Land, Part Two

(Apologies for some repetition…)


There is something about Bayeux, France that brings me great comfort and peace. In unsettles me, too, but in a good way, a way that reminds me that life is filled with wonderful mysteries.  

Bayeux is a medieval town in the commune of Normandy, in northern France, about seven kilometres from the channel coast. It is famous for the Bayeux tapestry, a very long piece of embroidery depicting the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, who also happened to witness the consecration of its cathedral, Our Lady of Bayeux, built in the 11th century in the Norman-Romanesque style and rebuilt in the 12th century in the Gothic style. But that’s stuff you can get from any guidebook. It was the feeling of the place that drew me in. A feeling I’d never had before, despite all my travels and all my visits to new and wonderful places.

I arrived at the train station on a cool June day with a friend. We’d been visiting the battlefields and cemeteries of World War I, where his grandfather had fought and where my great uncle through marriage was buried. After a few days to recalibrate in Paris, which we sorely needed after visiting la Musée de la Somme in Albert and Beaumont Hamel in Auchonvilliers, we decided to see the landing beaches of D-Day.

I had no idea how much this unplanned part of the trip was going to change my life.

My friend and I have travelled all over the world together and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. He has a great sense of direction (strength) and I am an excellent follower (also a strength). But something happened to me in Bayeux. Something magical. I knew where I was going. As I headed through the streets, away from the station and toward the town, I felt a tingling sensation, and knew something profound was happening, I just didn’t know what. As I stared at the homes that lined the road, my friend trailing me for the first time ever, I turned and said, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but I feel like I’ve been here before.’

‘You said you’ve never been to northern France,’ came his practical reply.

‘I haven’t, in this body,’ I said.

We walked in silence, him accepting this new bit of information I offered, me walking calmly but feeling like a whirling dervish inside. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I was loving how alive and connected I felt to this brand new bit of the world. How familiar it seemed. A fluttering sense of belonging pulled me forward, to a place I knew I was meant to be. It was both exhilarating and unnerving – what, exactly was happening? As I passed the cathedral I almost expected someone to wave to me, a friend from another life reconnecting.

I have travelled many places and have a list of favourites I add to regularly. Paris brings me joy and makes me wish I had both French girl flair and a flat in Montmartre. Florida makes me appreciate jeans shorts and cold beer. From the moment I stepped inside the Bangkok Airport I knew I was going to love Thailand. And I did, and I do. The heat, the people. But Bayeux is the only place I’ve ever been where I thought, this is it. I’ve found my place, I can stay.

And it was about to get better.

I’ve known since the day I read Paddington Bear as a first grade student in a small school in eastern Canada that I wanted to be a writer. And I was, in many ways. I wrote great book reports and excellent essays. At least that’s what my English teachers told me. My math and science teachers threw up their hands and probably took early retirement because of me, but my English teachers were always in my corner. I wanted to be a writer but didn’t quite know how to voice that desire until later in life, after I burned through a few questionable career choices and navigated the world of depression. Through it all I scribbled and scribbled and outlined. I had a draft of a first novel sitting in a drawer, a novel that ‘started off very well’ as one agent told me. I’d set it in Maine, a state on the eastern seaboard of the United States and one of my very favourite places.

But it was in Normandy where the idea for what would become my first published novel came to me, almost completely, as I visited Omaha and Juno, saw Ardenne Abbey and learned about the massacre of Canadian soldiers just after D-Day. As I walked and learned I thought about what it must have been like for these soldiers, knowing they were about to be executed, shaking hands with their friends before being led away to die. The powerlessness over their own lives, the unnecessary brutality of it. I thought about the people who had their land, their homes, their way of life invaded by an enemy. And I thought about all the lives impacted for generations to come by the war.

As I roamed the cobblestone streets and ate at the fabulous restaurants, I felt the memories of the place, the darkness and the light. It felt like someone was whispering in my ear, telling me bits and pieces of their story, wanting me to weave something together from all the paths that crossed in the small part of northern France. I made more and more notes – some even on restaurant receipts if that is where the muse hit – and I daydreamed.

I was working full time and started getting up early to write before going to work. This more than anything made me feel like a writer. It took a few years and many edits before The Time Between Us found its way into the world, but it all started with a sense of connection I had with Bayeux, France.

Travelling for me has always been about the feelings that well up when you visit someplace new and open yourself up to the magic it holds. You can pick the places you want to visit, but sometimes the place picks you, to share its secrets, to tell its stories, provide the backdrop to make your dreams come true. That’s what happened to me in Normandy, and I am so glad it did.

My book came out November 11, 2021. At the time I said I would be grateful for 50 nice reviews on Amazon. I now have 1,355 – most of them more than nice. A complete stranger contacted me to tell me my opening scene was a ‘belter’. Once I learned what that meant (very good!) I was delighted. The Time Between Us opens on D-Day, and it is the scene that got the attention of my agent. Remembering the day I spent at Omaha, toes in the cold water, thinking about what those men who fought went through, something happened to me. A new voice filled my head. My creativity came alive.

Looking back now, I think it might have been an extreme example of psychogeography, the way a new place affects the emotions of the person visiting. But you never know. Maybe my characters had lived there and chose me to tell their story. Maybe they met me at the train station and moved me towards the city centre. Maybe I had been there before, in another life. Or maybe I was just ready for the right story to find me, in the right place, at the right time.

Whatever it was, Bayeux is where the magic began, and I will always be grateful for the feelings of connection I experienced walking its beautiful streets and dreaming.

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