Day 2: Normandy Beaches
Today was a World War II buff’s dream. (I am not one, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.) We started off about 10 centuries in Bayeux, home of the famous 7 meter, 58 scene tapestry that tells the story of William the Conqueror. Basically it’s a piece of French moralistic propaganda, but beautifully embroidered. The story: Harold (Prince of England) and William the Bastard (King of France) are stepbrothers, or some other sketchy relation like that. On a voyage to France, Harold veers off course and ends up at an unexpected place where he is kidnapped for ransom and taken to William the king. To be released, Harold takes an oath on the holiest relics of the region that he will assume the throne of France when William dies. He goes back to England, and becomes the king of England contrary to his oath at first opportunity, and is then appropriately killed in battle by William, who is then given the title of Conqueror. (Interesting side note: since the English swore so much in battle they were known as Les Goddamns by the French, and they are always depicted by the two signs of evil: long hair and mustaches.) In summary, don’t take an oath you don’t plan to keep or else God will kill you. It took me three times to understand the story: a mock tapestry, a cheesy movie (including classic sexist lines such as, “you, a woman, should appreciate the love story”) and the tapestry itself narrated with an audio tour.
Then starts the D-day tour of the Normandy Beaches. The first, in Arromaches, included a circular, IMAX style theatre that showed authentic images taken by war correspondents accompanied only by dramatic violin music. It didn’t impact me as much as it did some, but I suppose I’m too young and distanced from the event itself to get too emotional. Since we came only two days after the D-day anniversary there were war veterans present from both France and the US. The scenery was amazing: rolling green hills that end in cliffs above pristine beaches. Some of the reckage still remains on the sand, but it’s still hard to believe that there was so much carnage on such a beautiful landscape. The juxtaposition must have been even more jarring for the French soldiers I imagine.
Next we encountered proof that underneath all the surface animosity there is actually a friendly connection between the US and France: The American Military Cemetery. There were rows of crosses and stars of David, some that were unnamed or before D-day. The solemnity was ruined somewhat by the presence of bored French teenagers, who understandably are more interested in flirting with each other than American war history. There was a nice letter exchange from Eisenhower and Rene Coty, the French president of the time the cemetery was built, framed that described how France and the US would always be connected in friendship because of that horrible day. Next we visited Pointe du Hoc, home of an overtly phallic memorial commemorating the events of the Rangers.
The day ended at a cute bed and breakfast on the coast, across from the monastery island of Mont St. Michel. I had my first real French conversation with the charming owner Danielle, and also my first experience of translating from French to English for the benefit of others. I actually struggle with it since I’m starting to think in French now. We had another 2.5 hour, multi-course dinner (my American stomach is not used to eating so much so late) and I had my first of what I expect to be several restless nights in a new country.
French skills: above average, I actually fooled a cashier at a gift shop into thinking I was French. I was buying postcards and she addressed me in English, I said “merci” with my best French accent, then she gave me a knowing smile and counted my change in French. Victoire est la mienne!
Bizarre Musical Juxtaposition: Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” in a respectable French restaurant.
Drink Count: 4ish, still cider, enough to give me a slight hangover the next day.