Monday, March 15, 2010

Howard! Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Canada

This Monday morning finds me in an unusually chipper mood. Maybe it's due to me displaying my Cubbie pride; perhaps it's due to the sunshine. Either way... good times.

 = I have a sweet collection of tee-shirts. 

I spent this past weekend in Caen, Normandy in order to tour the memorial museum and some of the sites related to D-Day. Overall, it was a completely amazing experience and I can't wait to go back, hopefully with my family in tow. 

Friday night I arrived in Caen after a brutally long train ride (almost 5 hours for what could've been a 2 hour car ride. Damn you French rail-system), checked into my hotel, and went out for a stroll/in search of Diet Coke. The city of Caen is pretty large, and it has a couple of really gorgeous cathedrals that managed to withstand the German occupation, bombing, and subsequent American occupation during WWII. Caen is famous (according to Katie, and that's really all that matters) for being the home to William the Conquerer, his thigh bone, the first big city in France to be liberated after D-Day, and a really convenient tramway and bus system. 

it runs like buttah

After a delicious meal of a kebab and chips, I returned to my hotel to watch Dexter and to take advantage of having wireless in the evening and therefore the ability to chat with people in the states who don't wake up before noon. 

Saturday morning I woke up to grey skies and a craving for a pain-au-chocolat, so I got dressed, put my trusty guide book (a big thank-you to Matt and Hanna for sending me a great guide to Brittany and Normandy for the holidays! It's been a big help, as was the 10 euro note I found tucked inside) in my purse, wrapped my Arsenal scarf around my neck, and set out. After securing said pain-au-chocolat and a DC (it's never too early), I went to the bus stop to wait for the #2 bus to the Caen Memorial. My tour wasn't set to begin until 1 p.m., but I wanted to get to the museum a few hours early to look around, as I'd read that there are great archives there and a film about D-Day that was definitely worth seeing before getting to the beaches yourself. I sat myself down on the bus stop bench, took out Balzac, and was quickly absorbed into late 1890's Parisian culture. So absorbed, in fact, that I missed the first bus. And the second. I looked up in time to see the second one zoom by, and being the city-slicker that I am I jumped up and attempted to run after it for about a block before giving up. I was so annoyed with myself for missing a bus twice that I kicked the ground like an angry two year old and was given a reproving look by a man reading his paper at an outdoor cafe. I turned red and retreated back to the bus stop, head hanging, sad Charlie Brown music playing in the background. 

exactly George Michael, exactly.

When the third bus came, however, I was all over it like Arsene Wenger to a 15 year-old prodigy. The Caen Memorial is designed not to be a museum to D-Day but instead to be a memorial to the battle and the soldiers that fought and died there. As such, there is an entire section devoted to Nobel Peace Prize laureates, and a replica of the statue of the gun tied in a knot from the United Nations building in New York. The archives, it turns out, are accessible only to "friends of the museum"(aka rich people who give money) so I had to be content with perusing the general collection. It was pretty cool nonetheless. 

After leaving the petite bibliotheque I saw the 20-minute film the memorial put together to show the preparations leading up to D-Day, and then the attack. There is a surprising amount of original film available, and the director split the screen so that on the right hand side one saw the Germans building all sorts of blockades along the Normandy coast, and then on the left hand side there was montage of images showing the American, British, Canadian, and French forces gearing up for the attack. The two images came together to show some film of the storming of the beaches. The director then cut away to show the Norman coast as it is today - beautiful and serene. It was an incredibly interesting juxtaposition of imagery and it really put what I saw later into perspective. So, if you're planning a visit, make sure to check it out. 
Omaha Beach today, as seen from the American Cemetery

