The place of lost lives and wandering souls

Mother Canada, the Vimy Memorial
Mother Canada, the Vimy Memorial

The statue high above the autoroute taking travellers and tourists from the Channel Tunnel to Europe and beyond watches silently, as she has done for decades. If she could talk today of all days, she’d maybe say, ‘remember them.’

On April 9 1917, Easter Monday, four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force began an offensive which was to become known as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The strategic high ground not far from the Somme had been under German control since 1914. They had dug tunnels and trenches, allowing them to attack and weaken the allies. After months of planning and preparation, the Canadians led a fierce and violent battle, with support from the British who provided artillery barrages.

By the end of the battle, three days later, the ridge and its lumpy top known as the Pimple, were in Canadian hands, though they had lost 3,598 men, with nearly twice that number wounded. Historians can give much more detail on they strategic significance of this battle and its impact on the rest of the Great War, so forgive my quick summary. The Canadians saw it as an important mark of its national unity, so when at the end of the war, they were seeking a site to erect a memorial to the 60,000 Canadian dead, Vimy was chosen.

The Vimy Memorial and its 30-metre towers holding high the maple leaf of Canada and fleur de lys of France,  took 11 years to build, and was dedicated just three years before the start of the next war.  It is set in 100 hectares of land, much of it still holding unexploded armaments, safe only for the grazing sheep. As well as building the memorial, the site holds preserved trenches and tunnels.

The site is signposted from the Calais road, we’ve seen it many times, but never been, until yesterday. As we approached, I warned Noel there would be tears, how can anyone not be moved to see the place where so many lost their lives? It’s officially a piece of Canada in France and is looked after by the Canadians, and a wonderful job they do of it, right down to having people on hand to explain the memorial’s significance to visitors.

What moved me most and yes there were tears, was to see the statue of a cloaked Mother Canada with her downcast eyes surveying the land where so many lives were lost and sadly some never finding a resting place, strangers in a strange land. Their names are carved on the memorial so they can never be forgotten.

Fook off, keese my assss, said the evangeliste.

Who would have thought it? All day long the feet of thousands of tourists had tramped over the Pont de Solferino and the first person to spot the shiny gold ring was a dear old granny.

We were faffing with something or other, I’d probably lost my sunglasses. Again. Then found them on my head. Again. The old dear explained she was a humble soul and that the solid gold men’s wedding ring meant nothing to her, but to us it was surely the luck we deserved. She must have thought we were down on our luck. Well she had witnessed the faffing.

She explained, in French, that she was an evangeliste and this was a sign for us. Yes, we thought in English, a sign that she was a scammer. Off she went, presumably on the way to Heaven, the Heaven where money and deceit are gods, leaving us with the ring. We had a lot more faffing to do  so we carried on doing just that, then, quelle surprise, granny reappeared. Would we like to give her some money for a drink? No not really, we said, but we could give her a very valuable gold ring which she could sell. Funnily enough she didn’t seem to want those earthly riches. But we gave her it anyway, though she didn’t seem very thankful.

The faffing continued, Noel sat down as I took arty farty photos. In that short while, no less than three gold rings were found, we really are lucky. As we left, an American couple were looking wide eyed at another ring. We marvelled at our shared good fortune, then hypothesised that it may indeed have been a scam.

As we finally crossed the bridge the dear old lady was no longer smiling. She gesticulated and said in broken English ‘Fook you, keese my assss.’ Well that’s like no evangelistic language I’ve ever heard before!

The photo is of graffiti that appeared outside the hotel overnight. Ooo Paris is such an arty place!

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Beware pickpockets!

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It wasn’t so much the one hour queue for the tickets, nor the further hour queuing in another line to get in, nor even the half hour wait  for the toilets (five seconds if you are a man – isn’t it always the case?). It was the  way we were herded through the stately rooms once occupied by the Sun King himself which I worked out cost us one Euro a minute that made me rant in my best French ranting voice only usually heard after a couple of glasses of  kir. And they had the cheek to put up a sign warning about pickpockets. Our pockets had been well and truly picked!

If we’d just spent all our time in the fabulous gardens at Versailles, I would have been happy. The miles and miles of manicured lawns and fabulous fountains inspired by the Greek gods were splendid and gave me inspiration for our own humble patch of Yorkshire greenery. Though there was a lack of places to sit as anyone who went anywhere near the grass were warned off with the shrill shriek of a whistle. I love the French, but they do do officious.

But it was a wonderful way to spend our 12th wedding anniversary. I did manage to break my glasses though, kneeling on them as I took a photo. Good excuse to buy a fancy pair of designer specs while I’m out here.

Ooooo, it’s a bit steep

Steep stuff in the Alps

The last thing that Noel the Ski Instructor wanted to hear from his not-so-prize pupil as she teetered on the edge of a steep ice-sheet that was pretending to be a piste was: “I’m not going down there.” But that’s what he heard.

Seriously, it was a like a frozen waterfall, I’d visions of flying without wings or brakes and landing in a heap at the bottom, all skis, poles and broken bones. No, I was not going down there. No way.

In hindsight, the clue should have been in the name, Le Mur, French for wall. But we were on a high after gnarling down other icy slopes. So what to do? Stubborn as a mule, I flatly refused to go any further. I couldn’t make out Noel’s expression, hidden by helmet and goggles, but I put money on his teeth being gritted. No matter, I just wasn’t doing it and that was that.

There were no real alternatives piste-wise, so we set off in tracks of others who I assumed had had the same reaction to Le Mur. And if someone else had done it, then that made it all right. Ever the professional, Noel led the way, I think he was singing, he was certainly making some sort of rhythmic sounds, the words all began with an ‘f’.

Then the tracks ran out, they had reached the slopeside airport where the Russian oligarchs land their helicopters en route to their exclusive chalets from there they can hit the pistes with their Swarovski-encrusted skis. This was no place for a coward who couldn’t face an icewall. So it was off with the skis and taking a hike to the nearest snow bank which, after we’d clambered over it, turned out to be a piste. Nice and flat, we were safe.

Today’s skiing was much less dramatic, the sun shone for the seventh day running, the snow was crisp and the conditions perfect and we managed to avoid any piste featuring the word ‘mur’. A great holiday, we’re already planning the next one!

The picture above if the off-piste from Les Menuires to Orelle, the Fourth Valley in the Three Valleys ski area. Next time, next time….

Les anglais à l’étranger


The Vox cinema, Chamonix
Originally uploaded by StripeyAnne.

We're currently skiing in Chamonix, yes, indeed skiing. There is snow and ice, but we are hitting those pistes! Chamonix is the home of Alpinism, but all that mountaineering for the sake of it would was invented by the Brits. The French had hiked up and down in search of crystals for many years before that. But the way some Brits behave, you'd think they`d invented Chamonix itself. Notice I say they and not we. There are many opportunities to witness this – most of them in crowded telepheriques where sentences usually end with …… "and I was so drunk " followed by "and I was very sick." with the rest of the sentence peppered with expletives.

Actually, I pretend I'm French and join the other shrugging French when we hear this.

I did display Brit behaviour in a restaurant the other day, though. We had very poor service and I felt justified in ranting, though it was polite (ish ) and it was in French. Noel said he was very impressed with the increase in fluency as the rant reached its crescendo. But I did stop short of calling anyone's mother a hamster (couldn’t remember the French for hamster). We didn't get anywhere, and I left vowing never to return, ever though we quite like it there. The response was shrugged shoulders.

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