Two Days in History

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Monday, October 30, 2006

He Said:

Shortly after I felt so much pride from my Bavarian ancestor's invention of Oktoberfest, I heard a quote from a German philosopher. He said it's ridiculous for a person to feel pride for a country when he or she has no choice in being born there. Many Germans look down upon national pride because they saw first hand what too much of it can do. That tingle we feel when Taps is played and the Air Force flies over in formation tickles the same nerve that Hitler struck with German citizens after their humiliating surrender to end World War I. To compare Nazi Germany nationalism with American patriotism might sound ludicrous, but remove the adjectives. Nationalism and patriotism play in the same league no matter what color their uniforms. During our time in Normandy, I spent a lot of time thinking about pride for my team's colors.

In Caen, a short train ride from our home base of Bayeux, we went to one of the top five museums in the world in my opinion. The Memorial is officially dedicated to the spirit and cultivation of peace, and it begins with a detailed journey through 20th-Century warfare and respective political contributions. Visitors begin a downward spiral into the depths of the museum. The mood gets darker as history progresses chronologically through the end of World War I, the rise of fascism, and the horrors of World War II. Later, the rise of communism is displayed side by side with American attempts to contain it, often with similarly intrusive methods such as the McCarthy Hearings. The museum presented facts using artifacts and raw news footage, and it never editorialized its content, even during the last section - Approaches to Peace.

The Memorial was so rich and clever with its ability to inspire thinking that we were rushed at the end of our visit, which lasted close to five hours, and we didn't give everything adequate time. We even missed a few things, such as the Nobel Peace Prize Gallery. But we did get to spend at least a few minutes in Approaches to Peace, which was the most intelligent room I have ever been in. It was a complete analysis of peace, and not just the "Peace, dude, or I'll put a flower in your gun!" type of thing, though they did have some intense artwork along those lines. But peace isn't just a trendy idea to be marketed or commercialized so people can sell bumper stickers or hash pipes or new lines of clothing. It is a living notion, and this museum really made me slow down to conceptually think about its definition.

This whole section of The Memorial was developed by a Question and Answer format, with answers coming from a generic, nameless "philosopher". To paraphrase:

Q - Why is there so much attention given to war in a museum dedicated to peace?
A - As with all dualistic concepts, these two opposing ideas must be viewed in opposition to fully reveal their definitions.
Q - What does peace really mean? How is it defined?
A - Peace can exist both internally and externally. Most Western religions and cultures focus on external peace, while most Eastern religions and cultures focus on internal peace. According to the Romans, peace is a balance of power. In fact, 'peace' is rooted in the Latin word for 'pact'. It also refers to the absence of war and the existence of non-violence.
Q - But non-violence doesn't always work.
A - Correct, but violence always leads to MORE violence. I challenge you to think of an example of violence that wasn't responded to with another form of retaliatory violence. As social groups, we have to be very careful with our words and actions to make sure we don't become vengeful, or we just contribute to the continuing cycle. Even journalists play a role.
Q - Yes, I can understand that because, by nature, no piece of writing is void of bias, but how can you say that violence is never necessary? Look at what happened in 1944 on the nearby beaches.
A - Again, you are correct. It seems that the only justification for violence is when it becomes necessary to preserve justice. In this case, we must be careful not to shift the burden of intent onto the word 'justice'. We must make sure that the definition of 'justice' is not being distorted to rationalize a war that isn't justifiable.

And the dialogue raged on, not mentioning any conflict by name and focusing wholly on concepts, right up until closing time at The Memorial. Again, I thought about pride. How could I be proud of a country that doesn't target civilians, but completely vaporized two Japanese cities? How can I not be proud of a country that has citizens capable of nutting up on foreign beaches, completely unselfish, to rid the world of its most horrific resident ? Both rhetorical questions proving that if one is proud of one's country, one must also be open to disappointment and visa versa.

