Exploring the Best of Normandy Beaches

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I had been living in France for over seven years and been dating the same Frenchman for more than four before I finally made the trip that, in some way, I always knew I would make. I waited eight years to visit the American Cemetery and D-Day Beaches. And this is why.

Port of Honfleur

La Préparation

I don’t know exactly how I got it in my head that I had to visit the American Cemetery in Normandy. I don’t remember a moment when I knew, suddenly, that I wanted to go. I guess it kind of crept up on me. Above – The port of Honfleur.

flags utah beach

One of my favorite stories of my parents’ courtship or early marriage – I can never remember which, just that I didn’t yet exist – is them visiting Normandy. My father, in a fit of exuberance that seems much like the man that I know now in a way that stories about our parents before we existed don’t always, dashed up a hill to get a better view of a beautiful sight…only to run headlong into a barbed wire fence.

barbed wire

Barbed wire protects Utah Beach.

“And then I poured the bottle of Calvados I had just bought over his face,” my mother always says as an ending to the story. It’s a good punch line, and it allows the listener to conveniently forget to ask why there was barbed wire involved.

I decided I wanted to go to Normandy about three years ago. The first year, I told my French boyfriend, who seemed amenable but is not one for making plans, and I was still young and romantic enough to think that I should wait until he took the reins. A year later, I got tired of waiting but asked him to book a hotel; when the hotel receptionist called him a day before we were meant to leave to ask why we’d never shown up, I eclipsed myself into the shower and allowed the water beating down on my ears to drown out sounds of his apologies and rinse my disappointment down the drain.

But those are points along timelines, moments over the course of years. In the time it took me to actually go to Normandy, I went from being a displaced New Yorker with a scrambled sense of home to an American in France. Funny, how it took living in France to make me feel truly American. And perhaps all too appropriate that it took an American to plan the arrival of a 21st century bilingual, bicultural couple in Normandy.

Le Départ

red ivy

Ivy at Ferme de la Sapinière.

I knew that I wanted to visit Normandy in the fall. It reminded me of family trips to New England; I was born a leafer and will be ‘til the day I die. Thomas didn’t quite understand why it was so important that the trip take place on the cusp of autumn, when the weather is still warm enough for wool sweaters and you can cozy up with a simple cup of tea, when Paris’ famous fall drizzles haven’t yet turned to freezing rain. But he did as I asked, because he’s congenial like that, and because when I want something, I turn a bit scary.

We left Paris on a Friday. He didn’t book the hotel – I took care of that this time – but he had carried out the task of renting us a car and proudly showed it off when I came downstairs from the apartment toting our suitcase, our camera, and the route I had spent days painstakingly charting, things we would visit marked out along the way. All he had to do was follow the directions. All I had to do was stare out the window and wait for the moment when I would feel like I was coming home.

normandy scenery

Scenery driving into Normandy.

We drove straight to the hotel through the afternoon and evening, stopping just a handful of times so I could take pictures of the jewel tones that highlighted the roadside, and the exposed beams that seemed so new in those moments and would soon become part of the scenery.

ferme de la rançonniere

Ferme de la Rançonnière, one of the two buildings of our hotel.

I had chosen a renovated old manor as the place where we would sleep that first night; it surpassed our budget, but I evened it out with a night in a more modest hotel the following night and imagined that this was what my parents felt like planning holidays in the 80s, when Wall Street was booming and my father was very rich and very young.

normandy sky

The Normandy landscape is flat; the sky seems eternal.

Thomas questioned my judgment as we drove through flat expanses of Normandy farmland, so different from the wooded lakes and hills he knew from his native Loire Valley. But he was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of the hotel, the room larger than our apartment. Moments like these embarrass me sometimes, when I think of the hotel rooms I stayed in before I knew what a hotel was, before I realized that not everyone got breakfast delivered via room service. But I didn’t say that.

crépon at night

The town of Crépon at night.

He wanted to take advantage of the room; I wanted to take advantage of the magic hour of twilight, and while it took some convincing, he did as I asked and followed me into the night, letting me take shaky pictures as he smoked a cigarette, pausing with me in silence in front of the first of many monuments to the American dead we would see over the next three days.

We had a fine dinner at the hotel and very good cocktails. We giggled at the depth and enormity of the bathtub. We slept soundly in the gargantuan bed.

Le Débarquement

I wanted to spend a whole day devoted to the war. My Type A brain likes to keep things organized, and I would have been very happy to fully immerse myself in the period, the way I had in the warm water of the tub the night before, only to emerge at dusk into what never feels like reality anyway. But I also had a keen desire to remember my parents through this trip, as I had never known them, and so I knew I wanted to visit a Calvados producer.

entrance to ferme de la sapinière

The entrance to the Ferme de la Sapinière.

There was one not far from the hotel, and they had tastings at 10:45 in the morning, so we made that our first stop, after breakfast at the hotel. I found myself wondering, as I often do when I visit small villages and meet the people who have always lived there, what it would have been like if this were my home, my life, thoughts that I allowed to pulse as I listened to the explanations of the young, curly-haired girl running the tour, as I ran my hands over ancient machinery and lifted glasses of cider and calva to my lips.

calvados casks

Casks of Calvados at the Ferme de la Sapinière.

