Low Tide at Mont Saint-Michel

There was a time when you needed to watch the rising sea water if you found yourself on the Mount of St. Michael.  The abbey and village were situated on the tidal flats of the second largest bay in the world, off the coast of Brittany.  You would cross to the abbey during low tide, but when the twice daily water level change took place, you were stuck.  I know.  I remember the days when all this was true.  As a teenager, sitting in the library of my high school, I ran across a travel photo of this most beautiful place.  I read about the tides and I thought what a really interesting experience that was…being isolated by the sea on a cone-shaped island.  I knew I had to see this place for myself.  This I did, several decades ago.  And, now, here I stood once again…but the ‘forced exile’ of the tides had been tamed. They had constructed a causeway and now were putting the finishing touches on a new bridge to the Mont.  No longer was the pull of the moon to be a factor in your staying there.  You can leave whenever you’d like.

Oddly, this new construction made me sad.  I liked the idea of being dependent on the forces of nature to determine some of my life.  I don’t want the world made totally ‘person-proofed’.

You don’t have to watch the sea anymore.  You just have to hope a parking spot is available.

You enter the ancient gate of the village.  After crossing over a drawbridge, you find that you are standing at the foot of a long narrow ‘street’ that winds its way to the Abbey.  This is not strictly a street as there are no cars allowed here.  You must walk the winding path, lined with shops, bistros, restaurants, tourist traps and climb the seemingly endless steps.

There is evidence that the Mount was occupied in 708 AD.  During the Hundred Years War, the Abbey was begun by the Benedictines and used as a stronghold.  The fortress has withheld numerous attacks by the English and has become a symbol of the French who held it for so many years.

Today, only twenty people live on the Mont year round.  If you like what the little street of commerce has and you want to open a small hotel, B & B, or shop, you are out of luck.  One must marry into the family of someone who already has the establishment.  The Abbey itself is still in use and houses twelve priests.

But, the shop-lined street merely supports the Abbey which dominates the small mountain.  The tower, the steeple, the statue of St. Michael seem to make up half of the mass of this place.  And, it’s inside the Abbey that I could wander endlessly…from one chapel to another…from one room of columns to the next.  Some of these great rooms are (or were) heated by fireplaces the size of two full-sized cars stacked on their sides.  The entire kitchen of our old Manhattan apartment would easily fit inside the fireplace alcove.  In these rooms, while the massive fires blazed and the Brittany winters, icy winds and bone-chilling rains slammed against the outer walls, monks would sit and copy Bibles…by hand.  Each Bible taking three years to complete. [The Irish monks were doing the same in Dublin, creating the Book of Kells.]

My wife and I had booked this tour (a four-hour drive from Paris) months ago.  Somehow, I thought that we would have adequate free time to wander, think about and photograph the experience.  But, I couldn’t think fast enough to break away from the tour group.  I kept the earphone plugs stuck into my ears while I attempted to keep up with the guide and her commentary.  Finally, I’d had enough.  I took the phones out and let myself fall behind.

Silence.

Only the shuffle of many feet and the low murmurs of other tour groups were audible.  I wanted to explore the nooks and corners of the Abbey on my own.  I wanted to slip into a wool cassock and become one of the monks.  I tried to resurrect (in my head) a man of the cloth, dead for centuries, to walk with me through the dark chambers and up and down the winding stone stairways.  I leaned against a column in the hope that some long-forgotten energy that dwelt within the stone, would flow into me and show me the corners that no other tourist could see.

I saw small flat areas, lit by the sunlight, where I would sit and read Aquinas, Thomas a’Kempis or St. Theresa.  I would think.  I would pray.  I would feel the mystic power of God…for He had to dwell here.  He had to.  Like a “Field of Dreams”, a group of monks, a thousand years ago looked at the rocky crag and said: “If we build it, He will come”.

But, I was not allowed to follow saints, I was following a tour guide and she made it clear the bus was going to be leaving at a chosen hour.  I had to be there.  I had to catch up.  I had to leave my quiet spaces and my ghost-monks behind.

There was no tide to watch for today.  Just the wrath of a tour guide who didn’t want to have the group wait for the grey-haired Yank tourist who kept falling behind.

Fifteen hours after we boarded the coaches in Paris, we were finally back to the plaza near the pyramid of the Louvre.

These photos are those I took while trying to get lost among the holy stones of the Abbey of Mont St. Michel:

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The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michele.

 

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The tidal flats and new causeway.

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

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Abbey Interior

Passports I: East and West of the Sun

The great city of New York was behind us…and the sun was setting in the west.  We flew into the approaching darkness of night.

