A tour of Normandy

My dad and a decided to rent a car last weekend and start driving Northwest. With a general idea of somehow getting to Mont Saint Michel by the end of the day, we took a very long and leisurely ride through the French countryside ending up at the coast around 4 o’clock.

MONT SAINT MIICHEL

Mont Saint Michel is really one of those places that you have to get to at least once in your lifetime. Even though it was pouring rain as we drove up, there is something so majestical about the way it rises up out of the ocean. A little town has been created on the mainland for tourists to stay that you pass through first and then you drive across a causeway that somehow manages to not get washed away by the tides. On the day we were there, the tides were not changing that much, but apparently that tides can change up to 50 feet. For the road up to the island still manages not to get washed away every time this happens is beyond me, but I guess they have they figured out. 

Since we arrived a little later than anticipated, we rushed up to the top of the island where the famous abbey is located to do a tour before it closed for the day. How something so large was built atop a little island like that is still beyond me. Apparently the draw up building something so high up was so that the monks could be as close to heaven as possible.  The history of the island is endless, having been built in the 6th century. You have the Norman Conquest, the 100 Years War, the Reaffirmation, the French Revolution and finally up to today when it has been turned in a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At one point it was even used for a prison right after the Revolution. No getting of this island! With its rich history, the island has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years with most of the pilgrims today being tourists. 

During our stay at in the little town they’ve constructed next to the island, I think it was safe to say that my dad and I were the only non-Asians. I’m serious – there had to have been at least 20 tour bus loads of Japanese and Korean tourists. Luckily for us, it wasn’t quite peak tourist season so while there were certainly a lot of people, it was nothing compared to what I’ve heard it can be like in the summer when you have to wait for hours to even drive up to the island. The island lit up at night is almost just as beautiful as it is during the day. In the evening, my dad and I started to drive up to the island and all along the road were bright lights shining back at us. Apparently since it’s so dark, the hotels recommend that you wear reflective vests while walking so that the cars can see you. It was pretty hilarious seeing the whole cause way lit up by people walking in reflective vests.

While Mont Saint Michel has once again turned into a tourist hub for all those who come to France, it was still a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. It was unfortunate that it was raining we arrived, but luckily it cleared up by the evening and in the morning before we left, we got one most look at the island through the morning haze. I’m sure it has lost some of its allure and mystique from years past but it was still an amazing place to visit. 

NORMANDY BEACHES (Special guest blogging by my dad on this section!) 

The image of thousands of young men facing their ultimate sacrifice willingly as they waded onto the beaches of Normandy  is one of the standard icons of the last century, brought to life palpably in the excruciating first 40 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. These allied troops won the “good war”.  Breaking Hitler’s back on the Atlantic, they enabled our Communist allies to move in from the East, ending combat in the European theater (what sort of performance, one wonders) 10 months later. And yet, it cannot be that simple. Visiting Normandy forces one to grapple with hard questions. Is it possible to move beyond the myths of the event and consider the meaning of its success in hastening the liberation of Europe? Would it have been possible to invade sooner, as Stalin was begging? Was the resulting Cold War inevitable? Was it even necessary given the collapsing situation on the Eastern Front? Standing physically on the site of the battles cannot answer these questions, only bring them to mind. The museums and exhibits saturate the senses with images of the battles, the uniforms and weapons, the soldiers daily ephemera–comics and cigarettes, letters and photos, from both sides. Images of French life in the occupation, and the geography the allies confronted after pushing the Germans back from their original perches high above the waterfront. The beaches and surrounding cliffs are quiet today, and quite lovely. Omaha Beach is a tourist community in the summer for folks who keep beach houses there. And pieces of the invasion are continually being discovered, a barnacle encrusted helmet in the waters near the shore, guns and other military items in the surrounding landscape. 

William James, the great philosopher, wrote a short essay toward the end of his life entitled, The Moral Equivalent of War. In 1910, prior to the horrific carnage of the wars of the last century, James channeled a lifetime of research on human behavior into the question of what would it take to end combat. Knowing its devastating costs, why did men relentlessly heed the call to fight? Could there any activity that did not involve killing which could bring out the heroism that warfare elicits, James wondered. Is there any equivalent theater of self transcendence that can replace battle, that gruesome contest where the victor withstands deadly force and out kills and out injures the enemy?

Visiting the beaches at Normandy brought much of James’ writing to mind. Here we were, my daughter and I, standing in Omaha Beach and facing the bluff where the Nazis fired into the invading troops from on high. Tens of thousands of allied soldiers, teenagers many of them, walked off special landing vehicles into almost certain death, and then another ten thousand. Their commitment to each other which hastened their self sacrifice is nearly impossible to comprehend for those of us not familiar with combat. (Note: even though the carnage of the European invasion was enormous, BY AMERICAN STANDARDS, in the overall statistics of military and civilian deaths in Europe and Asia during the period, it was minimal, perhaps no more than 3,000.)

Visiting the cemetery at the end of the trip helped to still some of the questions. Walking through the manicured lawns where soldiers from many nations rest brought a useful closure to the day. 


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