Normandy [Day 3]

After a calm night and another magnificent breakfast, I checked out of my hotel and headed in the general direction of “town”. Approximately thirty minutes later, I had officially explored all that Bayeux’s shopping district had to offer. Not much to see on a sleepy Wednesday morning, but I did stumble across the smallest street market of all time, with a grand total of three vendors.

The cheese vendor.

I spent lunch at the British Cemetery on the outskirts of town. It holds half as many soldiers as the American Cemetery, and isn’t quite so well known, so I sat in silence for nearly an hour before any other tourists came along. Is it strange that I feel so at peace in cemeteries? I don’t think so. It’s kind of a nice way to be undisturbed, but not alone. Wonderful places to let your mind wander.

At the entrance to the British Cemetery.

A bit more detail on the British headstones.

The clouds moved so quickly in the wind, I'm surprised they aren't blurry.

I ended the afternoon with a tour through Bayeux’s Musée-Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (Museum of the Battle of Normandy), which was surprisingly well produced, given that it’s a little out of the way for most D-Day tourists. It focused on the tactics of the military leaders on both sides and their particular duties throughout 1944, but didn’t really give any information that I hadn’t already learned at the Musée du Débarquement. It did, however, have a neat section on the role of the media in the war and the censorship that journalists self-imposed in order to maintain civilian morale. It must have been difficult to see incredibly moving sights on the battlefield but not capture them on film, just so that the families back home wouldn’t have to see the horrors that their sons went through. As a beginning photographer, I want to take pictures of everything around me; I can’t imagine the willpower involved in letting monumental events go by without being documented.

One of several tanks positioned outside the museum.

I said goodbye to Normandie on Wednesday afternoon and made the four-hour train ride back to Tours. It was a short trip, but absolutely one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in Europe. I’m thankful that I was able to learn more about our world’s history and spend some time on my own to reflect on the true meanings of service and sacrifice.


Normandy [Day 2]

On Tuesday morning, the hotel breakfast room called my name, and I stuffed myself silly with crêpes and toast before I made a few quick sandwiches to last me the rest of the day. I will forever call this move “pulling a Kaia”, in honor of my thrifty comrade who refused to buy food the entire time we were in Paris. Hey, you gotta save money somehow.

I had decided the previous day to book a guided tour of the D-Day beaches, after realizing that there was really no other way to see all the sites in the short amount of time that I had. I’m so glad I did; I was able to see a lot more than I ever would have been able to on my own and got a much better insight into the general timeline of things.
I met the minivan at the town square, and joined the rest of the daytrip group: two young Belgians and four retired Frenchies. As it drizzled outside, our Norman guide drove us to the westernmost point of the D-Day events, St. Mere Eglise, where the first Allied paratroopers parachuted into France the night before D-Day. We went to the church where John Steel famously caught his chute on the bell tower and was stuck for several hours, floating above the German guards’ heads before he was discovered and briefly captured. Luckily for him, 156,000 Allied soldiers were about to bust up in St. Mere Eglise and spring him out before he’d been imprisoned even one day.
We also checked out the small airborne museum just across the church, which specifically commemorates the members of the British 82nd Airborne and their struggle to make sense of the land before the masses arrived in the morning. So many of these parachuters drowned in marches from the weight of their own equipment, got tangled in trees, or simply landed right on top of Nazi soldiers, like John Steel. It’s amazing that the majority of men were able to land undetected and regroup in time for the morning invasion.

My favorite mannequin from the Airborne museum. I have a feeling his "camouflage" makeup didn't do much help in the camouflaging department.

Next, we drove to Utah Beach, where my great-uncle Carlos landed. I spent some time walking along the beach and thinking about how lucky he was to have come in on the westernmost flank. From a strategic point of view, Utah was clearly the easiest of the five beaches to capture, with its sandy dunes and flat farmland as opposed to the sheer cliffs of Omaha. Being the easiest of the five doesn’t mean it was a simple job, though. Two hundred men lost their lives on Utah Beach alone. Needless to say, it was both a sobering walk, for those who died, and a grateful one, for my great-uncle and his victorious navigation of the beach.

