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I met Alison Banks in 1994, when I participated in a teacher exchange between Alaska and East Sussex, England, educators. On each of our eight visits with Alison and her husband, Laurence, we spent some of our time together at their holiday home, Ma Cagna, in the Calais region of France.
My last visit to Ma Cagna, which means "my labor of love," was in April of this year.
On July 7, Alison and Laurence were in France signing the final paperwork for the sale of Ma Cagna. If Alison had gone to Westminster to interview staff for her new school, as originally scheduled, she would have likely been at the Edgware train station at 8:57 a.m. when one of the bombs exploded in the London subway system. The sale of Ma Cagna probably saved her life.
The miracle of hearing her voice on the telephone that day brought back a rush of memories of the past 11 years. I met Alison, who is a headmistress, at her school in East Sussex in mid-afternoon of June 24, 1994, and four hours later the four of us were on the road to Dover to take the ferry to Calais during a lightning storm.
We spent the weekend at Ma Cagna. We drove to St.-Omer where we visited the Basilique Notre Dame and the town museum, had lunch and shopped at a gigantic super market. In the evening, we had a seven-course dinner at an inn on the canal near Ma Cagna.
In 1998, we spent Christmas in England and the New Year of 1999 in France. We took Le Shuttle (the Chunnel) to Calais. The next day, we drove to Boulogne-Ser-Mer where we poked into antique shops, walked the old city walls, and toured the sanctuary and crypt of the centuries old Basilique Notre Dame. According to the caretaker, the ghost in the crypt was on Christmas holiday.
We visited the city of Ypres, Belgium, that was totally destroyed during World War I. After the war, the people rebuilt the city to look just like it did before the war. We toured the In Flanders Fields Museum and walked to the Menen Gate that lists the names of the 100,000 British Empire soldiers that died at the Ypres salient. The museum and the gate evoke the same emotions as the Vietnam wall in Washington, D.C.
We celebrated New Year's Eve with an eight-course dinner at the Chateau Tilque. The restaurant and guests were elegant. Therefore, we were not prepared for the "warfare" of small papier-mache balls "shot" from cardboard tube merrymakers. The dinner was wonderful and the dance band good.
When we returned from the chateau, Alison's sister and her three friends had arrived from England. We joined hands and sang "Auld Lang Syne" and toasted the New Year of 1999. At 10 the next morning, we toasted the New Year again with our morning tea. It was midnight in Alaska.
New Year's Day we visited two towns. The resort town of Le Touquet is a beautiful town set in a pine forest on the English-French Channel. Montreuil-Sur-Mer is one of the settings for Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. We visited the battlefield of Agincourt where Henry V of England defeated the French army. The next day, we fell in love with Bruges, Belgium, and saw for the first time Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child."
In 2001, Alison and I spent five days at Ma Cagna. One day, we drove three hours to and from Rouen. The Eglise Jeanne d' Arc (Joan of Arc Church) was built where Joan was burned to death in 1431. The church is of modern design. The 16th century stained glass windows were taken from the former Eglise St.-Vincent, which was destroyed in 1944. Claude Monet painted Rouen's Cathedrale Notre Dame in different lights.
In 2002, we flew from Denmark to Brussels, where Alison and Laurence met us. The next day, we celebrated Laurence's birthday by driving to the 10th century town of Aire sur la Lys (which means "resting place of the lilies") where we visited two churches, one with magnificent frescos and chapels that remain damaged from World War II bombing. We had Laurence's "anniversary of birth" at a country inn that served rustica meals; diners ate multi-courses of whatever the chef had prepared for the day.
The next day, we drove to the Blockhouse d' Eperlecques that the Germans built during World War II as a launch base for the V2 ballistic rockets and as a factory for the production of liquid oxygen. The Germans used French slave labor and concentration camp prisoners to build the mammoth, concrete blockhouse. The liquid oxygen was not produced and the rockets were not launched because in one day the Allies dropped more than 300 bombs on the bunker. Unfortunately, many of the slave laborers and concentration prisoners were killed.
We also spent four days in the Loire Valley. (See Juneau Empire, June 7, 2005.)
Last year, Alison and Laurence took us on a nature walk that turned out to be much more than a nature walk. We were surprised to see World War II German gun emplacements. The Germans expected the invasion to land in the Calais region, not Normandy. Scarecrow-like sculptures assembled from debris that had washed up on the beach made a strong statement about pollution.
The next day, we took the train to Lille. We explored the Citadelle, the Old Town, and a huge cathedral that was partially new with beautiful old and new stained glass windows, mosaics and decorative murals. The modern entrance was blocked off because the massive faade and doors were unsafe because of a design flaw.
Last year and this year, my husband, Don, and I drove to the nearby village of Ruminghem to see the Chinese Cemetery. The 72 white headstones are inscribed with Chinese characters and in English. One headstone reads: "Faithful unto Death. No. 16134. Chinese Labour Corps. Died Apr. 25th 1919." The Chinese laborers had mine detection duty.
This spring, Alison and Laurence again picked us up in Bruges, and on our way to Ma Cagna we stopped at the old walled city of Bergues, France. We walked the walls for more than an hour and did not complete the circuit. Beyond the main wall are more walls, gates, tunnels and canals.
The next day, we found the Chateau Olhain, a small 13th-century fortress that is now used as a farm, which was its original purpose. Defenders and armies have used Chateau Olhain from the 1200s through World War I. Many soldiers of different eras and nationalities, including Canadian, have carved their names along the 100 stairs that spiral up to the top of the watch tower.
From Olhain we drove to the city of Arras. We visited the massive 18th century cathedral of Arras that looked and felt more like a government building than a church. A small, carved wood crucifix had recently been returned to the cathedral by the family of a World War I English soldier who found the crucifix in the bombed out cathedral.
This northeastern region of France is not a tourist destination. Nevertheless, the Calais region has many incredible eating experiences, pleasant villages and cities, and significant historic sites. Ma Cagna was a labor of love for Alison and Laurence. The sale of Ma Cagna probably saved Alison's life.