We must have been an hour outside Paris when I looked up from my book and saw the farm. It gave me that dreamlike shock of recognition you get when entering a place you've seen only in photographs. The buildings were Tudor, the brown and white cows haughty, the trees billowy with apple blossoms. The sky was gray. There was no need for a billboard to say "Welcome to Normandy."
I had just been reading about cows in "Normandy Revisited" by A.J. Liebling, one of the great New Yorker writers in the days when the New Yorker was great. Liebling's attachment to the province went way back; he had first become acquainted with what is known as Lower Normandy - the western departments of Calvados and Manche - in the fall of 1926, before beginning studies at the Sorbonne. When, as the New Yorker's war correspondent 18 years later, he learned that the Allied invasion would take place in this region, he felt "as if, on the eve of an expedition to free the North from a Confederate army of occupation, I had been told that we would land on the southern shore of Long Island and drive inland toward Belmont Park."In 1955 he returned to Normandy and wrote the book that I was now rereading on the Paris-Caen train. I was into my favorite chapter, "Madame Hamel's Cows," in which Liebling revisits the farm in Vouilly that had served as the press corps' headquarters in the period between D-Day and the liberation of St. Lo. "For five weeks in 1944," he wrote, "the Chateau had been one of the news centers of the world."
Madame Hamel, looking "a proper chatelaine, though she made no claim to nobility," had welcomed the journalists onto her estate. The living room was turned into a pressroom, and the correspondents slept in tents pitched in the pasture in front of the chateau. Liebling, with his fluent French and savoir-faire, quickly got on a first-name basis with the cows, including L'Anglaise (from the Channel Islands) and La Nitouche, "who pretended a maidenly aversion to the bull."
Like many of the people heading to Normandy this year, I wanted to plod across beaches, peer through pillboxes, mourn in cemeteries. But I also wanted to find Madame Hamel's cows.
The train pulled into Caen (say "con" but hold the "n" in your nose) in mid-afternoon. A row of buses stood outside the station, each large window decorated at the bottom with a small band of flags - French, American, Canadian, British, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish. Above each band was printed, in English: Welcome to Our Liberators.
Bookstores (Caen, a university town, has more of these per block than American cities have drugstores) displayed numerous tomes on the war, D-Day, the Battle of Normandy and the destruction of their city. Special newspaper supplements - often with a soiled GI and a smiling Norman kid on the cover - filled their racks.
The window at Roland Chocolatier on Rue Ecuyere featured Les Cartouches (The Cartridges), pastries made in the shape of artillery shells and stuffed with chocolate. They reminded me of the Christmas I spent in France when I saw an entire nativity scene made out of favorite foodstuffs. The colorful boxes carried a frighteningly sanitized vision of D-Day landings.
The war was even on the evening news. Watching TV in my hotel room, I heard that some veteran American paratroopers were planning to commemorate the anniversary by jumping again in the vicinity of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the town made famous by John Steele when his parachute got caught on the church steeple. The only problem was that French authorities had not given them permission.
Sunday I drove to Grandcamp for lunch at the Hotel Duguesclin. I was hoping to follow in Liebling's gustatorial footsteps. He was one of those people who, like M.F.K. Fisher, constantly blur the line between travel and food writing; inseparable from his love of Normandy was his love of eating. In "Normandy Revisited" he made the exalted claim that "Lower Normandy has the best sea food, the best mutton (from the salt marshes of the Avranches region), the best beef, the best butter, the best cream, and the best cheese in Europe."
The night before I had driven to Port-en-Bessin, a town on the coast fortuitously situated between the British and Canadian beaches of Gold, Sword and Juno and the American beaches of Omaha and Utah. It had a special place in Liebling's heart because of a "magnificent sole normande, bedewed with shelled mussels" he had once devoured there. In fact, from his landing craft on D-Day, he had tried to pick it out. (The town, not the restaurant. I think.)
