Quiet moments at Omaha Beach

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It had drizzled earlier that day on Omaha Beach. By the time Toni and I got there, a chilling midst still filled the air. Row after row of hundreds of white crosses, sprinkled with half a dozen Stars of David, create a quiet drama of remembrance.

Before we left for France, I was reading Rick Atkinson’s account of the Allied invasion of Normandy. I had waited until June 6, D-Day, to read his account of the landing. On the beach, I tried to imagine the thousands of troops, disgorged from landing craft, wading ashore, hundreds cut down by German fire even before they got out of the water.

It remains the largest invasion force in history.

It’s hard for North America to match Europe for history. Of course, that’s a main attraction for tourists. I stood at the base of the Eiffel Tower, whose construction was completed in 1889, just a century after the French Revolution. That made the Eiffel Tower the tallest building in the world until the Empire State Building came along, in 1931.

In the small city of Pontorson, we spent a night in the Hotel Montgomery. The original part was built in 1526. Indeed, the hotel seemed to groan with age. That was the story with the chateaus and the cathedrals we visited.

Before we left for France, I spent a lot of time fussing over which shoes to wear. Everybody who had been there told us we’d be walking all day. It turned out, the running shoes with the red shoe strings worked perfectly.

I did manage to leave my trench coat in the front closet at home. We had even tested it for water repellency. So in Paris, I bought a coat whose fabric made us believe it wouldn’t get me soaked. Well, I was wrong. Yet a small problem.

Everywhere we went, we were reminded of the country’s past. Echoes of French creativity followed us as if a distant symphony were rehearsing. At Giverny, we strolled through impressionist Claude Monet’s garden, a special treat for my avid gardener Toni.

On other days, she was delighted to find not one but two different quilt shops. We hopped on a train to visit the second one. Once the women who ran the shops grasped that Toni was serious quilter, they embraced her as a kindred spirit. She was taken aback to discover that most of the quilting material had been imported to France, much of it from the United States.

I never tired of entering the cathedrals. The art, the icons and the rich shades of color in the stained glass created a sense of calm for me and one of awe. As for the chateaus whose maze of rooms seem to be endless, I found myself mostly staring at the portraits. They depict people who seem so rigid, even angry. I wondered what these men and women really were like. Most haven’t even rated modern biographies.

I felt overwhelmed in Paris train stations. They are huge, as busy with signs and people as Times Square in New York City. Somehow, we managed to get on the right train. On one trip we enjoyed a friendly visit with two couples of New Zealanders. They travel for weeks together, leaving the care of their farms and crops to neighbors. Both men are active in local politics, they told me. Of course, the journalist in me wanted to hear about the public policy debates in New Zealand. They told me they like President Obama and can’t understand why so many Americans don’t. I share their puzzlement.

Yes, any visitor to France needs to spend time at the historic sites, the cathedrals, the castles and the galleries. Our 12 days gave Toni and me merely a sample. But what sticks with me most of all are the people, those who waited on us at the restaurants, the clerks at the hotel desks, the shopkeepers who struggled to call up the few English words and phrases they knew.

We easily became fond of all of them. No one was rude. To the contrary, the French seemed to go out of their way to welcome us. One dinner in particular will always stick in my memory.

It was at a restaurant just a short walk from our Pontorson hotel. The manager – possibly owner – took our order of fish. But throughout the evening our attention was drawn to a group of older customers, men and women, seated along the wall. Their laughter filled the restaurant into the evening. You couldn’t help but feel lighthearted and thankful for the hotel desk clerk’s recommendation.

But as our time in France wound down, I often found myself in more somber mood. For throughout our too-short visit, I often looked at the young faces and those of the middle-age to make guesses about their lives. At some point, I think in Paris, I realized that very few of those we passed on the street had any memory at all of the Nazi occupation. Nor would I expect them to give much thought in their busy lives to the sacrifices of the Allied troops, commemorated so movingly on the Normandy beaches.

For my part, I’ll never forget those white crosses. I’m glad we stopped by.

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