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The path to the grave

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How my simple plan to visit the Canadian War Cemetery in Dieppe became an epic quest

On August 19, 1942, an Allied force of roughly 4,000, largely composed of Canadians, stormed the beaches of the small French town of Dieppe. Their objective was to hold a beachhead in what was largely thought of as an experiment for D-Day, to come almost two years later. The results were disastrous; more than one-quarter of the landing force was killed, and the Allies evacuated little more than 10 hours after their attack began. On May 8, 2004, I stormed the train station of the small French town of Dieppe. My objective was the Canadian War Cemetery, a memorial to those who perished on that August day 62 years ago. I would meet with similar success. The day started simply enough. After debarking from the train and picking up a basic map of Dieppe, I decided it would be best to drop off my backpack at the hostel where I would be staying first, then see about the memorial. Luckily, the map said—seemingly, anyway—that the hostel was a few mere blocks from the train station. Twenty minutes and a greater appreciation for Dieppe’s vast and confusing industrial sector later, I decided the map was probably wrong and started the trek across town to the tourist office. This plan would have worked too, if the tourist office did not follow the French rule of service, which goes roughly thus: if you manage an establishment that could conceivably be needed at any time between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., you must randomly close said business for several hours at time, with no indication as to when you will reopen, if at all. My attempts at finding a better map foiled, possibly forever, I walked over to the nearest hotel to ask for directions. Here I met a man who, while rather unimpressed by my backpack-and-jeans look, did speak English and was kind enough to answer my questions. “I’m looking for the Canadian War Memorial—do you know where I can find it?” I asked hopefully. “Ah, oui. The memorials are all up and down the beach.” Why, the beach! The beach is right outside the door! My heart rises. “You are Canadian?” he asks. “Yes,” I respond, preparing to accept his thanks for liberating his fair town. “The cimetière du Canada is outside town, several kilometres.” He wasn’t smiling. As it turns out, the Canadian cemetery is in Dieppe much the same way Elk Island National park is in Edmonton: it isn’t. It’s roughly five kilometres to the southeast of the city centre, and far removed from the beach. “Don’t worry,” my new friend added when he noticed the glazed-over look in my eye. “There is a bus. It leaves from the tourist office.” “The tourist office is closed,” I pointed out helpfully. “It will reopen in about a half-hour,” he replied, checking his watch. A half-hour later, the lights of the tourist office were still dark. At this point it should also be pointed out that the weather report for Dieppe stated that the day would be mostly sunny and 14 degrees. The French weather service and I have several philosophical differences, not the least of which is what constitutes “mostly sunny” and what constitutes “14 degrees.” After another 20 minutes in the rain and balmy seven-degree weather, the doors were mercifully unlocked. Once out of the rain, I decided that since it was only a short bus ride away, I’d see the memorial first, then find the hostel to dispose of my backpack. Maybe later, dancing. After grabbing several maps from the information stands in the interest of cross-referencing, I headed over to the desk to ask about the dry, warm bus to the cemetery. “Hello, I’m from Canada and I’m here to see the Canadian War Memorial,” I said cheerfully. “Pardon?” replied the elderly lady behind the counter. Her English was roughly as adept as my French, but through a series of hand signals, pointing to my luggage tag to indicate my nationality, and the odd word in each other’s language, we managed to reach the consensus that I was looking for the Canadian War Cemetery outside of town. Once we had this figured out, she took a map from me and, after checking her own reference, circled a spot near the edge of the map. “Le cimetière is there,” she said, and proceeded to map out the roads I would need to take to get there. “You have car, oui?” “No,” I said. “Feet,” making walking motions with my fingers. “You have long walk,” she said with a smile. “Bus?” I asked, making driving motions, all hope rapidly disappearing. “Non. Non, today,” she said with a mock frown before smiling again. I resisted the urge to slit her throat with the map. Murderous desires aside, I decided that since I now faced a five-kilometre walk, it would be best to drop off my increasingly burdensome backpack at the hostel. Given my previous luck, I figured it would be best to ask for directions. “L’auberge de jeunesse?” I asked, looking for the hostel in what I could only assume was horribly accented French and holding out the map with a piteous look. “Ah, oui.” She again checked her reference and drew a circle on the map. In what could be considered a stroke of luck, it was on the way to the Memorial—about two and a half kilometres from the tourist office where I stood, but nonetheless on the way. Steeling myself for the journey ahead, I once again headed off into the cold rain, which since my visit to the tourist office had been joined by a stiff wind. The wind rendered my sighs inaudible. Some time later, I arrived at the spot where the informatrix had circled as the youth hostel. Not needing my tires rotated, I didn’t stay at the gas station that occupied the spot, but after checking the maps I had with me I discovered that she wasn’t that far off: a block over and I would be sans bag, changed into dryer clothes and rested enough to finish what was rapidly becoming a quest. But that would be forgetting what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men: as I walked up to the gate I was met by one big stone in my path: across the gate, in large, bold letters, the word “Fermé.” It turns out this particular hostel doesn’t open until May 20; tourists in Dieppe are apparently somewhat scarce. Here, then, I was faced with a choice: head back to the town and find a hotel, where I could drop off my backpack and possibly hang myself with the shower curtain, or soldier on, pack and all, the last two and a half kilometres to my Mecca. Knowing full well at this point that if I stopped I might not start again, on I went. I found my way back to the main road and continued towards the cemetery. The closer I got to my goal, the more I realized that the lovely old lady at the information desk failed to mention that at this point one is not so much strolling down the sidewalk as one is trudging down the side of a highway. Slogging my way through wet, calf-high grass, I began to wish the Allies had stormed somewhere like, say, Marseilles, then installed an above-average public transportation system. A little way down the highway, a sign jutted out high above the grass: “Canadian Military Cemetery: 300m.” Taking the little side road it pointed to, I saw another sign marking my impending arrival. A little farther, and a granite fence and cross signaled the end of my journey. Walking between the headstones of the fallen, some honoured by poppies, others by shrubberies, another with a set of fresh flowers laid at its feet, the clouds finally broke and for a few minutes the sun rested on the small corner of the field where the memorial stands. Though the rain had since stopped, my eyes remained moist through my entire visit. The pain in my legs had nothing to do with it. V

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