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August 2014 Trip: Lorraine Region, France

[For the previous episode, see Amsterdam.]

Most of my traveling around Europe over the years has been via train, so the idea of a roadtrip by car was something of a novelty. I can't actually remember how we arrived at this plan, but it was probably because we wanted to have a car in France so that we would have more flexibility in our exploration of various little villages in Lorraine. In any event, Kelly had arranged to rent a car in Amsterdam, and because she would be driving through unfamiliar territory, she also got a GPS navigation device. Our drive would take us through four countries in one day, which was going to be record for at least the three Americans in the expedition.

20140806_Still Life by Jakob de Gheyn
Glass with Flowers by Jacob de Gheyn the Younger

The first stop along the way was Den Haag. Mom had read somewhere that Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" was showing there again after it had traveled around the world for a while. She loves Vermeer almost as much as she loves Rembrandt, and Den Haag wasn't too far out of our way, so we swung by the Mauritshuis Museum in the political capitol of the Netherlands. It turned out to be a beautiful little museum with a number of Rembrandts as well as other Vermeers that I actually preferred to the Girl, especially the atmospheric "View of Delft". Then there was the usual assortment of beautiful still lifes, such as Jakob de Gheyn's above. After the museum we strolled through the ancient city center in search of a botanical garden, which was pretty enough but sadly lacking in birds, and then we hit the road again.

Second stop was in Antwerp where we had a late lunch. I'd been in Antwerp previously on my beer-drinking tour of Belgium with Jim de Liscard and Meike Pingopark in 2010, but that time the weather was blowing absolutely sideways. It was actually sprinkling this time, but we found a nice little place serving mussels and frites, although the frites were boring old slab fries and not the typical twice-cooked Begian frites of fame and fortune. This cafe was in the Grote Markt, with its fabulously ornate old architecture. I looked up the cafe Paters Vaetje where Jim and Meike and I had found refuge from the storm (and a number of very nice Belgian beers) in 2010, but it didn't look quite so romantic when the weather wasn't quite so foul.

20140806_Grote Markt in Antwerp
The Grote Markt in Antwerp

We had hoped to stop in Luxembourg as well, just because none of us (except maybe Kelly) had been there before, but by the time we got there it was getting late and we still had miles to go. So we blew through Luxembourg and onward into France, arriving in the dark of night at our hotel outside Nancy, which is the capitol of the region of Lorraine. It had been a long day, and we checked in and hit the sack.

This is where it gets tricky, because we spent the next three days visiting a whole lot of places, and I didn't take notes. Mom had compiled a list of ancestors who were born, married, and/or died in the region, and Kelly had marked all of this out on a map and determined the most efficient way to fit all of the villages and towns into an itinerary. Further more she'd done some research on the internet and, for example, discovered that an old mill where one ancestor had worked was now owned by a potter. She had called the potter, and he'd invited us to come visit. This was only the first glimpse of what a huge difference Kelly would make to this part of the trip.

20140807_In Nancy
LaVelle, Kelly, and Mom in Nancy

Mom and I, along with Dad, my brother, and my sister-in-law, had been to Lorraine twenty years previously. It was actually a bit of a shock to realize it had been twenty years since I'd last been to France! In those days Mom knew less of the family genealogy, and we actually visited archives in the area, where I would stutter out a memorized statement in French about our interest in family history and the archivist would usually refer us to Salt Lake City. (The Mormons have collected huge quantities of genealogical information from around the world.) It was after that trip that Mom discovered other family members who had done a lot of research. Amongst other things, she found out that when living in Lorraine that side of the family, which was called Schrock in the US, was called Gerard. To the extent that she had been looking through old records for the family name, she had been looking for the wrong one.

20140807_Baccarat Mairie
City hall in Baccarat

So now we headed off in search of the locales where Gerards had lived. On the first day we went to the town of Baccarat, which coincidentally is also the home of a factory that makes crystal that Mom has been collecting since long before she knew any family came from the area. My brother and I actually stopped in Nancy during our 1980 trip because Mom wanted us to look for crystal, but I don't remember whether we made it out to Baccarat itself. Mom and Kelly went to city hall but couldn't find any relevant records, I think because the local archive only went back so far. Waiting outside, I looked at a WWI memorial plaque and spotted three Gerards in the list of the slain. We drove to another little town on Mom's list and looked at the church there, but didn't find any relatives in the graveyard. Back in Baccarat we spent some time in a park, where Mom looked for birds while LaVelle and I sat on a bench in the shade and watched the locals play with their children and dogs.

20140807_WWI Memorial in Baccarat
World War I memorial in Baccarat

The next day we had better luck when we visited the village of Robecourt. Mom and Kelly talked to the mayor, who found at least one relevant document in the archives, but who also let us into the church, which is where two of my great great great grandparents had been married. The oldest part of the church had been built in the 1200s, with further additions in the 15th and 16th centuries. The stained glass looked newer than that, with one beautiful window being dedicated to the patron saint of the church, St Nicholas, who is shown playing with children. We were told that in Robecourt Christmas is celebrated on December 6th, which is St Nicholas Day. Not far from Robecourt was an old sawmill -- Le Moulin Froid -- where great great great grandfather worked, but we were only able to look at it from a distance. The village graveyard didn't have any Gerards that we could spot.

