Going home, genetically

going home genetically


More than twenty years ago, my then-boss Sharon took a trip to Africa. She took a balloon trip across the Serengeti, and did everything that moderately wealthy people do when they visit Kenya; I think she even stayed at Treetops.

 

 

As she showed me the pictures she took there, she said something that echoes in my head to this present day: “It was strange there. It felt familiar. They say our first ancestors came from Africa, and maybe we feel at home there.”

 

 

I’ve thought about that statement many times since.

 

 

My friend Bill, Irish by descent, spent his honeymoon in Ireland. He visited the Burren in the western part of the country – a strange stark landscape, with limestone moonscapes – which also happened to be the traditional ancestral country of his family. “It was eerie,” he told me. “It was like going home.”

 

 

And then there’s me.

 

 

Last October Partner and I went to France, and spent four or five days in Normandy. I loved it. It was perfectly wonderful: green fields, grey seashores, tiny fussy villages, narrow streets, ancient farmhouses, medieval ruins.

 

 

I felt at home there.

 

 

My DNA analysis from 23andme.com tells me that my mother’s DNA stems from Doggerland, a now-submerged country along the North Sea, contiguous with Normandy.

 

 

Well, what do you know about that?

 

 

My genes felt at home there.


Caen


Partner and I stayed in the city of Caen, in lower Normandy, while we toured northern France. In the four days we stayed there, we both fell in love with the city. It is modest and charming, and has wonderful medieval structures still standing – the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames and Palais Ducal, all built by William the Conqueror, and the St. Pierre church built by William’s grandfather.

Caen has streets full of shops and bakeries and bistros. We had our best French meal in Caen, at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux.

Ah, we thought: a real French town, unchanged since the Merovingians.

But then we talked to the concierge of our hotel.

It was at the Hotel Kyriad on the Place de la Republique, which I highly recommend to you if you’re ever staying in Caen. It was charming, and it had a wonderful breakfast buffet, and some really nice concierges. Our first was a funny skinny dark-haired guy with glasses, very French, very animated and helpful. Then, after a day or two, he was replaced with a tall blondish Norman-looking fellow with a doleful/cheerful expression.

On the day we were checking out to go to Paris, I noted a postcard behind the counter, a picture of the hotel in days gone by: LE VILLA DES CLOCHERS, the Belltower Building. The building has no belltowers now, so I asked the tall blond Norman concierge, in my (still halting) French: “Is this a picture of this hotel?”

He smiled sadly. “Yes and no. Look –“

It turns out that he was something of a history buff. He pulled out some old photos, from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. He even had an aerial view of Caen in August of 1944. In it, you could see that the city had been almost completely flattened. “You see,” he said very calmly, “a lot of the old churches survived. Medieval stone – who knows? It stood up. Maybe you saw the Church of St. Etienne-le-Vieux?

“Across from L’Abbaye aux Hommes?” I said. “We thought it was a ruin -”

He nodded sadly. “Yes. From World War II. It was left unrepaired, as a reminder of the war. But most of the rest of the city has been rebuilt.”

“What about the bombs?” I asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “They estimate that maybe two out of ten are still unexploded. People find them all the time when they excavate or build new foundations for buildings. They have ‘controlled explosions.’”

Partner and I left Caen about half an hour later via train to Paris, but as we left, we saw the city through new eyes.

We’d seen Caen as a clean beautiful city, nicely preserved. We hadn’t realized that it had rebuilt so completely.

How very frail we human beings are, and how frail our creations are: our cities, our civilizations.

But sometimes, even if they’re destroyed, they can be rebuilt.

(Somehow this gives me hope. I don’t know.)


Calvados


One of my favorite composers, Erik Satie, was born in Honfleur, a little seaside town in Basse-Normandie. Normans love their seafood, and their apples. From the apples, they make a liqueur called Calvados. Here is some information on Calvados:

In Normandy, locals rely on apple brandy as a digestive. Le trou Normand, or the Norman break, is a fiery shot of Calvados right in the middle of the meal. It hits hard and fast, yet is inexplicably effective as a palate-cleanser and appetite stimulant. It’s yet to be determined whether it has as successful an astringent property on one’s palate as it has on one’s wits – but either way, it works.

 

 

 

 

We saw bottles of shockingly expensive Calvados everywhere we went in Normandy. Finally I bought a nice bottle in the duty-free shop at De Gaulle Airport, just as we were leaving the country, for a maidenly sixteen euro.

At a recent gathering of Partner’s family, we opened the bottle and shared the experience.

A few loved it. Partner’s sister Pearl took a tiny sip and poured the rest of her shot into my glass. Partner’s three nephews appeared to enjoy it very much.

As did I.

It’s fiery, but smooth.  It’s not the same as grappa (the Italian apple liqueur) at all. Grappa is thick and hot. Calvados is fierce, but sophisticated.

And, if you close your eyes as you drink it, you can see the apple orchards of Normandy.

Look for it in your local liquor store.


Les Maisons Satie, in Honfleur


Erik Satie, one of my favorite composers, was born in Honfleur, on the coast of Normandy, in 1866. His birthplace has been transformed into a –

A what?

Not really a museum. Not really a performance space.

A happening.

Satie was an oddball: a medievalist, a surrealist, an independent. He wrote his odd little pieces of music while working as a cabaret pianist. He wrote pieces called “Dessicated Embryos” and “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” and “Next-to-Last Thoughts.” He was probably at least a little mentally ill. He died of acute cirrhosis (too much bourbon and absinthe) in 1925.

The good people of Honfleur have transformed his place of birth into a kind of performance / representation of Satie’s music. In one of the first rooms, you encounter a six-foot-tall pear, slowly flapping gigantic albatross wings. There’s a room of shadow puppets and cutouts. There is – outrageously, unexpectedly – a carousel, which you are invited to ride. I mounted one of the bizarre-looking bicycle-creatures and began to pedal, and the mechanism activated itself, and a cabaret piece of Satie’s – “Le Picadilly” – began to play, and the carousel opened up, brandishing peculiar hybrid musical instruments: shoe-trumpets, umbrella-trombones. An inscription on the wall says (in part): “It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous. And remember: Satie is watching you.”

Then there’s the white room: white walls, white benches, and a white player piano. The piano, eerily, plays one Satie score after another.

 

Finally, you enter a small movie theater. You’re greeted by Satie himself – a voice from an empty armchair. He narrates a film showing scenes from some of his late ballets – “Parade,” “Mercure,” “Relache.” I knew the music to all three, but I’d never seen the dancing; it was beautiful and odd and otherworldly. Picasso designed the costumes and sets for “Parade,” and it shows: the circus managers who open each scene wear bizarre cubist outfits that look completely alien.

I was idiotically happy through the whole museum.

Here’s a video that gives you a nice impression of the place, through the eyes of an excited child:

My dears, do yourselves the favor of a lifetime, and visit Normandy. Sample the cheese and the fish. See the churches, and the villages.

And visit the house of Monsieur Satie in Honfleur, and ride the carousel.

It won’t hurt you to be ridiculous once in a while.

And remember: Satie is watching you.


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