The ancient preserved structures in Europe are so abundant that they are almost easy to take for granted. “Another Gothic church from the 13th century …. another Roman ruin from the 1st century … another rock pile from 2,000 B.C. …”
Last weekend I stayed in a hotel in the Champagne region of France that dates its structural foundation to the 1100s. This past weekend I stayed in a former Welsh country home that was built starting in the 1500s. But sleeping somewhere old and beautiful wasn’t the highlight of either weekend. For two weekends in a row, quite unexpectedly, I experienced living history that was more interesting than the sum of all the castles and palaces I’ve visited. These people we met connected us to VE Day 67 years later after the fact. I’ve heard called them history bridges. In fact, they are living links to the past.
During our trip to Champagne, we visited the off-the-beaten-path cellars of Drappier. Our tour concluded with a tasting and two flutes into it, the patriarch of the Drappier family, Andre, joined our small group. His visit was unexpected to us, and even the staff seemed surprised, but we made room for him and were delighted with his first-hand accounts of his former neighbor and frequent customer, Charles de Gaulle. The champagne house sells a brut created to CDG’s taste preferences. So there we sat, discussing the upcoming French election and whether the voters would choose the Socialist candidate while drinking Drappier Cuvee Charles de Gaulle Brut. Our friend translated Monsieur Drappier’s observation that “Sarkozy is drinking more water than champagne these days.” Surreal.
Little did I know, our history lesson wasn’t complete. On our way back from Wales this weekend, we stopped in Milton Keynes to visit Bletchley Park, home of the famous World War II code breakers. I was a reluctant visitor; Nick’s enthusiasm overcompensated. In the end, I was the one who didn’t want to leave because we met a woman who spent the war years working in complete secret on an effort that helped end the war two years early. Chosen for her ability to reach the top rows – only the tall girls who were at least 5’4″ qualified – she set the dials and ran the machines that unlocked the German battlefield and maritime messages.
Looking these history bridges in the eye, hearing their personal accounts of familiar stories, and thanking them for rising to the challenges of the day so our freedoms could be preserved – that’s better than a pile of ancient Egyptian wine jugs.
Be sure to wish a happy VE Day to the history bridges in your life who breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated on the streets nearly 70 years ago today.