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LIBBY IN FRANCE

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Welcome to this site. Euan is with me as we wander the Western Front.

It’s for a book I’m writing, 1918 for young people, focusing on the final year of the First World War, in France. La Grande Guerre Mondiale in the local parlance.

It will be battlefields, grave yards, memorials and museums with a visit to the Australian Dawn Service at Villers-Bretonneux, April 25th. That’s because the soldiers of the AIF liberated that town, Anzac Day, 1918. And it was acknowledged as Anzac Day then. I’m also off to the local school which has a special connection with Australia.

The trip is bookended by first a trip to Holland with friends from Sydney who live there for six months every year. Thank you Richard and Agnes.

Then, at the end we will be with George and Lil in Alsace. We shred a squat with Georges in London almost forty years ago. Euan was a friend of his five years before that,  Sydney 1973.

 

 

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OUR LAST FULL DAY IN HATTEN

It’s now the 10th of May and tomorrow Georges and Lil will drive us to Frankfurt to catch the flights back to Australia.

So what do we do today?

No more sightseeing or wandering around places of historical significance, war connected or otherwise. Today is time to catch up on the blog, resize and install photos, send the last postcard to Mum and probably to eat.

I say that because we both feel a bit of abstention would be a good idea. But what the hell – let’s worry about that next week in Sydney.

 

STRASBOURG

Of course the day began in the usual way – Euan (and sometimes I joined him) went off to the local boulangerie and returned with two baguettes, two croissants and two pains au chocolat. All eaten with big cups of coffee.

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Then off to Strasbourg. It has a great system whereby you park out in the suburbs and get a ticket from the machine and that means you and 5 others can ride into town on a tram – which is right where the parking station is. You ride back on it too.

We walked through lovely large squares, cross the centre of town, over the river,the  Ill and then to a restaurant for lunch.

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This was how we’d imagined our French experience would be. The place reminded me of Paris so many years ago. Red walls, lovely lighting, mirrors everywhere and waiters who were very professional. The food was delicious. We all had salads,

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glasses of wine and then were confronted with whether we could face a dessert. My creme caramel was large but check out the strawberry creation that Euan and Lil chose!

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Then it was off to look at the cathedral – a creation of the 12th century.

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We mingled with thousands of other tourists wanting to see the clock, a fantastic creation which measured and indicated the phases or the moon, something about the sun and then at the quarter hour figures moved in and out of a structure at the top. Apparently, on the hour, much more dramatic stuff happens but we didn’t wait to see that.

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Instead we wandered outside, eating fabulous ice cream, looking at a building from 1427 and rubbing shoulders with other tourists.

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While staring at the buildings we saw the delivery system for one of the local businesses. It turned out to be our ice cream shop.

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After that walking around we hopped in the car – another tram ride, Sydney you could learn something here – and drove out around the University and the buildings of the Council of Europe which meets in this town.

Back home for Georges’s version of a Chinese soup, more wine and talking so that another very late night was had.

Shall we revert to earlier dining patterns when we return?

 

 

 

THE MAGINOT LINE

I’d heard of the Maginot Line but had no idea it was still there and that you could visit it. It was the series of bunkers built from 1932 on, just inside the border, to hold back any attempt by Germany to invade. The mentality was still thinking as they had in 1914 – 1918. Of course the Germans in 1940 just rolled their tanks through neutral Belgium.

There is a fantastic one of these bunkers not far from where Georges and Lil live so we set out to spend an afternoon there. Lil previously worked there as a guide so we were in for a guided tour of  Schoenenbourg.

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You begin by walking into a heavily constructed cement structure set into a hillside – or what looks like a hillside. From there you go down 135 steps and begin to walk along a long tunnel – the first of a number of tunnels that led first to kitchens and storage, then to bunk areas for the soldiers and then to the area where the ammunition was stored and the turrets could be raised so the men could fire on the attackers.

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Six hundred men lived down there at any time.

The bunk areas were quite small and had three tiers of bunks and held thirty six men, too bad if you had claustrophobia.

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We walked all the way – about 2km out to the guns and then back.

It was fascinating. There were loads of photos and reconstructed activity in the small rooms to show you where things happened. The communication room, for example, where information came in from all the ‘pill boxes’ or posts around the country where people were on the lookout for invaders. Men sat at phones and then had calculations to do on huge maps to work out where to fire the guns from the turrets which would be raised up above the ground and then lowered again to be unseen.

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We were exhausted by the end so had ourselves photographed on a turret at the entrance,

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and then headed off to Wissembourg for a relaxing drink. It was Mothers Day so a quick call from New York meant our two elder girls were in touch (we’d spoken to Jess in the morning). I felt like a G&T but had to settle for a glass of wine. No problem.

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That town was right on the border with Germany and was truly lovely looking. Lots of photos taken.

Then home to another aperitif, a late dinner and bed hours later than Euan and I are used to.

Yet another good day.

