Saturday, April 10, 2010

To The Beaches of Normandy, a Dad and His Son's

I write a journal entry everyday, this is the entry for Friday, April 9, 2010. I apologize in advance for its length but the day was simply to moving to leave out anything I could remember or feel:
Today is one of those moments I planned in my head the moment we decided to “move to Europe for a year.” There’s an exhaustive list of “things to do” but only a few “must do’s.” Going to the Normandy beaches from Paris was a “must do” and as the jet black Mercedes van makes its way, serpentining through the streets of Paris, our guide points out the many historic sites of the Parisian landscape. It isn’t until he gets to the open road just past Versailles that I feel invigorated with the familiar feeling one gets when it is certain that you are going to learn something special. Today I will see one of the most historic sites on the planet and I will learn about it with Ann at my side and my 3 son’s in tow. As if the day needed a “bonus,” a friend of Eamon’s named Christian is here in Paris with us for his spring break and he is making the trip with as well. I coached Christian in football at IHM 4 years ago and I marvel at the changes in his physical stature and his maturity. I am so pleased to have him on the trip to the “Beaches of Normandy” and as I said to him several times during the week, “Always a coach always a teacher.”

It is a solid 2.5 hour ride from Paris to the first stop on the Normandy tour. Our private guide, Pierre (you can’t make this stuff up) is barreling towards the Pegasus Bridge. It is the spot where the first liberators of France arrived by glider behind the German forces. The 6th British Airborne landed troops June 5th late, late at night and ambushed the German occupied bridge defenders in the early morning hours of June 6. As you can imagine the bridge held strategic significance. The Pegasus Bridge was formally known as the Ranville-Benouville Bridge but was renamed in honor of the liberators from the British Brigade known as Pegasus on D-Day. As I write these words, the goose bumps on my arms and neck remind me of the endless connections and stories of valor that started at this simple bridge at 4-5 AM.

We opted for a private tour for this remarkable excursion and the difference between a private tour and a bus tour is simply explained by the Pegasus bridge experience and encounter. Pierre is seasoned and knows the “in and out’s.” As we pull into the parking area of the cafe right in front of us is the infamous bridge from the movie “The longest Day.” There is a placard that explains the landing of the gliders and across the road you can see the British soldier statue and the tanks that joined them later to secure the bridge so that any German advance could be stopped from the east. It’s all great stuff, but as we approach the café, and all so common European home attached to it, you know this place has the distinction of being the first liberated home in all of France. You close your eyes and you can imagine the yelling, the firefight and the rat a tat tat of machine guns piercing the dark early morning hours of occupied France. The guide shares the fact that the woman we are about to meet, Arlette Gondree, was 4yrs old when the British forces banged on her door. Arlette ran through the house in fear and said “There are soldiers at the door and they don’t speak German or French.” Here we stand with the woman that met the first of Allied the expeditionary forces that would change the outcome of the World War II. We learn that the British and the newly freed French family had tea and coffee and planned the next series of moves in the small living room of her house which also served as an operating room for the wounded while her dad gave them intelligence concerning the German forces in the area. As the boys walk about the small café filled with war remembrances, maps of the D-Day invasion and books, letters and 100’s of pictures of British 6th Airborne families coming to the Pegasus Bridge they are in jaw dropping awe of the feeling they are witnessing something monumental and special. When was the last time you had to yell at your kids “Guys we really need to leave the museum?” I think that pretty much says it all.

The signs pointing to the D-Day beaches are those non-descript simple white arrows with black trim you see throughout your travels in Europe. The kids are busy, fighting for air time as each tries to top the other one’s story about the “best thing in the café turned museum” at the Pegasus Gondree Café. I wish I had a euro for ever time someone said “yeah but did you see…?” from the back seat of the van. While they traded stories on the bench seats behind us, Ann and I focused on the road in front and the landscapes beside us. We were absorbing the fact that to our right is the channel and coastline and by proximity we know that across these fields and hedgerows ran the tired, harrowed but lucky men who made it off the beaches and began the march to Germany. It is unsettling as you look across the pastures and know that with every step they took the possibility of life meeting death was but a mine beneath your feet or a sniper’s rifle away from reality. Only a week ago we stood on the steps of the Acropolis in Greece and talked about that stronghold and the effort and design to protect the citizens against invaders like the Persians, Crusaders and Ottoman’s. At this moment we make our way to the beaches where America, Canada and Britain by definition are invading with the largest naval armada ever assembled. It is surreal.

