I’ve just returned from France. The first few days were spent touring the coastal, church-spire towns of Normandy, tripping backward in history toward another June, seventy plus years ago.
We walked through the reedy dunes above Utah Beach, and stood on the firm sand of the cliff-enclosed Omaha, where we tried to imagine how the water ran red with the blood of boys — and history — surging forward because backward was no longer an option.
We drove down tiny, winding back roads, lined with ancient looking stone cottages, tangled with hedgerows out of a dark and grim fairy tale. We drove by fields of green above which men floated down from the sky — only to drown in the flooded earth, carrying the weight of the world like a stone around their young necks.
A week later found us walking kilometer after kilometer through the avenues and lanes of Paris, winding through revolutionary streets, pointing out to our boys where prisons were stormed and heads were lopped, falling into waiting wicker baskets. Children are bloodthirsty little beasts, but more than sating their lust for the gory, it was a lesson in the will of the people rising up.
It was similar in feel to our trip last summer, when we traversed the DC heat, mouthing the words to the Hamilton soundtrack as we visited memorials and columns of marble. For a few hot and humid hours that day I was reassured by the solidity of those tall, granite buildings, firm and solid, along Constitution Avenue.
In France, however, far more so than in the United States, I was awed by the history of resistance, of resilience, and yes, of revolution. The will of the people rising up. The powerless bending the will of the powerful. That history runs through the cobblestones like the blood of spilled kings. It is the mortar that holds not only the bricks, but the very country, together.
France does revolution well.
In October, 1789 a group of women, near rioting over the scarcity of bread, marched for twelve miles in the rain to Versailles. They demanded an audience with the king, who, along with his court, was eating quite handsomely. I didn’t know of the October Women’s marches, I’d been taught the storming of the Bastille was the shot heard round the world. But in reality, the pent up rage of everyday women unable to feed their children was a pivotal moment in the revolution, one which eventually led to a King and his Queen losing their heads in a public spectacle of bloodlust and rage.
What drives a woman, a mother, to march twelve miles in the rain ready to confront a King? For those French market women the ‘politics’ of monarchy were not as important as the belly of a hungry child.
Centuries later, Parisiennes once again listened to the growling of empty stomachs as others ate their fill, bellies sated. This time is was not a King and his court, but an occupying German force, raiding the country’s riches. A swastika waving high above the streets, usurping the Tricolore.
I know of no women’s march during the German occupation of France. But there was resistance and resilience in the face of desperation. There were enough who refused to comply not only with the occupiers, but with an increasingly complicit government of their own, who felt the blood of their revolutionary ancestors rise and fall in their veins. The ghosts of those Versailles-bound women singing in their ears.
Resistance could be a message baked into a loaf of bread, a loaf carried in a wicker basket through tiny alleys and over rough cobblestones, on the arm of a woman, walking miles in the rain to a farmhouse buried in the hedgerows, handed over to another woman sitting in the attic of an ancient stone cottage, who sent a code across a channel where thousands of young men waited.
Those young men drifted from the sky and spilled out upon the beaches of Utah and Omaha, on Juno and Gold and Sword and fought their way through German guns and lines, through hedgerow and field, through those winding back country roads, until they liberated the first free town in France, Sainte Mere Eglise.
And the weight of the world on their shoulders, lifted, for just a moment. Due, in no small part, to those who refused to comply, who continued to resist.
And eventually, of course, they won.
There comes a point when the price we are asked to pay is too dear. When the bellies of children, hungry not for bread but for their mothers, cry in fear behind barbed wire. When there are those who eat too handsomely while too many others starve.
Sometimes the bread is literal.
Many times it is not.
There is a point of no turning back. I don’t know when that point is, but I cannot imagine it is far away.
It is the point when the rage that curls like witch fire rises high into the air like heat rising from the cobblestones, thrumming like a song.
Do you hear the people sing? In France, you can’t take two steps without feeling as if you’re surrounded by their song.
While we stood on those sunny beaches, there were those who bent to retrieve a vial or vessel of sand. A memento or keepsake, perhaps. A reminder.
I did not take any sand, but I like to think I took some of the melody back with me, that song of resilience. Of the people.