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Un Canadien abroad

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO The VOICE I first saw Mont Saint-Michel, the famous abbey in coastal France, built on a rocky outpost that becomes an island at high tide, in a film.
The road to Mont Saint-Michel. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO


I first saw Mont Saint-Michel, the famous abbey in coastal France, built on a rocky outpost that becomes an island at high tide, in a film. Two characters speed along the twisting road to it in a convertible, the tide low, the sky grey, the Mont—jagged, medieval—even greyer, the only thing visible on a vast horizon line. The car hurtles toward it, then the shot cuts to them prowling about in the passageways on the island that lead up to the abbey itself.

We see stone steps, looming overhangs, and narrow doorways off the clustering of buildings that make up the rest of the commune. The film doesn’t linger there, but Mont Saint-Michel lingers in the film. It is the wonder in it, and it was a wonder to me afterwards.

When I was planning to travel in France several years later, I knew I had to go there.

The Mont is disputed territory, with the provinces of Brittany and Normandy alternatively claiming ownership, but in any case it is on France’s western coast not far from where the English Channel becomes the Celtic Sea.

Even on a trip where the itineraries were mostly improvised, my visit to the Mont was particularly plan-free.

I began the day in Dieppe, that chalky spot in Upper Normandy where 916 Canadians died on a failed day in 1942, and nearly 2000 more—two of whom were my great-great uncles—were taken prisoner.

Very early in the morning I left my lodging to meet a ride-share, which deposited me in the nearest city an hour inland. When the driver let me off, he pointed me towards the bus station, but I was not going to the bus station, I was walking along the river downtown to where I would meet another ride-share.

I can recall only one encounter along this muggy waterway, a young man who I thought was asking me about des filles—girls—but was really after des feuilles—rolling papers. I couldn’t have helped him with either.

I settled in the city centre. While waiting for a grocery to open I bought a croissant and a baguette from a baker who wasn’t pleased by the 50 euro note I used to pay for them.

There is no direct highway that leads to Mont Saint-Michel, so I chose a ride-sharing route that was to pass by the closest artery to it and requested to be let off by the side of the road, 15 kilometres or so from the Mont.

This request must have seemed odd even to the carefree sort who provide rideshare services, and when I waved goodbye to these bemused chauffeurs they left me with a half-serious, “bon courage.”

They were right. I ought to have felt as though I needed more courage in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go, though truthfully I have never felt such euphoria. It was the first time in my life that there was nowhere to be. There was no hotel or inn or AirBnB host expecting my arrival, and this thought was buoyant enough to lift me down the narrow lanes towards the sea.

It was not offensively hot that day, though the enormous rucksack on my back and smaller pack on my front were heavy enough that I needed to stop every so often to rest. But even this ballast didn’t weigh down my mood.

The road was edged by fields of wheat on both sides. I picked a poppy growing wild there and put it pretentiously in my hat.

At times I walked up against the wire fences where the Normandes were grazing. One horned cow (Normande females have them too) shook her head concussively in an effort to disengage the flies hovering around the corners of her eyes, suckling at the crusty discharge at its corners and then flying their way up her snout.

The ditches were overgrown with blackberry brambles, and I ate the swollen fruits as quickly as I could pick them. Cars passed by, and though I wasn’t asking for a ride, a woman in a rickety van pulled over and offered one anyhow. Her small children were in the back and her elderly mother in the front, and the mother gamely shifted over on the bench seat so that I could shove myself in.

The woman chattered away the whole time I was in there, much too quickly for me to understand, though she did give me vague directions for a place to stay. When we climbed over a hill she pointed through the windshield to the distinctive blip in the distance.

“Mont Saint-Michel,” she said. “It’s very pretty.”

I didn’t go to the inn she had suggested. Pulled by wires unseen I walked down to the little collection of hotels and shops congregated where the roadway to the Mont begins. I walked past this, over the bridge of the river’s mouth and down a dirt path closer to the water.

I do not know what compelled me to travel there. I had simply seen a green meadow where there seemed to be no one and thought that it would be a good place with a view to lie down and rest for a while.

Later, I hid my bags and walked out through the fields of a strange plant I didn’t know. It grew only a foot off the ground, and the first six inches were light and springy while the bottom six crunched firmly. At some point—I don’t remember exactly when—I decided that I would spend the night right there.

My mind had been made up about this, and for the rest of the evening I explored the field and its hidden system of intricate tributaries and rivulets that all filled at high tide before beating a fast retreat.

I sat at the very edge of the water and read, looking out at the Mont across the mud and the sailboats stranded between us, and watching the water come back in. The tides at Mont Saint-Michel are some of the fastest in the world, and the sand there is infamously quick. I took a few steps out on to it and felt a tremor beneath my feet.

The sun set. I returned to my bed on higher ground and fell asleep almost instantly, my last vision of the Mont through the greenery.

Just after midnight I awoke. The Mont was still lit up, glimmering over the darkened field and high water. The day’s heat had left the ground and I was freezing. In Spain and Italy, where it had been upwards of 40 degrees, the decision to not pack pants hadn’t seemed foolish, but it certainly did as I lay shivering on that ground.

Eventually the cold was too much and I knew that there was no chance of my sleeping again. I walked back to the cluster of hotels, the light of the moon just enough to keep me from stumbling in the dirt. When my watch beeped to mark one o’clock, the lights on the Mont blinked out.

Even then I could still see its craggy outline, black on blacker, and for some odd reason I was reminded of how the Titanic must have appeared against the sky when it flipped vertical and at last its electrical generators gave way.

Inside the first hotel door I came to I saw that a grate had been drawn around the reception desk, the lamps behind it switched off. I tried another, but the revolving doors were locked, and you needed a card to swipe in the single door.

Down the block I managed to find another entrance, seemingly to a secondary lobby with automatic doors that opened as I approached. Inside was one armchair. I sat down, exhausted, only slightly warmer than I had been outside.

I fell in and out of sleep for a few hours, shifting as best I could to find a comfortable position.

Every time I jolted awake I expected to find a mustached porter hovering above, shooing me back into the night, but the only people I saw were a Japanese family who passed by the doorway, gave me a look, and then continued on as if they had seen many people spending the night in an armchair in an entranceway, trying to keep warm with a ratty towel wrapped around one leg and a periwinkle travel blanket around the other.

When at last the dark outside began to fade, I left. Drawn again by invisible strings, I began the walk out to the Mont, my bags in place, my legs still wrapped. It was fully light by the time I’d covered the kilometre or so, passed by joggers and passing camera-carrying tourists.

I entered through the gates and climbed up the procession just as had been intended. First, at the bottom outside the walls, the historic houses of fishermen and farmers next, then the shops and stores, then the great halls. At the top is the abbey, the monastery, the steeple, and God.

Even at that hour there was a small line of those waiting to get in.

Fatigue was accumulating in my limbs and around my ears now that the journey was over. It muffled both my thoughts and the abbey bells chiming the hour above. I looked up at the tower just to confirm where the noise was coming from.

In the field across the exposed sand, the imprint left by my short-lived bed would be fading away, the day’s growth beginning, the plants regaining their shape and erasing my presence.

Down below, the bridge became clotted with traffic, the shuttle buses ran, more visitors filled the walkway.

I had only the energy to rest on a bench carved from rock and peel an orange I had been saving. And I kept sitting there on the warming stone as the dawn became morning and the morning grew long, unable to enter the wondrous place, unable to leave it.