You’ve seen thousands of images and countless hours of film regarding the American Cemetery at Normandy. The mind builds the experience for you as the synapses fire excited to couple heretofore background information to the actual moment. Before we break from the parking lot thru the beautifully manicured green trees and bushes I huddle the boys together for a “pre-game speech” of sorts. I appreciate the energy that remains from the Pegasus Bridge experience and frankly it is the want of every boy to want “play army” but the next hours require a different passion or should I say compassion? As I look into their eyes and try, feebly, to explain the depth of what it is they are about to experience, I can see the subtle change in them that comes with being a dad. They nod their heads as I share the fact that while this will be an amazing and life changing moment it requires a deference that is akin to seeing the price of visualizing “good versus evil.” Eamon looks at me and says “Dad we know, it’s a memorial and the price paid to stop a place like Auschwitz from happening again.” Christian looks at the 3 boys, and says “Wow you went there too!” It took me a few moments to recover from our talk as tears welled in my eyes.

As I walked along the red dyed paths towards the Memorial’s freedom statue, I couldn’t help but turn my neck over my shoulders first right and then left again and again and again. The path from the parking lot leads you to the newly constructed memorial center and for whatever reason you feel compelled to follow it but there is something magical about the brilliant white “Latin” Crosses and the occasional, from this vantage point, “Star of David” markers. The expeditionary forces “landings and advances” are all laid out in front of you on a map as big as the side of house with bright red arrows and the names of landing sites so famous to us all: UTAH, OMAHA, GOLD, JUNO, and SWORD. The countries flags pinned to each landing site with the Stars and Stripes on Utah and Omaha and the Canadian Maple Leaf on Juno and Britain’s familiar George’s Cross and Red White and Blue on Gold and Sword. Pearse said, surprised, “Canada came here too!” All the information is fascinating but you can’t help but see from almost every place you look those ever-present “white crosses.” The kid’s feel it too as Seamus seems to speak for all of us “Can I go look at the crosses now?”

Our guide is filled with information about the different aspects of the cemetery and the kids were enthralled and appreciated his discussion about the traditions related to a family member visiting a grave site. He said “They take wet sand from the beach where they landed and they bring it to the Cross or the Star and they rub it with the wet sand. It makes the lettering of his name stand out against the white background and they take a picture of the marker stone for the family and say ‘thanks’!” As he relates this story we walk by a Cross and it is still filled with the sand, we stop and know just recently someone related to this person visited their dad, uncle, or brother. You can’t make how you feel happen from a picture in a book or a Hollywood movie.

The walk thru the precise and meticulously lined Crosses leaves an impression for life. Each of the kids comments on the amazing precision and the overwhelming sense of loss so evident in the rows and rows of white markers. Eamon is on his knees capturing this amazing moment on video and he works diligently to get the feelings he is having from every possible angle. Christian asks the question that is on all our minds “How can it be so magnificently precise?” Our guide has an equally magnificent response, reminding me that he is a truly grateful Frenchman, “America has been burying so many men for the cause of freedom on foreign soil for so many years that they’ve gotten good at this task!” Wow

You feel like you need to sit on the wall and just feel the history flowing into your soul. I watch the boys and they can’t seem to get enough as they bounce from row to row careful to not disturb the plantings or flowers laid by family or friends at the gravestone of various soldiers. I hear questions like “Dad what does Cpl mean?,” “Why so many Eng’s?,” and “How come this one has all the letters in gold?” Some I know the answers to and others I do not. We learn that the gold lettering is in recognition of that person winning the Congressional Medal of Honor and one was a Roosevelt.

The Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach. From the stone wall you can look across the English Channel and know that on the horizon on June 6th 1944 there were thousands of ships delivering men, vehicles and supplies to these very beaches. You look right to left and see the waves crashing to the shores. Our perspective is that of the German forces and from our height you can see what they saw and feel the emotion of the day. The magnitude of the Allied forces must have struck fear in the everyday soldiers called to defend this coastline. It is equally unsettling to see the significant advantage of the height and the downward angle to the beach some 400-700 yards away pending the tide. As folks walked the beach below you got a terrific sense of the scale as some were close to the waters edge and others were just below the hills. No one really knows what that day was like except those who participated and shared their stories with the others who thankfully passed it from one generation to the next. I can tell you that while I looked out onto that beach my heart was racing, my stomach in knots and my mind over sensitized to chaos that I can only imagine. It was both confusing and enriching to stand and sit so close to where it all happened; the Crosses behind me and the English Channel in front of me, physical symbols of the start and final struggle for so many. From the 9 year old the simplest observation, “Dad, it must have been hard to get from all the way out there all the way up here while guys were shooting at you!” He continued “I guess that’s why there are so many white Crosses.”