After touring The Memorial in Caen, I can finally fully understand why Europeans sometimes look at the U.S. government as being crazy. We have been involved in a lot of conflicts, some probably meeting The Philosopher's criteria for preserving justice, some probably not. What we have to understand as U.S. residents is that we have never seen war as an entire nation. Two days of homeland attacks in more than 225 years just doesn't qualify us as experienced. We'd have to descend to basement bunkers for four straight years, as they did in London when their city was relentlessly bombed night after night, to fully understand what it means to be in a war. Fight takes place on battlefields not on TV screens. Our soldiers have seen war, but as citizens, the rest of us haven't. Maybe if we had, we would be more skeptical of our own foreign policy at times.

But what about the policies that were right? What about the individuals that boarded ships in an early August darkness knowing there was a good chance they would never go home? When we toured the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, it was impossible not to be proud. But was I proud for Americans, or was I proud for humans? Probably a little bit of both, no matter the fact that I had no choice in being either.

Bayeux is close to the D-Day Beaches, but transportation to the actual sites tends to be sparse, especially in the off-season. We made reservations to take a half-day guided tour of the most compelling sites and were joined by another American and two British brothers. The guide was a young Frenchman that actually spent time in the U.S. Army in Florida, but he was rather conservative with his knowledge. We wound up spending a lot of time walking with the British guys, one of whom was a history buff and knew details to the level of which tanks unloaded onto which beaches.

What is so striking about the D-Day Beaches and the coast of Normandy is its beauty. It's unfortunate, because I think at least in part, it will be impossible to ever truly see those beaches and cliffs completely for their natural value again. We began at Pointe du Hoc, a perch atop a series of cliffs on the western end of Omaha where 250 Rangers were sent to scale the walls and capture the German artillery positions. It turns out our intelligence was incorrect, as the Germans had already moved their guns into the countryside. The Rangers went in anyway as our gun ships pounded the coast. Only 90 made it to the top, which, today, is as it was in 1944. The entire landscape looked like a bunker-filled golf course with occasional piles of shattered concrete and torn barbed wire.

Our next stop was the U.S. Cemetery at Omaha Beach. This was the section of coast dubbed as "Bloody Omaha" because so many American soldiers died in its waters that the ocean crashed red for close to two weeks. We humbly toured the more than 9,000 graves that included two of Roosevelt's sons and three women as bells chimed out patriotic music (and it turns out that the "Glory, Glory Halleluiah" Georgia fight song we heard was not a bad omen for the Gators). There were many graves for unidentified soldiers, people of different faiths, and soldiers who had fallen at various phases during the liberation phase of the war. Not all the markers were from D-Day casualties as I had erroneously thought.

We ended our tour at the British Gold Beach, the site of the massive Port Winston, which was a makeshift harbor hauled across the English Channel by U.K. soldiers. Their quickly-constructed and durable port fed much of the liberation of France and the final pushes on the Western Front. We joined our fellow tour takers for a few beers at our hotel's café, and then we headed to dinner with our new friend, Karen.

What's strange is that for close to 900 years, the town of Bayeux wasn't known as a launching pad for D-Day Beach tours. It was known for another famous invasion that crossed the English Channel in the opposite direction. William the Conqueror, formerly William the Bastard, loaded his Normans on ships and sailed across the English Channel in the opposite direction as D-Day soldiers, and in taking the throne of England from his son-in-law, became the only successful invader of the British Isles in history. The Battle of Hastings became the subject matter of what is one of the world's most famous pieces of historical art.

The Bayeux Tapestry is enormous. When you enter the dark room to see it, it stretches all the way to the end of long room, making you think, "Wow, that's big!" But as you near the end, you realize it curves around and continues back in the opposite direction for the same length. The tapestry is basically cartoon-ish propaganda hailing William's conquest, but it represents England's admittance to mainland Europe. Historians believe that if it weren't for the Norman invasion, Britain would be viewed in a similar light as Iceland or Scandinavia, on the fringes of continental Europe. What's amazing about the town of Bayeux is that it's at the center of these two important events and what could arguably be called two of the most important five days in history. And what's even more amazing is that distant relatives of the Norman's who fought and settled in England were amongst the invading D-Day forces that conquered going in the other direction. In essence, they were reclaiming their homeland.

For history buffs, Bayeux is a pilgrimage and a joy. For Americans and British and Canadians, the region is a humbling memorial. For everyone, it's a reminder of selfless sacrifice. It can also make you proud.

