Normandy was amazing, but a little depressing. We left early Saturday morning to arrive in Bayeux for le déjeuner (lunch) and then to see a 70 meter tapestry from the middle ages. Brigitte and I decided to skip the line of about 80 students waiting for audio guides to explore the museum (we were unaware of there being only 1 tapestry here) and found that it is pretty difficult to understand the story line of a 210 foot embroidered linen. It was fun to make up our own story since some of the scenes are pretty intricate, but after realizing this is the only attraction at the museum we went back to a considerably shorter line and got audio guides. The story is about William the conqueror and how he became king of England. It ends with the battle of Hastings and there are some pretty graphic scenes of decapitated corpses. Personally my story was better :-) but the guide did point out some things I missed like laughing horses and Hailey's comet.
From Bayeux we went to some D- Day landing sites. Starting at Pointe du Hoc where the land still shows the scars of where some of the bombs landed. We went into a German bunker and saw how the guns were situated to guard the beach and to shoot at approaching ships. As a non- history buff this was still very interesting. Imagining a time with out the help of computers and trying to hit a moving ship seems amazing to me. Moving from Pointe du Hoc we visited the American landing sites of Omaha and Utah beaches. Omaha was the bloodiest landing site and the locals still call it the red sea (in French of course) because the ocean was tinted red about a week after the landing. There is a beautiful memorial here located on the beach called the Braves; it looks like big metal shards stabbing the air. By the time we reached Utah it was getting late and we were all pretty cold. We had pretty good weather, but we were near the Atlantic in winter and the wind of the ocean was freezing our faces. I'm surprised not more of us are wind burned. Utah is the location where Eisenhower put together his idea of a artificial harbor. Pieces of the harbor were built at various factories so that the plan was kept secrete. The end of the day was dedicated to going to the American Cemetery.
This is place were the French government has given to the USA for soldier who die overseas. The cemetery is nestled into the country side surrounded by trees and overlooking the coast. First thing one sees before entering is the time capsule a few journalist of WW2 out together. It is not known what they put in it only that it is to be opened 100 years after d-day. The memorial is a young man soaring upwards. He is flanked by olive trees (symbols of peace) and just behind is the wall of the unknown solider. In front of this statue is a pond that will reflect the figure for those that are on the other side (near the unconsecrated chapel) to see. The chapel was never blessed so that people of different faiths can all feel welcome and pray for their loved ones lost. All the head stones are aligned so that they form a straight line when looked at from any angle, and all the names are facing West towards the USA. The headstones are also arranged so that it appears there is a hill rising up from the sea. This is to imitate the Allie forces storming up the beach out of the sea on D-Day. It is a place full of symbolism. There are a couple stories we were told about. The first was that of General Roosevelt Jr. who had a terrible heart problem, but refused to stay behind on D-day while his troops went in. He also refused to stay behind the troops, instead he insisted to be among the first ships to land. Highly unusual as this was he got his way. Upon landing he realized that they were a mile off course, but that it was a place much less protected by the Germans. He radioed the rest of his troops told them the new coordinates and was able to secure the location with much fewer fatalities than first estimated. His quick thinking is what won him the Medal of Honor, the only problem was that after surviving the war he died from his heart condition the same day his medal was shipped to him. He died never knowing having earned it. The other graves we went to see were that of the Niland brothers. Spielberg happened to be visiting Normandy and started to talk to a man who was visiting the graves of his brothers. This is where Spielberg got the idea for Saving Private Ryan. There is a rule in the army that if a mother looses 3 members of her immediate family while they are in the service then they can ask for the remaining members to be sent home (don't quote me on this its what we were told). So Mrs Niland has 4 sons, the eldest was report missing in action in 1943, and in 1944 the next 2 sons were killed. Mrs Niland asked for her youngest son to be sent home. Upon receiving his orders to return home the youngest Niland refused feeling that he had yet to do his duty. D-Day came and the youngest Niland was injured, several months later he was sent home alive and well. Around this time the eldest Niland was found, he was a prisoner of war recently freed. Of course the story has been "hollywoodized," but you get the idea. Spielberg couldn't you the real names, but decided to use the most common name in the cemetery where the Niland Brothers are buried, Ryan. After getting our fill of d-day depression it was time to head off to the hotel in a small town on the coast.