Unsure whether to smile for a picture near the spot where Uncle Carlos landed.

The large American Soldiers monument at Utah Beach, with the Naval Monument (left) and Musée du Débarquement in the background.

Right on the beach is the Musée du Débarquement, which holds tons of equipment and other paraphernalia from the landings, including several plaques about the Combat Engineers (my great-uncle’s group) and their work after the landing in building bridges and roads for Allied vehicles to cross. Shockingly enough, the war wasn’t over on June 6th. The Allies still had to make their way through every hedgerow and forest in the rest of France and Europe, and it wouldn’t have happened without the logistical efforts of countless support personnel beyond your average infantryman.

A plaque on the Combat Engineers in the Musée du Débarquement! Way to go, boys!

After a quick lunch in the sleepy village of Isigny-sur-Mer, we drove to Pointe du Hoc, the westernmost cliff of the German stronghold in 1944. The battery was blasted to bits by the Allies in the months leading up to June in an effort to blow out their cannons, and the craters are still everywhere. We crawled down to the underground German barracks and saw the remains of the monstrous guns, which swiveled 360 degrees on rolling bases and would certainly caused major casualties if they hadn’t been destroyed by the Army Rangers just before D-Day. Like a grand piece of theatre, months and months of preparatory attacks went into the D-Day invasion, and without them, that one show day would have been impossible.

One of the destroyed cannons at Pointe du Hoc.

The cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The Army Rangers scaled them with nothing but their standard-issue boot knives in the middle of the night. Take that, Chuck Norris.

As we approached Omaha Beach, I mentally prepared myself for a difficult sight, and it was clear that the rest of the group was doing the same thing. The other tourists had been very careful around me all day long, as if they felt that, as an American, I was more likely to become upset during the tour. As I told them about my granddads and great-uncle, they offered their thanks for their service and sacrifice. I felt a rush of gratitude for the group’s kindness and understanding of my family’s place (and thousands of other families’) in this big history. The group stood in a circle around our guide and discussed the death statistics of the site. It’s sobering to think how many of those boys died before they could even hit land. Of the total 10,000 casualties of the invasion, nearly half took place on Omaha. Were they scared? Did they even realize the gravity of the situation before they saw the coastline? We now know that the military leaders expected up to 80% losses on D-Day, but did the average infantryman understand that he was not statistically supposed to survive the landing? What a terrifying thought.

After some moments of quiet reflection on the images our guide had laid out for us, we moved on to the American Cemetery, and I was suddenly on American soil for the first time since January. In contrast to the sadness and hatred for war I felt on the beach, the cemetery was calm and welcoming. It was a sad sight to see the names of hundreds of MIA soldiers listed along the marble walls of the entrance, but the 9000 graves themselves were hauntingly beautiful. I thought of how blessed my family is to have had three men survive such a terrible war, and I was glad to see that those who paid the ultimate sacrifice were given a small token of the world’s appreciation in the form of a beautiful resting place.

At peace in the American Cemetery.

Rows upon rows upon rows.

Known but to God.

I could have spent all day in the cemetery, but our tour had to continue. We drove to Arromanches to learn about projects after the initial landing-the Mulberries and Gooseberries. After the five D-Day beaches were captured and linked together, the Allied forces needed to move equipment and people between the South of England and Normandy quickly and efficiently, and for that purpose the Mulberry Project was born. The mulberries were essentially huge prefabricated floating harbors that could be assembled in sections and used as bridges between ships and the coast. Unfortunately, the biggest thunderstorm in thirty years happened to be brewing just as the mulberries were completed, and they were torn to pieces before they could be much use. The Allied effort didn’t stop for a little ole storm, though, and the tanks kept rolling in. By the end of 1944, all of France was liberated, and World War II would soon be over.

The remains of Mulberry B at low tide.

