I wasn’t certain what to expect as we boarded the bus for the short trip across the causeway to Mont-San-Michel. Yes, I knew it was an island with only one point of entry across the causeway. Yes, I knew there was an abandoned medieval monastery soaring above the tiny piece of land. But beyond that, I really had no idea what to expect when we clambered off the bus along with the rest of the tourists visiting the site.
Mont-Saint-Michel has been at various times a trading post, the site of a medieval monastery, a place of pilgrimage, and a prison. The first religious house was built during the 8th Century BCE, and the garrisoned island successfully fended off attacks from English forces during the 100 Years War between England and France in the 15th Century BCE. The prestige of the abbey had declined by the time of the French Revolution and it was converted into a prison. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and it was declared a historic monument in 1874. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site that is visited by almost 3 million tourists a year.
While it’s possible to cross from the mainland to the island at low tide, you may only do so with a guide due to the extensive quicksand that serves as a natural defence for the island. Generally visitors are carried across the causeway by bus or horse carriage. From the point where you disembark from the transport, you start to climb as you enter the cobbled streets of the village that supported the abbey, monastery and the garrison. Right from the start you’re aware of the way the abbey buildings tower high above the village, almost appearing to defy gravity as they cling to the summit of this tiny island. Nowadays the town has mostly been converted into shops and restaurants catering to the visitors, much as they would have done to those who came to the abbey on pilgrimage. I was amazed at how small and crowded the buildings in the village seem, but that may just have been due to the large numbers of tourist and school groups.
From the town you start climbing stone stairs up to the monastery and abbey. I suppose it’s not such a long climb but, as we climbed higher, I began to feel exposed and my vertigo began to set in in a bad way. It felt like an eternity before we finally arrived at the office where we could buy tickets to see the ruins of the monastery and abbey and by that time, I was a nervous wreck. I know it may seem strange that a person without sight can suffer from vertigo but, for me, it feels like I am constantly standing on a precipice and that I’m likely to overbalance at any moment. I decided to rather find a secure place to wait and let Craig carry on with the tour without either of us having to worry that I was going to have a panic attack. Or that I was about to fall off the side of the mountain.
I found a stone ledge where I could sit and spent the next half hour watching the people coming out of the site. I was frankly amazed at how nonchalantly the throngs of school children, both French and English, leapt down the uneven stone stairs that had caused me such stress. But I was probably filtering what I was hearing through my own anxiety. At least I was far from the only person who decided to wait there. Several others did so too. And they weren’t blind!
Was the trip to Mont-Saint-Michel a waste of my time? By no means – I may not have managed to experience the entire site, but the ambiance of the parts that I was able to experience made it worthwhile. Perhaps I would have felt more able to go further if the weather had been clear rather than the intermittent gentle rain that made the stones somewhat slippery and added to my anxiety. I enjoyed being able to visit various buildings in the town and imagining what they might have been like in medieval times. I also enjoyed the feeling of antiquity that seems to permeate every stone. And I found the story of the site interesting as I always do.
A note to travellers in wheelchairs: I’d suggest contacting the site ahead of time to see if your needs can be accommodated. I didn’t see an easy way to access the site, but there may have been options of which I wasn’t aware.
It wasn’t until we started exploring Normandy that we realized that we were in an apple-growing region. Maybe it was the fact that we saw so much apple cider and apple brandy, called Calvados, wherever we went that gave us a clue.
I had my first Normandy cider on our first day when we began looking around the town centre. It was crisp and cold – and far less sweet than most of the ciders we get in South Africa.
Then, when we went to the local produce market, we bought two bottles of cider and a bottle of pommeau, an aperitif made by blending unfermented apple juice with Calvados. Chatting to the farmer at the produce market in a combination of broken French and equally broken English, we learned a little more about how pommeau is made, but it was only when we visited a Calvados producer in the town of Bayeux that we really learned more about the brandy.
Heavy rain started pouring as we made our way through the town centre towards the Calvados shop. And, when we got there – drenched and breathless after a dash to try and avoid the rain –we saw a closed sign on the door. We stood there in dismay, contemplating and equally wet walk back to the town where we could find cover. Then, as if by magic, the door opened, and a smiling gentleman invited us to enter.
We passed an enjoyable half hour in the shop, testing the cider and various barrel-aged Calvados samples they had on offer. We chatted to the owner about the process he uses to make the apple brandy – it’s made much the same way as cognac – and were able to compare the 4, 6 and 12-year-old Calvados. The number of years is the length of time the brandy has spent being aged in oak barrels. They were all delicious, although I preferred the 4-year old, which still had a strong taste of apple, which the older ones had lost.
We ended up walking home after the rain shower had passed, with a bottle of 4-year old Calvados, a bottle of their cider and some apple jam, which were tasty additions to our food stores at the apartment we were renting.
