Normandy Beaches and Bayeux France

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April 28th 2013
Published: April 28th 2013
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For those of you following along and know that I spent a few days in Paris, perhaps expecting a blog about Paris, let me say this...

Fuck Paris, except for the Louvre. In fact, if I had made the mistake of not coming to Normandy, which I considered after my experiences with Parisians, I would have robbed myself of one of the most impactful and enjoyable days of my life; not to mention, been sour on France. For those travelers considering France for the first time, please do not spend the majority of your time in Paris. Get in, see the Louvre and whatever other cultural sites mean something to you, and get the hell out!

Now, having said that, let me tell you about the first 24 hours of my life spent in Bayeux, France that would stick with me through Alzheimer's, if I ever contract it. It begins with a train ride out of Paris’ influence. It takes a while from St. Lazare Station to get out of Paris, as it is in the middle of the mess called the city. The graffiti and the ruined concrete structures go on for miles beyond Paris’ boarders; it reminds the visitor all too well that all of it’s baggage is a stone’s throw just 20 miles away. Even the woman I sat next to on the train, a life-long Parisian in her mid 50s, agreed that the city was ugly and unfriendly. She was traveling to Bayeux to visit a friend, a lover as I would discover during our disembarkation, who wouldn’t be troubled to come to Paris. Thus my 24 hours of ‘wow‘ began by stepping off of the train into the real France for the first time.

I certainly shouldn’t imply Normandy is indicative of France as a whole, but I hope it is. It helped that the sun was shining, it was 25 degrees C, and that the taxi cab drivers were very friendly. I arrived at my cheap hotel, Hotel le Bayeux, which turned out to be more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel. My room was cozy with a skylight window that looked over a grove of trees. The birds sang all afternoon through the evening. The whistles and chirps woke me in the morning. It was far better than I expected for being the cheapest accommodations in this small town. (I later discovered that there is a really cheap hostel that is bookable online. For three people it only costs 45 Euro a night... the smallest room is a three person room and you have to book the whole thing.)

All I had time to do when I arrived was set my bags in my room and head out the door for the famous Bayeux tapestries. The Bayeux tapestries commemorate the events leading up to and the Battle of Hastings. This fabric graphic novel dates to 1070 and leaves even the most cynical of art critics in awe despite it’s comical proportions. The nine Euro price tag for admittance is steep for a 15 minute tour until you realize the precautions that must be in place to keep a 1,000 year old piece of cloth from disintegrating in our caustic air. The colors are bland but well preserved. In this age of hyper realism, the tapestries are underwhelming, but that adds to the authenticity of the relics. This wasn’t created in a time when the masters where concerned with artistic rules and theory. These depictions were sewn in the darkest of the dark ages.

I left the museum impressed with the tapestries, which I had no intention of seeing when I picked Bayeux as my Normandy hub.

I took a walk around the small town. Bayeux is a beautiful place with great shopping and tons of restaurants. It’s hidden shopping centers like this town of 10,000 that make me wish I had a girlfriend to buy little surprises for... the lingerie shops looked quite alluring.

By the end of my walk I had reached the British Cemetery in honor of those that fell while liberating Bayeux during the second world war. I suppose it is an appropriate time for me to say that I have always felt a strong connection to World War II. More than any other war, the history and tales surrounding it’s battles, heroes, and villains, speaks to a deep patriotism and my ideal of America’s best qualities. A large portion of my trip through Europe is a homage to that snippet of history. After today’s experience, I may need to spend some more time and money to stop in Germany to see the concentration camps. More on that in a minute...

Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery is a powerful place. Over 4,600 Brits are buried within it’s grounds. French children were walking through the graves with their teachers. French men were work diligently on the upkeep of the site. I learned during my evening research that the various Commonwealths along the French countryside pay for the preservation and upkeep of the foreign cemeteries, with exception of the American memorials. (By the way, that was America’s choice.) It was the cleanest, most well maintained piece of ground I had seen until the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I walked the rows of the dead for an hour. Before leaving I thanked one of the men trimming the lawn for keeping the site so pristine. He appreciated the gratitude, but he had the look of a man who took his work seriously because he was thanked by a new stranger every day.

I grabbed some pizza from a local shop on the way back to the hotel. That night I rented the Longest Day on iTunes. I hadn’t seen the movie before, and it isn’t my favorite World War II movie, but watching it in one of the towns that was liberated within the first month of the counter offensive set the stage for a morning tour filled with reverence and gratitude. (For those traveling to see the D-Day Beaches, skip the Longest Day and go with the first few episodes of Band of Brothers. I would have watched them that night, but I have seen them a dozen times...)

Morning came quickly. I haven’t been accustom to waking before 7:00 AM since I started my travels. Nevertheless, I got up with energy and a fantastic breakfast. The bread and pastries in France are comparable to nothing I have eaten back home. Credit where credit is due.

The half day tour left the hotel at 8:30 AM sharp. The tour consisted of the guide, two elderly women from my hotel, and me. Our guide was in his late 20s and a history major with a masters degree, not to mention close family ties to the invasion and the resistance. (I’d say that all tour guides flip some sort of bullshit about how close they are to the events of World War II, but we had to pull the story out of this man. Adding to the authenticity of his tale, towards the end of the tour we stopped at his grandparents‘ home, which was just across the street from one of the churches that was destroyed on D-Day. Apparently the Allied Forces were worried about the Germans using steeples as observation posts.)

