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The International Writers Magazine: France

In Search of Joanie
Pat Hood-Miller
A serious trek into the life of Jeanne d’Arc with love and affection

I am back in France with my husband to continue his research of his favorite heroine, Jeanne d’Arc (or Joanie, as we affectionately call her).  A French descendent and dedicated Francophile, Warren needs at least an annual trek, so this year we’re here to tour the region of Lorraine where Joan was born, and where her story began. 

His fascination with Jeanne d’Arc centers on the incredulous nature of her story. A teenage girl, who could neither read nor write, during a time when females were not in leadership positions, could actually get highly placed authorities to listen to her, could rally a nation, and could lead men into battle, with no experience at all.  Was she chosen by God, as many believe, or did she suffer from a mental disorder?  No matter, she was a real person and a true heroine, especially to her beloved France.

      We’re in our rental car headed for a bed and breakfast in Coussey, next to Domremy La Purcelle, where Jeanne d’Arc’s childhood home still stands. During the three-hour drive from Paris, he drives, I navigate.  We love the view of rolling hills, various row patterns of the farmland, clusters of red-roofed villages, clumps of forests, and a chateau here and there.   The French highway system that is similar to our Interstate is called the Autoroute, and like ours has gas-mini-mart stops.  I always look forward to what I call “French freeway food.”  My favorite purchase is a personal size clear plastic tote packed with a large gourmet sandwich (usually jambon et fromage, poulet rôti or poulet salade), a small can of Pringles chips, a container of flavored yogurt and a chocolate candy bar.  I include a bottled diet drink, and I’m content for miles (or should I say kilometers?). 

      As we enter Coussey, we watch on the left for 47 Grand Rue. We soon see a black sign with gold lettering “Chambres D’Hôtes” above a massive black iron gate in a high wall.  We pull into the graveled courtyard of La Demeure du Gardien du Temps qui Passi.  and are immediately greeted by our host and shown to our comfy room on the second floor.  The bathroom is large with a claw-footed bathtub draped in netting. Mrs. Ramsamy offers an optional room with a shower, but we assure her we want the tub.

      On our first night, Mrs. Ramsamy recommends that we have dinner up the road, just one and half kilometers from Domremy, at the Basilique du Bois Chenu, built on the spot in the forest where Joan heard the voices of St. Catherine and St. Marguerite.  The church is nestled on the hillside and is illuminated by floodlights at night so it majestically dominates the Valley of the Meuse. The delicious meals are prepared and served in a building adjacent to the church by traveling missionaries from all over the world.  Each young woman wears clothing influenced by her native culture.  When the dinner seating is about to end, the staff gathers and while one strums the guitar, they all sing two beautiful French songs. 

      The next morning we begin more research on our beloved Joanie.  First stop is Domremy-La-Purcelle to see her house, built in the 15th century, and registered as an historical monument in 1840.  The structure is solid limestone, light beige in color with four rooms on the ground floor, and more upstairs, which is cordoned off to tourists. Two of the larger rooms have fireplaces, and all have windows.  Even though the house is empty of any furnishings, it has a cozy feeling. Imagining a family living here isn’t difficult. 

      Next to the house is the ancient Catholic Church which her family attended, and where Joan was baptized.  What remains from Joan’s time is the tower, the old choir, and a statue of St. Margaret.  The nave, which has been remodeled, displays numerous testimonies to the cult devoted to Joan.  Near the baptismal font is the tombstone of the Arc family. While we quietly walk around, locals silently enter to pray or light candles, then just as quickly disappear.

      An interpretation center has been built at the site with a gallery of documents, photographs and paintings, video programs including her trial transcripts, and the only documented evidence of Joan’s ability to write her signature, which reads “Jeanne.”  In the gallery is also the only painting credited to be the real Jeanne d’Arc, rather than an artist’s interpretation.  For those interested in her story, the 1999 release “Joan of Arc,” starring Leelee Sobieski, is one of the most accurate accounts and an enjoyable well-produced movie.

      After our tour, we drive down the road to Vaucouleurs for déjeuner at Relais La Poste where the view overlooking the Valley of the Meuse is breath-taking.  We know we’re sitting among locals as we savor our delicious lunch because in public the French converse quietly. As we gaze out the window at the peaceful beautiful place, we are saddened to recall that this entire area was more than once ravaged by invaders.  Having war on your own turf is a horrific sacrifice so many Americans can hardly imagine.

The next morning on the way from Lorraine to Burgundy, we discover the enchanting walled city of Langres.  The narrow streets and centuries-old buildings entice us to stop for pictures.  We learn that it’s a Gallo-Roman town, with numerous art treasures, and is listed among the 50 most beautiful towns of France.   

Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, is another beautiful mediaeval city with a geographic area much easier to navigate than Paris, and a population of almost 150,000,compared to 10.9 million.  We should tour the Palais des Ducs et des Etats de Bourgogne and the Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne, as both are said to be worth the visit.

But, this is my only opportunity to do any shopping, so we hit the streets.  By the end of the day, we’re interested in sampling some regional fare. We find it at La Concorde at 2 Place Darcy.  Over dinner, we discuss our feelings about what we’ve seen and learned about Joanie. Our conversation is very serious until I mention getting one more shot at French freeway food on the way back to Paris and the airport.  My husband looks at me like a parent looking at a small child and smiles.  I wonder if Joanie’s dad ever looked at her that way.   
©  Pat Hood-Miller November 2006
Mt. Pleasant, SC
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