Some five years ago, I banged the right foot onto the leg of my bed, the middle toe that is, which in its turn banged into the tissue of the little foot bones, this in a manner both seriously painful and devastatingly crippling. The result: post-traumatic dystrophy. Years later, walking and navigating that foot is still demanding full attention of its user.
That first year, though, I was walking with a stick, if walking is what it could be called – a golden one, bought in a hysterical fit of anger and defiance, to replace an old one which I inherited from an epileptic friend for yet another walking affliction.
Now and then, this Golden One is still a needful help, I’ve got it with me in the car boot all the time. Of great assistance, as far as wider movement is concerned, was the fact that, at the time, my car was equipped with automatic gears; the foot would not have stood the repetitive pedaling.
After being home-struck I finally went to La Roche again. Then I took a full six days of complete rest to prepare myself for a little trip. On my wife’s telephonic and epistolary advice I had decided to break through my solitary lethargy out there in la France profonde and make a trip to the town of La Rochelle, the one time citadel of the Calvinists in the fierce fight against their catholic King Louis XIII.
In religious wars I never take sides, though in general I prefer the more libertarian Roman faith over Calvin’s diabolical and theological terrorism. Of course, La Rochelle’s Huguenots supported William of Orange in The Netherlands. After a siege, La Rochelle gave up; in 1661 the Protestants were expelled from France.
As my own kingdom was but the moving cocoon of my car, I parked it right on the edge of the old harbour, on a site with a sign explicitly forbidding this. Thus, what I saw of the town that year where the impressive and massive harbour towers and the city’s front. I never entered La Rochelle.
From there, I drove back some fifty yards, parked the car in front of a restaurant, again right under a No Parking sign, and had lunch. The town, though had seemed attractive, yet it remained a forbidden Paradise.
Thus, one’s world becomes a small place, now reduced to the micro cosmos of a car, the roads travelled in it and of course that circle of some hundred yards in which to be a cripple in. In mind I still was a globetrotter, however now traveling an orb suddenly become full of infinite terrae incognitae.
In search for a smaller town with an even smaller hotel, I left my restaurant table. The idea was to return to La Roche the next morning. It took me quite awhile, driving away from the ocean, into the countryside again, happy go lucky, most of all unlucky as far as rooms were concerned. It was autumn and off-season; the hotels I tried that were still open were all filled to their brim with wrinkelies on pensionado tours.
While it was already getting dark, I entered a little town which – to my surprise – once again lay at the sea side. There was a small hotel called Le Galet Bleu with inside it one last room for me. I had just been driving on and on, not the slightest idea of where I was. After eating a sandwich on my bed I fell asleep.
The next morning I went down for breakfast. An elderly couple was still at their table, the other guests had already left, rather early. The wife was sitting with her back to me, so I was facing her husband who, from time to time, looked at me intently as if to make sure that I was, indeed, a foreigner.
Quite suddenly, he stood up, greeted me formally, perhaps even in a military manner as if I were an equal in his army. He then asked me: “Do you know where you are, Monsieur?” Vaguely remembering the card on my hotel table, I answered: ‘‘In Fougas, perhaps?” “But no, Monsieur. No! Not Fougas. You are in Fouras! And do you know, Monsieur, what it means to be in Fouras?” “Obviously, Monsieur, to be in Fouras!” An exchange that could have been prolonged indefinitely.
However, he was ready for his plot. I noticed his wife turning her neck into a whiplash in order to see the effect of his words on the face of this stranger. “Monsieur, you are in Fouras. Here, on its beach, for the very last time, Napoleon put his feet on French soil, that is before he was shipped to St. Helena!”
On my roadmap, brought with me to my breakfast table, I checked the lay of land and sea. There it was, Fouras: situated on a little peninsula dipping into the French Atlantic. On a clear day, from its beach you can see three islands, somewhat farther away the larger Île de Ré and the Île d’Oléron, up close the Île d’Aix. The small fishing village of Fouras grew somewhat larger thanks to it’s a railway connection, which turned it into a rather chique little summer resort.
Then, on the morning of the 12th of July A.D. 1815, the already dethroned and by then exiled former Emperor Napoleon was driven by coach to this beach. He stepped out of the vehicle and a few sturdy sailormen took the beaten Proletarian Prince on their shoulders, bearing the man over the waters towards the small barque awaiting him – a profane Christ carried by his sailor Christophers. No wet feet for this little man, to remind him of that sorry day.