The tour began at Asnelles where the British forces landed at Gold Beach. In the sea I could see what was left of the concrete docks used as a port immediately after the invasion forces took hold. In contrast to the weather on the day before, the coast was a chilling 7 degrees C with a mist of rain and a biting wind. The wreckage is a cold reminder that on June 6th, 1944 the weather wasn’t any better. Young men swam through the low tide and assaulted fortified German positions as the tide’s return raced their progress against the rocks and guns. I took a handful of sand. The salt water filled grains stuck to my hand and clung to my cuff for hours. The men must have felt encrusted with the sea’s stench and the mixture of blood couldn’t have helped their constitution.

At Arromanches we got a first had look at the fortifications of 150mm anti-ship guns, effective range 15 miles. Out of some 175 shells fired between June 6 and June 7, 1944, none of them hit any Allied targets due to the pace of the assault and the slow communications between the German observation posts and the turrets. British forces overtook this battery of guns on D-day +1 while the boys at Omaha Beach were struggling to keep a foothold on their portion of the assault.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located between Collevile-sur-Mer and St. Laurent-sur-Mer on the eastern side of Omaha Beach. It is the permanent resting place for 9,387 men and another 1,557 names of missing bodies (13 of which have been identified since the dedication of the memorial). The two women who joined me on the tour are also Americans. The tour guide politely told us some of the history of the site before we began the long slow walk onto the grounds. Once on the grounds we were all silent for a long time. The wind was cold and the rain started to pick up. Men were working in one of the sections, trimming the grass and removing dead flowers. Recently someone had come by and placed roses at all of the graves of the unknown soldiers. I walked ahead of the group to be alone with my feelings. I could only hear the roar of the wind and the crashing of the waves as I stood among the white marble headstones. Water dripped from the edges of the crosses like rain from the brim of a steel helmet. The solemnity of death underscores the righteousness of the cause that the men buried here died to defend. World War II was perhaps the last war where America fought a truly righteous cause for the sake of humanity.

This blog isn’t the place for me to diatribe on current events, but I will say that I have serious doubts about the righteousness of our cause in the two wars the United States has fought most recently. Would the men interred at Omaha Beach see our modern wars as our justifiable defense of freedom or are we the oppressors, too scared to let others live (and earn their own freedom) free from our overwhelming force?

I cried tears of gratitude among the graves. I cried tears of shame when I read the words, “To these we owe the high resolve that the cause for which they have died shall live.” Shouldn’t the memory of these men and those that fought along side them be the litmus-test politicians look towards when they consider defense of America’s freedom and the sacrifices that freedom requires. These graves are proof that the United States will never live in a world where we can sit back in the face of tyranny, lest we lose our freedoms, but it isn’t license for us to protect our freedom at the cost of nations. We must protect our own and live to the standard we set for ourselves when we began this nation. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Just because we got the wording right in 1776 doesn’t mean we should insist that other nations figure it out on our timetable, and it certainly doesn’t mean we should figure it out for them. Hell, we still don’t have it right 237 years later. These graves are my reality check; modern terrorism, as horrible as it is, still isn’t tantamount to Nazi control of Europe and the Holocaust.

Standing among the graves I felt proud to be an American visiting France. France, a country without which the United States of America would never have survived until peace in 1783; a country that owes it’s current freedom to the men and boys buried here and back home. Yet, I am ashamed we have let the cause die, etched on the wall; a promise to these corpses that their sacrifice was for a higher standard. Perhaps Americans shouldn’t be allowed to run for federal office until they set foot in this graveyard and in Arlington National Cemetery. I have a funny feeling that Auschwitz should be on that list too.

French politicians should be required to make the same journeys and I am hopeful that the children among the graves on this day remember the reality of history instead of the modernity of political expedience.

The tour ended with a walk around Pointe du Hoc D-Day Monument. Stand inside a bomb crater and imagine scaling these cliffs with shells firing overhead in the wind, rain and sea soaked clothes. My stomach aches and my eyes well up with tears in humility just writing the words and remembering the feelings of the land. The Rangers tasked with swallowing fear and summoning bravery in the face of these cliffs, armed with grappling hooks and rifles, were the stuff of legends. This war is still tangible and I walked through the craters that pock marked this preserved battlefield. The scorch marks from flamethrowers in the barracks of the German soldiers reminded me that there was great prices paid by both sides. Imagine dying in a concrete tomb from a furnace thrown at you with no hope of escape. The bullet holes in the concrete are a brail book readable by people of all languages.

I returned to Bayeux a little after the lunch hour. I sat in one of the finest restaurants in town and enjoyed a bottle of wine, an onion soup, and a fabulous leg of duck as I collected my thoughts. I’d like to spend more time in this hallowed place, where the people are still grateful for their freedom three generations removed from those that lived through the terrors. I will remember the hospitality and respect that this side of France embodies long after I forget the grotesqueness of Parisians. I highly recommend this experience for any American. Skip all of the art and the wine in favor of one cemetery - this memory will endure further than those other experiences.

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