I have just returned from 10 days in Ireland and as always am counting my blessings that I have the means and opportunity to travel. BUT having the opportunity means that L no longer needs my care and therein lies the trial of travel for me. As the bus made its way from the airport in Shannon to the quaint little village of Ennistymon I saw an incredibly beautiful rainbow–one of several I was to see over the coming days. A firm believer in ‘signs’ I took this to be L smiling down on me and letting me know that he too had made it to Ireland. In the early days of any trip I am usually able to ‘share’ the adventure with L by thinking of him seeing what I am seeing, but as the trip moves on toward its conclusion I become more and more depressed by his absence. As I get better acquainted with my fellow travelers–many of them couples–I miss those shared smiles, the casual holding hands as they walk together down a wooded path, even the occasional and obvious lift of the eyebrow in annoyance or irritation. What is the point, I ask myself, of travel without him to share it with? And so this inner journey of finding my place in the world seems to get more difficult with the passage of time.
And then today–battling a cold I acquired on the way home–I decided to put together an album of the trip. I pulled out all the brochures and postcards and small memorabilia I collected over the ten days. I sorted through nearly 150 photographs I took and had printed. I fingers the small shells a friend found on the ‘strand’ (beach) on our first day and the chopsticks I used as knitting needles when I found wonderful Irish wool but no needles. And I smiled. I could practically hear L laughing and see him shaking his head as he so often did when I did anything that surprised or pleased him. And I knew that he had been there with me all along and even as I walked down those wooded paths he was there–holding my hand.
We were so packed with activity the last several days of the trip that I have not had the opportunity to post. I am in Chicago now and today will return home to Florida. Once I have my own computer I hope to post some of the almost 200 pictures I took while on this incredible journey. Just to catch up with the itinerary: on Sunday we spent another full day with our English guide, William Jordan, seeing Utah Beach, the village where the film THE LONGEST DAY was set, the German cemetery and the wonderful museum in Caens. On Monday we left early in the morning for the long bus ride to Mont St. Michel–an incredible place rich with centuries (dating back to the 8th century) of history and wonderful places to explore. Our guide here (*and indeed for all the sites we had yet to see) was equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic as William had been. They brought history to life. My impression of Mont St Michel was that J.K. Rowling must have visited the site while inventing the setting for her Harry Potter series–the church on top of the rock as well as the village with its narrow streets and charming little shops was Hogwarts come to life. I kept expecting to run into Harry himself!!
On Tuesday we spent the day at the home and beautiful gardens of Claude Monet. Because it is truly spring in France, the gardens were exploding with tulips of all colors, daffodils of all varieties, fabulous lilac and other flowering bushes and of course the wonderful Japanese gardens that so inspired his work — including the famous painting of the water lilies. I learned two important things about the Impressionist movement–the painting is all about the reflection/play of light on different surfaces from water to fabrics to buildings, etc. and 2) Monet was inspired by the art of Japanese woodcuts, many of them hanging on the walls of his colorful cottage. We had lunch at the museum and then a lecture by a member of the museum staff showing how in so many ways Normandy had been the “birthplace” of the Impressionist movement.
Back to the hotel for our farewell reception–how we had changed since that first night when we were all strangers–and to pack for a five a.m. departure for Paris and the airport. I did not sleep much because my mind was so full of thoughts about the trip and how much L would have loved everything about it (except perhaps the strong coffee and long bus rides). I thought of how proud he would have been that instead of burrowing into my shell (as is usually my habit when in a group) I had made a real effort to get to know almost everyone in our group and in the process made some connections that have the potential to last beyond Normandy. And I knew that L had been with me on this incredible journey when as we walked back to the bus after touring Monet’s gardens I spotted a single perfect feather on the ground. Since his death–nearly two years ago now– I have often found feathers like that when I was missing him and wishing I could tell him all about my adventures. The feather–along with the lilac in bloom reminding me of the lilac he used to gather for me every spring–made me smile and allow the peace and comfort of knowing he was indeed there and that he knew all about the trip…because he is watching.
On Friday we traveled by bus to a number of places connected to the D-Day landing including Omaha Beach, the American cemetery and a battlefield that the USA has preserved as it was at the end of the battle (minus the dead and wounded, of course). It was a long day with a lot of walking but hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we saw what those brave young men had to face on that day. We had our usual wonderful diverse b’fast and then boarded the bus. William Jordan was once again our guide and the man is a veritable fountain of information on the topic of D-Day and all that surrounds that event. His enthusiasm for the topic makes it hard to resist trying to take it all in and he also does a creditable imitation of Churchill, FDR and others.