She Said:

Although we were happy to have an old version of Rick Steves with us again, there were some definite limitations to using a four year old guidebook. One example was our first choice of hotels in Bayeux, described as cheap, immaculate, modern, and in a great location- one out of four ain't so good! We could have described it as cheapER if I were willing to share the bathroom down the hall with four other rooms. We could have described it as modern if the old, pastel wallpaper weren't peeling off. We could have described it as clean if there wasn't a thin layer of dirt on the floor and the bathtub wasn't grimy from poor drainage. And I would like to add in another description, functional. We could have at least called it functional if the toilet wasn't constantly running, the heater was working, there was a screen in the sink to prevent it from spraying everywhere, and the bed didn't sink in the middle! Ok, for the positive, yes, the location was good. But the town was very small, and I would soon discover that it didn't even matter.

I saved my complaints to spare us from wasting the day looking for another, much less affordable place. After all, we were technically staying in a room made for a triple just to have the bathroom in situ! Some may call me a princess for this bathroom dilemma we continue to face. However, I am willing to yield that criticism and not only remind those folks of the elderly man I shared a bathroom with, shitting with the door open in Ancona, but also reveal an unsolicited fact that I am one of those people who gets up during the night the use the bathroom, a lot! Needless to say, I pulled out the sleep sac for what I hoped would be the last time and we headed out to see the town.

Since we arrived later in the day, we used the rest of the day to do some laundry, blog work, and informally explore the town. While our clothes were in the dryer, we had a late picnic lunch by an old watermill and watched more leaves fall into the small river running through the town. We discussed options for the next few days in Normandy and called it an early night.

We woke up for some more formal exploration and a tour of the massive cathedral that seemed to dominate the town. This time, we followed a city map with already laid out historic points of interest. The cathedral itself took up about four or five of the walking tour highlights, and when we went inside, I was surprised at how bright it was with much less of a Baroque, ornate influence than we had seen much throughout Europe. It was simple as far as décor, but architecturally interesting with a lot of natural light and some cool crypts down below with ancient frescos still preserved. The finale of the tour, and essentially what the town of Bayeux is known for, was the Bayeux Tapestry.

Now I will show some ignorance regarding history because I know some of you are with me on this one. I would like to know how many people remember learning about William the Bastard turned William the Conqueror after his battle with Harold for the throne of England? Hopefully, I had some takers there, because when Chad told me we were going to see a famous tapestry and I looked at the price, my first response was, "Eight Euros for an old rug?" Turns out, this "rug" is a famous tapestry commissioned in the 11th century by William himself to depict the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England. Who knew?

Obviously, I arrived with very little background and was taken aback with not only the tapestry itself, but also the layout of the museum leading up to the real thing. First, you are taken through a replica of the tapestry with extensive explanations at each scene. Then, there is a short film explaining the tapestry scene by scene and ultimately describing the events leading up to and including the invasion. Finally, we were given headsets for the real thing displayed behind a protective glass window, stretching 70 meters long. The headsets provided similar commentary as the film, but also included idiosyncrasies on the actual tapestry that one wouldn't pick up otherwise. It was an amazing piece of artwork with the most intricate detail and portrayal of events. It left me really curious as to the manpower and time it took to complete, which, was the only major detail missing from the exhibit in my opinion.

We opted out of Bayeux's WWII memorial and went to the TI to book a tour of the D-Day beaches. We met a nice American woman there, Karen, and after much thought and consideration, we picked a tour for the next day. Karen was in Paris on business and decided to come to Normandy for a few days in between meetings. She used her Blackberry to book all three of us for the following day and we gave her some touring points of interest Bayeux. Turned out she was also from New York, AND had a twin sister in Washington, D.C.- small world! We set out to find a lace factory only to find out that it was closed for the winter, so we decided touring was over and tried to find an internet.

