Sadie McVicker is International Program Manager at Smithsonian Journeys, where she oversees tours to a variety of international destinations. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, while living and working in France for six years. She has worked for several diplomatic missions, including the Embassy of Japan in Paris, as well as those of Singapore and Morocco here in D.C. Click here for more on Sadie.
Few writers have more poignantly addressed the power of memory than Marcel Proust, in his A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). In it, he described the sensation of a sudden overpowering memory of his childhood that he experienced unexpectedly while tasting a madeleine cookie: “The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it…[yet] as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me… immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents.”
With that one morsel of madeleine, Proust unlocked and recounted an incredibly vivid and moving series of memories. I had a very similar experience while visiting the magnificent Mont St-Michel with my mom when I was living in France. We took a train from Paris to Rennes, and then completed the journey to Mont-St-Michel by car, across coastal farmland in full mustard-flower and through little villages. We arrived at the parking area, near the end of the causeway, and below the now-imposing island and majestic structure reaching heavenward. The tidal flats were fully exposed. There were expansive puddlesin the parking lot and warning signs about the fate of vehicles left there during high tide. The tides of the region are famously and dangerously erratic. Indeed, they change so rapidly that Victor Hugo brought them to life by describing them as moving “a la vitesse d’un cheval au gallop” (as swiftly as a galloping horse). We walked a footpath to the gate of the island complex, stopping to examine stranded tidal pools.
Once inside the gate, we were instantly transported back in time several hundred years! We began the winding walk up, up, up, along the Rue Grande, in a magnificent ascendance, from the gate and entry courtyard to the grand stairs and abbey entrance. In that stone cathedral at the top of the world, it felt as though we were immersed in the great age of cathedral building. We attended Mass at high noon in the great abbey church, in its final form a Gothic cathedral, at the top of Mont-St-Michel. Then we dove further and further back in time and into the history and prehistory of Western civilization as we explored the crypts and chapels underneath.