Monday, June 6, 2016

Normandy and Omaha Beach

Today is the 72nd anniversary of D’Day, when the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. So many lost their lives that day, but their sacrifice ensured our freedom, and that’s a debt we can never repay. I feel so honored to have been able to visit the beaches this weekend.

I have been looking forward to visiting Normandy since my first day in France. It has been at the top of my must-do list before returning to the States, and for a while I wasn’t sure how I would be able to get there and if I’d have to go alone. I am so so thankful for my friend Isabelle who not only offered to drive, but invited a couple other friends who were just as excited to go as I was, made sure we had packed lunches and booked our Airbnb (an adorable house about 12 minutes from Omaha Beach). She drove the entire time and made sure we were all having a good time. So to Isa, thank you for not only making this weekend possible, but for making it a weekend I will never forget.

I don’t even know where to start. I took over 750 photos and saw and participated in so much, that it’s hard to pinpoint where to begin. I suppose the first thing that stuck out to me was on the drive to Omaha Beach. Once we reached a certain point, nearly every house that we passed displayed the American flag. There is so much gratitude toward Americans in this part of France, and it was humbling to see my own country’s flag everywhere I looked.

We pulled into the parking lot, and the sky was still pretty gray and cast a chill in the air. We walked over to the memorial on the beach, appropriately named “The Brave,” and that was the first look at Omaha Beach. I couldn’t believe I was finally standing there after wanting to come for so long. And here I was. Facing the water, I couldn’t help but imagine how different the same spot must have looked 72 years before. Not the tranquil, quiet beach we were looking at, but somewhere dangerous and war-torn. When I looked behind me, I could see these lovely green hills overlooking the ocean, but all I could picture were guns pointed toward the incoming American soldiers. It was a somber moment for me, standing there realizing that this same beautiful beach I was looking at was once covered in bodies and blood, and the sky was filled with gun fire and smoke. These soldiers were so young and their lives were cut so short. How did they mentally prepare themselves for that day? Knowing that as soon as those boats made it close enough to shore, that it could very well be their last moments, which was the truth for so many. How do you dig deep enough within yourself to find the strength and bravery to do what they did, despite the fear they must have felt? I have no idea. But I’m so thankful for what they did that day.

I brought home some sand from in front of the monument as gifts for some very special solider family and friends of mine. After taking some photos around the main area, we walked along the beach, then came back toward the monument to eat the picnic we packed. By this point, the sky was finally starting to clear and the sun was beginning to feel warm. This is the first blue sky and sunshine I’d see in a week and a half, and we were so happy. After we finished eating, we decided to shed our jackets and walk along the beach to the American Cemetery. It was quite a hike, but by now the sky was clear and the sun was getting hot, so we were just so happy to be outside. We had a great time walking and talking and taking photos along the way. About an hour or so later, we make it to the bottom of the hill in front of the cemetery. We walked along the path, and saw that the gate was closed (none of us seemed to notice that there was a temporary sign that said this was closed for security reasons, but I noticed it when going through my photos). So we got creative, and hiked to the top of the hill, and trekked through a beautiful field that was beside the cemetery. Seriously, it was gorgeous up there.

We walked around to the main entrance and into the visitor’s center. We took our time walking up and down the rows of displays and films being played, then made our way outside toward the monument. As I reached the top, I was just in time to see a Scottish band begin playing for about 10 minutes. I love bagpipes, so this was a pleasant surprise, and we enjoyed sitting there listening to them play. At this point, we all dispersed and began wandering around on our own and taking photos. I just couldn’t believe I was actually standing there after wanting to come for so long. After a half hour or so, I hear planes in the distance. Thankfully, I had my camera in hand, because all of the sudden, planes started flying low over the cemetery. Like…REALLY low. I think there were 5 planes that passed over us, then did a few more passes while we were there. It was so awesome.