In this day and age, I am pretty sure you can judge a small town by the ability to access the internet. We were told by the TI that we had one of three options for getting online: 1) go to the post office, it's seven Euro for the first hour, then four or five thereafter,
2) go to hotel Novotel about 10-15 minutes outside of town and use the one they have in the lobby, 3) go to a bar in town that opens at nine p.m. and use theirs for free when you buy a drink. Guess which one we chose? You got it, but we really only went to use the computer and have the one obligatory drink required for use. We did, however, stay quite a bit longer because we ended up meeting and talking to some American service men stationed in Darmstadt of all places. We talked to these guys for hours. Some were younger and recently enlisted, and some were a bit older with higher rankings. We discussed post-service jobs, lives at home, friends lost, and interestingly enough, German efficiency.

Sidebar: German efficiency is something I thought of mentioning in my Munich blog because during Oktoberfest, I began to really think about it. Throughout many of the towns we visited in Germany, there seemed a common theme amongst the people, order and efficiency. In many ways, this efficiency is worthy of praise and allows much of the public transportation and highway systems to run smoothly and with fewer incidents. However, the level of discipline can sometimes seem robotic, and to me, almost eerie. I began to think of the country when Hitler was in power and how any deviation from uniformity meant death. For example, no one crosses the street unless the man in the cross walk is green, even if it's two a.m. and there isn't a car in sight. People always sit in their assigned seats, even when there are five open seats around it. When the store says it closes at five, they are almost in a panic if you are still at the cash register at 4:58. These are just a few basic examples, and like it said, overall, it is a pleasure and advantage to a visitor. But, I just couldn't shake the images of people hailing Hitler and following the leader so closely that they allowed millions of people to be killed. Food for thought.

Anyway, we ended up staying at the bar pretty late and after a failed attempt at some late night dinner (we couldn't find an internet, but we thought we could find some food establishment open at 2 a.m., HA!), we went to bed in our sunken mattress. Our tour was a half-day tour that began at 1:30 the next day, so we had the morning for other activities. Chad chose to sleep, I chose an open market. Can you believe my luck, another huge market at the edge of town on a day I was there! I dragged myself out of bed and weaved my way through the maze of vendors. Like I said, they are all different, and this one had live rabbits and chickens for sale (I am pretty sure they were being sold to kill and eat, but I pretended it was for the zoo-like effect). There was tons of seafood, calvados tastings, (too strong for me), and crepe stands- yummm!

When it was time for our tour, we met up with Karen at the van and were joined by two other British gentlemen. The driver offered some basic history and background, but overall, we were on our own once we stopped. The first place we went was Pointe Du Hoc. This place immediately put goose bumps on my arms as we approached the beach and saw German bunkers still intact. I looked out on the vast fortifications, and I could easily imagine our troops arriving on the beaches and attacking what was thought to be a German occupied beach. As I descended down into the bunkers, I found myself imagining what it must have been like and began to feel a definite presence of the past. Once again, I found myself standing in a spot where people had died and I was saddened and proud of the approx. 115 soldiers that gave their lives to liberate others on that day.

We got back in the van and drove to the next stop, the American Cemetery situated right above Omaha Beach. This was the beach where the greatest number of American soldiers died in the battle against the asshole Nazis. Although I couldn't help but be proud of the major role we played on D-Day, it's hard to keep that feeling when you hear that the water at Omaha Beach was red for twelve days following the invasion. The cemetery itself is immaculately kept with perfectly lined rows of crosses and Stars of David. As I wondered through the rows of marble and tried to look at as many names as possible. Many gravesites were symbolic for unknown soldiers, and once again, I felt myself shaking my head for the incredible loss of life endured. As if one cue, the bells began to chime, and God Bless America began to play, more goose bumps.

The next and final stop was Gold Beach and the town of Arromanches (the Ground Zero of D-Day) which included a tour through the D-Day landing museum. This included a model of the makeshift harbor constructed by the Brits (during gale storms and under fire) to unload war vehicles and supplies until the beach could be taken. We saw films on how it was constructed with actual footage from of the harbor taken on D-Day; it was a truly amazing triumph for architects, engineers, and builders. What was meant to last only six days has lasted over fifty years; Winston Churchill should be a proud man. The museum also contained mementos behind separate glass displays from each country that fought in the name of liberation. We left the museum and walked out onto the boardwalk for a view of what remains of the harbor. As I stood on the sand of this beach and looked out at the remnants of the harbor sticking out above the water, it wasn't hard to imagine how massive it was stretching almost as far down the shoreline as I could see. Again, I found myself pondering what it must have been like for men and women of all nationalities on that victorious day which not only marked the beginning of the end for the Germans, but also, a terribly bloody day in 1944 where thousands of people lost their lives.