Driving through Normandy the country side is open and beautiful, even at the end of winter. There are small country houses that look like they are straight out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, beautiful stone cottages that are a surprise to see once hearing how devastated the country side was during the war, the town church with its ancient stone steeple rising up into the sky and, of course, there are the more modern buildings but in true French style they have blended these building in to give the impression of a quaint country town. Driving through lush, green fields with a sherbet sunset (orange and raspberry) and cresting a hill to see such a village nestled in between rolling, grassy hills on the edge of the sea was simply breath taking.
Since our bus driver got lost, which is amazing in such a small town, we were late for dinner at the hotel we were staying at. Hungry as we were it was incredibly impressive to watch the skill of our driver taking the big tour bus through some pretty small streets. At times I think there was only a couple centimeters between the bus and the stone walls as he was making turns. Anyway, we arrived, checked in, and had just enough time to drop off our bags and rush to the restaurant. (A little side note to anyone wanting to live in France get use to the fact the sometimes the simplest task is made extremely difficult. I am referring to the locks in this country. A simple mechanism made to frustrate any one desiring security. It took us 15 minutes to figure out how to lock the door!) Dinner was excellent and I think we ate at the finest restaurant in town because there were many couples seemingly out on a date and big parties celebrating some special occasion. We were served a potato and leek soup, a turkey dinner with rice, and a triple chocolate moose dessert. Yum, but disappointing since it is a fishing village and the crabs actually looked really good. Oh well that's what you get for having to eat a dinner that is "find something for everyone" type of meal. That night we were all pretty wore out from all the WW2 stories and we ended up watching some French TV. It's a bummer we don't have a TV in our apartment because it would be a great learning tool. We watched the French version of the Grammy awards and were pretty much astonished at celebrity guests and winners for the night. They are on a whole different level of music here.
Morning arrived and we were off to a traditional Normandy Farm and then to the Caen Memorial Museum . The fortified farm specialized in cider, various jams, and calvados (a strong whiskey type drink made from apples). We had a tour of the farm and then a tasting session of the various items they specialize in. They had some interesting jams. One was green tomato, and another was lait (milk) basically caramel... yum! Leaving the farm we had some great views of Normandy's coast. Imagine wind blowing through lush green fields speckled with cows and the occasional tree all leading up to the cliffs edge, which offers an amazing view of the green blue sea...yep I'm spoiled. With it slightly raining the storm clouds really added to the intensity of the atmosphere. It was especially nice to have such peaceful scenery while on the way to a museum dedicated to war.
The Caen Memorial Museum is an impressive place. There are several parts to the museum, but where we spent most of our time was the section dedicated to WW2. Walking through a doorway you are essentially stepping into war. It starts out pretty subdued, looking at pictures of minor events leading up to the fall of the stock exchange and the reign of Hitler. The set up of this exhibit is a spiral walk way going down, and you have the impression of walking into war. As the pictures get more and more intense you start to hear a voice, sharp yet indistinguishable. Then you walk into a room called the conditioning of the masses. It contains a single picture of Hitler with his voice blaring all around you. It is dark, cold, and sends chills up your body. Passing through this room leads you into war. They have an amazing collection of photos, letters, and paraphernalia from the time period. Of course there was a Holocaust room, but for me the most depressing was the room filled with letters from soldiers. These are letters to their loved ones and you can't help but feel for them. They can't bear to hurt their loved ones with the truth so they discuss mundane things and request information about home. Reading between the lines and knowing the situation they were in really brings out the truth of what war can do. It's hard to explain the emotions and thoughts running through your head as one walks through this ally of war. After this we watched a movie about D-Day. It was really well done. With a split screen you watch the documented movements of the Allies and the Germans. Men scrambling, guns being prepared and then BOOM the battle begins. There is no narration only the sounds of war... metallic, harsh, and loud. At one point the is aerial footage of Omaha. The camera is flying down the beach parallel to the shore line, the men are landing in water that almost covers their heads, those who made it to the beach are trying to find shelter from the incoming bullets behind anti-landing devices (I imagine those weren't the safest places), and worst of all in this scene was watching how our troops charge the beach running head on into the enemy and they all are falling down dead. Only a few make it past. This scene is interrupted by showing with the same movement of the camera (aerial photo parallel to the shore), Omaha beach empty, peaceful, a place of serenity, and then you are viewing the massacre again. Talk about depressing. The rest of the film was watching the various movements and final victories of the Allied troops. We all left the museum in silent contemplation.