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For Spring break 2009, the Valley High School (from West Des Moines, Iowa) combined String Orchestra and A Capella Choir went on a tour of France including some places in Normandy and Paris. This page documents some observations and photos by one of the chaperons, Al Prosser, and his daughter Ariel.
Breakfast was available at 7. I was there, and almost alone. I actually woke up at 4:45AM local time, due to jet lag. I got up and wrote a page of notes that helped recall what happened Thursday. I took another short snooze, then got up at one snooze alarm after 6. (I was not alert enough to remember to take pictures, but I remember what was served.) We had a buffet of scrambled eggs as smooth as applesauce, sausages, hot and cold lunch meats, cheese, croissants, and the ubiquitous hard rolls. There was also a couple kinds of breakfast cereals, some apple puree, and crème fraise with strawberries (I had several servings of that!). Of course we had a choice of coffee, tea, milk, orange and grapefruit juice.
We reshuffled the bus assignments to distribute some orchestra and choir students for each bus for the time in France. The buses loaded up at about 8:30AM, and we went to the other hotel to pick up the choir folks. We passed the canal with lots of boats docked near the other hotel. When everyone was loaded, we came back past our hotel and the horsetrack on our way to the Men's Abbey, founded by William the Conqueror.
We pulled up at just about 9:00AM and backed onto the grounds of the Abbey. This was the first time I was really struck by the precision and attention to detail in the formal French gardens. They had the perfect conical evergreen trees, the large hedges with perfectly straight sides, the small hedge borders that looked like laser sharp green concrete curbs. There were gardeners changing the flowers for spring. Apparently, tour guides are licensed in France, so we picked up our guide for Caen at the Abbey. Each of the three groups went to tour the Abbey in a different area to take the tour in a different order.
I took pictures in the dining hall, the chapel, the inside courtyard. Our guide explained that during the Allied invasion in 1944, the residents of Caen hung red crosses on the roof so that the Allied bombers would spare the Abbey and they gathered inside. There was very little damage as a result, just some holes from German shells. I took a picture of some of the small scars. We walked through the sanctuary and I took some pictures there, and of the towers. There was a driver's ed VW beetle that looked interesting do I have a shot of that as well.
We loaded up the buses and took off for the Chateau, passing a gold statue of Joan of Arc on the way.
This time we entered the Chateau from the North side. Inside the outer walls was the Keep with a Dungeon and a moat. I have a few pictures of that, and from the upper walls looking down. There is a picture number 137 that includes an artist's rendering of what the dungeon looked like in 1220A.D. I only noticed that later or would have taken a picture of just the description. It seems that the dungeon was destroyed during the French revolution, probably because the peasants did not like what it represented. We did not have time to visit the museum at the Chateau because we had many other stops to make.
There is a Peace Memorial museum in Caen. We had some time allocated to go through the sections telling history about World War II and the Cold War and to get some lunch. There were at least a dozen French High Schools there at the same time, so I got separated from most of our group for a while. One of the other parents commented that if they took off their scarves and we could not hear them, we would not be able to tell them from American high schoolers. Many of them had little workbooks. I did not take a lot of pictures. I had lunch with my daughter, a croque monsieur with some flan. I did take a picture of that. I picked up a postcard to send home. Everyone went to see a multimedia presentation about the War from both sides simultaneously. We loaded up the buses a little before 2 PM.
We arrived at the American Cemetery in Coleville at about 2:45PM. We walked down a path for almost 5 minutes to get to where the concert would be. At first, the trees looked ordinary, then a somewhat organized garden, then we came to these trees that looked like nothing I had ever seen. There were precision cut in a cylindrical, trapezoid shape, like giant green gumdrops on sticks. They lined the path perpendicular to the stage and on to the beach. The stage consisted of a half circle of rectangular columns, with a large statue in the middle. To each side of the stage were large maps showing how the battles of D-Day, June 6 1944 progressed. The stage overlooked a reflecting pond, and beyond were white crosses as far as one could see.
