We are just back from an island on the French Atlantic coast where we were recuperating from our dark English winter. Despite the occasional rain, we managed a long walk on the dunes or in the forest fringing the beaches every day, which worked its magic.
Oleron today attracts tourists, but the marks – and scars – of its history are evident. Napoleonic forts dot the coast both onshore and offshore. We stumbled on a huge Napoleonic edifice hidden in the coastal woods that had bars on all the windows and doors and was eerily unmarked except for a tattered sign warning “private: no entrance.” Our first thought was that it was an alternative Guantanamo, but there were no guards, and the people living on the island could not – or would not – tell us anything about it.
Although the island is developed now, I was struck by how much history was evident not only in the buildings but in the people themselves. The faces of those old enough to have lived through the two World Wars there were stamped with the mark of stubborn survival. Most of the older people were as much as a foot shorter on average than the next generation, due almost certainly not to genetics but to nutritional deficits.
I remember seeing the same thing in Javea, the small elegant fishing village where we lived in Spain for ten years. The older women, all widows, relentlessly wore black, and they had that same look as the older people still living in Oleron. Spaniards were living with the legacy not so much of the world wars as of their own civil war between the Fascists and Communists. In the town center the market hall faced the church. Both were pocked marked with bullet holes, the legacy of the two opposing factions shooting at each other. On the third side, a town house was perpetually shuddered and locked in remembrance of the family who had been marched from there to the high cliff outside of town and given the option of jumping into the sea below or being shot. Either way, their bodies were washed up on the coast wherever the waters finally left them.
As outsiders, we lived there for years not knowing why the locals avoided that cliff with its stunning outlook. Or that the mansion up there had belonged to Franco, which was why it was being steadily vandalized. Or why the Guardia showed up each summer stationed outside the summer home of the man we learned had been Franco’s doctor.
I was going to say that Oleron is rather like a cross between Cape Cod and Myrtle Beach with their fishing shacks and restaurants and long sandy beaches. But Cape Cod and Myrtle Beach weren’t in the wars.
Not like Oleron.