"You are Canadienne?"
I looked up from my breakfast to the heavily accented question. The landlady of the small hotel I had stumbled to the day before stands before me. Her son had checked me in. He had also seemed very interested in the fact that I was from Canada.
"You come for D-Day celebracion?"
"No. I will be on a boat for Ireland." It was June 4th, 1999. I was winding up my backpacking trip through Europe in Bayeux, France. The next day, I would take the train to Cherbourg and board an overnight boat to Rosslare and my family.
I had hoped to see the Normandy Beaches but thanks to a mix up at the Le Mans train station and the resulting unexpected visit to Rennes, I only had Sunday in Bayeux. There were no tours or buses to the beaches on Sundays.
"Too short," the landlady told me. "Too short. You must, ah," she looks around her while her mind searches for the word. "'Ow do you say, uh, not go?"
"Oui, stay. There will be a big celebracion."
I smiled apologetically.
"I have already bought my ferry ticket."
"I not come from Bayeux," she continues as she takes a seat at my table. "My 'usband, 'e was from Bayeux. I come from a small village near they call it Juno beach. You know this beach?"
I nod. I'm a history buff. I'm Canadian. Of course I know Juno beach.
"Canadiens liber, libert, liberty-ed?"
"Merci. Liberated. Lib-er-ated. Liberated." She moves the word around in her mouth like a child discovering its tongue until she's comfortable with it. She continues "liberated my village. The Nazis had my father. Canadiens return 'im to my mom. I was made the night 'e came home. I like Canadiens." She winks at me and smiles.
I smile back.
"And your dad? Did he like Canadians?"
"Ah oui, very much. What will you do today?"
"I don't know. I was supposed to come on Friday so I could see the beaches but I guess I will just go see the tapestry today."
"Non. Non. That will not do. Michel?" She turns away from me and starts to yell in French at various people in the hotel dinning room. "I will come back," and she's up and away before I can say anything else.
I finish my meal in silence and wander up the tiny twisting stairwell to my room. I sort out what I need for the day and head back downstairs to find the landlady waiting for me with an older lady.
"She is my mama. She also likes Canadiens."
"Bonjour. C'est va?" I use the little French I have to greet her. She toddles towards me relying heavily on her cane. She reaches up and pats my cheek before turning back to her daughter and saying something in French.
"Mama thinks you 'ave kind eyes." Mama turns back to me and smiles. "Come. Come," the landlady beckons me towards her. "We are taking you to the beach."
I spend the day with my landlady, her mama, and Michel, the son who had checked me in the day before. We drive to Juno beach. Michel points out what few remnants of the landing there are to see. Then we drive to the village. Mama tells stories in French and my landlady translates. Life before the war, life under the Nazis, when the Canadians came, life after the war, so many stories. I could listen to Mama talk until there were no more stories, she was better than any museum, but she is old and tired and the weather was unseasonably chilly. After two hours we need to get her home.
"You will have dinner with us." It's not a request, it's a statement, but I wouldn't have turned it down anyway. When I show up to the family dinning room, I find a huge feast which they must have been preparing all day and at least a dozen people patiently waiting for me.
Four hours later, I stumble up my winding staircase sated on both food and wine. My head is a jumble of their songs and stories and I find myself laughing at the night's events as my eyelids close.
The next morning, there is a lunch packed for me and my train ride. Mama and Michel walk me to the train station just a block from the hotel. Mama says something in French and kisses both my cheeks.
"Next time you will stay for June 6th," Michel translates. I smile at Mama.
"Oui. Juin sixieme. Je retournerai y je reste a le sixieme." I stumble over the words as they come out and I'm not sure anyone could understand what I said.
Mama smiles again and takes my arm. She remains there until the train comes. The last sight I remember of Bayeux is Mama waving as the train pulls away.
I, sadly, have never returned to Bayeux. Mama, I imagine, is long gone but when June 6th rolls around and I think of D-Day, it's Mama's stories that I remember.
Mama, je me souviens de toi. Merci pour tout.