I promised to write again. (I am feeling that I need offer readers some genuine nomadic truths as this blog now has over 10,000 hits – a weird feeling). But I am happy to report (not least to my doctor) that I have removed myself from net and screen for nearly a whole week (just the occasional peak). In the main I could be found laid out next to a private pool surrounded by sunflowers, basking in the heat of the South of France. I may have risen from the poolside to take in a tour of the local vineyard (delicious sweet white wine) or to venture briefly into the humourously name local French town of Condom for supplies, but in general I have been unwinding under the gaze of the sun and not even thinking about writing about it (well nearly not).
But, as hinted at in my previous post – on the way down to our southern retreat, we stopped at Oradour Sur Glane. You perhaps think it a little unfair that I would drag five children to a site of a massacre during what was meant to be two weeks fun in the sun. However – every one of the kids was enthusiastic about the visit – for different reasons.
For those of you who don’t know Oradour or the story: on 10 June 1944 Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne Department of France was attacked by soldiers of the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich. On that day they killed a total of 642 men, women and children without giving any reasons for their actions and to this day there is no universally accepted explanation for the massacre (although some say it was in retribution for the success of a single resistance fighter whose family hailed from the region). People were burned alive in their homes, and women and children rounded up, locked in the village church, which was then set alight.
The village remains exactly as it was – in remembrance of those that lost their lives.
Each of us had a different response walking around. The teenage girls amongst us felt almost disappointed that the charred husk of a village didn’t evoke more adolescent emotion. Their lack of tears bothered them and they picked away at each story contained in each home – looking at the twisted metal of children’s beds, of rusty bicycles, dead cars and the patterned remains of fire-places searching for sadness. My littlest boy, aged eight, seemed to find it most poignant, and studied every detail of the place. Already a keen historian he was also fascinated by the evidence of how people lived in the “olden-days” (which extends to my own childhood in his mind!).
My own feelings were of anger. Not that this atrocity had occurred, but that in modern-day times such crimes continued. That villages of civilians are being burned. The women and children are massacred. So vital that this memorial remains and hats off to the French for such an appropriate and dignified site – but how much has the human species learned from it? Iraq. Afghanistan. Somalia. Rwanda. Sri Lanka. I could go on and on. All places that have seen similar cruel death and torture since 1944. Oradour just baffled me. An incomprehension that humans can be so vile to one another.
My other half although moved by the story which he knew well, was surprised at how unmoved he was by the place itself. He felt that so much time had passed it had been sanitized – and in true moving-on fashion my 11 year old commented that he thought it would make an excellent paint-ball site (but was otherwise hot and bored and wanted to leave). The teenage girls were shocked – but I felt strangely heartened that he was so lucky that conflict was so foreign to him – the only association he could find in the place was in entertainment. True conflict transformation from the mouth of a kid.
Despite my anger and bewilderment at Oradour, I remain a stubborn optimist. I understand that for every bullet in this world there are as many if not more acts of kindness that cannot be measured. One of the plaques at Oradour cheered me most – it read “from here 6 men escaped”. Even in a field of dead sunflowers….if you look very carefully you will find a bloom.
Seems like I am beginning to establish a pattern of nomadicity. Routinely trekking from the Isle of Britain to Brittany. This time an entourage in tow. As usual I find it hard to shake my day job and thoughts of Pakistan comes flooding, quite literally. I am unable to resist thinking and feeling for those who have suffered and who are suffering. So day one I find myself at the American cemetery in St. James. Rows of white headstones causing the tears to pour down my cheeks. My two boys too are moved. Having watching Saving Private Ryan only days before – they can visualise the ghastly deaths of the 4,500 American soldiers whose bodies lay here. All died in the summer of 1944. A single American family are also pacing somberly around the graveyard. They take photos and the younger ones pat the older ones on the back. We are voyeurs to their grief, but feel it non the less. My grandfather was tucked away in India during the war – flying missions over Burma. During the Normandy landings he was far away in Asia.
Oh happy holidays – I attempt to prise myself away from conflict and up to Avranches. But this is another significant site from the war….it’s hard to avoid the Sherman (no, not “German”; “Sherman) tank in the centre of town and as we take in breathtaking views of the Mont St. Michel from a pretty sun-flower filled botanical garden, my 8 year old boy can’t stop imagining the bullets flying as the Americans break through the German front. He dances across the lawns and poses dramatically as the Statue of Liberty.