Returning in 1955, he had eaten another memorable meal - araignee de mer (a local type of crab) followed by skate in black butter - at the Hotel de la Marine. So naturally, as I drove along the harbor, I looked for the Hotel de la Marine. And I found it, only a newer version. The young man at the front desk wasn't even sure where the old hotel had been. I ate a decent dinner - prawns followed by scallops (which in France go by the ecclasiastical name of Coquilles St. Jacques), washed down by a bottle of local cider - but I knew it was not where Liebling had eaten.
Neither was Duguesclin, but it was more Liebling's kind of place. Perhaps because it was May Day, or simply a sunny Sunday in spring, or perhaps it is always this way, but the dining room at 1 p.m. was like Renoir's Dejeuner des Canotiers come to life.
Families, couples, children and dogs all produced a convivial clatter; waiters bustled back and forth with imperturbable smiles. Mine brought me a nearly bottomless tureen of the freshest, plumpest mussels I have ever eaten, followed by the famous black-buttered skate. Lilies of the valley, the traditional flower of the day, sat in small bowls on some of the tables, and on the far wall hung a large painting depicting, strangely enough, the U.S. Rangers' assault at Pointe du Hoc. (This famous cliff is just a few miles away, and the town now features a Rangers Museum.)
"Did you see it in Le Figaro yesterday," Marie Madelaine Brard, the proprietor, asked me about the painting. "We just had it refurbished. You know the Rangers are coming here. We're having 400 people to dinner on June 6."
I asked her about the meaning of the name Duguesclin.
"He was a chevalier who chased the English out of Normandy. But," she said, smiling, "that doesn't keep us from having good relations with them."
Around noon the next day I stopped at the western edge of Omaha Beach. It was another unusually clear day; a British family had stuck a wicket in the sand and was playing cricket with a tennis ball; a busload of French high school students were staking out seats on a bunker for their boxed baguette lunches.
The cricket, especially, seemed a sacrilege on the very spot where so many men had given their lives. But then I reasoned that the players were simply restoring the beach to its proper use, and that it was the Germans - with their barbed wire and booby traps - who had desecrated this ground in the first place.
The students were from a high school outside Paris and happy, the boys especially, to give me sarcastic, bloated speeches on the importance of this field trip "to their historical and cultural understanding." It was only when I said I was from around Miami that we got on a natural footing.
"Me-a-ME! You like the Heat, no?"
"They're not bad," said a boy with an impressive, grease-free pompadour. "But I prefer the Bulls. Sco-TEE Pip-PIN." The accent on the up-beat made him sound like a French comic book hero; a cousin of Tintin.
We talked "le bas-KET" for a while, praising the exploits of giants in baggy shorts. They were, in these kids' eyes, the new GIs, men of glorious feats and enviable wealth.
Back in my rented Peugeot 106, I headed west on Route 514. The villages were all huddled against the wind, which had smoothed their sandstone edges. They had a stark fundamental uniformity - piles of tan stone under gray slate roofs - softened by the surrounding meadows, misty with cows.
Not far from Isigny-sur-Mer I saw a sign, pointing south, for Vouilly. It caught my eye like a lodestar - It does exist! - and I nearly made the turn. But there were still some things I wanted to see first.
On my way to Sainte-Mere-Eglise I stumbled upon Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. It is only a mile or so inland from Utah Beach, one of those small French towns that make you pull over and pine for a while. In the main traffic circle - devoid, for the most part, of any traffic - sits an ancient dome-steepled church surrounded by a ring of linden trees. Handsome stone houses rim the circle. In one of these lives Gilles Perrault.
He graciously invited me in, though he hadn't been expecting me. A woman in the town hall across the way had told me that he'd written books on D-Day, as well as, he informed me, "a number of other subjects. But now," he chuckled, "I'm in demand again. I'm precious every 10 years."
He was in his early 60s, handsome and modest. (He is well-known in France; every French person I met afterward said, impressed: "You met Gilles Perrault?!?").
His interest in D-Day, he explained, went back to his childhood, when both his parents took part in the Resistance. During his military service, he trained as a parachutist, which gave him a certain understanding of the undertaking. And then, at the age of 30, tired of practicing law in Paris, he moved to Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to become a writer.
"I didn't know the town. I saw an ad for the house, came out to take a look, and bought it.