General impressions: We stopped first in a small beach town where the Brits came ashore on what they called “Gold” beach. The Brits named their three landing places for fish–i.e. goldfish, etc. The story of how the Allies kept the entire plan secret and fooled the Germans into thinking we would be coming ashore at a place more toward the East is beyond fascinating not to mention brilliant. They prepared hundreds of thousands of servicemen for the invasion and NONE of them knew until the last moment where they were headed. Eisenhower was in. Charge and had to make the decision to go. The invasion was planned for June 5th but because of weather had to be called off; the weather wasn’t much better the following day but Ike decided the danger of the plan being discovered outweighed weather and gave the order. As someone fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been occupied by foreign powers it is hard to fully understand what the French in Normandy were facing in those days. At any moment they might be accused of something and shot or sent to a concentration camp. The area where the Allies landed covers about 50 miles of beach with bluffs and villages and farms and open fields and hedgerows and all sorts of geography to be navigated. They travel 100 hundred miles of rough seas with sometimes eight foot weaves to reach those beaches… and face the possibility of immediate death from drowning, friendly fire, German fire, etc.
The cemetery is both what one would expect and at the same time daunting in his tight rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Two things I learned: 1) this was not the original resting place for these service people (including four women) and 2) when the bodies were moved the families were given the option of having the remains brought back to America for burial–no other country offered that option. The setting is park-like and beautiful. I was put off by the ongoing narration from our guide and the p[presence of so many people–I wanted and needed quiet. So I switched off my listening device and wandered away from the group to take a stroll down just one of the long rows, reading the names, states and rank as I went. There is no distinction between ranks–a colonel lies next to a private and in the next row there might be one of hundreds of graves with a body but no name. They are indeed a band of brothers.
We went on then to Omaha Beach again driving down narrow streets lined with fields, hedges, farmhouses and such–a peaceful bucolic part of the country. The beach is covered in a sort of golden caramel-colored sand and many visitors take sand from the beach and press it into the engraved letting of a grave marker in the cemetery to make the letting stand out. Of course eventually the sand falls out or washes away but it does make a difference. I was able to walk on the beach and pick up a few shells to carry home.
Our last stop was the battlefield and in many ways I felt the closeness of those young brave men more there than anywhere else. The Germans were in the process of setting up huge artillery guns on turntables that would allow them to fire in all directions–when the invasion happened. From the sea and air the Allies blasted their positions and now there are these enormous rusted pieces of the guns and their mountings plus huge craters that have over time filled in with grass and flowering shrubs. And there were cherry trees in blooms–again that sense of quiet and serenity in a place that once rumbled with the thunder of bombs and artillery shells and the cries of wounded and dying young men.
Long bus ride back to hotel and then a short walk to a restaurant for sinner and then back to try and solve the undelivered baggage dilemma. I was told when I got back to the hotel (on FRIDAY) that the bag would be delivered either Monday or Tuesday (I leave for home on Wednesday!). Called United and while they were enormously sympathetic they also appear to be quite powerless in this little drama. I decided to remind myself of O’s mantra–IT IS WHAT IT IS–and forget missing luggage inn favor of thinking about how he would have loved this day and been moved probably to tears by it.
4/3: Lost a day there–the flight to Paris is over night so began on 4/1 and we arrived on 4/2. Other stuff I forgot to mention about the bus ride… we saw many trees with these balls oaf greenery hanging down. At first I thought these were nests of some kind but then I guessed (and guide confirmed) that it was mistletoe! Was L sending me kisses? I choose to think he was. Also not to worry there’s a MacDonald’s in Honfleur but why anyone would choose that over a wonderful crepe or local fish is beyond me. Also I did go shopping–two days in the same clothes was my limit!
So on to this first truly full day in Normandy. I pretty much missed b’fast (another lovely spread offered by hotel) because I overslept and had about 15 minutes to get dressed and down to the lobby for our walking tour of the village. We were each given listening devices so we could hear her clearly even with traffic and other tour groups along the way. The village has a fascinating history that dates back to the Middle Ages and has some buildings still standing to prove it! During the D-Day battle the town was spared because there was far more interest in a larger port nearby (Le Harve). So there are wonderful buildings from as far back as the 13th Century plus a LOT of cobblestone streets (do NOT bring your high fashion shoes to Honfleur!!!) Our guide was full of information about history and architecture and the shifting of the town’s priorities over the centuries…a fishing port turned military stronghold turned Impressionist art community (Monet painted a LOT of scenes in Honfleur and all the Impressionists loved the way the light came over the horizon on clear days and clouds gathered on dreary days.) But more about Monet and his pals later in there week. I took over fifty photos on the tour but of course forgot the proper cord for downloading so we’ll have to wait for that show.