Could it be that a little band, by way of a last farewell, was playing the mighty sounds of Mozart’s slow-moving Rex tremendae majestatis…?
How different was this raising of Napoleon from the way in which, all these years, he had been elevated and worshipped by his people. For the last time now, on the beach of Fouras, he felt France’s terra firma under his feet. From the beach those sailors paddled the sloop towards the Île d’Aix.
After the military man had told me the story, I decided not to leave Fouras immediately, but risk it. My golden stick in one hand, the Michelin hardcover guide under my other arm, I limped from the hotel onto the promenade, an abject word ever since that dystrophy had struck me.
It is still early, I am all alone. Leaning on the boulevard’s railing I peruse once more my atlas, and look out over the waters in the direction of the Île d’Aix, where – I know now – his ship had to wait for quite a while, because of lack of winds to sail upon.
Napoleon must have seen exactly what I am now observing and admiring. On the left, a crescent-shaped little beach, at the end of which a mighty fort is towering over the sea.
On my right, a steep rock formation rising into sky, sprinkled with nice looking houses. Both heights have an overpowering grandeur, yet one feels embraced by these two arms – and safe and pleasant.
Then, of a sudden, I am quite sure that one cannot leave Fouras without first having descended onto its beach. In slow motion I manage to tumble down the stairs and plow myself through the sand towards the sea’s edge.
By now, I have put in my earphones and am listening to that lofty Adagio from Mozart’s Gran Partita, a majestic accompaniment to both my own and the emperor’s come-down. This music also befits the salty sea smells and the cool morning’s sun, which is giving the yellowish sand a rosy glow.
I cannot find Napoleon’s footprint. Instead, while listening to that sad and sublime music, my silly stick-supported gait having led me towards the water, has left its three-partite trace in the sand, as if some strange bird strayed from its habitat and has been following me.
Is it then given only to emperors to have their bearers? What this invalid would not have given for a few strong men to carry him, if not into the sea, then simply just towards it! Now I decide to take of the shoe from the injured foot and dip it into the cool ocean. Could it be that one of these billion HO2 molecules, now touching my toe, once stroked His feet?
I should have changed the music on my sound machine. What was needed here was the Marche Funèbre of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. The composer dedicated his composition to the Revolutionary General Napoleon, however later to scratch out his name, angry as he was because he had heard that Napoleon had crowned himself an Emperor.
Out there, in the sea breeze, once more I was well aware of being a Dutchman: O, Thalatta! I couldn’t do without it. Back in The Netherlands, I walk the beach once weekly. The contrast between La Roche in France’s interior and this Fouras on the sea that very moment was enormous. Out there that year, after a tropical summer it had become a dust bowl; here, however, were the vast waters of the ocean. Living out there, for some six months, is a solitary pleasure, I am always feeling that intense longing for a sea manqué.
By the way, the reason for this rather hysterical extravagance in Fouras was not some megalomaniac identification with the Great Man. On the contrary, my nature is more one of the anarchist.
However, one who has read his Hegel will never forget that great passage – methinks in the Phenomenology of Mind – where the philosopher describes himself as sitting at his desk in Jena, looking up from his writing and down into the street, then suddenly observing Napoleon who was riding by under his window:
I saw History on horseback…
These words I had been thinking of on that day.
Now – five years since this first visit to Fouras – with a foot that is more or less functioning, no stick needed any longer, I decided to revisit the little town. The evening of my arrival, a storm was blowing in from the Atlantic. Again autumn, the tourist season ended, there was not all that much light left on the boulevard.
Having succeeded in taking this night picture to document my gale, I now decided to also try and make a picture of the lighthouse on the Île d’Aix, seen out there at sea. I must have made at least a dozen failed shots. Finally: Got you!
Right in the middle of this bluish darkness you can see it, perhaps the beam of a lighthouse already functioning during the days Napoleon had been waiting to sail for St. Helena.
The next morning, once again after breakfast, I went down to the beach and walked towards the seaside. Lo and behold! There, rather deep inside the sand, was still His footprint. His last footprint, left there just before the sailors carried him to his sloop.
And surprise again: My size! The shoe fits as if the print was made by it.
Never despair of miracles. You only have to be patient and just wait for five years…
Sierksma Fouras/La Roche, Autumn 2017