Monday, May 25, 2009

In Loving Memory... repost from Memorial Day 2007

Day 10 of our trip found us waking up in Paris. It was Monday, April 30th. Mondays are everything is closed days in France. Most of the big museums are closed as well as many tourist attractions just because it's Monday. The next day was Labor Day which meant even fewer things were available for us.

One of the main reasons for us leaving the UK for Paris was a strong desire of Jim and Will and my dad to go to Normandie (no I'm not spelling it wrong that is how they spell it in France and seeing how its IN France I will spell it the way they do) and visit the American Cemetery there.

Arriving at the train station my sifa used her French to try to get us train tickets to Normandie. We learned that you cannot take a train to Normandie. You take a train to a town outside of Normandie called Bayeux. So we purchased 6 tickets to Bayeux and boarded the train. I honestly cannot remember how long it took us to get there but we arrived in Bayeux after midday I believe and I will always remember Normandie day as the day we didn't get to eat. We scored our free continental breakie from the hotel and that was it. More on that later.

There were several things about his excursion that struck me as odd. First of all, something as important as the American Cemetery is not as touristy as you might think. I appreciate the quiet respect the area has and the fact that you cannot purchase distasteful souvenirs but the cemetery is not what you would call an easy access tourist site. Its not a "Hello American, let us hold your hand all the way to the entrance" type of thing, at least not from the Bayeax train station anyway. They do offer some taxi tours or bus tours from there but it would do you well to learn a little French or bring an English to French dictionary.

It is about a 30 minute 'bus adventure' from the train station to the cemetery itself. The people offering transportation tours to the site speak very limited English and accept cash only. Interesting that this important piece of history seems to be so untouched by capitalism for lack of a better phrase.

Between my sister and me, we were able to awkwardly purchase 6 tickets for the next bus leaving for the cemetery. For 6 of us we were given 3 tickets. One had to be punched 4 times and the other had to be punched 2 times and the 3rd one not at all. Then on the return trip, one of the tickets was punched 5 times while the other had to be punched once. WTF?? I still can't get my head around that one. I honestly think the bus driver was screwing with us, but the tickets were cheap, we were 6 of 12 people on the entire bus and we set off right away.

The town that surrounds the cemetery is called ST.-LAURENT-SUR-MER. It is a very quaint little place that is separated from Bayeux by a few miles of windy narrow roads that you would expect in any small European city. This made the bus trip out there very exciting. There are lots of bends in the road that have large mirrors attached to the corner of the nearest building so you can see if a car is coming around or not- there simply isn't room for a car and a bus at the same time! The areas two big draws (aside from the cemetery) are the Omaha Beach Golf Course (oy) and camping. We saw 2 or 3 camp sites on the way to the cemetery. It is very pretty area and it isn't hard to imagine what it looked like back in the 1940's- it honestly looks like it hasn't been touched.

The second odd thing we noticed upon our arrival at the cemetery itself was that up until recently there seem to have been no public bathrooms at the site and it was simply a dirt and gravel free-for-all type of parking lot. They had recently completed the restrooms and paved and landscaped a new parking lot literally days before we arrived. I know that after Saving Private Ryan was completed, Tom Hanks went on a crusade to help preserve World War II history and some of the funds he raised were allocated to the American Cemetery so I am assuming that is why all of this is so recent. But doesn't it just boggle your mind that something as important as this seems to have been left alone for so long?

Currently the site has a single one room building at the entrance to the cemetery. Inside it you can pick up a single sheet, copy machine printed pamphlet in one of 5 languages that tells about the site. Or you can ask questions from a lady that sits at the desk. That's pretty much it. Soon there will be a visitor center and café that will be located next to the newly completed restrooms.

As of right now, there is no place to eat or even purchase water. I am torn about this because A-we couldn't find anything to eat for about 11 hours, when we did it was vending machine snacks at the train station and water bottles we had carried with us and B-it would break my heart to go back there in 2 years and see some jack-hole selling white cross magnets along with $23 disposable cameras. Is it possible to have a non touristy tourist site? I honestly just wanted a sandwich for my diabetic hubby. The all stainless steel potty was a nice bonus but we were really hungry. There are no places to eat near the site itself either. And when I say near I mean like within 4-5 miles. Oh, well when we go back there will be a beautiful cafe there, I'm sure.

The site itself is very beautifully maintained. As much as it is represented that the French hate us- they are extremely grateful for our efforts during the war and the cemetery is pristine. I guess there are many local schools who take regular field trips just to place flowers on the grave sites. After leaving the lady in the small building you exit to your left toward the main entrance to the cemetery. You enter past a simple sign on the right.

Yes, that's the least we can do.

You enter down a row of trees

that open onto the reflecting pool and you are drawn to the right where huge maps spell out the campaign year by year by year in surreal details. All of the maps are on huge beautiful marble pieces with bright enamel details. You can stare for hours and the enormity of it all simply stunts you.

You keep walking down toward the left and through the trees you see the ocean.

You could be standing at Newport or Seal Beach 60 years ago- very few people, some riding horses on the beach and you can see for miles and miles. Stunning? Yes. Strategic? Not for our side. You could have seen us coming 20 miles away on that stormy day. It was a poor choice and we dearly paid the price.

After standing there as long as I could, I took some deep breaths and moved toward the endless sea of white crosses and Stars of David. And they were endless. Simply endless. You just kept walking and they just kept going. I tried not to look but you just have to. Each of them had names and regiments, death dates and states. New York, New Jersey, Virginia, California, Oregon on and on and on. Then you see this and the tears simply won't stop.

It's overwhelming to think just how many people died there in that very short period. Some towns don't have as many people as lost their lives on that beach. Most of the death dates were those few days in early June 1944 but some weren't until the fall of that year and some even later. I wondered about the exact circumstances of their deaths, where and how. As I walked passed each I couldn't help but think about those they left behind.

The life experiences they never got to have. They were so very young. Did they have wives and children? Did some of these men have children they never met? How many days until the parents found out their sons weren't coming home? The details of dying in war overwhelmed me and I am grateful to not have first hand knowledge.

I also thought about how no battle in Iraq could ever or would ever compare to the bloodiness of that time back in 1944, but how the human element is so similar- The families who cannot be together for birthdays and holidays and the families who will never be whole again.

I think of what incredible sacrifices were made and continue to be made daily. I wish I could make it all go away for those whose lives have been devastated by war. But life's not like that. There are those who rise up and see something beyond themselves, who make significant sacrifices everyday and those who make that one ultimate sacrifice for their country.

So today with powerful memories of Normandie fresh in my mind, to them and all of those who made their sacrifices more recently, in a time where it seems less and less popular to do so and our society seems more and more self centered than country centered, I just wanted to say that you are remembered, today and always. And even though it hardly seems enough, thank you.