Reims. A city known for kings and champagne, should, by rights, be a rather special place. But we’d been before and left fairly unimpressed by anything other than its glorious cathedral and proximity to the popular Route des Anglais taken by thousands of Brits in search of sun. Sam was performing in a collaborative play he had devised with two friends (one French, one German) at a venue called La Comédie. It is only in writing this now that I realized there is probably a joke in here somewhere.
The drive from The Hague took close to five hours under leaden skies and it was early afternoon when we arrived. The pleas of an immigrant beggar, his dog huddled under a blanket, greeted us as we stepped from the carpark. A homeless man pushed his bag-laden buggy across the street. A smiley lady with an Eastern-European accent rose from her park bench to ask us for a light for her cigarette, accidentally wished us good evening, then giggled at her mistake, her cold breath metallic with winey fumes. A clutch of teenagers, dark music emanating from some hidden speaker, carried their own soundtrack with them as they passed, squeezing us to the edge of the pavement, where a headscarfed refugee, cowed by hunger in a corner, held out her cupped palm. For a Saturday lunchtime the city seemed devoid of the windowshoppers and flaneurs I’d expect from France and was instead menacing enough for me to keep my hand clasped over the zip on my handbag.
Reims was not redeeming itself. Then we noticed the stunning Subé fountain built in 1906, delicately decorated with young girls having fun, representing the region’s four rivers. The sun, though cold, came out to illuminate a gilded figure of winged victory right on the top, bright as a star. Apparently the Germans had stolen the original figurine in 1941. Following this flash of brilliance, we sat on a damp bench outside a bakery to eat cold pizza then went on our way to the theatre.
The studio soon filled beyond capacity and the performance, in three languages, based on letters sent by the Frenchman’s great-grandfather in the Second World War, was inventive and thought-provoking. Multi-lingual, multi-cultural, universal, the story could have belonged to any of us.
It’s a fairly large city and yet by complete chance we found that our cheap and cheerful hotel was also the place Sam was staying with the other artists and again our stories collided.
Later that evening we found ourselves at dinner in a brasserie a few blocks away beside an English couple who were on their back up the Route des Anglais from a skiing holiday. Noticing our common language we soon struck up a conversation while I tucked into cassoulet and pot au feu and they took it in turns to dip bread into the garlicky butter that surrounded their snails. We were tired after our early start and long drive and said our goodbyes, headed back to the hotel and were asleep by ten.
Soon after two though, we were jolted awake by the fire alarm and with the memory of the Grenfell Tower tragedy so fresh in our minds, we were not going to ignore it, though we did take a minute to find our coats and car keys.
There, in the lobby were many others, like us, with thick coats on over their pyjamas… that is all apart from that same couple from the restaurant – he wearing just his pants and she in her shortie nightie. Thankfully, after about fifteen minutes it seemed one of the guests had smoked a cigarette in the room and it was a false alarm and so we all trooped back to bed. Peace at last.
Peace, we discovered the next day over breakfast, was one of the reasons this gently fading city deserved to be revered. Not because of its champagne. Not because its cathedral has a Chagall window and was the place more than 20 French kings were crowned and buried. Not because of its Art Deco architecture but because this was the place where the papers that marked the end of the Second World War were signed on 7th May 1945, a week after Hitler’s suicide.
It was in Reims that Eisenhower had lived and worked, secreting offices in a school close to the railway station and it was in that school that, at 2.40 am, the capitulation took place between the Germans and the Allies. Reims, chosen because it was perfectly placed beside the railway and the canal in liberated France. Reims, so close to Flanders and the slaughter of trenchwarfare. Such highs and lows. Noise and silence. War and peace.
From heads of state and champagne to refugees and the homeless, Reims is a crossroads where you’ll find a cross-section of cultures in contemporary society. “At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them,” as wrote Binyon in the poem used every Rembembrance Sunday. During our brief 24-hours in Reims, we remembered the stories that connect us all.