Twenty Minutes

All it took was 20 minutes for me to fall in love with France.  That’s quicker than my daily drive to work and almost quicker than it takes for me to choose my dinner in a restaurant. My first impressions of France began while I was still in the air, circling, preparing to land. The ground below was green, very green. 20150511_032241So much so that it’s noticeable from above when you get your first glimpse of the country from an airplane window as you begin your descent into the airport. It’s been said that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, however, this isn’t about Paris. Indeed, Paris is beautiful in many parts, and truthfully, a little ordinary in others. But, it wasn’t the city that caught my eye, instead it was a 20 minute detour due to a missed turn that captured my heart. I admit that I approached Paris as though expecting a quick fling. Much like a first date, you’re nervous about the introduction to the city, not knowing what to expect, wondering if you will click. But, the French countryside, well that was definitely more than a crush. The French people have a phrase for it: “le coup de foudre”, which translates to love at first sight.

I was about to set sail on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II but the recent rains resulted in higher water levels making it difficult to pass under the beautiful bridges of Paris. In order to navigate the river we would need to board a motor coach to drive to our first stop. We would then embark at the first port of call in Vernon-Les Andelys. Some might have seen the change in plans as disappointing but I now believe it was fortunate fate. The bus ride along the highway to our new starting point was just like any other highway: multiple lanes of traffic in each direction with very little to look at. You could almost call it boring. We were moving along at a fast pace, passing other vehicles and sometimes being passed. Perhaps this hypnotic tedium contributed to our driver missing the turnoff for our destination. One additional exit later, an alternate route was chosen and unknowingly, our luck had just changed and for the better as we unexpectedly found ourselves in the French countryside.20150511_032308

At times it seemed as though the full size motor coach, the travel industry’s fancy and professional name for “bus”, couldn’t possibly navigate the small roads of the ancient villages. The driver faced a modern day challenge as the curbs were lined with private cars and the twists and turns were tight and many. Surely l wasn’t the only one to hold my breath as inch by inch the driver slowly and carefully shimmied his way through the narrow roads. But then, as I exhaled, the village itself took my breath completely away. It was everything you would imagine a small European village to be. A town where the tallest structure is the church steeple and people with picnic hampers lounge on the grass. Winding roads, originally built for animal drawn carts, weave past 16th century chateaux whose placement was determined long before there were paved roads. Stone houses with tiled roofs and grand chimneys had wooden shutters that covered full length windows. Jumbles of colorful flowers spilled over ancient stone walls that were originally erected to delineate property lines. However, the current function of those walls seemed to be solely for the purpose of preventing the premature deaths of free roaming chickens by limiting their access to the road. Occasionally you come across a newer home whose design with its constructed antique appearance is such that it intentionally pays homage to its past. Some homes are trying for modern sustainability while retaining an aged patina and have found a way for solar panels to coexist in design harmony with an earlier time. The pace was comfortable and slow and the countryside seduced you into relaxing and setting down the burden of daily life. It invited you to have a sip of calvados, the apple wine and perhaps taste a bit of pastry as you spent some time getting to know each other. Villages are dotted with handmade signs advertising apple “cidre” and fresh eggs and are replete with open meadows inhabited by contented cows and happy horses. The narrow roads allowed a front row view into the daily lives of the local folk giving the appearance of an idyllic lifestyle or at least a page from a themed calendar featuring story book cottages. Slowly, almost at an escargot’s pace, the driver continued safely past automobiles parked on both sides of the narrow road, until we had successfully navigated our way. I was almost disappointed to arrive at our destination as I wanted more of this countryside charm. I didn’t yet realize that this wasn’t the end of the trip but just the beginning of our journey.20150511_032400

We boarded the ship and were soon on our way. Smoothly and slowly, we made our way up the Seine (pronounced Sen). Local cottages gave way to grander homes perched high upon the riverbanks, set amidst the rolling green hills that lined the banks. Occasionally, a friendly land owner would wave and those of us on deck would wave back. I envy their lifestyle, perhaps they envied me mine, however temporary it was.

Did I fall in love? Absolutment! But, France was more than just a whirlwind romance or a brief fling for me. I believe that it was the prelude to a long lasting relationship – definitely an affair of the heart. “Jusqu’a ce que nous reverrons” – until we meet again.


Normandy’s Landing Beaches

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on
other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war
machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of
Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

June 6, 1944 – D-Day codename: Operation Neptune. On this day a coordinated effort of the allies began their quest to free Europe from the Nazi stronghold. A key part of the total initiative called Operation Overlord, the fight to free France began as American troops arrived at the beaches which were given the code names of Omaha and Utah, while British landed at Gold and Sword and the Canadians at Juno.