The farmhouse displayed photographs of D Day and the aftermath. I looked, but I did not feel ready to face that part of the story, not yet.

When we left the farm, we could go two ways – either straight to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery or the longer route to Utah Beach. The sun was shining, a rarity in the region, and I left the choice to Thomas, the designated driver. He elected for the longer path, maybe because he thought it would please me, maybe because he was genuinely interested.

normandy cows

Cows are an essential part of the landscape in Normandy.

As we drove to Utah Beach and I snapped pictures of cows in fields and bronze trees, I remembered that, four years before, when I had coerced him into taking a Proust questionnaire, he had listed the French collaboration as the event he was most ashamed of; he felt personal embarrassment at something some unnamed ancestor had done, even though he was descended from a Maquisard in the Resistance.

utah beach memorial

The Memorial at Utah Beach.

We had watched Saving Private Ryan the night before our departure. I had spent most of the film trembling or crying, but I wouldn’t let Thomas turn it off. When we parked at Utah Beach and climbed to the top of the bluff, I felt the feelings from the night before wash over me, the truth behind the relatively calm, lovely beach I saw before me.

view of utah beach

A view of Utah Beach.

If I didn’t know where I was, I could have just as easily thought that this would be a lovely place to spend a vacation. Instead, as I looked at the American and French flags flapping in the wind side-by-side, I wept again.

lucky strikes

Lucky Strike cigarettes — part of the American soldiers’ rations.

The Musée du Débarquement was just next door. I had assumed we would spend a maximum of one hour inside, but we ended up staying three, exploring each and every exhibit, each of us perusing at our leisure and largely independent of one another. I was fascinated by the souvenirs of life, of people – American dollars, letters from home, a pack of cigarettes given to the American army, the same brand Thomas smokes.

information leaflet

Leaflets like these were used to get information to towns where news was censored.

But he beckoned me over when he found a letter that had once been carried by a pigeon. “Look,” he said. “Ils demandent des infos sur les boches.” My French is fluent, but the last word was unfamiliar to me.

“They’re asking for information about what?”

“Les boches. The Germans. That’s what they were called.” He stared into the glass. “My grandfather was in the Resistance, you know.”

I nodded. I did know, and I knew this meant something to him, but I knew too little, then, about the French efforts to know how much. I knew, however, that his grandmother had lived in Pithiviers, across from the train station where they brought the Jews out of Paris in summer 1942, bringing them east, separating children and parents on the platforms and sending children weeks after to meet their dead parents. His grandmother still won’t talk about it.

“How old was your grandmother, then?”

He couldn’t remember. I watched video interviews of elderly people from Normandy with a thick, rich country accent, telling stories of when they were in their early 20s and the Americans arrived on their shores. I wanted to feel pride, but I didn’t, and didn’t really feel I deserved to; it was my people arriving, and yet I had no ancestors on the Normandy beaches. My grandfather was in the Navy, but too young to serve overseas. And maybe I felt more connected to the people I had come to know as family in the past four years instead; the people like Thomas’ grandmother, waiting for someone to save them, rather than the savior.

L’Arrivée

sainte marie église

The church at Sainte Marie Église with a replica of an American airborne soldier.

We were planning to visit the Pointe du Hoc next, but because we had spent so much time at the museum, we barely had time; it was nearly 4pm. Instead, we jumped in the car, and, skipping whatever replacement for lunch we could have imagined at 4pm, careened down the road through Sainte Marie du Mont to snap a picture of the model of the airborne parachutist who had landed on the church steeple during the first days of the débarquement. We then continued through to Colleville, where the American Cemetery was.

monument american cemetery

The monument at the American cemetery.

I had seen online that every day at the American cemetery, taps was played while the American flags were lowered. I had seen the same thing at Arlington Cemetery when I was nine, and even though I had very little knowledge, then, about who was buried at the cemetery or why I should care, I cried – the music, the flag, the ceremony of it all.

Ceremony in England is important but distinct from that in the former colonies; ceremony in France is distinct, but has never felt important, and not for my lack of trying to give it importance. Even the Marseillaise doesn’t hold that tears-in-your-throat weight that the American national anthem does – I remember my boyfriend staring at me, incredulous, as the rowdy, drunken Yankees fans at a summer day game took off their hats at the 7th inning stretch and held their hands over their hearts for “God Bless America.”

No matter what happens, Americans remain patriotic; here, patriotism is interpreted as nationalism bordering on fascism. Maybe that, too, dates back to this period in French history.

We reached the cemetery and Thomas parked faster than I ever could have hoped to. We ran through the cemetery and up the steps of an imposing monument just as the first flag was folded. Thomas held me and whispered that he was sure they’d lower the second, and sure enough, they moved over to the second flag, a button on a remote control was pressed, and taps sounded through tinny speakers as the flag was lowered and folded. I cried again.

When the flags had been lowered, we noticed two men wearing veterans’ caps, and we listened from afar as they told us their stories – one had never even landed on the beaches, been presumed dead in the water and fished out hours later. I looked at Thomas, whose eyes were tearing for the first time.

