5.1: France, Partie Un
Bonjour, Ernest et Hadley,
First, I want to thank you, Ernie, for the birthday wishes. Very kind of you to remember. Hadley, I’m sure you were busy, lots going on, finding new spots on the sill now that the Earth’s tilt is changing and all…
Because the days are growing shorter, I will break the France leg of my journey into pieces, in hopes of eventually catching up to real-time, and allowing you both sufficient opportunity to take advantage of your naptime in these waning hours of sunlight.
And besides, France, wow…
My journey from Ireland would take me by ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard, where I would then take the railway across Wales. It was a long trip with a few delays due to two canceled trains, but I was accompanied by a wonderfully kind woman of an advanced age who promised to get me onto the right connections. She did, and in exchange I helped with her luggage. We made a fine team, and I was sad to bid her goodbye in Southampton.
I would disembark quite late in Portsmouth, a southern port with a stunning nightlife scene but very few open rooms nearby. Very few, as in, well, none. As a result, I may or may not have spent the night sleeping outside, though definitely not if Mom is reading this. But if you are, Mom, rest assured it would have been a million dollar waterfront view if I had. Which, as I said, I most definitely did not.
My early morning ferry out of Portsmouth would take me across the English Channel, offering a view of the water approach of the young American, British and Canadian forces on June 6th, 1944. I would try then, as I would many more times during this visit, to imagine what I would have been feeling as an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old with no desire, or business, in having a pack weighing three times that of my fancy Osprey hiking pack, filled with weaponry rather than lightweight pants and shirts, toiletries and electronic gadgets, on the verge of being dropped into the shallows of a beachhead in a foreign land, straight into a living hell.
Being the spoiled American that I am, thanks to the sacrifices of those young men and women, just kids, who fought, killed, prayed, cried, and died, well before their lives really even began, this boat would drop me quite comfortably and quietly in the port of Caen.
Almost immediately, my frequent naps in Ms. Rubiano’s French class at Classical High School would come back to haunt me – although to be fair, we never had a lesson in reading bus schedules. Hm, then again, maybe we did?
From Caen I would eventually reach my destination of Bayeux, a town that remains quite unchanged since General de Gaulle received his hero’s welcome so many decades ago, the same roads, squares, homes and churches still standing, as if I had traveled back in time.
I would begin the next morning, my 55th year on this planet, dabbing my eyes a bit (okay fine, maybe more than a bit), having finally opened the card my mother had handed me the day we said goodbye, telling me not to open it until my birthday.
I’ve mentioned Dad a few times already since my little adventure began. And just to be clear, this trip wasn’t born of loss, or the search for the deeper meanings of our relationship. I’m not having a mid-life crisis (covid-crisis maybe, but not mid-life), and while I will admit to having a have a touch of spirituality, I am most certainly not on a religious quest – I’m a pseudo-agnostic, at best – counting more on my GodSquad (you know who you are, Elle-B) to occasionally throw a shout-out my way in their dailies.
But if I’m being completely honest, I can’t shake the feeling that Dad is with me, watching over, helping me along. There have simply been far too many instances of good luck and good fortune, suddenly appearing from the depths of poor luck and misfortune, for me to explain.
The photo Mom sent, one I’d never seen before, now resides in the sleeve of my passport, so it’s close by at all times. Not because I believe in some greater presence or power, but just, y’know, in case, or whatever…
My AirBnB was on Rue de la Cave, a wonderfully quaint little road (though all of the roads in Bayeux seem to be) just around the corner from countless cafes and restaurants, an entire town steeped in history. I didn’t have to go far, however, to know I’d woken up in France.
Later that morning I would make my way to the bus stop nearby Gare Bayeux. And, once again having misread the schedule, would detour to the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. I would somehow end up having the perfect amount of time to walk there, visit, become much better educated to the nuance of the landings, strategies, challenges, immense loss – and the impact on the entire world of that sacrifice – and still get back just in time to catch my bus.
While waiting for the bus, I would introduce myself to Jelena (yel-ena), apologizing in my best French for speaking so little of it, and asking if she spoke English. She did. In fact, she spoke several languages, due to her simply being a European, and in no small part because she also happened to be a professional translator. And she wasn’t French. She is Croatian, here on vacation.
I asked Jelena if she knew the stop for Omaha Beach, and she laughed, saying she was going to ask me the same. We would spend the next four hours together, talking about our lives and touring the cemetery, monuments, bunkers and beaches.
The entire region – not just Normandy’s Omaha Beach – proudly displays its appreciation to the soldiers who fought and died for the freedom of France – and the entire world – and to say it is moving and humbling is an immense understatement.
For young and old alike, I encourage you to visit Normandy and Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches should you ever get the chance. To be clear, life here is not all somber memorials and remembrance. Omaha Beach is vibrant and lively and stunningly beautiful. People walked, jogged, rode sulkies and sail wagons, swam and played with their dogs in the surf and more. It’s a beautiful vacation destination for tourists, and a playground for locals.
What happened here cannot be forgotten, however, and in many ways it serves as the perfect juxtaposition and reminder for us all – American, French, Croatian and more – to be forever thankful for what we have, and to never ever forget those who sacrificed their very lives to make it all possible.