Who would have thought a boxcar in a tiny town would turn into a walk through antiquity for us? Waking up with the need to appreciate a little history, the three of us decided to head north of Paris to a small town called Compiégne, a forty-five minute train ride from Gare de Nord. Our plan was to see the famous boxcar, have a nice lunch, and take our time meandering through the village. What a perfect way to spend the day! As you know, while always an adventure, things don’t usually go as planned for the Thompsons…
Awhile back, I read about Compiégne, a town with roots in both World Wars, and had concocted an idyllic picture of a quaint little village with a boxcar in the middle. I say that just to share my ignorance, my mind piecing together the villages I’ve seen that dot France and Germany, taking one artifact and building the town around it. Living where both allied and axis have trod, I find this hunger to re-explore, to learn and to pay respect to the loss of life. I am grateful Wade, and by default, Liam, feel the same.
With a last minute snafu getting out of the house, we got to Gare de Nord with minutes to spare~only to find our train had been assigned a different track, of course in the opposite end of where we stood, catching our breath. Okay. We run like Mr. Magoo on speed, zipping in, out and around people as we wend our way to track 12. We made it with exactly ninety seconds to spare. Just under the “two minutes before departure” required to ride.
Ahh…on our way. We look at the countryside (not so pretty right outside the city), talk about what we plan to see, where we think we’ll get lunch, what we’ll do after this trip~and we are there. It was a very quick trip. We step down the steps, onto the platform and were shocked to see an old train cabin parked to the side. We went over to look, and it was one of the cars that deported people to their deaths at Auschwitz. Behind the train car, made of rusted iron and tempered wood once painted red, there is a memorial to those who went to their death on these tracks. In the general sense, we knew that people were packed in trains, probably from this area, certainly from all over, but we had no idea we would get off the train with excitement, where those seventy five years before stepped on, for no other reason than their faith.
We spent time at the memorial, then went to the front of the train station, ready to find the Marshal Foch train car, half expecting it to be around the corner or on a platform nearby. (Again, remember it is the Thompsons that are doing this trip.) Wade pulls the site up on his phone and sees that it is only 6.5 kilometers out of town. “We can walk.”
It was overcast, people bustling about doing their Saturday errands, life going on around us as we gather our inner and literal GPS and head out. Once the full map pulls up, we see there is the road that goes all through the town (yes, we are on the far end) and what looks like a highway (yes, looks were correct), a few round-abouts (only possible to traverse with an auto) and a small, winding road that goes through a forest. Following all that, we would be at the boxcar, which was actually in a museum. Despite the discouraging news about the route to get there, we are excited there is a museum, too.
Liam, who had been silently praying we would take a cab while voicing his concerns about traveling along a highway without a car, was disappointed when the Uber app said, “No cars available.” The buses don’t run outside the town. Too bad as they were free to ride! And as if he could conjure this up with his mind, a cab pulls into the parking lot of the train station. We practically ran over to grab it, told him where we wanted to go, and poured into the car before he could answer.
Seven miles and twenty Euro later, we are dropped off at the turn-about part of the highway, looking at a path through the forest. It reminded us of the coppice we used to play in growing up~trees of all sizes, every variation of the color green, and lots and lots (and even more) bugs and mosquitos!
Traversing the path, we come across the original tracks, one bringing Marshal Foch (Allied Commander), the other track opposite the plaza, Matthias Erzberger (German representative.) It was in Foch’s private office/dining car that the Armistice that lead to the end of World War I was signed. I know you know the Treaty of Versailles…this wasn’t it but a precursor to the actual treaty signed at Versailles.
The gardens of the small museum have many monuments to those who gave their lives in the Great War, and an artillery tank of the time. Just looking at that armory was a military lesson in itself!
Inside the museum, we finally saw the rail car. It is actually a reproduction, as Hitler wanted to use the same car to sign an armistice during World War II with France, annexing part (most) of France for the Third Reich. After signing, Hitler had it delivered to Berlin to be put on display~only to have it bombed, either by Hitler when it was clear the Third Reich was going down, or by Allied bombers. Either way, it was destroyed during WWII and the replica is what we visited.
After spending a couple hours in the museum, we rambled out to the drop off point at the road, hoping to find a cab, but eerily, we saw nothing. Nobody. Nada. Again, the Uber app said there were no cars available and the local cab company sent our call to a recording, asking us to leave a message. It was long after lunchtime, we were hungry and so we decided to start walking toward town and see if we could flag down a cab on the way. Right.
Liam was pinging, totally out of his comfort zone. We, being hungry and having to use the restroom, tried to make this a “fun little unexpected excursion”, but when someone has had their fill of fun (all three of us), nothing is exciting. Or fun. We were marching along the overgrown side of the road, lifting our knees up with each step, checking to see where it will land on the way down. While always glad to get a core workout in, this hike, if you will, was a bit ungainly. Here comes true Thompson style…off the beaten path, literally. It was very cool to think about history, with our troops marching through these same fields. We could imagine the enemy, hiding behind the clumps of trees. When we weren’t scared off the side of the road by a Lorrie or a sports car, our minds wandered to what life was like a hundred and two years ago, or even seventy four years ago. If only those trees could have talked. I certainly would have preferred listening to the trees than to Liam’s whining or my stomach growling.
When we came upon the second round-about, leading to the highway, we said a prayer and ran across during a break in traffic…only to stop once across in a fit of laughter! What had we gotten ourselves into? No cabs came by, no side grass to walk on, just highway and hills, and no village in sight. Forging on down the road, the random giggles breaking the tension, we finally see the edge of town. By the time we got into the town, everything had closed! No shops open, no markets open…just the laundromat and the kennel.
We walked through the town, hardly admiring its beauty with the whining and groaning, completely opposite of how I pictured out little outing just hours before. We traipsed along the river and came across a kabob shop across the bridge that had its door open. We poked our head in and ordered the first thing on the menu, only to be told he was closed. One glance at our pitiful faces, scratched up legs and tear stained cheeks made him change his mind to make the first thing on the menu if we took it away to eat. Deal!
With kebabs and Cokes in hand, we continued to the far edge of the village to our train station, where we sat huddled on a bench and ate. Away from the boxcar physically, but with food in our belies and our minds and humor returned, our imaginations roamed of the times before. During the first World War, how many houses were here? (Probably most.) During the second World War, how many left to fight? How many were deported? (Probably most.) After the second World War, how many houses were rebuilt and replaced (Probably most.) Emotions very sobering, very powerful, very palpable. The buses and a handful of taxis came in the parking lot around our bench, but this time we were consummately unaware, even for just a little while. Liam gave us a big hug and thanked us for the trip and we headed toward the tracks to meet our return train. We had time to visit the Memorial again, our hearts being able to offer just a little bit more.