I returned to Bayeux on Tuesday night with several thoughts running through my head. First, an even bigger distaste for war than I had before I came to Normandy. No matter how eager they are to serve, young boys should not be sent to die in foreign lands for causes they do not understand. That is my personal opinion and I will always stand by it. Contrarily, I felt an immense gratitude for those same kids who, however naively, chose to fight for the freedom of people they had never met and unhesitatingly went into battle knowing that they could die. That is a kind of courage I don’t think I’ll ever possess. Third, it was fulfilling to experience the kindness of the international community who commemorated our fallen heroes in the most respectful way possible. Above all, I felt thankful for the grace bestowed on my family, and proud of the three men who served and survived. To Poppy, Jay, and Carlos: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Normandy [Day 1]

I’ve just returned from my three-day trip to Normandy, and I have so much to write about. This post will be the first of multiple (most likely 3) parts. Seatbelts everyone: we’re about to dive into some major history nerd territory.

First, a little background:
I consider myself to be a lover of stories and ancient peoples, but I wouldn’t call myself a history buff. I prefer personal memoirs and sociology to textbooks and battle plans . So, the majority of my World War II knowledge is focused on the Holocaust and the daily life of civilians during wartime. Both of my grandfathers served in the Pacific theatre, but neither has ever been too keen to discuss their time overseas, and I suppose I’ve never pushed them to do so.
All that changed when I learned last Fall that my great-uncle was one of the 156,000 men who landed on the Norman coast on June 6, 1944 to liberate France from the Nazi occupation. I couldn’t believe that no one in my family had ever bothered to tell me such an important story about one of the most famous days in modern history. Now, with a personal link to D-Day, I became much more interested in the events that took place on that fateful day, and decided to plan a trip to the north of France.

I booked a hotel in Bayeux, the first town that was liberated by the Allies after D-Day and a culturally rich area in its own right. It was a great place to be; I spent my first day exploring the tiny village’s ancient sites.
Most of the surrounding area was pretty much destroyed and rebuilt after the war. How strange to think of European villages without Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, and Renaissance plazas! Bayeux, though, was hardly touched by the multiple bombings, so the main cathedral and several other buildings are still standing. Lucky me!

I went to the Notre Dame cathedral to start my sightseeing. What a beautiful place. Even though it was freezing cold, windy, and cloudy outside (it hailed later that afternoon!), the inside was flooded with light. The architects in 1077 definitely understood Normandy weather and took advantage of what little natural light was available! Yes, you read that date correctly; the church was built in 1077 over an ancient Roman sanctuary, and prominently features both Roman and Gothic styles in different sections of the building. It will never cease to amaze me how ancient people were able to calculate how to erect such monuments without computers or even a reliable ruler.

The view from my hotel. Not too shabby.

Loved the rainbow effect from the stained glass windows.

Light from the top windows of the cathedral.

Colorful ice cream stand outside the cathedral!

I walked next door to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive embroidered wall hanging that also dates back to the 1070s. The Tapestry is basically a 230-foot long comic strip that tells the story of how William the Conquerer won the Battle of Hastings. It’s kept behind glass in a darkened room, and visitors can walk along it while listening to an audio recording that describes the action in each panel. I selected the French recording, and I’m proud to say I understood nearly all of it!

Just outside of the museum, I hopped on a little tourist train that rode through Bayeux and showed lots of neat monuments. I generally prefer to walk on my own to familiarize myself with a new place, but it was raining and windy, so I was willing to part with two euros for a mini tour. It really did give a good overview of the town, but that’s not hard to do, seeing as there are only 16,000 people and most of those seem to be Anglophone tourists. Honestly, I’ve seen more baseball caps and Northface windbreakers in the past three days than I’ve seen in the past four months-Normandy is still definitely a tourist destination even in the offseason.

The limited view from my little train car. I was so glad there were plastic screens to block the wind, even though they prevented me from taking pictures.