"Manche is not nearly as well-known as Calvados; even the French don't know it. It is very beautiful, very diverse: wild in the north, while here you have the bocage, or open woodland. Most of the people here make their living from dairy farming or raising horses."
I told him I had heard that Normans were generally cold, tough characters. (Liebling had often compared Normandy to New England.)
"Not cold, not hard," he said. "Reserved. They have a great reserve. They don't welcome you with open arms. They observe you for awhile. But they respect the rights of others, and they expect the same, to be allowed to do as they wish.
"To give you an example: I often take positions that are very controversial. And I go on TV, so everybody knows what they are. If this were a town in the South of France, people would be pointing at me as I went down the street. Here nobody says a word to us about it. And I think that's the test of a great civilization."
I mentioned that, up until an hour before, I had never heard of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont; that Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the town everyone talked about.
"Ah," he said, smiling, "that is our great tragedy. We're very jealous of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. And all because nobody got stuck on our church steeple. But the paratroopers landed here as well. They were scattered all over the area. When I moved here in the early '60s, children still wore pajamas made from parachutes the Americans had left behind. People made curtains from them.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise, when I finally reached it, looked like Sainte-Marie-du-Mont gone Hollywood. It was an attractive enough town, but it seemed to me that the writer for Le Figaro had gotten it about right when she wrote: "At some point the history of the town got lost in the history of D-Day. It's as if nothing, absolutely nothing, even the famous church, whose foundations date to the 11th Century, existed before."
There is an Auberge John Steele and a hideous parking lot in the main square where Howard Manoian, a paratrooper who has retired here, regularly parks his Lincoln Continental. And, in a perfect Disneyesque touch, a dummy of a paratrooper hangs from the church steeple.
Henri-Jean Renaud works in the pharmacy facing the church. His father was mayor in 1944 - a plaque to him now stands in the square - and his mother tended the graves of American soldiers with such loving care that Life magazine called her "The Queen of Normandy."
I asked him about the current paratrooper controversy. "In 1944 they didn't ask us if they could come. And we were very happy that they did. My only concern is that it's a little exhibitionistic. Those who jump are going to take attention away from those who don't. And I want all the veterans to be honored equally."
Across the square, in the Airborne Museum, I read the latest entries in the visitors' book:
Thanks to those who gave their life for France. - Pierre, 8.
We must attempt, with these relics of the slow reconquest of liberty, to perpetuate the memory of that which no one has the right to forget. - Benoit, 15.
"Do you recognize this?" Genevieve Cousin asked, showing me the metallic plate she was using to feed the chickens in her backyard garden. And I did, from the movie at the Airborne Museum: A GI mess kit that had been left behind.
"It's very sturdy," she said.
I had decided to make one more stop in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to see another family I had been told about in the town hall. And the Cousins - Genevieve, her husband Emile, and granddaughter Melanie, who was visiting from St. Lo - had been gracious enough to tell me their stories. Genevieve had shown me the scar on her forehead, received the night of June 5 when a bomb hit her house, and pictures of the American doctor, Eugene Klein, who had treated her. Emile, pouring me another glass of homemade cider, had talked about cutting grass for the Germans to use as camouflage on their bunkers. "We were just kids. We had to do it. Otherwise ...," and he had formed a gun with his hand and put it to his head.
They said they would spend the 6th this year in town, as always. "Sainte-Mere-Eglise," Genevieve said sharply, "has a ball. I've never gone to that. My mother was killed on June 6th. My brother was gravely wounded. My father was away in prison. For me it's not a celebration."
They asked if I'd been to St. Lo. I said no, and they suggested I take Melanie back the following day to show me around.
"Well, I have to get to" - it was the first time I had actually said, or attempted to say - "Vouilly." In desperation, I wrote it down. Melanie, laughing, helped me out, pouting her lips to expel a sound that resembled "phooey."
"You can go there afterwards," her grandmother said, smiling.
So the next morning I pulled up to the house at 9 o'clock. Melanie kissed each grandparent two times on each cheek - her head going back and forth in that touching, bobbing ritual - then hopped into my Peugeot and rode away.
