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Tiny Moyaux, Suspended In Time, Remembers the War

May 8, 1994

MOYAUX, France (AP) _ Old soldiers making a second Normandy invasion may find familiar golden arches where their favorite cafe once stood. But in Moyaux, clockless and calendarless, their reveries are safe.

″Look, it’s the same place,″ said Barbara Porter, dragging out a sepia postcard from 1944. Though skirts were longer, shoes clunkier and the stamp cheaper, it was the same place.

Porter, an American, runs two Montessori schools in Paris. She was not here during the war, but comes on weekends to sniff apples, buy milk directly from the business end of a cow and, in general, flee the present tense.

Although Moyaux’s 1,200 inhabitants include sophisticated professionals, and high-tech circuitry lurks beneath the old thatched roofs, most villagers hold tightly to their traditions.

Allied bombers redecorated large parts of Normandy, speeding up a process that began with 1930s builders who slapped concrete and plaster over half- timbered facades that date back to the Vikings.

But this little enclave in Calvados, 100 miles west of Paris, went the other way. Moyaux chipped off added layers to restore the old dovecotes on the main plaza. Now it looks older than ever.

Elsewhere, merchants and mayors are whipping up frenzy around festivities to recall half-century-old events many people have forgotten. Here, the war is an everyday topic, its unsolved mysteries still fresh.

At the delicatessen, proprietress Sophie Marie often wonders what happened to her uncle. His appendix burst in the last days of war and he vanished in an Allied ambulance.

″We presume he was blown up, and no trace was found,″ she said. ″You know, back then, there weren’t many records or photos.″

Around Giles Alles’ bar, talk is often of those last days when Germans fled toward the Seine to cross the water separating them from the defeated fatherland.

″Just near here, they had launching pads already built for V-1 and V-2 rockets, aimed at England,″ he said. ″A little more time and Moyaux would have been a notorious name.″

When people here talk about the war, conversations are shaded in gray, with none of the black-and-white clarity of those who saw it from a distance.

The Porter house, for instance, an old tax collector’s farm with centuries of history worn into its stone hearth, was a theater for the war’s human ironies. Then it was owned by Madame Bacou.

When an American pilot landed up the road, Madame Bacou sheltered him for six months, hiding him in the rough-wood loft under the eaves. She was sad when he left.

Germans camped nearby and several came regularly to cadge a home-cooked meal. Madame Bacou grew close to one, a confused kid who was not happy to be there, and she wept when he returned home.

It ended fast in Moyaux. Allied soldiers took nearby Lisieux on Aug. 23, and Germans beat it from the surrounding villages.

″Their headquarters was near my home,″ Philippe Charles recalled. ″They left at noon, and the Canadians showed up at two.″

Charles was mayor of Moyaux for years until he retired last year. He harbored no hatred. His wife, Ingrid, is German. She settled here as an au pair in 1963 and encountered no hostility.

Moyaux has put its energy into moving forward while standing still, a paradox it has managed well.

Over the years, Charles brought 300 jobs to town, with a furniture factory, a detergent plant and other light industries on the edge of town. The population of 600 doubled over four decades.

Today, downtown Moyaux huddles around a stone church with a crooked steeple on a cobblestone square where kids rally their Hondas the way medieval teen- agers drag-raced their ox carts.

The two-story buildings have sagged to cockeyed angles, their yellowing white plaster shaped in geometric patches among hand-hewn oak beams. They shelter all the contrasts of old and new France.

In one marked only ″Quincaillerie (Hardware),″ Odette Vrignon turns a hard eye on anyone braving her door. If pressed, she will switch on the light to display merchandise in the cavernous room.

When sales are made, she licks her pencil and totes up the tab.

Next door, Roland Sorel beams a welcome to customers in his newly redone grocery store, with its rows of colorful vegetables and an artful display of featured products, put together by a decorator.

Out front, cheery letters announce the store’s name: ″Fraicheur, Service et Gentillesse.″ Freshness, Service and Niceties.

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