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.)

The day the ceiling collapsed


I woke last Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. to a huge crash in the bathroom.



My first thought was that Partner had fallen in the bathroom, and I leapt up to help him. (I did not notice that he was asleep in bed beside me. I am not very observant first thing in the morning.)



I opened the bathroom door and found that half of the ceiling had collapsed. There was moldy plaster everywhere: in the toilet, in the tub, in the sink, and all over the floor.



I thought about going upstairs to yell at our neighbors. Then I realized that I was naked and needed to put some clothes on. I put a pair of athletic shorts on, backwards. I went and looked at the damage again, and went in the bedroom to announce to Partner: “The bathroom ceiling fell in.” (He did not react. He sleeps with earplugs. I used to sleep with earplugs. I should start doing it again; it’s a good idea.)



It dimly dawned on me that our upstairs neighbors had not intentionally made our ceiling collapse. It then occurred to me that I ought to call the landlords and tell them what had happened. I closed my eyes to remember their phone number – I usually have an astounding memory – and couldn’t come up with a thing.



I need to pee, I thought.



Luckily, there’s a common bathroom in the basement of the apartment house, next to the laundry room. The trip downstairs did me good, and I finally noticed that my athletic shorts were on backwards, and rectified my earlier error.



I went back upstairs to the apartment. I looked at the damage again for a while, and then I looked up the landlords’ number and placed an emergency message.



I went back to stare at the damage again. The smell of wet plasterboard was beginning to get to me, and I was beginning to think about things like Stachybotrys. I have to get the bathroom door closed, I thought, and tried, but there was too much debris on the floor. I spun around in circles three or four times like a dog, and realized the only shovel-like thing in the house was our dustpan. So I started shoveling wet plaster with the dustpan.



At this point Partner awoke. He let out a little shriek when he saw what had happened. “Ceiling collapsed,” I said pointlessly.



“Oh my god!” he said. “What if we’d been in there when it happened? Can you imagine?”



“I’m picturing it,” I said.



Finally I got the bathroom door shut, containing the rancid moldy smell.



Think about it: no bath, no shower, no sink. No medicines from the medicine cabinet (Partner dashed into the bathroom to fetch his prescriptions, and I realized he’d had a good idea, and fetched mine also). My mouthwash bottle was floating in the toilet; we decided to leave it where it was.



But we made the best of it. The building superintendent, a bouncy talkative soul named Bob, came by a few hours later, and he and a morose little fellow named Angelo cleaned the plaster up and made some preliminary repairs. I ran to the health club for a shower, and later Partner and I picnicked on Subway sandwiches while waiting for the plumber. Plumber went upstairs, determined that the upstairs toilet was leaking, and fixed it in about ten seconds. By nightfall the bathroom was clean (if still stinking of wet plaster), the sink and toilet and bathtub were useable, and the gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling was covered with a blue tarp.



It was just like the London Blitz.



(Honestly: how we inflate these little daily problems. This was a small disaster, but the operative word here is “small.” Both of us survived. The worst moment (for me) was that initial moment of fear, when I thought Partner might have fallen in the bathroom. Everything after that was anticlimax.)



And we’re getting by.



So maybe it’s not World War II after all.



(Postscript, a few days later: the ceiling is fixed. We have a new vanity. Soon the painters will come over.)



(So I guess WWII is over.)



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