Though living in St. Lo, Melanie was going to high school in Cherbourg. From one bombed city to another. A child of modern France. But she had listened to her grandparents' stories with genuine interest. "I've heard so many," she told me as we headed south. "My grandfather didn't tell you the one about the boys peeing in the milk pails before they gave them to the Germans."
We wandered around town, poking into rebuilt churches, then drove to a modern apartment building to visit her other grandparents. Before pulling into a space, I asked if it was OK to park there.
"That's funny," she said. "You said parker. That's not French. The word is garer. You've heard about our Minister of Culture, who's trying to ban the use of English words? His name is Monsieur Toubon. At school we call him Monsieur Allgood.
"It's ridiculous, what's he's trying to do. The other week a bunch of us went to a cafe and we asked the waiter to bring us a slice of ham between two pieces of bread. He looked at us as if we were crazy. But you see, we were trying to avoid saying `sandwich.' "
Upstairs, her grandparents fed us coffee and cookies and more war stories. Then they asked if I were going to visit Mont-St.-Michel.
"It is the marvel of Normandy," the grandmother said.
"Of France," the grandfather said.
"Of the world," Melanie said.
I said I had to get to Vouilly.
As a consolation, the grandmother gave me a postcard of Mont-St.-Michel. Then they sent me off with a fragrant stem of lilies of the valley.
I drove slowly to Vouilly. To savor the moment. At St. Andre de l'Epine I took Rt. 59 north, the road the 29th Division had taken south to the front. It was still, in places, bordered by the high hedgerows that had hampered their advance. Liebling described the 29th's progress as "slow, bloody and sometimes nearly imperceptible." As I drove, I tried to imagine "the fire going over the road, clipping leaves from trees and making you feel important." But it was all vernal quietude.
Finally, I came into Vouilly. It looked as Liebling had described it, "a crossroads, an old church, a harness-maker's shop, and a grocery cafe" except for the absence of the last two. In the cemetery beside the church I found the large granite tomb of the Famille Hamel.
A sign at the crossroads pointed to Le Chateau. I followed a leafy country road that led quickly to a sign I had seen all over Lower Normandy, identifying the farm as a Gite, or bed and breakfast. The journalists had been replaced by tourists.
I headed down the tree-lined drive, green pasture stretching on either side, and parked on the gravel in front of the large, stately, white-shuttered chateau. A woman in her 40s, with short reddish hair and a gentle expression, came out to greet me. She introduced herself as Marie-Jose Hamel.
She led me into what is now the guest breakfast room, though it was still labeled, I was happy to see, "Press Room." I recognized, with muted excitement, the ornate pieces of furniture made by Madame Hamel's son and, just below the windows, the moat from which Madame, sitting in her living room, would casually fish for carp.
"It still has carp," Marie-Jose said. "But the water's stagnant so they're not very good."
I caught up on news like an old neighbor. Madame Hamel had died in 1968 (four years after Liebling), and her grandson - Marie-Jose's husband - ran the farm today. They still had 50 cows, but now they were Dutch. Traditional farming, she said, was dying in France, as was Vouilly.
"We are now the youngest people in the village," she said, laughing with a mixture of dismay and disbelief. The baker closed shop a couple of years ago. "He held out the longest. There is no school anymore. Children have to go to Isigny."
Old correspondents still dropped by. "I can always spot them, because when they get out of the car, they look first at the pasture."
Marie-Jose got up and brought me the guestbook that the Hamels had kept over the years. I paged through it, finding Andy Rooney ("all the Americans who come point him out"), John Thompson of the Chicago Tribune ("he's very loyal, he comes back frequently") and, finally, the man I was looking for. The handwriting was execrable, the French flawless. It was dated 16 June 1955:
Happy to find you all smiles, as always in my memories - A.J. Liebling, of The New Yorker.
When her husband James came in I showed them Liebling's book, pointing out the chapter on their farm. They had never seen it.
I translated a few passages, descriptions of Madame Hamel and James' father.
I asked if there were any new Nitouches. "No," he said smiling. "I give them geographical names now. There's Volga. Bogata. I have a few with American names: Nevada. California. Michigan."
Monsieur Hamel's cows.