Sunday, March 4, 2012

Strategically Important Port City

I wrote the first take on this a few days ago, and it got swallowed up
by a computer malfunction. (You're probably seeing a pattern by now.
My computer actually doesn't crash as often as it might seem, but when
it does, it pretty much always takes something unsaved down with it.)
Take two.

I've written before about how for me, and I think for many, if not
most, Americans, one of the big things about Europe is the constant
proximity to the past.

I've actually had to try to explain to students before that just
because American history is shorter doesn't mean it's somehow
inherently less interesting, but that's beside the point.*

The point is, the depth of history here is something it's actually
possible to lose sight of in Brest. I'm always thinking about how
almost everything around me is so very recent, but I don't always
really THINK about it. If that makes sense. What I'm trying to say is
that if I'm not actively thinking about it, I don't notice. It doesn't
strike me as odd. I walk downtown to marvel at the castle, the old
fortification walls, the Maison de la Fontaine, the eighteenth-century
church across the river, but it doesn't always register that those
things should not seem so unique and exciting at this point in my
stay. A glimpse of old stone walls or crooked doorframes should not be
enough to draw me out of my path, but it is. And I suppose, coming
from where I do, that's not that surprising, but now that I live in
France, it is. There should be more than a handful of
things-that-might-be-old scattered throughout this city. I should be
surrounded by them. Buildings older than my entire country should be

So anytime I leave Brest, I'm suddenly reminded of what everywhere
else in France looks like. And I become that awkward girl with the
camera taking dozens of pictures of everything in sight, even things
that must be totally mundane to people who live there, because they're
still super exciting to me.

When you tell people outside of Brest that you live in Brest, they
become sympathetic, even pitying. "Oh, well," they say apologetically.
"It was destroyed in the war, you know."

Yes, we know. It's the first thing most of us learned about Brest. It
had the crap bombed out of it--something like 80% of the city was
flattened. Tons of civilians died, and most of the rest were
presumably made homeless. It was the Allies that did it.

And that's why we don't have nice things.

And that brings me to another place where I think being American skews
my perspective.

With the notable exception of Hawaii, the United States has for the
most part been comfortably far removed from modern war. We ship our
soldiers elsewhere to do the fighting. Nowadays, most of the country
goes about its daily business while barely noticing what's happening
in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it was different in the World Wars; I
don't believe things were so easy on the homefront then. But it also
wasn't Europe. We have landscapes dotted with battlefields, and we
have our fair share of historic monuments that no longer stand because
they were burned or otherwise destroyed by war--but these things
happened many, many years ago, long out of living memory.
Twentieth-century wars happened far away, too far away to pose an
immediate threat to Americans at home, and life in the U.S. could
return to normal relatively quickly after the treaties were signed. We
are not surrounded by physical reminders, and I think we do not always
realize that other places were not so lucky.

Here? It's inescapable. I live now in a city that is not only marked
by war, but totally altered. Hardly anything is left from before
besides those things I've mentioned. One of the few pre-WWII houses
still standing is near my neighborhood, and is marked by a plaque
claiming it as the home of a member of the French Resistance. The
"American Monument" overlooking the port, a memorial to the American
and French forces of WWI, bears a plaque explaining that it is a
reproduction of the original monument destroyed in the Battle for
Brest in WWII. Meanwhile, I walk every day down streets that less than
seventy years ago were nothing but rubble and blood. Streets where at
least one of my great-uncles once walked in uniform and robbed the
corpse of a dead German soldier or two.

Even outside of Brest, it's inescapable. The coast, to the west and
the south, is lined with fortifications protecting the harbor. Some of
them date to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and were later
altered and used by the Nazis. But these are outnumbered by the
crumbling remains of twentieth century bunkers, piles of broken
concrete and twisted metal and man-made burrows now littered with
empty bottles and covered in graffiti. They are everywhere, and they
are unmistakable. They are as unavoidable and as ugly as war itself.

It's very sad, to see the landscape marred like this and to think
about why. And it's very strange to me, having never had to think
about what it must be like to live always in the shadow of WWII. It's
easy to see why it's still such a sensitive subject for so many in
Europe. Even if you were to ignore the changes in government policies
and social attitudes that still linger today, the physical traces of
war are still everywhere. "Out of sight, out of mind" is something of
a luxury, if you think about it.

Brest doesn't look damaged today. That much is out of sight. It just
looks new. But when you remember WHY it's new--then it becomes tragic.

* I am of course referring here just to the history of Europeans in
America, i.e. written history.

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