We buy pétanque, the sunshine appears and we head for the beach at Jullouville. Holiday and laughter at last. And I checked – no D-day landings on this beach. We might even get a bit of a tan.
But I’m not getting complacent. As we drive south in a few days – we are making a stop at Oradour Sur Glame. Resistance is futile.
Star of the 4Nomadic blog header is for sale. She’s 25 years old – and lives in (and is registered in) France. It’s time to say goodbye to her and hello to something bigger and more adventurous! Watch this space for my summer holiday plans (it’s Cliff Richard – but think Bus not Blair).
Let me know if you want her. To a good home only.
I am still in France for now – nursing aching hands after days of destroying weeds in the garden using my hands and a loaned petrol strimmer. I say “garden” – it’s not really that yet. “Patch of land” probably more appropriate thing to say at the moment. Although in a small hamlet we do have a next door neighbour – with a grander house and an OCD-neat garden. It puts whatever attempts I make to tame our wilderness look futile next to his perfect lawn and rows of Leylandi.
My poor man has been sick with a fever for days – but seems slightly recovered as he is out of bed, sitting opposite me tucked into the book version of The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax.
Appropriate reading. I have lived a strange existence this week – one minute building shelves, hoofing lumps of timber around or visiting the Dechetterie (the town tip), the next minute researching Iraqi media, human rights and chatting online to Iraq-connected friends. Not to mention tending to the needs of my unwell husband, who would have been a lot better sooner I think, had England recovered themselves in the Ashes.
I am going to Baghdad fairly soon and I have been encouraged by the blogging fraternity (including them on BC) to keep an account of my travels on my travel blog. I will of course write some hefty strategic communications pieces both for Albany (who have had the grace to send me to Iraq) and the World Bank (who loyally seem to publish my every word) – but this travel blog is where it’s going to be at.
The news on my imminent trip so far, before I even GET there is that it’s going to be HOT. Over 50 degrees says aforementioned Mr Pax. It’s also going to be exhausting – I arrive in the early hours and start work straight away. I am more than happy with this however – and raring to go. My last trip to Iraq in 2006 ended abruptly with premature-evacuation and a sense of incompleteness and disappointment. I look forward to perhaps not achieving a climax, but getting some sense of balanced satisfaction for all parties involved (I could probably continue the innuendos, but I’ll stop there). I hope I can share my expertise with the Iraqis I meet – but equally hoping to learn from them too. Something I forgot about was what a nightmare security is. Trying to get anything done is difficult and/or expensive. I am trying to arrange for a group of Iraqi journalist/blogger friends of mine to have an informal chat with me and the people I am working with – but it seems like this cannot be done. Piff. I may try and do something online instead. Anyone know the best way to have a multi-location conference call with webcams? Skype isn’t my best friend at the moment. The security restrictions won’t be as bad a life in Basra Palace three years ago, but I am very much restricted to the Green or International Zone (3.8 square miles surrounded by bomb blast walls). So long as I meet more Iraqi’s this time I will be happy (although my Iraqi friends in Britain seem far more concerned than some of my gung-ho post-conflict friends).
So for now – in blissful limbo in France. Enjoying French sunshine, French wine and some hard work. Enjoying quiet countryside, visiting loved ones, and deep in research before heading East. Last time I landed in Baghdad it was a spiral decent in a Hercules and I was standing up in the cockpit. This time will be different. Soon.
PS – We managed to get a free butler style kitchen sink from a tough looking old farmer bird at the Dechetterie today. She was going to chuck it out! You will see from my picture – we are yet to have a sink in our luxurious kitchen (dishes done in the bath) – so it is very welcome.
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Tagged albany, baghdad, Basra, blogger, Brittany, bullding, france, Iraq, journalists, Media, palace, people, salam pax, skype
All this excitment about going to Baghdad, I forgot to mention that I hit the road again and headed for France last night (Iraq not till the end of next week). Ten days of mamouth hard work to follow as we continue to make our little house in Brittany more and more habitable. We at least have hot and cold water, some (limited) electricity, and a roof clear of holes. The windows are doors are filling the holes they should be (with a few gaps here and there). This weeks task is to build a basic kitchen – put in a sink at least. And build interior walls to make a second bedroom – AND most importantly put a door on the bathroom.
