Great Navigational Errors: Episode 1 –  France

Have you ever read a map incorrectly, taken a wrong turn, swerved off a highway exit too soon, ending up somewhere you were not supposed to be?

I bet you have.

Allow me to share some stories of astoundingly bad navigation.

Episode one takes place in 2006, the hottest summer ever in France, driving north from Toulouse in the south, to visit a famous monastery called Solemnes somewhere vaguely north of Chartres, to hear some monks sing Gregorian chant so beautifully that it will transport us to some heavenly place.

I’m travelling with two friends. The scruffy Swedish driver doesn’t know it, but within a few years he will no longer be plying his trade as a cabinetmaker. He will become a Priest. The other friend, recently downsized from her executive job and looking for adventure, sits in front with the map, because she gets a bit carsick. And me – I’m in the back seat of that tiny tin-can-of-a-Honda, with absolutely no frills –no air-conditioning, no GPS, no smart phone, no radio. It’s tiny, it’s hot, and it’s gonna get operatic.

We spend several pleasant hours driving, singing car songs, cooking up strong French coffee in a copper contraption in the trunk of the car, devouring raw French cheese and smoky sausage, watching the signs go by, pointing out all the local attractions we could be sampling, but never, ever stopping, since we are resolved to reach our goal – the famous monastery where we will hear heavenly voices, come hell or high water!

Such a very long, steaming hot journey could be a real test for the strongest of friendships. For the three of us, it was nearly terminal.

Soon our spirits take a downward turn. The car songs cease. The highway becomes a relentless black serpent of asphalt. We come to the hard realization that we are lost. After many cramped, sweaty, hungry, impatient hours on the road, tempers run a bit short up there in the front seat, and we end up navigating in endless circles around Rouen.

A slim beam of light shines on this dark scene. We decamp in Rouen, a fabulous old town with a late night son et lumière show on the cathedral façade; the magnificent church, bombed to shreds in the War, now lovingly restored. We walk the twilight cobbled streets and see the very place of Saint Joan’s martyrdom. I shall never, ever forget that night.

But the next day, we take a bad turn. Again.

Because of really poor planning, or actually no planning at all, we end up in totally the wrong country before realizing our huge navigational error. Eventually we must humble ourselves, admit our mistake, turn around, and drive back south toward the real Solemnes, which is closer to Le Mans than Antwerp.

As the sun begins to set, we decide to pull into the ancient town of Cambrai. While my friends “work things out” over a pint of Stella, I sneak away to the cathedral. I feel as if I will discover something totally awesome there. The darkened church is just about to close for the day, but I manage to slip through the tall wooden doors and walk softly across the cold, stone floor.

And there it is – a perpetual memorial to a timeless musical hero. In the wrong place, in the wrong time, I stumble upon the epitaph of a musical giant – Guillaume Dufay’s grave in Cambrai cathedral. It is very cool – extrêmement cool – and I shall never, ever forget that.

We made it to Solemnes eventually. And we heard the beautiful singing. But as usual, the journey (as weird, frustrating, hot and trying as it was) makes for a better yarn than the actual arrival.

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5 Responses to Great Navigational Errors: Episode 1

  1. Mary Gillmeister says:

    I just checked my travel journal. The hotel in Cambrai was fantastic, we had the suite, 2 rooms and a bathroom! Is that also where we got the Vin du Pays, Pensez Y glasses? I seem to remember someone wanted to drive all night and sleep in the car. I am glad we vetoed that option….

    It is an hilarious memory nonetheless. Thanks for the memories! I’m sure you will be allowed to stop as often as you like when you go back this summer. :)

  2. Stephanie Martin says:

    Good for you for keeping a journal. It was a very serpentine route from A to B – glad we can now look back and laugh!

  3. Renée says:

    This is an exciting narration. I felt like I was with you, in fast.forward mode, all of the long, hot!, way. The punch line — and when a big tear thrusted from inside my head to the front of each eye — was when you told us ” . . . the epitaph of a musical giant – Guillaume Dufay’s grave in Cambrai cathedral.” “. . . a timeless musical hero”. What a moment to [as you say literally-] stumble!, on that memorial spot so fortuitously. Of course! you “shall never, ever forget that.”
    I love this magical thing, serendipity.

    Was Mary with you? (I infer so, from her comment, above.)
    Was this — but I think not — the time that your Apple, in its crush-proof case, tumbled from the back of your jaloppy?

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Ah, Renee, as usual you have touched it with a needle. Yes Mary was with me on that ill- fated journey. But it was years later, in 2011 near Toulouse, that my Mac laptop computer fell out of the back hatch of a rental car onto the asphalt in front of oncoming traffic. It was the brave, wise, super-athletic Heroine, Rosemary Thackray who leapt from the back seat into oncoming traffic to rescue my computer. My whole life was on that little hunk of metal, so I guess I owe her a pretty huge debt. But that’s a story for another blog. Can’t wait to see you in Worcester R.!

      • Mary Gillmeister says:

        Rosemary saves the day, well done.

        But on that previous journey there was surely an incident with a car reversed over some … eyeglasses and other sundries in Paris? I’m definitely sensing a pattern here….

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