20140808_Eglise de Robecourt
The church in Robecourt

Onward to Le Moulin de Traveron, which is the old grain mill where great great great grandfather Christian Gerard worked and which is now occupied by a potter. The potter purchased the property twenty years ago and has been slowly restoring it. He knew a great deal of history about the place, which he relayed to us via Kelly's translation. The mill itself has been defunct for a century, and the mill wheel is long gone. The potter has set up a studio in the old milling room, which still has some of the old equipment in it. The potter told us that a duke used to own the mill and the fields in the area, and he would have taken the majority of the output of the mill. He also made wry jokes about how our Mennonite ancestors were perhaps not as fun-loving as the Catholics who oppressed them. His cloisonné pottery was quite beautiful and looked incredibly time-consuming to make as he showed us all the steps involved. And by the way, I'm not being coy by not giving his name, because he never told us what it was and when we checked his website later we couldn't find it there either. Apparently he aims for anonymity in his art, which I suggested might be a Taoist approach to things.

20140808_Le Moulin de Traveron
The remains of the old mill at Traveron

20140808_The Potter
The potter explicates

20140808_The Potter's Cloisonne Artwork
The potter's cloisonné artwork (he mostly makes pots and vases)

Well, we really felt we'd stepped into some history with that visit. Our final stop that day was a cemetery in the nearby village of Sauvigny. Mom had a photo of relatives who had found a gravestone there for great great great uncle Andre Gerard (Christian's brother) back in the '70s or '80s. I walked right past it, because the angel in the picture was no longer there, but eagle-eyed Kelly spotted it in my wake. The grave markers also named some other people who also turned out to be relatives, and again we were hit with a charge of discovery. I had felt pretty blase about the ancestral part of this trip, but somehow finding the actual, concrete houses and churches and graves of my ancestors made it feel a lot more personal than I had anticipated. This was the land of my people. Well, until they fled!

20140808_At the Graveyard in Sauvigny
LaVelle, myself, and Mom at the great great great grave

And so it continued to go. The next day we visited the village of Ugny-sur-Meuse, which was the birthplace of my great grandfather, Joseph Schrock (born Joseph Gerard), whose family immigrated to the US in 1855 when he was three years old. The mayor's office in the village was closed, so we went to check out the church. As we came out of the church, a woman said hello from a doorway, and Kelly started talking to her. This turned out to be the mayor's wife, and she told us a bit about the village and its history. When Kelly asked her if any Mennonites still lived there, she said no, but an anabaptist of some sort had moved there a few years ago. He was apparently so unsociable that he bought a cluster of seven houses so that he could be buffered against his neighbors. LaVelle and I thought this was hilarious and wished we could see the houses, but perhaps that would have been invasive on our part. Talk about not playing well with others! The standoffishness of Mennonites was sort of a running theme amongst the people we talked to on this trip. I've been called aloof a time or two myself, so maybe it's my heritage.

20140809_The Mayor's Wife
The mayor's wife notices strangers in the village

The mayor's wife soon introduced us to her husband, who had been working on the church this whole time. Turned out he was interested in genealogy himself, and given a name to work with, he swiftly used the internet to find the address where great grandfather was born, while LaVelle and I stumbled around with our rudimentary French trying to make conversation with the mayor's wife in the kitchen. Great grandfather's home turned out to be yet another mill house, just below the church.

The mayor warned us that the current inhabitants of the house were riffraff, and he discouraged us from trying to talk to them. Still, we wanted a picture, so we drove down and stopped across the road. This immediately brought a furrow-browed man out of the house with a very large dog in hand. Kelly quickly explained why we were there and taking photos, and his frown turned into a smile. An older man and two younger boys joined him, and the older man told us what he knew about the house and the old mill that used to be attached. It turns out the the dyke that used to divert the river to the mill needs to be rebuilt, and the village wants these people to do it. They don't want to, and so there's some tension. It doesn't help that they've left their front yard full of junk.

20140809_Great Grandpa Schrock's Birth Home
My great grandfather's birth home in Ugny-sur-Meuse

Well, once again we had discovered far more than we could have hoped, largely because we had Kelly along to actually talk to people. If we had come on our own, we would have wandered around soaking up the atmosphere, which would have been fun in itself, but we would have never found the actual house that our forebears called home. Truly amazing. Mom looked like she was walking on air.

After that we stopped in the town of Vaucouleurs. I can't remember if there was an ancestral connection, but the funny thing that happened in Vaucouleurs was that when I stopped to take some pictures of a statue of Jeanne d'Arc, a local man began speaking to me enthusiastically in French. I said, "Nous sommes Americains," stupidly thinking that he would understand from this that we didn't speak French, but of course he heard me speaking French and thus assumed the opposite. A further barrage of French ensued, from which I was able to pick out that the statue was from Algeria, which seemed very strange. At that point Kelly intervened, and we got more of the story about how the statue was made in Algeria and then cut apart and shipped to France after Algerian independence. It turned out that Jeanne d'Arc used to live in Vaucouleurs, back when the King used to come hunt in the area and to visit a favorite brothel in the town. Perhaps something got jumbled in translation, but maybe Vaucouleurs was where Jeanne came to the King's attention. In any event, we ended up buying two baguettes and some cheese and plums at local shops and eating lunch on the front steps of a beautiful old church high above the town. We had a majestic view to accompany our meal, and it was a glorious day to savor the land of our ancestors.