SATURDAY IN HATTEN

Georges says France is a land of food. He’s right. Today was to be a celebration of the barbeque.

First there was to be a walk in the forest – a different one this time. It had been hugely destroyed in a typhoon(!) in 1999 so lots of the trees were younger than expected. Georges gave us the history lesson of the way, after the Revolution the forests reverted to the people and you now have the villages, like Hatten, owning part of the forest. Trees are looked after and cut for fire wood. It is so different to those we would be used to. These are lighter – largely beech and birch with some oaks thrown in.

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Then the barbeque. There were sausages of a number of different kinds – some spicy, the Merguez, some not.

This was lunch. Soraya, Alec’s girlfriend had arrived from Strasbourg. For a while, Tibor, an old best friend of Alec joined us. That was for an aperatif: a rosé. We had become French, drinking in the middle of the day.

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It was so relaxed and comfortable, more talking and laughing, and delicious eating.

For the first time, there was dessert. Alec cut up a pineapple and served it with pistachio ice cream. It felt a bit like summer back home.

 

MORE DAYS IN HATTEN

It’s a long time since we’ve laughed so much. Talk and laughter, it’s what we do with Georges and Lil.

Eating is  big part of it too. That was the highlight of today. We went to a restaurant by a water mill on the edge of the forest. The place was called Koenigsbruck, although I didn’t know it at the time.

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We sat in the sun, as did others and we were with Alec, Georges and Lil’s son who is working in Switzerland but was home for the long weekend.

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We ate very well: cruditiés of carrot, beetroot and a couple of other vegetables.

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Then a fish burger. I anticipated a bun, but no. The cooked fish came beneath a slice of bread with cheese on the top. It was delicious. It was served with potatoes but that was chips – but big thick ones.

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We should have stopped then but said yes to cafe gourmand. Let the picture tell the story.

 

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From there we went for a restorative walk along the Rhine – see Germany on the other side – to a farm which specialised in white asparagus. Lots bought for lunch the next day.

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Then to Seebach village. This was to see lots of typical old Alsatian houses. They are wooden framed and then the walls are filled in – concrete and brick these days but a sort of wattle and daub in the old days.

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There are some in Hatten but Hatten was flattened in WW2 and then rebuilt. Georges says that people wanted it rebuilt exactly as it was but only those houses that weren’t completely destroyed could be repaired in the old style. The rest were built in brick, as is Georges and Lil’s place.

It was a lovely sunny day.

 

 

HATTEN

First, the family home. It’s a farmhouse – two floors and  then add on an attic and a basement. George took us on a guided tour. Their office – the film company they ran for years occupies the top floor. There are rooms with desks, editing suites, storage of archives etc. More stuff than I have in my office.

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Then the basement. There’s a huge furnace for wood, another for oil and then three vast water tanks that provide the circulating water that heats the house. It’s infrastructure that we never have to consider, given our climate.

Then a walk around town. There are about 2,000 people and a small town centre with the admin buildings and a fair to be set up this weekend. We wandered past the primary school and then made our way along back streets and ended up coming in to Georges and Lil’s place by the back way. We checked out their barn. It’s huge, stacked so high with wood and enough room that in the old days would have held cows and pigs through the winter. There’s land behind it too with raspberries, a cherry tree, nut trees and who knows what else.

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A delicious salad of endive, smoked duck and other salad greens followed. After a rest – we’d also drunk rose at lunch – we went for a walk in the forest.

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Loads of families were there as it was the first really warm day in a while.

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So good that we ordered drinks and then brought home the restaurant speciality – Tarte Flambe – and had a delicious evening meal. More local wine – white this time. And lots of talk and laughter.

So good.

 

TO ALSACE

And so we set off. A slight disagreement over where the nearest garage to fill up the car might be but we headed for what feels like our old stamping ground: Villers-Bretonneaux. That done we depended on the phone and the GPS to negotiate the way around three round abouts and headed off to the east.

The day was a tale of three railway stations. The first was Haute Picardie. We arrived an hour early and handed the car over to Avis. All the bloke wanted was the key. No check to see we hadn’t damaged  it. We hadn’t.

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We sat and talked and then were blown away by the whooshing sound of a train flying past. I mean flying. This was a very fast train. Why can’t we have one?

We were on it before too long, hurtling towards Paris. We got off at Charles de Gaul airport, another hugely contemporary building of concrete and steel girders, wide open spaces and everyone keeping their eyes on the announcement boards.

Then it was off to Strasbourg. First an airport style ticket check – I couldn’t find mine for a few minutes, and then hurtling across France towards Germany at great speed. Past Champagne and more fields of green and gold and then Lil was there to take us off the train.

We drove to Hatten, about 60km north and found Georges – a wonderful reunion.

 

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It’s been 25 years but the four of us fell into that old cliche of feeling that we’d never been apart. We talked and laughed for hours as Georges made a platter of salads and poured glasses of red wine.

 

We felt so welcomed and so comfortable.