We pulled out of the parking lot with muted conversations in all parts of the van. The excitement of the Pegasus Bridge experience seems like a month ago not a few hours ago. All of the boy’s are recounting the “things that made impressions” on them. It is a delight to hear their thoughts. I know it is an experience that will change the course of their studies of this period in history and it is my hope that it will help them to understand America a bit better and make them better citizens.
We head to Pointe du Hoc where 2 battalions of Infantry Rangers from the 29th division are tasked with scaling the Atlantic Walls to overtake Field Marshall Rommel’s forces and the 6-155mm guns that protect the beaches of Omaha and Utah. I am not sure that the kids are capable of absorbing anymore information but as they walk in and out of the crater riddled ground from the blasts by the American Airforce they are filled with awe. Pearse asks standing at the bottom of a 10ft deep crater, “Can a bomb really make a hole this big?” A grandma walks by and takes a picture to show her grandson when she gets home. She says with a smile, “He’s about the same size!”

The cliffs are sheer and the drop makes your heart skip a beat. Again we are seeing the challenge from the perspective of the German forces. 225 men made this climbed here, slightly later than planned, on the early morning of June 6. They climb with special gear and are engaged almost immediately. The day is filled with stories of heroism but this stop at Pointe du Hoc is a microcosm of the D-Day mission. It is bloody, hard fought and filled with uncertainty. You feel the fight for every bunker and every turret as you walk this small tract of land. It is a living museum and a memorial with blasted stone walls, concrete block strewn all over the hill top, rusted barbed wire protecting the cliff edge etc. When the Allied reinforcements came days later than anticipated the 225 strong Army Rangers assault force was left with 90 men mostly injured and wounded.

The libraries and museums are filled with the details of the momentous day known the world over as D-Day. Eisenhower’s “Orders of the Day” letter said it clearly “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.” I won’t ever forget the day we went to the beaches of Normandy with our 3 boys and learned about, prayed for and respected the monumental sacrifice of the brave soldiers on these foreign lands.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

April in Paris Need I Say More

I am not sure who’s more excited Ann, the kids or me. There are few places in the world capable of conjuring an entire imaginary book than the phrase “April in Paris.” Just say it to yourself….No really just say it, pause for a few moments and sense it…! Do you feel the wisp of “spring like” hope? Can you sense the 1000’s of unforgettable characters in books and movies throughout the century’s right up to Professor Langdon in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, characters who trolloped thru the streets of Paris or made great escapes along the Seine River on horseback or by a Mercedes convertible coup. It is a city filled with a feeling of “Isn’t it great to be a Parisian, if only for a day a week or a month?” Who cares about strikes and workers that hold managers hostage if they don’t get what they want? We want to relish the baguettes that are still hot and the café that gives you an unfettered view to the latest in the fashion world walking down the street. Is that man wearing a chapeau with a silk ascot or as Eamon would say, “Really?” Imagine his surprise when his mother says “You’ll see a lot of that in Paris.”

The van ride from the Charles de Gaulle airport is excruciatingly long. Not because the traffic is difficult but because the kids expected the Eiffel tower to be visible from Switzerland. Pearse just asked over and over “Where’s the Eiffel Tower?” I guess it would have bothered me like the dreaded vacation phrase “Are we there yet?” from the backseat but this is Paris so stuff just doesn’t bother you as much. What did Mr. Brownlow, our 20th Century European History teacher call it, “laissez faire” or something like that I think. It isn’t a great political or economic strategy but it sure as hell makes for a stress free vacation.

The white nondescript Renault passenger van makes “THE turn” and before our eyes stands the massive stone arch that is the Arc de Triomphe. In the days to come the boys will learn all about its height, breath and history but for now, through the windshield they see the most famous stretch of cobblestone and blacktop, the Champs Elysees. The youthful energy in the van is both surprising and welcome as the hustle and bustle of the street life edges right up to the windowed van. Pearse preens and cranes his neck unsatisfied until he finally shouts “There it is at 2:00!” Eamon and Christian think it’s a beautiful girl because that is their game “11:00 O’clock, 6:00 O’clock, 3:00 O’clock” They seem surprised when I yelled 10:00 letting them know that I am both “on to their game” and that I am “married not dead.” Pearse is so proud that he saw the Eiffel Tower first!