20140809_Lunch in Vaucouleur
Lunch in Vaucouleurs

20140809_View from the Church in Vaucouleur
We could see for miles

That exhausted the list of ancestral sites to visit, so on Sunday we headed out to do some birding at a nearby lake. The birding didn't last long, as a torrential downpour chased us into a hotel cafe for some cafe au lait. We spotted an enormous building at the top of a nearby hill, so we went to investigate. Amusingly enough, it turned out to be a monument to America built by Americans, praising ourselves for being so awesome for entering WWI late and taking a village somewhere in Lorraine. The thing is fantastically huge and self-important, visible from miles around, and the hubris of it is just jaw-dropping. America, fuck yeah! I suppose we earned the monument in the next World War.

20140810_American Hubris
American hubris

Back in Nancy we visited the botanical gardens, where once again we failed to spot any birds. Mom's observation was that the most birds we saw on this trip were in Vondelpark in Amsterdam. But birding wasn't really the point of the trip, so that was okay, and it was nice to laze around in the sun in the beautiful surrounds. The only confusing thing was when an elderly woman came up to where Mom and I were sitting on a bench and said what sounded like, "Corbeau!", which is French for "crow," which seemed like a very strange thing for her to be saying to me. Eventually she used hand signs to indicate that she was tired and needed to sit down, so we made room. Never did figure out what she was really saying, or what language it was. Darn these foreigners and their inscrutable ways! She sighed happily as she rested her weary old bones.

And that was basically it for the French part of the trip, and for the excursion with Mom and LaVelle and the delightful and ever helpful Kelly. We had such a great time together that I regretted having to part from them, but the next morning they headed off to Bern in Switzerland, where another branch of the family hails from, while I caught a TGV train to Paris, walked from Gare de l'Est to Gare du Nord, then caught the Eurostar to London. There, in St Pancras, I was greeted by the cheery face of Claire Brialey, who had brought me an Oyster card, bless her heart, and thereby an entirely new and different phase of the trip was initiated.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 28th, 2014 03:56 am (UTC)
The picture captioned "American Hubris" is posted so huge that it throws off the entire post. Fix please so I can read it kthnxbye.
Aug. 28th, 2014 04:07 am (UTC)
I'd make some joke about hubris and size, but I'm too braindead to think of one. So I just fixed it. Now I'm going to crash, so I hope that's the only problem.
Aug. 28th, 2014 06:11 pm (UTC)
Fixed and thank you! And again, it sounds like a great trip.
Aug. 28th, 2014 06:13 pm (UTC)
That it was.
Aug. 30th, 2014 02:18 am (UTC)
American hubris broke the internet?? Who'd have thunk it! ;)
Aug. 28th, 2014 06:36 am (UTC)
Great story and pictures. Something about Vaucouleurs rang a bell since I watched a recent TV history of the Hundred Years War by Janina Ramirez, but I can't remember what she said. Vaucouleurs seems to have been Jeanne's first stop on her Voice-inspired mission to see the king at his court in Chinon. She was actually born in a village called Domrémy, about 20 km to the south of Vaucouleurs. I don't think the king was near Vaucouleurs himself at the time, she was just petitioning to the local noble to get an introduction and escort.
Aug. 28th, 2014 02:52 pm (UTC)
We stopped in Domrémy (which sounded like Do Re Mi to me) looking for a toilet, and while we were there we spotted the house where Jeanne was born. Didn't visit the attached museum, however.
Aug. 28th, 2014 11:56 pm (UTC)
Enjoyed that. Made me want to do a road trip in France. Been ages since I've done that,mainly hampered by the fact I dont actually want to be the one driving.. ( ah, to be RHD-lingual! I CAN pretty much do the French speaking bit tho ( tho possily not understanding back..))
Aug. 29th, 2014 12:57 am (UTC)
Didn't you and some segment of the Plokta Cabal do a French road trip a few years ago? (Please don't tell me it was ten years ago!)

Now I'm realizing I need to fit in the funny story about the unsociable anabaptist in Ugny-sur-Meuse that the mayor's wife told us. That could actually become a little theme of this segment, if I worked at it.
Aug. 29th, 2014 09:33 am (UTC)
Afraid to tell you it WAS about ten years ago - it was before I felt Edin for Sheffield, and Bridget and Simon were still together.. I feel old now too :(
Aug. 29th, 2014 09:35 am (UTC)
That was me..
Dont know why I was logged out.

Was just going to say I did a slightly more recent French road trip with my friend Guy - but again that was quite a while ago! as pre his current partner and two small children!
Aug. 29th, 2014 03:12 pm (UTC)
Re: That was me..
I guess it's a sign of how long I've known you by now! (Ignoring that I briefly met you on your TAFF trip.)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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