As you leave the American Cemetery, you can find this inscription on a wall of the visitor's center, which I loved:
"You can manufacture weapons and you can purchase ammunition, but you can't buy valor and you can't pull heroes off an assembly line."
Sergeant John B. Ellery
U.S. 1st Infantry Division

After we left the cemetery, we made our way back down to the beach and walked back toward the monument where we were parked. We drove to our Airbnb for the night to drop our stuff and chill for a while. There were so many events happening that weekend, and we had a guide that told us what festivities were happening and where. We found a festival in Sainte-Mère-Église. This little village played a significant part during the Normandy landings, particularly with the paratroopers, many of which lost their lives while descending over this town. When we got to the square near the church, there were people and soldiers from the US, France, and Germany everywhere. There was music from the 1940s playing, and the smell and smoke of sausages on the grill hung in the air. We walked around for a bit, and ended up standing in line for sausages and fries…which was the only thing any of the tents sold. Not sure why haha. But as we were standing there, a US soldier got in line behind us. Isabelle could hear the French guy behind him trying to talk to him, and she intervened to translate. We all got to chatting, and we ended up following him over to his friends, who we spent the rest of the night chatting with. We all had so much fun, and the entire night ended with an amazing fireworks show over the square. It was a perfect day.

The next day, we went back to Sainte-Mère-Église for the paratrooping event. The soldiers we met were selected to participate in this event among others, which is why they were there. The day started off chilly and cloudy again, but ended up really hot at one point (my poor face is currently sunburned). We enjoyed another round of sausage dogs and fries and watched the paratroopers jump from their planes and sail to the ground. After this event, there was a ceremony commemorating the occasion, and we ended up running into the same group from the night before. One of them gave us some of his patches and pins as we left, which was something we noticed the night before. A lot of the locals would come up to the soldiers and ask for patches, or the soldiers from one country would trade with those from another. Although wearing a service member’s uniform in the States would be considered disrespectful, I asked one of the guys we were talking to if it was different here, because so many of the locals were dressed up in military gear. He said that here it wasn’t since they were basically honoring the soldiers at this event. There was a store open right next to us that sold military gear and uniforms, so we finally figured out where the locals were finding the stuff they were wearing. But it was really endearing to see them approach the servicemembers from each country to shake their hands and ask for photos. We stayed in Sainte-Mère-Église until about 5 PM on Sunday. A parade was about to start, but we had to skip it so we could get on the road and go home. It was such a bummer to leave because the energy and camaraderie among both soldiers and civilians at these events was something I was so grateful to be a part of. I’ll never forget it.

We weren't able to visit any museums or some other important sights, but it just makes me that much more excited to return one day. Normandy is beautiful. The entire region is just so quaint and lovely. If ever you have the opportunity to visit, do it. You won’t be disappointed. And I highly recommend planning a trip around this time of year when these same events are going on.

But back to Paris we went. Back to the oppressively cloudy skies and rainy days. Not sure if everyone has heard, but Paris has flooded. The Seine rose to 20 feet above it’s normal level and washed out the embankments, some roads and metros, and some museums and other sites had to close. But apparently the water level is lowering now, but I think we are still supposed to have rain for the next few days. My rain-soaked soul is ready for consistent warmth and sunshine. It’s June, I shouldn’t be outside in a coat.

I feel like May was a blur. After returning from Barcelona, we had a few beautiful and very warm days where I could walk around in a dress and enjoy some afternoons picnicking with friends along the canals. Me and a couple friends were finally able to visit Giverny, which was just as beautiful as I had hoped it would be, although it was packed. It’s not the tranquil, uncrowded scene that the movie Midnight in Paris displays. Nope. Lots of school groups and tourists hanging about. But it was a gorgeous place, and totally worth the trip. The actual town of Giverny was so small and picturesque. It was the perfect charming little French provincial town. 

Another friend from high school who was in my graduating class visited Paris a couple weeks ago. Adam has been traveling solo and stayed in Paris for a few days. We had one good weather day, but unfortunately the torrential downpours that caused the flooding started during his trip. He says he still had fun though. I’d probably have cried if that was my first trip to Paris, but he was a good sport. It was fun playing the tour guide though, even though we walked a ton and it wore me out lol.

I can’t believe my time in Paris is nearly over. I literally can’t believe it is June and that I’ll be home soon. 40 days from today, 5 weeks and 5 days from now, I’ll be on US soil for the first time in what will then be 7 months. I can’t wait to see my friends and family, and get back to normalcy. But hopefully I’ll be able to jam as much as I can into the coming weeks (including the masquerade at Versailles!), and enjoy probably the last time I will ever have this much freedom and time to travel and do what I want without having a career or other responsibilities. 

Not too many blog posts left! Hard to believe. I hope you all enjoyed this post, though I feel like it was pretty short and didn’t really do justice to my trip this past weekend. I literally can't put Normandy into words that truly capture the experience. Put it on your list of must visit places for sure. 

Until next time!