Flâneur on the Beach!

There was some reason for smugness: gregarious normality finally beckoned!
After years of dodging holiday questions from colleagues and family (so as not to embarrass them nor myself – see note1) I at last wouldn’t need to remain discreet about my holidays.
I too was going to storm a beach, spending a July week with C in a cottage at the French coast. But ah – I’d gotten it wrong again, having chosen the North of France (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) , which, so I learned from bemused reactions, is not nearly Exotic or Southern enough to be acceptable as a Summer Holiday Destination. “Ecoute, je ne vois vraiment pas l’intérêt”, a genuinely baffled colleague exclaimed.

Obviously, C and I did see the interest of the place, and from our customary, widely differing perspectives at that. C was enchanted by the maritime vistas offered by the busy ship-routes in the straight between Calais and Dover. From the terrace of our temporary abode on the Wimereux-coast (in between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais) she could watch for hours the ships sailing by - huge oil tankers seemingly motionless on the horizon, the steady traffic of ferries doggedly going up and down the Canal, the frivolous little triangles of leisurely sailing yachts. With an annoyed grunt I ‘d look up from my book (2) whenever she would excitedly pass on the binoculars , “hey look – you can see the lights of the Dover Patrol Memorial over there on the English coast!”.

From the Jurassic to hard sour Napoleon candy

With more shared enthusiasm we explored the Cap Griz Nez landscape on foot, such as that marvellous coast from Cap Blanc Nez to Cap Gris Nez . How not to be awed by the millenary geological grandeur of those shores! Humbly seen from below on the beach, by two tiny mortals caught in between an ageless sea and towering cliffs dating from the Jurassic period. Or triumphantly standing on top of a majestic cliff (where surprisingly sweet pink flowers grew and sheep & cows calmly grazed) exulting in the view of a scintillating sea-surface stretching all the way to the white cliffs of Dover.

Man, alas, has also entertained many grand military visions here.

In the nearby planes of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Napoleon assembled his troops, first pondering an invasion of England (which never happened) and then marching his Grand Army on from there to Austerlitz – a battle considered by some as his supreme tactical military masterpiece (and by others as just another European carnage).
A column at the site of the Boulogne camp was erected to commemorate the distribution of medals (“la légion d’honneur”) by Napoleon to his faithful warriors. Nowadays it is the familiar silhouette of the “little corporal” that is perched on top of the 53 metres high triumphal column: an almost endearing silhouette cherished from childhood as it figured on the wrappers of my favourite hard sour candy, the “napoleons”.

However, the initial statue, now kept in a building on the site, is undoubtedly closer to the pompous ways of a megalomaniac emperor. Wandering into the building, the unsuspecting visitor feels suitably dwarfed by this towering figure in coronation costume with full regalia including a laurel crown worthy of a roman emperor. A tribute-poem by Victor Hugo (yes, the Hugo of Les Misérables would also glorify France’s military prowess) is equally revealing of the delusions of imperial grandeur once harboured by the French. Delusions by which no French president, however republican, has ever been entirely untainted.

Into the bunkers!

And then, of course, all over Northern France, one can still see the traces of the battlefields of the worldwars I and II. There are the cemeteries with rows and rows of graves of young men killed in their prime (nearby the fashionable seaside resort of Le Touquet, one can visit the harrowing Etaples Commonwealth cemetery , with almost 11.000 burials of the first world war ...)

And then there are the bunkers, the many bunkers and fortifications that have pockmarked the coast of the Pas de Calais.
More often than not they were useless feats of outstanding military engineering – since invasions of course never took place how and where the cunning generals had prepared for it. The French had their useless “Maginot line” along the German border, the Germans had their inadequate “Atlantic wall” in the west , also built along the Pas de Calais.

One of these huge bunkers has been recycled as a military museum, the “Batterie Todt”, so named after the highly productive civil and military German engineer Todt. Boasting a “superb arms collection” this museum also merchandises military paraphernalia (genuinely historical! exclaims a yellowing card ), amongst which demilitarized grenades, still fearsome knives as well as rolls of vintage WWII bandages. One does wonder about the motivations of its eager visitors: what about those short cropped, blond and blue eyed Scandinavians ...? An apology for my own interest in these matters (as dubious as it is ambivalent) can be found here(3).

