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The Eiffel Tower

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

Antoine, the youngest of the Mazos, has given me an unexpected birthday present: a beautiful little pendant that looks like a large pearl or a small, pristinely white Fabergé egg. I put it around my neck and feel the smoothness of it with my fingertips. I thank Antoine, but I wonder if he knows how much I like it. Somehow, oddly, it reminds me of the bracelet I got from all the teachers at the Lycee in Rouen when I left their ranks years before. But perhaps not so oddly, because both pieces of jewelry were handcrafted in Rouen. Christine, Antoine’s mother and my favorite fellow teacher, was sure to tell me that it was local, just as Antoine tells me now that this necklace is local.

Back in 2005, when my contract ran out and I left Rouen to see Italy and Ireland, I threw most of my clothes in the charity bin by a supermarket hidden in the labyrinth of the Norman streets. I hadn’t brought or bought much of value. But I was proud of that silver bracelet around my wrist, serpentine leaves with centers of blue crystal; not sapphire but just as hot in the light. I hadn’t liked the bracelet at first, honestly, but, overwhelmed at the generosity of my colleagues, I had put it on and kissed all of them as was the custom, even the dour principal with sagging jowls.

I wore it to Italy. In Pisa, I sat in a green field, contemplating the tower alone, playing with the facets of my bracelet. At one angle the reflected light shone straight up green into the green of my eye, taking up the total of my vision. In Florence I slept with the bracelet clasped around my wrist in a stranger’s apartment. I trusted the stranger, who lived near Seattle normally, recognizing her as the sort of girl who wanted to have adventures to tell upon her return, like, yeah, there was this one time I met this chick outside the train station and I was like, yeah, you can stay with me ‘cause we Americans need to stick together. I assume she thought I was OK because I didn’t look like a beggar.

But the only barrier between myself and those beggars bowing on the pavement was the weight pressing me downward, the bite of my luggage, the euros around my neck, and my paltry gentility. I had no idea which city to live in after I got back to the States, no home, no job; I really and truly was homeless and jobless just like those beggars, however temporarily. But I shrugged and took the train to Rome, talking on the way with a parachutist from Sardinia, who tried to teach me Italian and then left forever with a tip of his cap.

On the plane to Dublin the light came in the window and sent back prism shards

onto the plastic wall, some blue-cold, some separated sharply into red yellow purple.

We flew over Normandy into the sunset. In Dublin, I hopped on a bus to my hostel,

debarked, and took a shower. I looked in the mirror to see my wrist and it was naked.

I felt naked all that day, and the thought that kept coming back to me was: what is the point of seeing things if you have no way to keep them?

So when Antoine gives me the necklace, I think, secretly, this can replace the thing I lost before. On this trip, I’ve gone in exactly the reverse of that other trip: Ireland, Italy, Normandy, and here I am with something to remember my time in Normandy again. It’s a pleasing thought.

I take the train to Paris wearing this necklace, check in to my hotel, and meet up with friends from the Netherlands. We all go to dinner, where I can’t help running my fingers over the smoothness of the white pendent in between courses, just to make sure it’s still there. Then we decide we’re going to take the metro to La Defense not far away. We hop on the metro, hang on the rails, chatting and catching up, and I look in the window to see my throat. It is naked. I put my hand up, startled.

I go back to my hotel room, which has a stunning view of the Eiffel tower, but I am too irritated to pay much attention to that. I ransack my room in case I have lost my mind and the necklace is actually in my luggage somewhere. But it’s not. Just as before, I have no idea if the jewelry was lost or stolen.

I sit down on the bed and wonder if I should cry. I am just as I was before, that girl who felt suddenly as if her only physical link to history and nobility had disappeared. And I have to remind myself that things have changed slightly — I have a job, I have a house, I have a posh hotel room to sleep in rather than a $12 hostel, and yes, I even have more jewelry. I take a photo of the Eiffel tower to appease myself. This, too, can be a souvenir.

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Pierre’s boat

Sailboats in Normandy

Photo by Katie Botkin.

Pierre’s pride and joy is Motus, his sailboat, which he insists on showing me on the way to the coast. He tells me we’ll have our after-lunch coffee aboard. He shows me the shiny wooden interiors, the three sleeping cabins, the dining area, how the toilet works, the navigation equipment. We sit below deck and have strong percolated coffee with sugar and he tells me about his sailing trips, how people work together in such a small space over weeks on end. How it is being on the sea through the night and through the day. Everyone has a job, he says; if you’re bad at navigation, maybe you do the dishes all the time. He tells me I need to come sail the Mediterranean with them sometime soon. I nod seriously. The thought that comes unbidden to my mind is: I’m not sure how much sunscreen I’d have to use to make that work.

