Brussels to Paris

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Brussels to Paris

Nivelles  The town lies just off the highway to the east. It used to be the seat of a wealthy and important abbey founded by St. Gertrude. In time, the abbey became a showcase of splendor, some of it spilling over into the town. Painters, musicians, and troubadours enjoyed the abbey's patronage. German air raids in 1940 destroyed some of the town's Gothic structures, but the main part of the abbey was spared.

Mons  Just north of Mons (possibly visible from the highway) is a large complex of buildings housing SHAPE, "Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe." The organization is a carryover from World War II, and now functions as an auxiliary to NATO. SHAPE and NATO used to be in France, but De Gaulle's eviction order in 1966 forced a rapid resettlement near Mons, just over the French border. A large community of Americans and British lives at SHAPE headquarters. Many of the town's schoolchildren attend free English classes under SHAPE auspices. There's close contact and hospitality between SHAPE personnel and the local townspeople, making for a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Historical note. The great English General Marlborough, distant ancestor of Winston Churchill, led the army which liberated Mons from the French in 1709.

(COURIER: There's not much to say from here to Paris, as no cities of note go by the window. Give your introduction to France after crossing the French border, then use the following notes along the way to Paris.)

The Northern Provinces of France  This northern part of France forms a perfect triangle, stretching from Paris at its base to Dunkerque at its northern tip. Be on the lookout for old canals and roads, a reminder that the great trade routes between London and Paris once passed through them. Note signs of both industrial and farming activity: smokestacks and haystacks, silos and slag heaps. Although this is coal-mining country, the towns are some of the cleanest in France. Its people are some of the liveliest, with pageants, county fairs, and saint's day festivals to break the workaday monotony.

Battlefields of World War I (COURIER: Watch for the River Somme, which the Autoroute crosses, and which is an appropriate place to introduce this topic.) If you see anything weird or misshapen about the landscape, it's no accident. These are the fields in which some of the most savage battles of World War I were fought. The River Somme, for example, ran red with the blood of 160,000 Allied soldiers who fell in one engagement alone. (There are British cemeteries in the area, the graves neatly lettered in English.) Some of the trenches are still there, only partly filled in and overgrown.

Trench warfare: This type of fighting was unique in military history. It was a transition between the genteel, stylized battles of classical times and the unlimited, anything-goes technique of modern warfare. The land around the Somme was flat, and lent itself to trench warfare (since nature provided no protection, the soldiers had to dig for it). Combat was no longer a matter of continuous, push-forward campaigning, where progress was measured by the number of enemy towns and forts taken. It was rather a series of daily skirmishes, often erratic and spontaneous.

A typical scenario: We're familiar with these skirmishes from classic war films like "All Quiet on the Western Front." The field commander is the first one out of the trenches, waving his revolver at the enemy lines, blowing his whistle to trigger the assault. A long thin wave of infantrymen surges out of the trenches, swarming over the fields of no-man's-land. Minutes later, the enemy's artillery barrage begins, gouging huge craters out of the land. Here and there the attackers come upon the wall of a former farmhouse, or a bloated ox carcass lying upside down with its legs pointing stiffly upwards. Then they reach the enemy's barbed wire -- and the climax of the attack. Enemy fire is close, sometimes point blank. The attackers see the faces of their opponents for the first time. But the intensity of fire has ripped the heart out of the attack. Hundreds of the fallen dangle on the barbed wire. The attackers retreat back to their lines. Some of them make it. By nightfall, all is still: a single rifle shot here and there, then silence. Another day on the battlefield, another incident logged in command headquarters.

Compiegne  This town lies off the highway a few miles to the east. It provides more war reminders. The famous railroad car where the Germans surrendered to the Allies in 1918 is preserved in the town. In this same railroad car, in 1940, Hitler accepted the capitulation of France, and he chose the same car out of pure revenge. After the surrender, Hitler danced a jig for joy -- an incident captured in a famous photograph.

Charles de Gaulle Airport  The woods that appear around Senlis are historic, and once were the home of Frankish tribes. Outside Paris to the north is the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Its futuristic features include curbside check-in, a shopping center of duty-free stores, and a phalanx of crisscrossing escalators that take you from one floor to the other.

Into Paris: The industrial suburbs of the city whisk by, a reminder that the city/suburb arrangement in Europe is the exact opposite as in the U.S.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Paris.)

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