Articles By Gord
As I see it... Rememberance Day in France

November 2006 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

The way I see it... Rememberance Day In France

I used to loathe the month of November. Despised it. Trees bare, everything brown, colourless. The winds cold and the daylight barely greets us before we sink back into night. Depressing... November.

But the month no longer imposes that weight of depression. It is gone. Forever. And largely due to the locations that I'm about to mention. All visited during the month of November.

If you're touring southern England, you've got to be drawn to Dover. It is steeped with history - Dover Castle, the old town, the harbour, where ferries and hovercrafts depart for Calais and, as a backdrop to it all, the chalky white cliffs.

November 1977 – Dover. I'm that “know it all, tamed it all” kid weaving my way back to the youth hostel. It is a miserable day, raw, raw, cold and rainy, bleak and foul. I'm cutting through the town square and there are all sorts of people milling about. I mean all sorts, toddlers and teens, grandparents, mums and dads. There's everything. Milling. I start to slow up, pause and stand off to one side. Shivering. Rain plunking against my leather jacket. To myself, I wonder what the hell is going on?

Someone talking over a loud speaker, but their words are swept away by the wind.

As one, young and old break into song, “Oh God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” I didn't know the words, but I knew the tune and with a sudden understanding of the day, I joined in their Remembrance Day service. Never had I felt so ashamed of my casual indifference towards the day and the sacrifices of so many.

Still November, and still on the English Channel, though it was the French coast. A dozen years have slipped past since Dover. I'm with Catherine now and we're just west of Calais. It's a lovely sunny afternoon, a coolish breeze off the Channel and there is the wonderful sound of waves breaking over the stony beach.

We sit for quite some time, our derrieres as comfortable as the stones will allow. We have no words, just gazing. (Well, Catherine does more of the “gazing” thing.

I pretty well limit myself to the listening and feeling kind of stuff.) Listening to that constant rolling, rushing of the sea and the tired schluck sound of that same water retreating, before mounting another attack.

Dieppe.

Walking along this stretch of beach is horribly difficult. You trudge more than walk. The stones constantly shifting under your feet. The beach was defense enough.

There is a Canadian cemetery in Dieppe. The Remembrance Day that Catherine and I were there I was grateful for the sunshine. It somehow provided me with a speck of life and hope as we passed headstone after headstone of Canadian boys never coming home.

Boys, 18, 19, early twenties, so many of them. It was, on that day, a very peaceful and lovely place.

At the cemetery entrance there is a monument acknowledging the efforts of those Canadian soldiers that fateful day in August 1942. From my jacket collar I removed a tiny Canadian flag and placed it on a ledge of the monument. It was not tribute enough, but I knew not what else to do or give.

We have occasion to pass by the monument later. Curiosity. The flag is gone. My hope was that who ever took it had need of it and valued that flag as much as I did.

We scoot eastward along the coast. (Catherine enjoys driving in France almost as much as she enjoyed driving in Scotland. The difference being she is deaf to the French cursing of fellow drivers. Although Catherine has grown quite accustomed to their gestures). November is a wonderful time of year to be in France, decent weather, fewer tourists, food as excellent as ever and wine just as plentiful. Magnifique.

Dunkirk, by its name alone, you know where this story goes. In brilliant sunshine we strolled through the dunes. Exposed. That was how I felt. Exposed to the sun, to the sky and exposed to the chilling wind sweeping off the Channel and over the beach. Don't stop, you'll shiver to the core of your being. I find it impossible to imagine the successful evacuation of over three hundred and thirty thousand British troops.

Like shooting fish in a barrel.

The flotilla of crafts required, the determination and the desperation... Remember.

Twice on Remembrance Day I have been in Paris, and if you are moved at all by the spirits of that day, then to Paris you must go. Catherine and I stood among the many folks from around the world along the jammed, packed sidewalks of the Champs d'Elysee. Cold? Yes. Silence. Huge French flags whipped by the wind. The largest flag adorns the Arc d' Triumph.

Catherine says that similarly the rooftops along the Champs d'Elysee are adorned with snipers. This triggers a disturbing kind of feeling. But we are after all in Europe and somehow the threat of terrorist action seems more likely. The pomp and ceremony, dignitaries and the flurry of bands and their president in attendance. And all of this somehow makes me more aware of people's conflicts around the world. I don't understand them any better, but I'm definitely more aware of them.

The minute of silence among all those people, the solemnity and the marked observance, the respect that is shown. It will move you.

After the military troops parade past and the crowds disperse, we continue walking up to the Arc where the flame burns eternal for the Unknown Soldier.

This column will not appeal to everyone, but I hope that it will tweak some sense of Remembrance in all who read it.

On a more positive, happy and joyful thought, stay your visit in France until at least the third Thursday of November and take part in the celebrations of the release of Beaujolais Nouveau. Always fun and perhaps a good occasion to tip a glass in silent salute to those fallen, but not forgotten.

November...what a great month.

 
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