Without a car, Mont-Saint-Michel seems virtually impossible to reach. Jennifer (the Colby student I met on the train from Strasbourg) and I wanted to go there especially. It's a fascinating Medieval town on an island off the coast of France in a place that most would consider completely uninhabitable and barren. Of course, leave it to monks to consider a place like this habitable enough to build upon, but secluded enough to where vows of silence or celibacy would be easier to adhere. The result? An amazing feat of architecture that is completely awesome and overwhelming to experience first-hand.
This was Friday, our last day in Caen. We had spent good days in Caen and the surrounding area and gotten to know the town pretty well. This Friday was a day or so after our American Disco experience, which turned out to be a lot of good fun. We started out this Friday with a late breakfast. Around 11:00, Jennifer decided she wanted to go back to the youth hostel and take a nap. She said she would meet me at the train station at 2:00 to go to Pontorson, France, and then hitchhike to Mont-Saint-Michel.
I walked around Caen to some places I hadn't been, such as one of the churches. Jenn and I had not been to this particular church, Eglise Saint-Etienne (Church of St. Stephen), better known as the 'Abbaye aux Hommes' (Abbey to the Men). I found a back entrance to the church and entered. At that point, I didn’t know the name of the church, its significance, or the location of the door I opened in proximity to the rest of the church.
Starting to walk into the church, I spent a couple of minutes letting my eyes adjust to the lesser light inside. I was looking upward to the ceiling, when I tripped on something on the ground. To my left, a little stifled laughter peeled through the silence. A male voice said in German to the laughing voice, "Was macht er da? Hat er sich schon vor Mittag besoffen?” (“What's he doing? Is he already drunk before noon?").
"Naja, was ist so lustig?” I retorted. (“Well, what’s so funny?”) "Ich bin fast runtergefallen.” (I almost fell!), I said toward the shadowed voices.
“Du hast ja auf den Grab von Wilhelm der Eroberer
gestolpert! Schön mal aufpassen, wo du tretst.” (“You stumbled on William the Conqueror’s grave
. Watch where you’re going!”) the other male voice replied.
And there it was: At 20 years old, I had stumbled upon the grave of William the Conqueror! Literally. I can never live that down. I didn’t really care that the Germans had spoken to me with the informal address (“Du”), but looking back, they were probably shocked that I spoke German and were equally as embarrassed that I had understood what they said as I had been to stumble on William’s grave.
So, I rushed around the church, embarrassed, for about an hour, checked my watch, and took off to the train station by about 1:30. I grabbed some radishes along the way at the market and rinsed them at the station.
I sat at the station on the platform eating my radishes waiting for Jennifer. We didn’t have cell phones back then and the youth hostel was quite a distance away. I had gotten there in time to be able to see her from all angles getting onto the train. No sign of Jennifer. It was 1:58, and I thought, “Well, here goes! Hopefully, she’s on the train and we just missed each other – somehow. I’ll see her when we get off the train in Pontorson.” And I boarded the train.
My seat area neighbors were two beautiful little children speaking a mixture of English and French to their mother across the aisle, who in turn spoke to them just in French, having understood the English bits. She and I struck up a conversation, which revealed that her ‘usband was American and she was French; they were bringing up their kids bilingual. I was immediately jealous of the little kids having such an opportunity.
When we reached Pontorson, I bid the kids and their mom farewell and got off the train. I waited a few minutes before starting to find my way to a good hitchhiking spot. No sign of Jennifer – at all. None. A station attendant told me which road went to Mont-Saint-Michel and I started walking and thumbing. Within a kilometer, a woman picked me up. A woman! A woman picked up a young American man on the side of a road, heading toward Mont-Saint-Michel, which isn’t really close to anything. I couldn't believe it, but didn't pass up the opportunity.
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As it turned out, the driver had been a tour guide for Mont-Saint-Michel and made it a practice to pick up hitchhikers heading that way. It gave her a chance to share her knowledge with folks and “play her part” in sharing her area’s history with travelers. We had a great 10-minute conversation about the highlights of the place and the transportation back. Having lucked out so well with my very first solo hitchhiking experience, I thought that I would hedge my bets again on the way back to pick up the train to Caen.
Mont-Saint-Michel is breathtaking. It is an awe-inspiring work of architecture, art, music, dedication, meditation, and, well, I could go on and on. It’s also indescribable. At that point in my life, I had not seen anything more intriguing or so quickly been enamored of a place as Mont-Saint-Michel. I could have spent a week there and not been bored. I still dream of returning some day and spending a lot more time there.
On the way down and out of the city walls, locals told me that all the buses had already left for town. I started walking and thumbing and it started drizzling. It would normally seem as though no one would pick up a stranger, normally, let alone a wet one. But within about 10 minutes, a family of French Canadians picked me up in their minivan and took me straight back to the train station. They were excited that I was American, but didn’t speak much English.
I ended my day waiting for the train in the station restaurant with a bunch of Canadians on their way to Rennes – the opposite direction on the train from Caen. I had to get back to Caen to spend the night, take the train back to Paris, pick up my bags, and register for classes. Dinner and drinks were over and the Canadians hopped on their train to Rennes. I sat myself outside on the platform waiting for my train, which was supposed to come an hour later at 9:00. Or so I thought.