“Do you want to go shake their hands?”

He looked at me, startled, and shook his head. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

crosses and stars of david

A field of crosses and Stars of David at the American cemetery.

So instead, we walked around the cemetery, through the imposing rows of crosses with an occasional Star of David. I was looking for last names I recognized, last names that might give me some sense that this was my history, too.

When I looked at Thomas, I saw that he was reading every name, reading every birth and death date. I realized, then, just how differently we were living the same experience. This wasn’t my history or his; he has no family in Normandy, and I had no family in the war. But for him, this is reality.

This is the truth behind that joke that I sometimes hear, “If it weren’t for you, we’d be speaking German.” When I read The Diary of Anne Frank, in school, it felt like a million years ago; to Thomas, this still felt real, somehow.

We both watched a couple of young teenagers taking selfies and being loud. We glanced at each other and shook our heads, the way we’ve come to do every time we see kids behaving in a way that both our authoritative parents – my mother, his father – never would have allowed.

“I never would have even thought of acting like that…” we both say. We’re the same, now, each taking enough little pieces of the other’s culture to have our own third-culture home, where the language is franglais, the television is American except for Un village français, the movies are French and the music is British.

beaches at colleville sur mer

The beaches at Colleville-sur-Mer as seen from the American cemetery.

As we drove away from the beaches to Caen, Thomas stayed silent. So did I, but I wanted to know what he was thinking.

marianne holding a soldier

The French Marianne holding a wounded soldier at the American cemetery.

lady liberty

Lady Liberty protecting a soldier at Colleville-sur-Mer.

Le Repli

We spent the night in Caen, which is only an hour’s drive from the beaches but feels an eternity away. It was filled with people out for hen (bachelorette) parties and students enjoying happy hour. We had a meal and went to bed early. The next morning, we set out for a few last stops before heading home to Paris.

The first was the Battery of Mont Canisy, at the far eastern tip of the coast of Normandy that was so instrumental in returning France to the French. While we were by no means overwhelmed by tourists at the beaches the day before, thanks to the time of year, there was no one here save a French father and his two sons.

Maybe that’s because it was not very useful during the war itself. Maybe it’s because they’re so close to the other parts of Normandy, the ritzy towns of Trouville and Deauville that attract so many Parisians with second homes at the weekends. But the overgrown mont made it slightly easier to imagine, squinting as you looked out over the sea, what it must have been like to be here, really be here, when the allied ships appeared over the horizon.

view from mont canisy

The view from the battery at Mont Canisy.

From Mont Canisy, we went to Villerville, where some concrete pillboxes still jutted out of the sand. Because of the time of day and the tides, we could only glimpse them from afar, as locals in high rubber boots waded and fished off the shore.

pillbox vierville beach

A World War II pillbox at Vierville beach.

Our last stop before Paris was Honfleur; I had promised my mother we would visit, as she had taken me there as a child. It was a bit out of our way, but Thomas didn’t mind – his parents, too, had taken him there on vacation when he was young and his sister did not yet exist.

We wandered the town, and Thomas pointed out places he remembered – the street he had run down with his brother, racing and slipping on wet pavement. The storefront he was sure had once been a toystore with a giant Lego man out front. As we sat at a restaurant overlooking the port, drinking our last kir normand and enjoying a seafood lunch, I wondered if, maybe, before either of us had any idea of the other, or the other’s language, even, maybe, once, we had been here at the same time.

As we drove back to Paris, I thought about everything I’d seen, we’d seen. I thought about what it would have felt like to visit these beaches eight years ago, when I first arrived in France, and everything was fresh and romantic, and I pretended to be Canadian because George Bush was president, and people wouldn’t stop asking me about it. I thought about what it would have been like to visit during my third year, when everything got so difficult that I left, or during my fourth year, when I realized I couldn’t stay away.

I don’t know if, sometime down the road, I’ll feel like there was a better moment to visit. But today, I live in France. I don’t feel French and don’t feel I ever will. I’m an American in France, descendant of the hodgepodge of American melting pot soup, living with a French-since-Charlemagne descendant of a Maquisard in the Resistance. I know enough.

I know that France isn’t perfect. I know that it’s more perfect, for me, than America. And I know that there’s a feeling I get that I can’t define, when I see the American and French flags flying side-by-side — my past and my present, my future who knows, but perhaps the best answer to “Where are you from?” than I can fathom — in a place I’ve never lived, but will always remember.

flags utah beach

American and French flags flying side-by-side at Utah Beach.

Addresses

Manoir de Mathan
Route de Creullu
14480 Crepon

Ferme de la Sapinière
Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer

Utah Beach – Musée du Débarquement
50480 Sainte-Marie-du-Mont

Omaha Beach – American Cemetery
Colleville-sur-Mer

Battery at Mont Canisy
Benerville-sur-Mer

Pillboxes
Vierville-sur-Mer Beach

*Story and photos by Emily Monaco. Featured image courtesy of Old german bunker in Normandy, Gold beach, France via photoneye via Shutterstock.

 

Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey (http://jessieonajourney.com) and Epicure & Culture (http://epicureandculture.com). Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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