1. The Reunion
Updated: Feb 5, 2018
French voices float gaily in white puffs in the chill as locals greet one another and doff hats.
They meander between the 14th-century stone walls surrounding the Sarlat village markets where a slight whiff of Christmas is tentatively emerging.
It is November 2008 and the weather is quickly changing into the cold that marks the desertion of tourists and the arrival of the local festive season.
Suddenly, the French ambience is shattered.
Australian voices blare out over the cobblestones.
Then I listen more closely.
The voices have lifted an octave, excitedly talking about a World War One Western Front battlefield tour they have just completed.
I wander over to the coffee shop where two men and two women, all sporting grey hair under beanies and scarves, have steam puffing out of their mouths along with their accents. I politely ask them why they are interested in touring battlefields.
One gentleman with leathery skin, suggesting long Australian summers, tells me his grandfather did not return from World War One and he wants to see where he is buried. His companion, equally weatherbeaten, lifts his chin, raises an eyebrow and announces it is important to remember, or it could happen again.
I also raise an eyebrow. Having worked as a photo journalist for the past twenty years in some pretty challenging locations around the world, I am not convinced humans will ever end their fascination with war.
In fact, I felt a little battle fatigued from recent projects in various African nations. This village of Sarlat had been the location of an ongoing personal photographic project I’d sneaked in between that edgy development work. And I was seeking something else . . .
I had spent time peeking behind Sarlat’s ancient walls to catch a glimpse of what lay beneath the tourist façade. Those walls were now decorated with an exhibition of the resulting photos and it was time to move on – hopefully in a way that could link my home Australia with France, where I was eager to spend more time.
So, when more steam emerged as they all start talking at once about Remembrance Day commemorations on the Western Front, with a sparkle in their eyes, I sniff the idea for a story emerging from the cold.
There is a lure to what these folks were telling me that I do not understand. The passion for travel I understand; I have been at it since my parents first hoisted me out of the comfort of daily school routine at age eight to ‘go travelling’.
A year later I was full of the wonder of India, Malaysia, Europe and America. Travel, as they say, is rarely glamorous at the time. The glamour arrives in hindsight when we reflect on where we have been. Reflection brings the joys and excitement that remain long after we have resettled into the grind of everyday life.
So, on that November day when I first stumbled across the term ‘battlefield tourism’ I am intrigued. A European holiday based on war?
I ask those Australians where they had caught their bus tour. They tell me it left from Lille further up north.
I jump on a train to go see for myself.