Many bunkers have been dynamited, their concrete debris mixed up on the beaches below with natural rocks, both covered now by shells and green algae. Yet other bunkers still stick out of the cliffs, or lay there in the fields above , abandoned, half overgrown with weeds. Cautiously venturing into one of them we were met with a penetrating smell of paint and the clicking sounds of paint spray cans - two young men (looking quite cool in their baggy jeans and leather jackets) were busy spraying tags and grotesque figures on the few areas of walls that were not yet plastered with graffiti. They looked very annoyed at our intrusion, boldly staring us off from their turf.

Ah, bunkers, graffiti... – aren’t both about aggressively claiming territory? Leaving one’s marks, appropriating space...

Oh no, not about angels again...

Post-moderns have of course extensively argued that all art is about imposing the values of the dominant classes or about selfish individual assertiveness in a never ending struggle for supremacy. I humbly (and stubbornly) beg to differ. I’m not denying that art is dependent on the means furnished by the ruling classes (be it spendthrift kings and bourgeois or compulsively consuming masses) and I'm aware that art is a profession also sometimes sought out by egomaniacs pursuing fame and riches only.

But still, I do feel that art definitely can reach beyond petty individual interests. Because it is so intricately bound up with our aesthetical and moral sense it does seem to impose laws defying banality and self-interestedness. Both in theocratic and agnostic eras, art can express the human, all too human yearning for transcendence. And only art, in its utter concentration on human sensibilities, may capture and record the subtle hues of our so fleeting sensations and emotions.

All this to introduce the two art gallery visits of my beach-holiday!

I hadn’t thoroughly researched the cultural must-sees of this beach-holiday so the “Château-Musée” of Boulogne-sur-Mer came as a surprise.
Minutes before I had still been cycling along the sunny and crowded Boulogne-quays, and there I found myself staring at an Egyptian sarcophagus, having contained the remains of a Grand Egyptian Lady (so the accompanying card read) : Nodjenmout, Grande Musicienne de la chorale de Mout, Maîtresse d’Isheroy, Joueuse de sistre, Dame du Ciel.
In another room I could peer down at a Greek vase showing the tragic moment when Ajax, “abandoned by men and gods” prepares to throw himself on a sword. Elsewhere I looked, baffled and moved, at ritual expressive masks from Alaska Eskimos , all neatly tagged : “He Who Does Not Know”, “He Who Is Sceptical" ,”He Who Is Sad”, [and what about she? ] . More usefully: “He Who Announces The Weather” and, intriguingly: “Different, Not Like Us”.

By contrast, a temporary exhibition sought to reconcile us with our transience, from Claudio Parmiggiani’s spectral afterimages (the shadowy contours of books on a wall – drawn by the deposits of soot and smoke) to Patrick Neu’s renaissance angels drawn with Chinese ink on iridescently blue butterfly wings.
The relative permanence of respectively books and ancient masters’ paintings, made hostage to the most fragile and fleeting of mediums...

But while Neu’s butterfly angels kept nagging at my failing memory (which renaissance angels did I exactly recognize?), the wooden angels in the museum of Arras (visited on the way back home) had no such torture in store.
They just smiled their benevolent smiles, like their sibling at Reims.

Notes on holiday
(1) For years I have been cheerfully avoiding sun, sea & sand to embark instead on thematic holidays (with the themes reflecting whatever my heart and mind was pre-occupied with at the time). Thus have I travelled by train to the great port cities of Europe, did I almost devoutly visit the French cathedral cities and have I obstinately sought ways to arrive by ways of public transports (complemented at times by a rented bike) at the small French towns with Romanesque churches. European cities with hallowed ancient art museum have also consistently been a beloved target. But what really really exasperated a well-meaning family-member inquiring about my holidays, was when, after I had been visiting for two consecutive annual holidays a friend amongst the improbable ruins of Detroit, I then enthused about a recent trip to English cities such as Bristol and even, up North, Liverpool and Manchester (these paragons of lost 19th century industrial grandeur! The Parallels with Belgian formerly industrial cities! Those sublimely stuffy Victorian museums!): “why can’t you ever take a normal holiday?
(2) Clarice Lispector – "La découverte du monde" – I’m enchanted and intrigued, though the book I read is just a collection of columns she published in papers and magazines (perhaps accounting for an intermittent, annoying whiff of banality). But on the whole there’s a melancholic and reflective bent to her writings that makes me very eager to discover her ‘serious’ books
(3) Alarmed blog readers can rest assured – I’m not into buying WWII grenades