The performers did some set up, then everyone waited while there was some kind of automatic bell ceremony. After that the orchestra and choir each performed a couple pieces. It sounded wonderful, and some of the other visitors stopped to listen, but the performers complained of not being able to hear themselves. I am looking forward to listening to the recordings. Our principal showed one of her multiple talents as a substitute tripod for one of the cameras.
After the concert, we ran by the overlook for the beach for some quick pictures, then the Orchestra girls had to change into their dresses for the later performance. Some went to the restrooms and some to the buses to change. We left by 4 PM.
We took a scenic route along the coast to our next stop, a concert at the church of St. Aubin-Sur-Mer (St. Aubin by the sea). We had been impressed by the bus drivers already, but here was where they really showed their stuff. The scale of roads in France is smaller than in the U.S. Our Mercedes tour buses would barely fit in between the lanes, though they were about as wide as a large SUV. They held just under 50 people each. There were three mirrors on each side, and the driver sat very near the front windshield, a bit in front of the front wheels. It took me a while to figure out that the secret to their maneuverability was the long overhang, short wheelbases, and small turning radius. In tight turns the bus would overhang the sidewalk. In many of the small towns, the houses on the sides of the streets had high walls, and looked like they had been built to allow two horses or horsecarts to pass each other. In quite a few places, cars would have to squeeze against the wall and wait for us to pass them. I have no idea how the drivers knew when to wait and when to go. Many of the passengers took to just not looking too closely. By the way, these buses had manual transmissions and 6 side mirrors
The sun had come out, and the countryside was beautiful. One of the girls had come to the bus to change without getting a picture of the beach, so our guide talked to the driver about going slow at an area that was close enough to take a picture from the bus. I got pictures of some artificial harbor built during the allied invasion in 1944.
We reached our destination at about 5 PM. The venue was a beautiful old church in a small village in Normandy called Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. There was an hour before the concert, so after taking some pictures, a group of the parents and chaperons took a walk to find a cafe for a snack. The cafe was only just opening, so the group I was with walked a little farther, and came upon a wonderful bakery. We could not all fit in there at one time. They had the usual pastries and bread, and also chocolates. I helped translate the signs for some of the others. Someone noticed that there was a publicity poster on the window for our concert so I took a picture of it and (in French) informed the proprietor that we were with the group mentioned on the poster to which she said “tres bien” (very good). I bought what turned out to be a very delicious almond croissant. I ate about half and saved it for my daughter for later. .
It was a little chilly inside the church. All the audience was wearing jackets. Some of the orchestra members later complained of stiff fingers. However, the response was a bit warmer. There was still light from the stained glass windows, and a glow from lights near the altar. The place was about 75% full, even with the 2 euro minimum cover charge. They even gave a standing ovation for the French and American national anthems. Afterwards, the people from the church asked to be able to provide some refreshments, so we got some juice and cookies in a smaller but warmer room next door. The sunlight was nearly gone when we loaded up the buses again, with just a medium blue light behind the church and a glow from the outside lights. We took a more direct route back to Caen.
Back in Caen we went to La Normande restaurant for a wonderful dinner featuring veal. We really filled up several parts of the restaurant. The restaurant was in between the two hotels so we all walked back. One of the tour guides took out a little flag on a telescoping pole and waved it for us to follow. One of the guys I was chaperoning thought there was a shorter way to walk, but she took us the route that one would have to drive and we got there.
The day before, I made friends with the guy behind the desk. I had been practicing my French, asking his name, was he working all the time since I saw him in morning and evening. He indicated that he worked a couple days on and a couple off. While in France I noticed that these simple courtesies seemed to make a difference in the helpfulness of the natives. There was an internet station in the lobby. He let me send a quick email from there without charging (shhh!). He also offered to send my postcard for me. That took him a few days, but was fine with me.
If you care more about pictures, click on the picture of the day or the date. If you want to read the descriptions, click on the reference to thumbnail versions. The thumbnails are displayed 1/25 the size.
March 16, 2009 - Paris. Choir concert at Notre-Dame. Louvre
Concert at La Madeleine. Dinner
at Monte-Carlo after short walk on Champs Elysees near Arc de
Thumbnail version of Monday March 16, 2009
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