As we pull away in the car, he notices that I’m quiet. He asks me if this is my thing or if he’s actually boring me. “C’est que je suis en train de reflichir,” I say. I’m just thinking that I’d really like to do it — sail around for a week or so in remote corners of the Mediterranean, sleeping in those narrow cabins, and navigating above deck in the wind and the salt spray. Not this summer, but maybe next summer. It’s something to plan for.

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Abbey ruins

Abbey ruins in Jumieges

Abbey ruins in Jumieges, France. Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

Shortly before 11 a.m., we make it to the ruins of a Benedictine abbey in Jumièges, just in time for a guided tour in French. Pierre says this is good, and now I’m sure to get the real story rather than authoritative guesses from him. This is uncharacteristically modest of him.

The French guide tells the four of us on the tour that this abbey was first constructed in the Carolingian period. It became subsequently so rich that it was burned and pillaged constantly by the invading Vikings in the ninth century, to the point that it was abandoned until the region stabilized. In 1067, the church was consecrated anew. The Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, freshly successful from his own invasion of England, attended the consecration. The abbey flourished until the French Revolution, when it was ransacked again and partially pulled down for its stone. This, however, made it “the most beautiful ruin in France,” according to visiting authors from the Romantic period.

The guide tells us to take a walk up to the Abbot’s residence to get a good view of the ruins and the surrounding park. Pierre and I do so, and in the quiet misty-gray of the sunless noon, we look down on the once-great property, now deserted of people. Somewhere, a bell is tolling the hour.

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A chateau along the road to the Normandy coast.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

It’s my birthday in Normandy. I wake up in the Mazo’s attic bedroom, in a bed older than myself. It’s fitting that I’m spending this holiday with the Mazos, a French family with whom I spent Christmas 2004 and Easter 2005, in the French Alps and the Loire Valley, respectively.

Christine is working, but Pierre, a short, exuberant Frenchman of about 60, says we will go on a historical tour of the Seine, all the way to the coast. He wants to go by motorbike, but I’m less keen about this, especially since it’s raining. So we go by car. He starts off the tour with loud, almost explosive, explanations in English. He seems to be making up for his hesitation over word choice in volume. I respond in French, and he gets the hint and switches, which is far more efficient. He begins again, explaining the Viking invasions up the Seine, the subsequent Norman invasion of England, the Norman kings, and the Hundred Year’s War.

Most of this I am well-acquainted with, but Pierre wants to quiz me. He jumps about three centuries ahead and asks me if I know why the Hundred Year’s War started.

Oui,” I say, thinking of the opening dialogue in Henry V.

Pourquoi?” he asks. I think: “The right and title of the female,” but I’m not sure what the quote is in French, so I say: “Ils étaient cousins.”

It’s not enough: he explains the causation in grand detail, how Isabella of France, who produced Edward III with her husband Edward II of England, got denied her right to pass down the crown of France because she was a woman. The crown of France got passed on to Edward III’s cousins instead. Because the Dukes of Normandy ruled England anyway, all the more reason they should sail back to France and assert themselves. Pierre insists that Joan of Arc should have left well enough alone, since it was essentially a civil war. But she did not, so she was killed in Rouen, the capital of Normandy.

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The festival of Joan of Arc in Rouen. Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

I’m reading the local paper at breakfast and notice that the annual fête Jeanne-d’Arc, commemorating Joan of Arc, is in Rouen today. I check the clock. I have enough time to take the bus down and catch some of the festivities.

Once in town, I head to the Vieux Marché, where little Joan was burned as a witch, just in time to see two girls astride horses in faux-medieval armor. The horse nearest me breaks the picturesque scene by splattering the cobblestones with what looks like diarrhea, close enough that I hope I haven’t been hit. I follow the parade anyway, down under the Gros Horlodge, past strings of shoppers, past the Cathedral that Monet painted so repeatedly, down to a bridge over the Seine. Here, I’ve read, flowers will be thrown, echoing the ashes that were cast into the river so many centuries previously — on May 30, 1431.

I position myself with my camera and take some shots of children peering over the side of the bridge, waiting for the signal.

They throw their flowers all at once, and their roses float away, into the deep, wide, muddy waters of the Seine. They are more visible than ashes.

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