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A Stirring Icon of Girl Power

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

The tiny village of Domremy is a piece of medieval eye candy, a 15th-century brooch of gray walls and russet roofs pinned to the pastoral folds of eastern France. But gazing over the town on a sunny September afternoon, we keep coming back to this question: Was there something wrong with Mark Twain's nose?

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It is Twain, not Michelin or Baedeker or Frommer, who is our guide on this six-day tour through French countryside and cathedral towns. He had nailed the visuals of the "humble little hamlet" of Domremy, with its "maze of crooked narrow lanes" and "barn-like houses." But he is silent on the heavenly scent of the place, an eyelid-lowering brume of cut wheat, tilled earth and just the faintest ecclesiastical whiff of incense drifting about the ancient village church.

Narrow lanes, forsooth! No sense is more evocative than smell, and no smell could be more fitting for the ancestral home town of Joan of Arc, the sainted savior of her country, Twain's hero and our raison d'etre for an autumn visit to France.

For me and my 12-year-old daughter, Isabel, Domremy is the first stop on a driving trip in the hoofprints of history's most remarkable girl-power hero, the 17-year-old illiterate peasant who contrived to lead an army, rout the English and orchestrate the crowning of a king.

Joan of Arc's amazing 18-month public career would take her, and us, on a rural loop around northern France, from her birthplace in Lorraine to the chateaux of the Loire Valley and the embattled city of Orleans and finally up to Normandy, where today you can dine at a delightful sidewalk bistro not 100 feet from the spot where a suspicious Church tied the young upstart to a pole and burned her to ashes.

(The bistro's steak au poivre, I'm happy to report, fares much better.)

To be honest, I'm not sure what Isabel will think of a father-daughter itinerary that promises little more than old towns and exquisite cooking. In fact, it was her childhood fascination with Joan's story (particularly the burned-at-the-stake part) that inspired this trip. A fourth-grade glimpse of a Joan painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art sparked a minor mania, which eventually led us to Twain's little-known but remarkable fictional biography "Joan of Arc" (which he frequently cited as his best work) and thoughts of a Tour de Joan.

But now Isabel is a seventh-grader, more consumed by middle school than the Middle Ages. She's still bookish and curious, but totally into Rihanna and increasingly prone to dismiss any advice, guidance or comment from her parents as "weird," "boring" or "whatever."

How likely is it, then, that my texting tweener is going to be, like, OMG over JOA?

* * *

To be sure, there's not much about Domremy to shatter a case of adolescent ennui. The Lorraine countryside, like almost all of rural France, is deliciously lacking in obvious modernity. Within a kilometer of leaving Charles de Gaulle Airport in our little diesel Opel (without our luggage, which Air France said we would have "soon"), we enter the miraculously unchanging world of the French provinces.

Sprawl seems nonexistent in this country of 64 million, and except for the many toll plazas and the occasional wind farm, we could be motoring through Joan's own landscape of wide pastures and tiny villages.


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