As I was planning this blog series, I was sitting on the American Airlines 767 trans-oceanic super jet propelled airplane.  My problem, right from the ‘get go’ (God, I hate that term), was to identify exactly when did this trip begin.  Did it begin in the discussions that Mariam and I had many months ago?  Leaving Rainbow Lake? Leaving our friend’s apartment in Manhattan? The ride to JFK?  The security lines?  Boarding the plane?  I just can’t put my finger on when the ‘go’ button got pushed.  Maybe, the true roots, the ultimate origins of this journey lay in the distant past…when I took a lucky turn on a New York street?  Or, when some poor, hungry Irishman decided he had been through enough and booked a passage to the United States sometime in the 1850’s?  One could get caught up in beginnings, because rarely does it start with the sound of a gun at a track meet.  The race doesn’t start then…it started when you decided to join the team, months earlier.  Or, even when….

But I digress.

I wanted to write that I composed this post on the plane, with the laptop snug on my lap and me, curled and snug on the seat during the all-night flight.  But that would be a professional quality lie.  In truth, I didn’t have any idea where my laptop was during the flight.  I knew it was somewhere under the seat in front of me…but so was a lot of other stuff.  So, I scribbled some notes (I’m using them right now) on a legal pad (yellow).  Don’t do this at home!  Every time I had to fold up the “table” I had to shove the pad into the net thingie in back of that seat in front of me.  Before long, bits of yellow paper were tearing and shredding away.  It’s a wonder I kept most of what I noted…so you’d better appreciate this blog because it wasn’t easy!

To paint the picture more clearly, I had about 4.45 inches of leg room for my own use.  Now, I’m not a tall guy like, say, Tommy Lee Jones and anyone who knows me, knows why I never played basketball in high school.  As I sat there trying to balance my few things, I felt confident that the American Airlines people had spoken to my childhood teachers (nuns) and confessors.  I was being punished here and now for the sins of my youth.  I was going through the tortures of Purgatory on a jet plane.

We were given a soda and bag of small pretzels as our pre-dinner snack.  I was unable to open the little plastic thing even though I pulled and tore at it over and over.  Finally, I gave it one more jerk and the bag popped open and several pretzels, the size of quarters, scattered onto the aisle.  I was belted in but the thought of numerous feet pulverizing the dried dough and making a mess on the carpet was too much for me.  I unhooked my seat belt and leaned over to pick two of them up.  My head came within four inches of a woman’s knee.  She looked down at me.  I think I noticed she was beginning to roll up her glossy Vogue magazine to whoop me on the head for attempting to look up her dress.  I got the pretzels just in time to avoid a smart whack on my already sore head.

I settled back in my ‘seat’ and tried to block out the pain and embarrassment by recalling the quiet moments back at Gate 14 when I was trying to charge my cell battery to the max.  I was sitting next to a group of girls who were off to a holiday in Paris.  One young woman who looked like she was about eight years old was leafing through her passport.  She had more visa stamps in her book that I had caps in my bottle cap collection.  At her age, if I walked across my hometown of Owego, NY I felt like I was crossing vast international boundaries.

Here, it could be fair to ask why I was so intent on charging my cell.  Well, in truth, I was also charging my iPad.  I had approximately 46 books downloaded to my Kindle app.  I wanted to travel light.  But, I feared that my battery would run down and I couldn’t play solitaire or listen to my iTunes.  So I packed some other reading material.  I had a book of French poetry, two pulp novels, two recent New Yorker magazines, a copy of the new Rolling Stone, a Vanity Fair (which had an article on Monica Lewinsky I wanted to read), three legal pads, four journals, a few sketching pads, a set of earphones the size of an eight-bunch of bananas and my sunglasses case.  Mariam asked why I was packing the sunglasses in my carry-on.

“It’s a night flight,” she said.

I just stared at her.  She didn’t understand.

I have to add here that I’ve had decades of backpacking experience under by belt.  I used to be so concerned about tiny bits of extra weight that I used to drill holes in my aluminum water cup to shave off a few ounces.

They brought some food for dinner.  It wasn’t so bad, considering the quality of airline food in general.  I decided that I would use the time to teach Mariam a few necessary French words…you know, so she wouldn’t have to rely on me for everything during our Paris stay.  I picked up the packet of butter and made her repeat “beurre”, I pointed at the water bottle and patiently asked her to repeat “l’eau”.  I stopped when I got to the Canada Dry Ginger Ale.  I decided not to overload her with too many words at once.

They dimmed the lights and I tried to play solitaire on my iPad but it fell from my hands twice before I realized I needed some music to sooth me to sleep.

I remember hearing only one song: “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, before I drifted into a twenty-minute nap.

The captain announced that we were beginning our descent to the Aeroport De Charles De Gaulle.

The rising sun was in front of us and the towering cumulus clouds began to touch our wings.

These were French clouds and they were holding French rain…no doubt.

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The full moon above the Musee du Luxemborg.

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In the Garden du Luxemborg.