.” It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t be happening yet. This town, with a population of 1,300 has a dozen champagne houses. We had lunch in a cafe on the river today – ragout d’lapin, as in Bugs, as in the Easter one, as in the Velveteen one, and Peter, the Energizer one, Rodger, the Trix one, and, of course, the invisible one named Harvey – with a bottle of local Damery champagne. Our coffee cost the same as the champagne. Would you be in a rush to leave?).
May 8 is VE day, the day the Germans surrendered in World War II. It is a big deal here.
We’d planned a bike ride through the dirt paths in the vineyards. As we were getting the bikes set up an elderly man, carrying a metal rake, walked up to the boat and pointed at our flag. Speaking only French, he told us we were Americans. We agreed. He said he would give us a “souvenir” of Damery (“souvenir” is more than a trinket, it means “memory”). He said he was eight years old in 1944. The Germans had been in Damery. One morning the Germans began blowing up the houses along the river. Then the bridge crossing the Marne was exploded and dropped into the river. American soldiers appeared on the far shore and started shelling the town. The Germans fled. Within an hour, he told us, the Americans had built a new bridge across the river “on top of boats” and for hour after hour tanks and trucks and jeeps drove through the town. It was General Patton’s Third Army, he said. He stood by the side of the road when Patton himself drove past. The American bridge crossed exactly where Hoop Doet Leven is moored. Patton would have driven over our decks.
When he was finished we told him that Harvey’s father had been in France in the American Army and he had landed at Normandy. He shook our hands and said thank you.
Later, at noon, after our bike ride, all the town’s church bells began ringing. We heard music and looked up at the bridge (the one that replaced the Marne bridge the Germans destroyed) to see musicians, soldiers, firefighters and a crowd marching across. We quickly joined the parade.
On the far side of the bridge were stone memorials to the First and Second World Wars. The band played, the mayor gave a speech, flags waved, everybody sang the La Marseillaise, then they marched back across the bridge for lunch.
It was moving. Only a snail can fail to be moved by La Marseillaise (and snails have grounds for a personal grudge against the French). We’ve travelled through historic military territory. The Meuse River, through Lorraine, was the scene of the worst of World War I trench warfare. Verdun epitomizes the senselessness of war, where the German strategy was to simply kill as many French as possible until they gave up the fight. The Ardennes, where we travelled through lovely farmland, was the scene of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major counterattack of World War II. We haven’t passed a hamlet without a war memorial, usually covered with the names of the town’s “enfants” (children) who died. These memorials invariably have fresh flowers laid on them, still.
We live in an age where real wars can be difficult to distinguish from video games. Controllers in Colorado pilot drones over Afghanistan to bomb houses and cars. A country song boasts “I can’t tell Iraq from Iran.” War is distant. Impersonal. We didn’t even count how many civilians were killed in Iraq. We have wars on terror, on drugs, on poverty. But no living American has experienced war at home in America, has seen his home town invaded, bombed, burned, destroyed, neighbors killed, women raped. In France, especially in the countryside, the experience of war was real and remains real.
The ceremony today reminded us of this. In addition, the flag on our stern and the visit from the man with the rake reminded us of the good that America did when it came to the defense of France. It’s been a good day, and not just because of the rabbit stew for lunch.