It sounds strange to say, with hundreds of different apple varieties being grown in the area, that we didn’t notice any apples on trees. But perhaps the harvest had already taken place.
Apple harvest is usually in early October, which was when we were there. It would explain why we saw so many trucks and tractors on the roads as we drove across Normandy. They became part of the landscape for us, although they did mean our hire car was covered in gravel and mud by the time our stay in Normandy was over.
If we were to return to Normandy, I’d definitely like to discover more about the apple farms and try to see how these distinctive Norman beverages are made. I think it would be fascinating.
In France, as in many other European countries I’ve visited, the sound of church bells is a regular part of any community. Whether they’re marking the passing of time or ringing out to summon the faithful to a church service, the sound of church bells is certainly part of the audio memory I have for many European trips.
So it wasn’t especially unusual to hear church bells when we stopped at Villedieu-les-Poêles In Normandy. Except these church bells were playing part of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. And a few minutes later they played part of Auld Lang Syne. Which we took to be a good sign – it meant we had discovered the bell foundry, which we’d decided to hunt down after hearing a mention of it on an audio guide of the WWII D-Day landings.
We were thrilled to discover we could take a guided tour of the foundry in English – tours are also offered in German, and French of course. And that the tours are able to accommodate those with sight impairments as well as those with mobility impairments.
The foundry was opened in 1865 and is still in operation. On the tour we learned that the way bells are cast now varies little from how they were cast when the foundry first opened, although they use a more modern process to melt the bronze and copper from which the bells are made. They make bells of all sizes, from tiny hand-held bells right the way through to those for churches and cathedrals. In fact, this was the foundry that made the new bells for Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2013, before it was damaged in the tragic fire.
I was surprised that the process of making bells isn’t more mechanized and was able to explore the components of each stage of the process with my hands. Though no firing was happening while we were there so there was no danger of me burning myself.
Something else that I found fascinating as a musician was that they can only approximate the pitch of the bell when it is being cast – the fine tuning has to be done by hand, shaving the inside of the bell to alter the pitch until it is tuned correctly.
But my favourite part of the visit to the foundry was the fact that they have an entire courtyard of bells that you’re not only allowed, but encouraged to ring. Which of course we did, with gleeful abandon. The photo shows me striking one of the smaller bells and, if we’d had the foresight to video it, you’d have heard me tapping out the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb.
Out of interest, every 10 minutes the bells we’d heard on our arrival played aa refrain from a famous song. When we asked our guide whether the townsfolk became annoyed by the constant bells ringing, she told us that the community loves the sound and that they are proud of their foundry. It’s certainly a unique memory that will remain with me as a reminder of our visit.
Although the bell foundry wasn’t on our original itinerary, it was a wonderful discovery and I’m glad we went out of our way to track it down and spend some time there. It was not only interesting; it was lots of fun!
It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.
This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.
My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.
As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:
Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!
It was the sense of tranquility and beauty that struck me most on our visits to Juno and Omaha beaches in Normandy. Which feels slightly unbelievable considering that these were both beaches that thousands of Allied and German soldiers met their deaths during the D Day landings on 6 June 1944, during WWII.
If you’ve studied accounts of the brutal and bloody fight that took place on the Normandy beaches , or have watched movies like Saving Private Ryan, or The Longest Day, or the series, Band of Brothers, you’ll probably have a sense of why I was so startled by the peace of the beaches now.
If you’ve never looked into the event, it was when more than 200 000 Allied forces attacked the heavily defended beaches of Normandy to start the liberation of France from Nazi domination.
With my husband’s interest in WWII, it was no surprise that we visited the sites of the landings. As we drove around the region where the fighting took place, we listened to a detailed audio guide of what happened on that fateful day. It was with the soundtrack of these accounts in our minds that we stepped out of the car and made our way to the beach known as Juno.
And how beautiful and tranquil it was – a slight breeze rustling the nearby trees and the sound of the rhythmic waves as they ebbed and flowed gently onto the sand. Although we knew we hadn’t taken a wrong turning and landed up at a different beach – the large gun housings, examples of the 2 million metal caltrops that had been scattered across the beaches to deter landing craft, and a replica of a landing craft that we were able to explore were all vivid reminders of the past.
Visiting Omaha Beach was much the same – the peacefulness of the area nowadays seeming almost incongruous considering the massacre that took place there on 5 June 1944. And yet, maybe that’s how it should be. Because it left me with a profound sense that peace, tranquility and beauty can eventually replace the horror and brutality of war.
I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.
Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.
What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?
I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.
Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.
The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.
But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.
Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.
The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.
Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.
I love helping to raise funds so that more guide dogs can be placed with their human partners to help them live a normal life.