At 1 p.m. I met up with my tour group, which turned out to be three men from Norway (two brothers and their father), and me. It was pretty cool to be in such a small group because I was able to ask as many questions as I wanted and have the full attention of the guide while the Norwegians were translating what she was saying to their dad. This was our itinerary:
1. Arromanches: you can see the remains of the floating port that the British made (at Gold beach) still in the water. The Americans set one up at Omaha, but the storm that happened a few days after June 6 destroyed it beyond repair. 
2. Longues-sur-Mer: German artillery base. The remains of about six huge German bunkers are here - only one is destroyed and only partially so you can really see how well built their "pill-box" shaped armaments were. It's open, so you can walk in and around them and even sit where the Germans did to man the weapons.
3. The American Cemetery in Normandy: this space is actually technically American property, given to us by the French government. Fun fact: last year during the 65th anniversary celebrations, President Obama welcomed President Sarkozy to the cemetery, not the other way around. The cemetery itself looks a lot like Arlington National Cemetery in its overall layout, but of course it is much different. There's not much to say about it - you have to go there to really experience it. It overlooks part of Omaha beach and all of the names on the crosses/stars of David are facing west towards the United States. Suffice to say I spent my hour there weeping intermittently and feeling extremely proud to be an American. 
4. Omaha Beach: we were taken to what is known as the "bloodiest sector" of Omaha beach, and it's immediately apparent why: the tall bluffs that line the beach are pock-marked with German artillery bases tucked safely into them. If you've ever seen "Saving Private Ryan", this is the part at the beginning where it looks like the American soldiers are being shot like fish in a barrel. Because they were. It's astonishing that anyone was able to get off those boats, let alone be victorious in their mission. I learned a lot about the Allied tactics, the German tactics, and about how all of the plans for the Allied powers got screwed up thanks to the weather. The amount of planning that went into this assault...I was just blown away by this part. There are still "dragons teeth" (giant cement pyramids set in the water to stop boats) along the shore line that give visitors a taste of the inanimate objects erected to stop an attack. I could go on for a while, so if you want your ear talked off about all this, just call me...
5. Point du Hoc: literally "point of the point" where American Rangers scaled a cliff to cut off the German guns that were up there. This is one of those stories that you hear and your mouth drops open, your palms sweat thinking about it, and then you say to yourself "if that were me, I would've pissed my pants and died, my body laying on the ground as a defensive position the only thing I could've hoped to do to help". A taste of what happened: the Rangers (an elite sect of the army) were given the task of surprising the Germans before D-Day and cutting off their guns so that they couldn't stop boats coming/soldiers who were trying to take the beach. The weather was so crappy that their boats, however, got pushed way off course, and by the time they got to the cliff the battle had started so the Germans were none-too-surprised. Nevertheless, these guys SCALED A CLIFF with ladders and ropes, climbing head-on into German forces. They engaged in TWO DAYS OF HAND-TO-HAND combat, and didn't even find the guns right away. They found decoy guns. OK, let's say I managed to get up the cliff, and I storm over to the gun with a grenade in my hand, only to find out that they're fake. I would have probably pissed my pants and died, AGAIN. Instead, the Rangers followed tracks in the mud to where the real guns were and finished that shit. I can't even express how in awe I am of those men. And my silly little rendition of what they went through does in no way properly express what happened. Wow. 
Scale that with enemy fire raining down on you, and get back to me

After an amazing midday like that, what do you to end it? Sit at a cafe and write about my experience? Meditate on the horror of war and its repercussions? Oh right, go shopping. Obvi. 

to be fair, I needed to get some DC for the evening.

Saturday night I decided to eat dinner at a small restaurant advertising galettes (a salty version of a crepe made with eggs and various cheeses and meats) and crepes. I sat down to a table by myself, but within about a minute the table awkwardly close to mine was inhabited by a older gentleman, also by himself. I didn't say anything to him but instead continued to read Old Goriot and be anti social. When the waitress came, however, the man asked if she had a menu in English. I decided to be nice and offer to translate the menu for him, beginning with the question "Oh, are you American?""Canadian!", the man responded to me. And right there, in an ordinary creperie in Caen, a beautiful friendship blossomed. This wonderfully friendly Canadian is a jewish doctor from outside of Toronto (not around London, the only place I know in Ontario besides Toronto) who is currently touring Europe as a chaperone with his son's high school. We chatted all through dinner about various topics, including, but not limited to:
1. His daughter's college applications
2. Hockey
3. The weather in Canada
4. How he feels about being a Jew in western Europe
5. Hockey
6. His son's college applications
7. Hockey

Mid-way through the meal I spotted a large group of young people walking down the street, the majority of them wearing team Canada hockey jerseys. "Is that your group?" I asked. "Oh, yeah! That's my son, the one in the Canada jersey. No, not that one. The other one. No, the other one. Yeah, that's him." His son was a skinny looking kid with an appropriate 15-year-old-boy-emo-haircut who caught sight of his dad, half-waved, and then ran away with his friends. I thought that Canadians all wore flannel shirts and moose-skins as coats, but boy was I off base. Turns out "Canadians" are much like "Americans", but with a queen and monopoly money. This man, this Howard, was a gem among men. Vive la Canada. 
What we would call a "Canuck"

Sunday morning welcomed me with a bright, sunny sky, and an espresso at the cafe downstairs from my hotel. There just happened to be a market going on in the middle of the street, so while I munched on my pain au lait I couldn't help but feel just a teensy bit stereotypical...and I loved it. I might've let a smile or two slip, but then I quickly recovered and arranged my face in an appropriate grimace while I read the used copy of East of Eden in French that I found at the market. Cue the Edith Piaf.

After breaky, I went to the Musee de Beaux Arts, Caen's small but impressive fine art museum. They had a great collection of 17th century oil paintings, so I did what I also do at museums and bought postcard sized prints of them to frame and put in my room (slash apartment in London next fall!!!!). #DIY'sthatnevergetdoneFAIL

Alors, I'm back at St Pierre. I just got done eating lunch and hanging out outside with the cool French kids from terminale that I try and buddy around with. I even managed to get some pictures with my compy whilst schooling them on the importance of Snoop Dogg and The Smiths via my iTunes.

Little known fact: France is in black and white. Weird, but strangely appropriate.

And, before the usual, I have disturbing breaking news: hipsters have commandeered the monocle. Once an accoutrement for the aristocratic upper class of sweet European countries, it has now become an ironic statement of apathy. Awful

Appropriate use of a monocle. 

Currently reading: Faustine by Emma Tennant
Currently listening to: LCD Soundsystem Sound of Silver (in a totally non-ironic way)
Currently craving: Band of Brothers on DVD (I left the copy of the series that I took from my poppa at home. woof-tastic.)


Peace, Love, and Tom Hanks.

- Blowfish.

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