My job this afternoon is to go out in the blistering sun and pulls up weeds from the garden – which looks like a jungle. The garden is surrounded by cocky looking maize – the farmers choice this year, which makes our patch of land look a little inadequate. The neighbour next door has an emaculate garden, so I think I owe it to him to deal with the weeds and tidy up a bit – get the old pallets, piping, cement mixer out of view maybe. No sign of the other half – he and his pal went looking for said door early this morning.
I best get cracking….
Once more I feel my claim to the title “Nomadic” slipping away. These days I talk to the rest of the world from my cosy rural Hertfordshire retreat via skype, social networks and write ranty blog postings about Islamic identity and strategic communication. So as a refreshing change I am going to pen some thoughts more about baguettes and romantic renovation than advice on saving the world. So, at last a travel post about a country I have been to several times over the past year and an attempt to prove my nomadicity.
I was 11 years old when I left the shores of the Great British Isles for the first time. Le Harve didn’t know what hit it when I landed together with about 80 of my school friends back in 1982. We behaved badly on the ferry crossing: we snogged on the top deck; we smoked discarded butts and drunk the dregs from glasses in a shadowy bar at one o’clock in the morning. When we arrived in France we promptly fell asleep. The only thing I can remember from the 24 hours in France was sitting in a cafe wearing a navy blue beret and stripped shirt (although I think I only have this memory because a teacher travelling with us snapped a photo of the moment and to my embarrassment it went on the school notice board). On the way back the boys got caught with the flick knives they had purchased and were suspended from school, which cast an ugly shadow over the whole affair.
I have returned to France many times over the years – weekends to Paris, grimacing moments at Disney, but usually just passing through with my eyes closed, evoking a gallic shrug of indifference. To say I haven’t made the most of the place is a huge understatement – but to me it just never quite felt foreign enough. It seemed like going out for a wild night on the town and ending up at your next-door-neighbours house for a beer. As a young traveller I was more concerned with ticking off countries in the middle east, southern Africa and the tropics.
However, last year I fell in love with a dashing English man who lived in Brittany. This time France was plucked from my periphery vision and thrown in my face with unexpected delight. Unlike girlfriends before me, integrity prevents me from going into detail about my relationship with the gentleman concerned, however I will say he is quite the best thing to have ever happened to me. And as Nomadic enters a new era – finally spending my time in free flow writing and painting and doing what I am good at for a living (and what is right) – maybe the time has come to take a good long look at France (maybe even learn French). Sometimes for less than a quid Ryanair will transport you to Dinard (with a cheesy fanfare arrival if you are lucky enough to be on time) – which I wouldn’t scoff at for love nor money (or indeed both). So a few snapshots if I may of the France that the man in my life has shown me – a small piece of a country I have blinked and missed far too many times before:
Flying kites with five wonderful children (his and mine) on a cloudy beach at Saint Lunaire on the Emerald Coast; a famous five bike ride to a twee French geranium filled village; the best fresh fruit and vegetable market I have ever seen ever (Rennes); a moving moment at the cheese stall (at the said market); eating cherries (that market again – I said it was good); running breathlessly across a cricket pitch in the dead of night (yes, cricket in France); feeling fluey and glimpsing the amazing beachscapes of the Brittany coast; looking up from the cobbled streets of old town St Marlo and dreaming of apartment living; smiley, friendly French people (which is against everything I was bought up to believe); Wolf the kitten purring like a tractor; delicious pastries caked in wasps; amazing serendipitous floor laying and a cool beer to celebrate our feat; dead men and plasterboard; photographing fields on a misty morning with my new iPhone; and those chimneys three in a row across the rooftops of Rennes, which I still see every morning as I wake up.
So some of my moments in a rough sketch– and there will be plenty more to come I am sure. Perhaps now that I have a (second) permanent home in Brittany I will write more about life there and report on the renovation project, if only to prove I am still on the move (albeit a little slower) but can live up to the name “Le Nomade”.