Monday, November 21, 2005

Monsieur Georges

In France, Remembrance Day is a stat holiday. This means that no public transportation is available to take people from the town of Arras to Vimy Ridge or any of the other memorials to the soldiers of the WW I bloodbath. Remembrance Day is like taxi drivers' Christmas and birthday all rolled into one. The TI lady tried to sort something out but it looked like the €20. one way taxi ride was going to win out over walking 16 km along roads (Unlike the Brits, they don't believe in walking in France or perhaps it is still too dangerous to walk in some places.) The hostel lady had better luck. Several phone calls and I was told to be at the hostel at 1300h on the 11th and "M. Georges will take you." "Et mon amie?" "Oui."

Mon amie arrived from Paris on the early train. It was grey and cold and windy. We stood through the ceremony of the wreaths at the train station. We stood through the ceremony of remembrance at the memorial where youngsters read letters from soldiers and the band played the national anthems of the USA, the UK, and one we didn't recognize but might have been Belgian. Then, throat-tightening for both of us, O Canada, and the Marselleise. A litle girl danced around her mother's legs during the music. And then it was time for the flowers - not the wreaths of paper poppies we are used to but huge floral tributes in carnations and chrysanthemums and needing three or five school children to carry each one.

The next adventure was M. Georges.

M. Georges is 82. He was driving home one day several years ago and saw two Canadian backpackers walking along the road to Vimy and stopped to give them a lift. The rest has become the stuff of a modern tale. He gives rides to Canadians because they are Canadians. He drove us and two other girls to Vimy Ridge, came back and picked us up and then drove us to the French national memorial (40,000 dead and 20,000 of those unidentified - cross upon cross upon cross marked 'Inconnu'), then on to the cemetary where our Unknown Soldier had been buried along with so many of the boys (18, 18, 17, 23, 19, 20, 36) from Vimy. Then to the German cemetary (37,000 more who were not removed to Germany). And then home for tea, his pictures, some biscuits and then back to the hostel where two of us collapsed and two left for the train.

That place is haunting.

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