My recent river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II travelled from Paris and featured a visit to Caudebec, an area best known for its intact medieval town and especially its proximity to Arromanches and the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches. As part of the cruise package I was offered a choice of excursions at each destination and at the port of Caudebec I chose to visit the American Landing Beaches. Even though I had no relatives who served in the war, I wanted to honor the memory of those who did serve and those who perished and to show appreciation for their gift of freedom.  The Avalon Tapestry II ship hosted travelers of many nationalities and the excursions were thoughtfully arranged to allow the American travelers to visit Utah and Omaha beaches while our fellow Canadian and British guests would be taken to pay their respects at the Juno and Sword beaches. The journey started with a 2 hour bus ride filled with friendly banter about home towns, yesterday’s adventures and the breakfast served earlier that morning that included chocolate chip pancakes. During the drive, our guide offered insight into the history of the attack and the significance of the areas we would be visiting. Approaching from the East, our first glimpse was of the British beaches. We wouldn’t be stopping but as a point of interest the driver slowed the bus so we could get a quick look.  In lieu of a traditional sign, the locals had chosen to mark the passage entry with a visual impression featuring silhouettes of soldiers as though there were no words to describe the horror of that day. Lacking facial definition the images represented every son, brother, husband and father that fought for freedom. The bus grew uncharacteristically quiet, except for the clicking of cameras.  We arrived at the American sites a short time later and started our visit with the D-Day museum which is perched above Utah Beach. As our group waited for our assigned admission time I watched a carousel filled with colorful animals circling round and round. The children either giggle or cry as they go up and down, and it often seems to be more for the parent’s enjoyment. You find carousels in many spots in France but in no other area did it seem so out of place. I headed down to the beach and made my way to the water. It’s an ordinary looking beach that bore witness to extraordinary events. Large and wide with firmly packed sand, the beach attracted families and strolling couples and an occasional dog or two. One particularly romantic man carved out in the sand a rather large heart complete with Cupid’s arrow using nothing but the heel of his bare foot. The object of his affection was no nowhere to be seen as he walked away alone. A group of Beach kiters were spinning and chasing each other in contraptions that looked like canoes on wheels but were powered by the wind harnessed in their sails.  They seemed oblivious to the blood that was spilled and the thousands of young lives lost 70 years ago. My first thought was “isn’t this disrespectful?” No, indeed, this freedom and carefree joy is exactly what the soldiers were fighting for.  We entered the museum at our assigned time and as you would expect, the building is filled with authentic artifacts and preserved photographs and recordings. These items serve as evidence and depict in stark black and white the brutality of the war and the youth of those who were fighting, many of whom never survived past the point where water met the sand. After we viewed a film that detailed the complex plans for the attack, as others were purchasing souvenirs I returned to the beach to collect some sand and shells.

We continued to Omaha Beach and the vulnerability of the allied soldiers was immediately evident. The high cliffs perched above the beach gave the opposition a vantage point that they maximized. Stone and cement military bunkers had been constructed by the German force that provided their fighters protection as well as the ability to watch the shores around the clock. Touring the ruins gave a clear understanding as to why the allied casualties were so heavy. Several in our group declined to enter the structures, I assume, due to either claustrophobia or heavy emotion and I understand both.

The final leg of our journey brought us to Colleville sur mer to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. You’ve probably seen the photos of this cemetery with the perfectly spaced crosses marking the graves of American soldiers. Row upon row, close to ninety four hundred white marble crosses mark the graves of those Americans who lost their lives during the war.  To honor the dead a ceremony is held that includes raising the American flag while visitors sing the National Anthem. Both pride and tears were abundant. Participants are then given roses to place on the grave of their choice and the ceremony is repeated every 60 minutes to include all new visitors. As I walked through the headstones I was most touched by the occasional grave that bore a Star of David. They are few amongst the many crosses and all the more notable when you remember that at the peak of the Holocaust 6ooo Jews were being gassed daily. There is a custom that visitors to a Jewish grave often observe: that of leaving a stone on the grave or headstone. The history of this tradition offers several theories, most logically to indicate that someone had paid a visit. I noticed that none of the Jewish graves bore any evidence of visitors while many of the graves of Christians were graced with a rose. I had already placed my rose shortly after I entered the cemetery so I searched for a stone of any size or kind but found none.  I did find small pine cones and decided that intent was paramount and made a choice to honor and simultaneously break with tradition and placed that pine cone atop a Star of David.   Today, the sacrifices of those soldiers on that day on those beaches which bore witness to extraordinary events are once again ordinary. This ordinariness, this living a life free of tyranny is a gift, often taken for granted. This is the victory that the soldiers fought for and paid for with their lives. It was their gift to future generations and one that we should be grateful for each and every day.