by Tyler Levine from Toronto, ON
Recently my fiancee Lynsay and I went on a vacation to France and took the opportunity to visit the beaches of Normandy. Our destination was the city of Dieppe and the Canadian World War Two Cemetery. Neither Lynsay nor I lost any family there, in fact between the two of us, only Lyndsay’s grandfathers Owen and Thomas had fought and lived through World War Two. We’re pretty fortunate and we know it, which is part of why we felt compelled to visit the cemetery that day.
We drove into the seaside town and towards the water, expecting the scene of the great military landing to be the logical location for the burial ground. And, sure enough, as we reached the sea and parked the car and walked up to the rock filled beaches, in only a few minutes of walking around, we spotted a Canadian Flag. A lump formed in my throat. “Here we are,” I announced. Unfortunately, what we had found was a seaside Casino with an international set of flags. Where is this world famous cemetery, we thought?
Dieppe is a factory town and most of the people are pretty intimidating for an English speaking couple from downtown Toronto to approach. But, in our best and admittedly rusty Canadian French we inquired about the whereabouts of the cemetery, “ou est le cimetiere des Canadians?” Much to our dismay, none of the locals seemed to know, pointing away from the water and saying something about a nearby town.
Back in the car, we drove around Dieppe for over two hours, growing increasingly more frustrated with each dead end.
Finally, in the middle of a round-about, we spotted a small green sign which pointed us in the right direction. The signs lead us out of the actual city of Dieppe into a farming community some miles away. And there, in amongst roaming fields filled with thick, fragrant Poppies, lay a small cemetery with a simple stone arch entrance. We parked at the end of dead end country road and walked inside the cemetery.
We were there alone, in front of row upon row of rectangular ivory white monuments – each perfectly straight as the men had once stood in formation. The grass was trimmed no more than a few hours ago, and the grounds smelled of moist greenery. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. At each grave there was a flower, laid with military precision and yet the decoration was so sublime and fair, you’d think the invisible groundskeeper had spent time in art school.
As we examined each gravestone, Lynsay remarked about the large number of the deceased hailing from her hometown of Hamilton, that most of the men were really just boys and that most of the deaths took place over a three day period. There must be a thousand young men buried here.
My thoughts were abruptly interrupted by the sound of a woman yelling in French and honking her car horn. I walked to the entrance to find a rugged, middle-aged local woman waving something in her hand.
As it happens, I must have been so excited to finally find the cemetery, that when I exited my car I had dropped, in the middle of the road, my brown leather dossier containing both of our passports and all of our money for our trip – about eight hundred euros. The French woman was honking her horn so she could return my case.
As the woman made a hasty retreat to her beat up, twenty year old Peugeot, I called out, “thank you, thank you, Merci.” She shook her head, look at me in the eye – and then at the graveyard and said “Non, non, merci.” She was pointing at me.
It took me a moment to realize what she was trying to say.
After she left, I examined the dossier and saw that the case had been opened, but not a penny or passport was missing. She had in fact seen that we were Canadian and although I’m sure that money could have solved a whole bunch of her problems, she felt compelled to return it.
So, as we discovered, the people of Dieppe haven’t forgotten what some very brave Canadians did, so long ago – they just chose simple gestures of kindness to express their gratitude.