Mom, dad and I will be going to this great event organised by Love Your Guide Dog – I really hope to see you there so you can also help more blind or visually impaired people to get a guide dog like me.
This month’s song is another early one. And, this time, I can play you a version of the song – though I had to dive quite deep into the musical archives to find it! It’s a song called Cabin Fever State of Mind and, as far as I remember, has been played twice live on stage, once on my own and once with a full band, with Craig’s sister, Sally on backing vocals.
Here are the lyrics, and the link to the song is at the end of the post – it’s a very early recording and isn’t great but hey, you asked me to share a recording this time round and I listened…
Cabin Fever State of Mind – by Lois Strachan
I’ve been staring at these four walls all day.
But the hardest wish won’t wish them away.
And I feel I’m trapped here all alone,
In this cabin beneath these drifts of snow.
Pacing in circles round the room.
But there’s no way out and no way in
And I feel like I’ve been here all my life,
In this cabin fever state of mind.
There must be a corner or a place to hide
From the thoughts that are starting to drive me wild.
But there’s nowhere to run, and there’s nowhere to hide
From this cabin fever state of mind.
And here in a corner of my snowbound mind
Insanity smiles and marks her time
Waiting for a signal, searching for a sign
Through this cabin fever state of mind
There must be a corner or a place to hide
From the thoughts that are starting to drive me wild
But there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide
From this cabin fever state of mind.
And here I sit and wait to fall
A victim to my own four walls.
A prisoner in space and time
In this cabin fever state of mind.
It feels like ages since I filled you in on my progress towards converting my book A Different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an ‘Ordinary’ Life in an Extraordinary Way” into audio.
So here’s what’s going on…
After doing some research I discovered that I’m unable to work directly with Audible. Their processes require authors to be a taxpayer in USA, UK, Canada or Ireland. Which I’m not. I guess it might be easier if I was signed with a traditional publishing house, rather than self-publishing, but maybe I’m wrong.
It turns out that there are a number of companies who can assist me with publishing the audio book on Audible and a whole range of other platforms. I’m grateful to members of the writing and publishing Facebook groups that I’m a member of for letting me know about a few of these companies. And, after even more research, I think I know which one I’m going to use.
I’m also thrilled to let you know I have a narrator to read the audio book for me. Julie is probably my longest-standing friend – we’ve known each other since we were about 3 years old. And I think her voice will be perfect! Besides, having known me for so long, who better to read the story of my life since losing my sight?
A number of people have asked me why I’m not reading my own book. The honest truth is that I couldn’t think of a way to do so – my Braille isn’t good enough, and I really didn’t fancy the idea of memorizing my story and recording it paragraph by paragraph.
Anyway, we’re about to start the process of recording and I’m excited to hear my story as it comes to life in this new format!
It’ll still be while before the recording is available. I’ll let you know more as it happens…
One of the things I love about travelling in Europe is the abundance of local food and produce markets. I was looking forward to discovering some while in Bayeux. And I was by no means disappointed.
There was a large market every Saturday with a vast range of locally grown produce, meats and cheeses. And another on Wednesday morning.
Craig and I arrived in Bayeux on Friday afternoon, and were ready and waiting to go and stock up by the time Saturday morning arrived. Luckily, we were staying in an Airbnb, so we weren’t limited to cold meats, cheeses and a few pieces of fruit – we also bought plenty of salad ingredients, and some of the largest artichokes I’ve ever seen, along with a few vegetables to cook. And some of the famous Normandy cider.
And then we spied a stall selling nougat – slabs and slabs of different flavoured nougat! I know I’m diabetic and that I really ought not to indulge in too many sweet things, but I have a particular weakness for nougat, so we went to go and have a look. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone cutting nougat like she was slicing a large cake. On the very rare occasion I allow myself to indulge in my secret weakness at home, I usually find pre-packaged nougat in matchbox sized cubes, not 30 by 30 centimetre slabs like those shown in the photograph.
The stallholder was delighted to have two tourists showing so much interest in her wares and happily allowed us to sample a number of the different flavours on offer. Ee eventually decided on one and bought a piece – but one that was half the size the stall holder thought we needed.
Believe it or not, we had to stock up on local produce again by the time the smaller market took place on Wednesday. Only, the weather wasn’t great. I don’t think I’ll ever forget running from stall to stall trying to avoid the gentle but persistent rain. Admittedly, we didn’t buy so much on that occasion, which was good because it meant we were able to hide out in a coffee shop and warm ourselves up with a hot drink and a crepe – yes, more sugar for the diabetic!
I wish the local produce market vibe was more common in South Africa. Sure, you can find the odd market for local organic produce here and there, but I guess I’ll have to wait till our next European trip to dive back into the wonderful local market culture that’s so prevalent there.