Actually it was a crackpot idea, in the truest sense of the word “It all started last year, when Hélène and I were celebrating our five year anniversary.” The two had both had a few drinks when Hélène suddenly said: “Let’s buy a camper van !” Paule-Élise laughed knowing full well that Hélène cannot drive. “Ok, that sounds like fun,” she replied more for a joke that anything else.
But the more the two women, who come from the outskirts of Paris thought about the supposedly crackpot idea, the more charming it became. Finally, the couple found what they were looking for in Provins, in the north of France. “We bought our Mercedes La Strada from a nice pair of retirees who baked us an apple pie” recalls Paule-Élise, who works as a teacher. The two fell in love with the van immediately. Paule-Élise: “It felt smooth to drive, almost like a boat.”
The two adventurers were still missing a final ingredient: a faithful companion. So they took in Ruby, a stray dog. “Our dog Ruby was just so happy to be there,” said Paule-Élise. Now the couple had a Mercedes-Benz La Strada, plus a dog – but: where should they go? “As we live near Paris, we looked for destinations close by so we could go on short trips. So quite naturally we started with Picardie, Lorraine, Ardennes, regions mostly known for high unemployment and far-right voters, the kind of places where people don’t go on holiday. We drove through quiet villages and along sunny fields, coming across no other vehicles than tractors going to the harvest.” Hélène continues: “We drank fine beers everywhere and ate local dishes.”
In the course of the trip, the focus was more and more on the passion which connects the two women, in addition to traveling itself: their interest in history, especially the First World War. “The kind of places, where you can’t avoid all the sites that suffered so much 100 years ago during WWI. There are commemorations everywhere” explained Paule-Élise. From then on they had found their mission: “We’ll follow the whole WWI front line from the Somme to the Vosges.”
The duo have documented their ‘time travel’ on their blog “1916 kilomètres”. The motto: “Looking for the past, but always in touch with the present,” Paule-Élise explains. In particular, the woman also enjoyed a trip through the French Moselle. “This area was once the richest in France and provided full employment in the area thanks to the coal and steel industry,” she says. “Today only old factory buildings remind us of this time.”
“We have visited many places in France where unemployment is high,” says Hélène, who works in a museum. Their route also led the two history buffs along many a forest path far into the woods, where graves document the suffering of war. “Apart from memorials and monuments, the Great War’s footprints led us to many forests where trees have grown over trenches, buried weapons and corpses,” Paule-Élise said. “You can feel the power of life upon death, of nature upon human chaos.”