We had lunch at another charming bistro (the town is full of eating places!!!) called le Chat que peche (the cat who fishes)– we had beef burgundy plus a wonderful dessert called a “floating island.” Later in the afternoon I will admit to stopping for an éclair…after all this is France! After lunch most businesses and museums close for a couple of hours so I cam back to the hotel to check on my luggage (not yet here) and take care of some e-mails. The afternoon was. Ours to do as we wished so I went to the museum of Normandy (showing artifacts of historical life/costume in Normandy and located in a former prison (as in line from the 16th century) and the Maritime Museum (located in a former church). I also went back to some of the places the guide walked us past on the tour and took pictures…a couple of wonderful churches included.
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Got back to the hotel just in time for wonderful lecture by D-Day expert William Jordan–an Englishman who has done wonderful research and is exceptional at bringing the story to life. He will travel with us tomorrow as we head for the beaches. I’m not sure some of my fellow travelers liked that he let us know that Americans–because we were fighting TWO wars at opposite ends of the world– actually had a lot fewer men storm those beaches than did the Brits. But he gave us full credit for–as he put it–coming up with huge amounts of “stuff” necessary for the invasion to be a success.
We were on our own for dinner so I chose to come back to the room–wait for the luggage that United assures me is “out for delivery” and catch up on my blog. Tomorrow we start our tour of the D-Day sites and I am so looking forward to that and know L will be fascinated!!! Sleep well–I know I will.
3/31: Our 44th wedding anniversary seems a good time o begin this adventure. I anticipate that it will be bitter and sweet b it will be something I can add to the memory bank of moments L and I have shared for he will be with me every step oaf the journey. I flew from FL to Chicago and stayed in an airport hotel for the night mostly because the weather in the Midwest has been so unpredictable that I did not want to take a chance. Hotel was surprisingly quiet given its proximity to one of the busiest airports in the world!
4/1: Hotel nice enough to give me late checkout since flight does not leave until 6pm but by noon I was so bored I decided people-watching at the airport beat TV watching in my room and the weather was low 30’s with an 18 degree wind chill so not great for getting out and walking. So off I went. Again going through security was unexpectedly easy–apparently it helps to be old. Even for an international flight I did not have to remove shoes, unpack electronics, etc. Spent a long day wandering the concourses of the airport after checking my one bag…a mistake that I will come to later. Finally time to go. No sign of others from my group at least that I could identify so found my seat next to a nice young man who clearly did not plan to interact during the flight. I was fine with that. No WIFI on board so read my book and tried to sleep (failed) and watched the map of our progress on the little TV screen— six hours to go; four hours to go…. etc. Finally about 90 minutes from Paris they served b’fast–a stale manufactured croissant and a little mixed fruit. Suddenly my seatmate became my best friend. “What is this?” he asked holding up the croissant. He was French, a freelance journalist working in Chicago who loves basketball and is interested in WWII history so we had a lovely chat for the remainder of the trip. Arrived in Paris only to learn my bag was still in Chicago. Met the group and boarded bus for 2 hour trip to Honfleur, Normandy. Our guide is Mia. She’s Dutch and lovely and very very well organized. The bus ride (I was trying hard to take it all in and not fall asleep) went through Paris so we saw Eiffel Tower from a distance and then countryside… beautiful woods coming in bloom for spring. I saw those woods filled with the ghosts of all those who fought that terrible war–soldiers from both sides, members of the Resistance, ordinary people just trying to stay alive. Arrived at the hotel–modern and with a super staff. Myth room is large and faces the street(and Bay of the Seine). I had been told by United’s lost luggage people that I could shop “for necessities and be reimbursed so I set out shopping…lost luggage is not so terrible after all I guess. Met all of the group (35 of us) for a welcome reception then walked to a lovely local restraint for a fabulous(One nice thing about this trip is that most meals are included and we are talking local restaurants (not box lunches).) Finally to bed after following the recipe for avoiding jet lag by staying up until “normal” local bedtime and to sleep!