At the suggestion of the hotel concierge, I went to dinner at Pate à Pat, a cozy (read: tiny) galetterie right beside the cathedral. I nommed on a a salad and a galette complete-mushroom, ham, cheese, and egg wrapped in a buckwheat crêpe. Of course, I had to have dessert, too, which was a café gourmand with two tiny caramel crêpes, teurgoule (a sort of rice pudding) and a brownie with crème anglaise. Delish. My dinner came with a show in the form of a group of Englishmen beside me, whose laughs got louder and louder as they emptied their steins. I love eating alone and just listening to other diner’s conversations; it makes for great entertainment.

My classic galette, or savory crêpe.

Mini desserts and espresso rounded out the meal.

As the sun set, spotlights turned on, and the cathedral was bathed in a warm glow.

I left the restaurant in search of breakfast for the next day and passed by a small group of obvious tourists on the sidewalk. At that moment, I heard one of the women say the three most beautiful words in the English language: “bless his heart“.
Needless to day, I. Had. A. Moment.
I couldn’t help but stop her and ask where she and the rest of the group were from. The lady replied that they were all recent retirees from Texas, and I got a little teary as I explained that I hadn’t heard a southern accent in several months and it warmed my heart to hear one now. I got way too dramatic over such a silly thing but it was just really nice to hear a bit of home! The whole group asked me all about my experiences abroad, and we just stood there on the street for a few minutes talking. The lady even gave me a real hug-another thing I haven’t experienced in months. You never realize the things you miss until they suddenly pop up out of nowhere. It made my day.

I headed back to my hotel to hit the hay-I had a big day planned for Tuesday! Check back tomorrow to read about my tour of the D-Day beaches.

TV Party

With my last exam behind me and my notebooks packed away in the closet, I’m done with school for the semester, and with my formal education in France! I must admit, it’s not nearly as much of a relief to be done with work when you didn’t really have that much work to begin with, but I imagine this summer vacation will still be quite nice.

Because the boys are on their two-week Spring Break now, we stayed up late last night watching a movie, and did the same after our crêpe dinner tonight. Cramming into the TV room to watch French films with my host family always makes me think of my own family and our late-night Law and Order marathons, and how much I’d love to be back in middle school with no major life decisions to make other than to watch the episode on TNT where Mariska Hargitay’s hair is long or the one on NBC when she’s sporting a pixie. Those were the days.

This week, I’m planning a short trip to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches and memorials. Details and pictures to come soon!

School’s Out

I refuse to get sick. I refuse I refuse I refuse I refuse.

Besides my naggingly scratchy throat that I fought to suppress with copious amounts of tea all day, today was really nice. I had a great lunch with my favorite Frenchies and went window-shopping around town.
Fun Fact: The term for “window-shopping” in French is lèche-vitrines, which literally means “to lick windows”. What a fitting mental image.

Google images

Tomorrow will be my last official day at the Université François-Rabelais, and then I’ll begin my summer vacation! I’m excited to say I’ll be done with all the red tape that comes with being enrolled in a French school, but it’s sad to think that my semester has gone by so quickly! Oh, well, I’ll enjoy the time I have left and be thankful for the experiences I’ve been given.

À bientôt!

Carry That Weight, or I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Today was a rainy, cold, yucky day. Thankfully, a coffee date this morning with a French buddy and lunch with some other exchange students made it a lot better.
I’ve just realized that I can (and do) divide my daily schedule into the categories of “about to eat”, “currently eating”, and “just finished eating”, and I’m perfectly okay with that.

Google image, of course.

As I tell the other exchange girls whenever they moan about gaining weight here in France, Study Abroad is really the only completely socially acceptable time to gain weight. Really, who’s going to judge me for profiting from the plethora of pastries, bread, quiches, crêpes, and the other fabulously fattening French foods all around me? Only someone who’s jealous they’re not getting to eat such wonderful cuisine themselves, that’s who.
So who minds if I pick up a few extra kilos here and there? My suitcase is getting over the airline weight limit from all the souvenirs I’ve bought, so I’ll just consider my new jiggles to be souvenirs, too. I just hope I can unpack them as easily as my suitcase when I get back!