Monday, July 11, 2016

Mont St. Michel

A poster of Mont St Michel surely hangs in every French classroom in America. It makes me wonder what the posters are in English classes around the world? The White House? Sequoia National Park?The New York City skyline? It seems that every French native we met, who had visited the United States, had only gone to New York City. A few had ventured to the Grand Canyon or maybe to Las Vegas.  Oh how Tony and I lamented they had only been to New York City. Can the Big Apple come close to representing the entire United States? Can Paris singularly represent France?

 When I told two of my daughters we were at the iconic landmark, both of whom studied French, both replied "I've always wanted to go!"

"How did you know about Mont St Michel?" I asked.

"French class," they responded.

 I knew about Mont St Michel from my best elementary school friend who had  entered our first grade class speaking only French and having just arrived from Paris. She was my Madeline in America. Her mother had been Miss France and she had come to Las Vegas to dance in Folies Bergere. When she was established, her six year old daughter joined her. From a first grader's perspective, that was a pretty exciting life!!  I was now on the fast track to all things French, and that must have included Mont St Michel. It's as beautiful and surreal as the posters promised.

The holy man who founded the monastery was told in a vision in 700 AD to do so.  When he at first hesitated, Saint Michel burned a hole in his head. This information wasn't included at the island's cathedral. Not a word--though a wall sculpture hung depicting the scene hung in a stone stairway.  If Tony hadn't read it beforehand, we would have had no idea--it was a rather gruesome beginning, but the saint couldn't have been too incapacitated as he went on to build one of the seven wonders of the world (so my little French friend told me), and it is designated as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Tony and I were in awe of Mont St Michel.  The following week we were doubly excited to see it was the starting venue for the Tour de France.

Our visit was surreal. Yes. A visit to this city on a rock can be thought of in no other way. It is a crown of human ingenuity. It is a real Epcot Center on a rock. It is a parade of nature. Competing with the awesomeness of a man made miracle was the natural surroundings of extreme tide shifts. Twice a day, according to the lunar cycles, the tide will come in and surround the rock with water. It will cover the parking lot, the bridge, and turn it into an inaccessible island.

Tourists enjoy walking at low tide in the exposed bay surrounding Mont St Michel. However, it is required that explorers go with a guide as there are pockets of quicksand and the danger of getting caught in fast changing tides. When we first approached MSM it must have been a low tide moment for we could see groups of people coming and going. The people who had been, had thick gray mud covered shoes and splattered pants. Neither of us had any desire to tramp through the mud. As we ascended the city our view enlarged and we could see the tides change. With the first subtle change in the tides, the groups of people started the inward trek. Even the lone stragglers headed back, but when we reached the highest pinnacle courtyard of the cathedral, we, along with a concerned group of world citizens noticed a man, almost a small dot on the horizon, who was unaware of the changing tides.

The tides do not return in an even flow. The contour of the bay is uneven and filled with river-like lows and small hill like highs. The man was walking on higher ground unable to see the slow covering of the ground around him.

He was too distant to hear yells of warning. We could only watch and silently will his soul to notice his surroundings. We all hoped he was a good swimmer, yet, supposedly the tides are filled with dangerous currents.

The tides were closing in faster. Closest to the rock, the water was gushing like a swift flowing river. Unaware, the man was still on a nature walk. The energy in the crowd tensed. I started rooting for the stranger about to be stranded by the rising sea--then, he started walking towards land. Slow at first, then with more urgency. He came to the first rivulet. It was only ankle deep--at first. Then up to his knees; he was pushing through the water and he hadn't even made half of the return.

"Look, he's thigh deep now," and the man disappeared from our sight. The terrace extended only so far. I rushed into the chapel, out through the rose garden and through another chapel looking for a window to make sure the man made it back. Yet we were doomed to never know the fate of the explorer at Mont St Michel; there was not a window or a terrace to watch the man.

It's a difficult thing to ignore the outcome of someone's peril. It's difficult to not know the outcome. We could only hope he made it out safely and surely the magnitude of this tourist site required a lifeguard, a security squad that looked out for the least among us.

 Ah, but we only had to listen. As we made our way around the island, we heard people talking about the tide-daring lad. We heard he made it out but he was holding his cell phone above his head as he waded through the chest deep water.

This tourist-stuck-in-the-incoming tides has to be a common occurrence. When I saw two medical assistants help a woman who'd taken a tumble on stone stairs (MSM is a giant stair stepper workout), I knew there were rescuers waiting for the tide rule-breakers too.

I loved visiting Mont St Michel. If I were a speaker, I would be left speechless--as a writer, I'm left without words to explain the grandeur, the history, and the just plain old fun, we had at Mont St Michel--even trying to sneak and pry our way out of the bus parking lot which would have cost seventy euros.