We pull up to 32 Rue Saint Guillaume our home for the next 4 weeks. Come on, doesn’t that street address just sound like Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn should live here? It is in the 7th district and a great neighborhood. It is an Internet find so we hope for the best, open the door and pray that the facade is representative of the building behind it not like one of those Universal Studio movie sets all "show and no go". As the door to the Parisian apartment opens we breathe a sigh of relief and drop our 6 bags, it is remarkable! “How could it not be?” I ask myself we are, after all, living a fantasy.

And so, as we saunter from one street to the next on the first of many evening walks, we cross one of the numerous bridges across the Seine River and in minutes we are standing in the courtyard of the Louvre next to I.M. Pei’s controversial glass pyramid. I ask the lads “So do you like this pyramid or not?” ½ say “yes” and ½ say “no,” I chuckle and say “We’re already Parisians!”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Even the God’s Picked the Pretty Girl

Everyplace in Athens has a spectacular view of the Acropolis. We began early in the morning to take in all that is “Ancient Athens.” Our tour guide looked like a cross between the mean, age battered history teacher from high school and a caricature of a stop “smoking campaign.” Her sun scarred countenance, gravely voice and rail thin frame seemed paradoxical when she mentioned the voluptuous and stunningly beautiful goddesses like Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. It took a while but Pearse said “Is she speaking 2 languages?” After every explanation in English she’d follow with another rendition in Italian. We felt like folks on the TV show American Bandstand “Rate a record” where you vote “Liked it or hated it.” Pearse hated the explanations in Italian. A couple weeks ago he didn’t seem to mind folks speaking Italian but then again there was a snowboard attached to his small feet.

The new 130 million euro Acropolis Museum is simply stunning. The glass floor seemed like you peeled back a book jacket to see into the novel and ancient world of Greece. Below your feet you can see marble and stone columns that date 1000’s of years and red and black decorated pottery still sitting in its B.C. earthen cocoon. How appropriate that the National Acropolis Museum ran into issues requiring preservation, “further study” and documentation before they could dig or build. I wonder how many residential and commercial builders chuckled with glee when the federal government complained that this “discovery” would increase the price and make the project “over budget!” I am not sure if there is a Greek god for “building” but if there was he is laughing like hell all the way from the Parthenon.

We saw the preserved city ruins in Ephesus, Turkey less than a week ago and they were awe inspiring to say the least but as you make you way up the marble dimpled steps to the ancient Acropolis you almost feel like someone should be selling wings so your feet don’t ruin this treasure for others. The Acropolis has been battered, rammed, attacked and burned. It has been a fortress, a city with all amenities and its Parthenon a temple to the ancient god’s, a Catholic Church and an Ottoman Empire mosque. Its marble statues and beautiful colorful relief’s have withered and weathered and in a few cases been stolen and not returned. Pearse asked to the delight of the tour guide “How come Britain just doesn’t give them back, stealing is wrong?” I think our tour guide almost cried as she gave the ginger haired Pearse a skeleton like hug.

The Parthenon, 8 columns wide and 17 columns deep, and the surrounding ancient buildings are mesmerizing and elicit overwhelming feelings; while your brain knows civilization is based on ideas not buildings the sheer magnitude of these structures boggles the mind. The panoramic view of the city of Athens is one of a kind and if you listen hard you can hear the deciding vote between the gods. Zeus called for a contest to name the great Greek city between Athena and Poseidon. Each had to deliver a gift to the city and the gods would decide who gave the better of the gifts. Poseidon gave the city access to the sea when he touched his trident to the well in the Acropolis. Athena gave the gift of renewed life that is represented by her present the “olive tree.” Now I’d argue that the deck was stacked since Athena was born from the ax that split the brain of Zeus and she is indeed beautiful. Poseidon while ripped with an 8 pack, the world’s first thong and could conjure the power of the sea, who was going to vote against the daughter of Zeus? In what I think was the world’s first reality show, Poseidon got “voted off” the mountain. If he’d won we would have visited Poseidon city today instead of Athens! So today’s lesson: A not so great gift wins every time if your dad owns the heavens!