When I decided to study abroad in Normandy, my first thought was naturally of World War II and the D-Day landings. Most American students are taught about Omaha Beach, the turning point of the war, and the expert command of General Eisenhower from their earliest history classes. The place that defined the war for many and the memorial that now stands there represent an incredible moment in history, and a reminder of how lucky and grateful we are to be here.
I made two trips to the American memorial while living in France. First, as part of a larger day trip that also included tours of Bayeux and the surrounding area with my university. The second time, I went with my father as part of a tour from the Mémorial de Caen. While it isn’t necessarily a fun travel experience, walking through the cemetery and memorial was the most moving travel moment I’ve ever had, and I would absolutely recommend it.
On the school trip , we started in Bayeux because it was the first city to be liberated following the landings. The town is medieval city with a gorgeous old church and a quintessentially French ambiance, but the real draw is the Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry.
The tapestry is a depiction of the battle of Hastings and the events leading to the battle, where William the Conqueror won the right to rule England. William was from Normandy, so marks of his reign litter the area. The Chateau de Caen was his castle, and both he and his wife are buried in Caen (at least the parts of him that haven’t gone missing, long story).
The tapestry is huge, and is completely rolled out along the walls of the museum. Given the more serious nature of this post from our usual fare, it feels moderately inappropriate to post a close up of embroidered horse penis, but these are the pictures I took of the tapestry, and I am committed to sharing my authentic experience.
After lunching in Bayeux, we headed out for a tour of Arromanches, the German lines, and the Beaches themselves. Arromanches has a gorgeous town with an overlook where you can see many of the beaches involved in the landing. Walking in and around the German bunkers and artillery and looking out on to the beaches made me realize just how impossible the task presented to the Allies was.To come in by air and sea against an opponent with massive tanks and the high ground must have been a daunting proposition to all those involved. It was even more incredible when we were told that the beaches are currently much shorter than they were during the invasion, meaning the German soldiers had even more land to work with than we were seeing.
While remnants of the battle are still on the sand and in the water, most of the area has returned to its prewar status as a public beach. The contrast of war relics against sunbathers seemed jarring at first, especially given the mindset the tour had put me in, but the invasion happened to help restore France and the lives of its citizens. It seemed fitting that the return to everyday life include the return to sunbathing, and equally fitting that reminders of what happened hadn’t been removed.
Following the exploration of the area, we headed to the American cemetery. After the war, the French government gave the land for the cemetery and memorial to the US government, so we all had to cross a border into US territory. As many of my fellow students weren’t from the US, we were separated to go through security separately. Using my passport to step onto US soil from France was a bizarre experience I hadn’t been expecting.
When I went with my father, we started at Caen’s museum dedicated to World War II and the D-Day invasions. While public monuments are excellent reminders of people who have come before, some of the most thought-provoking things are often remnants of everyday life. Mementos carried by soldiers, uniforms, and furniture from those fighting or impacted reinforces the knowledge that these were real people fighting real battles, and that their ordinary lives were entirely disrupted by Hitler and the Axis powers.
The museum runs shuttle tours directly to the cemetery, so my father and I joined a small cohort of (mostly American) tourists. Many of the sites we went to were similar in sentiment, but allowed me different angles and perspectives. Like my first trip, we then proceeded to cross into US territory.
Walking through the museum and cemetery is an impossible experience to describe. Reading a small fraction of the names of the thousands who died, making note of the Stars of David on some of the headstones, and looking out over the sheer expanse of graves made something that had previously been a blurb in a textbook seem so visceral.
Walking through with my father, who has an interest in military history and a father who served in Germany after the war, was an especially moving experience. We spent hours talking about the sacrifices made by an entire generation and the vast suffering experienced on the European continent, especially for Jewish people. Sometimes, experiencing places of historical significance is simply put, really cool and interesting, but the American Cemetery is a place where history becomes a very tangible and thought-provoking thing. It made me incredibly grateful for my amazing life filled with new experiences and very little suffering.
It is a place where you’re forced to confront one of the most depraved and horrible events in human history, while seeing proof that there is also so much goodness, strength, and compassion for fellow man in this world.