We took another daytrip the following day to Caen Memorial, which was described as the best WW2 museum in all of France. However, to me, it felt more like a war museum with a strong emphasis on D-Day and WW2. Either way, it was crash-course review in history for me that began in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (setting the stage for WWI), through historical events leading up to WW2, with explanations of how Hitler came to power and how he conquered so much land so fast. There were two short films with original footage from D-Day and the days thereafter as, town by town, France was liberated. The films were moving, disturbing, graphically violent, and sad. They also evoked a sense of pride as they showed soldiers marching through the streets waving peace signs and hugging very grateful, newly liberated people from regions all over France. The exhibit then continued through the conflict between the USA and Russia on how best to rebuild Europe (communism vs. no communism) and led directly into the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the communist regime in great detail, until, finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall were all displayed with great detail.

Five hours later, I began to feel overwhelmed by a century's worth of violence and hostile regimes. We were running out of time before the museum was closing, so we spent the remainder of our time in the fight for peace exhibition. Amazingly and fittingly, it begins with the oldest peace treaty in the history of mankind. On display is a clay tablet engraved with hieroglyphics from the 13th century B.C., signed by Ramses II and The Hittite King Hattusilis III (not a clue who these people were). It goes on into a large room filled with cylinder-like displays of different cultural ideologies regarding peace. Each had a different message, and to my surprise, Judaism and Islam were placed together in the same cylinder with similarities drawn regarding views and beliefs on peace. Interestingly, in both languages, the word peace is used daily to say hello and implies an equal relationship. I stood there for quite a while pondering if this was actually the case in real life for either culture...

Unfortunately, I don't think I did this room justice partly because five hours in a museum, albeit, a good one, is enough to fry your brain. I felt like my sponge was saturated just as the doors were being locked and the lights were being turned off. Since we had an hour to kill before the train was to depart for Bayeux, we went across the street for some traditional Chinese food; after all, it was Sunday night!
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lambs on

War and peace
Wow -- what a powerful entry, guys.

I, too, was forced to ponder the questions of war and peace while visiting the Normandy beaches. It brought up ancient questions, such as what is a justifiable war. Like you, I found the cemetery above Omaha Beach a thought-provoking place. In fact, the visit there in 2004, while our country was at war -- a war built on deception and politics -- crystallized some basic principles for me. One can view the row upon symmetrical row of grave makers and see an overall common cause for good. And then one can investigate individual markers and be struck by the irreplaceable loss of each person. Then, with only a little thought, one can imagine the ripples of loss and grief each of those deaths caused to loved ones back home -- parents, sweethearts, extended family, perhaps even children -- extending into subsequent generations. What I walked away with was a conviction that such loss should never be endured unless war is absolutely the last and only alternative before putting our young people in harm's way. Very few recent wars reach that standard.
I'm glad you also got to visit the Bayeux tapestry, one of the most important artifacts from the middle ages. Like you, Allie, I wondered whose hands actually stitched the work. I also looked closely at some of the scenes and wondered what their meaning and significance were to the people who commissioned the tapestry, made the tapestry and viewed the tapestry at the time it was completed. What, for example, was the meaning and significance of the scene in which what appears to be a monk ravishes a woman while Harold is the guest of William? People at the time must have known instantly what that meant; we can only guess. It's not even clear who commissioned the work and for what purpose. Was it Odo, the Norman clergyman who became archbishop of Canterbury? He does appear in a significant role, probably more significant than his actual part in the events. And finally, how does the story end? The last part of the tapestry is missing. Even though there is much detail in the tapestry, there is much that remains unexplained. Truly one of history's most intriguing mysteries.
As always, I look forward to reading your next posting.
-- Ron (not Rick Steves)

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