This past Wednesday and Thursday we took a two-day excursion to discover the regions of Brittany and Normandy and learn about D-Day and the American involvement in WWII. Before the excursion, Kelly covered historical information in culture class about the sites we visited to give students contextual knowledge and familiarity with what they were going to discover. Here’s a map highlighting our route:
Letter H (which is covering A) is at Saumur from where we departed bright and early at 7:30 in the morning. Our first stop – point B – was the fortified coastal city of Saint-Malo. You can see on the map above that the northwestern part of France branches into two arms. The larger lower arm is the region called Brittany, and the northern arm is Normandy. Saint-Malo is thus a Breton city, and that is where we stopped for lunch. The students ate the picnics prepared for them by their host families and then had time to explore the city. The port city engages in sea trade and has an economy that largely depends on fishing and tourism. We experienced a little bit of the "typical" Breton weather – rain – but it didn’t last too long. Overall it was a really pleasant stop, which offered a magnificent view of the sea from the top of the ramparts that circle the central part of the city. Here are some students exploring the ramparts (with some people passing by who decided to be part of the photo!):
We then headed for the main attraction of the day – the Mont Saint Michel – which, as you can see from the label C above, is nestled exactly between Brittany and Normandy (both of which, of course, would like to lay claim to it). What started as a small abbey in the early 8th century atop a small but sharply rising island has become an immense monastery that attracts over 3 million visitors every year. While the monastery at one time was full of life - a residence for monks and a popular destination for religious pilgrimages - it attracted less and less attention until the time of the Revolution when it was converted into a prison. It has since been reopened as a touristic destination and has been named one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites. Interestingly enough, we happened to be there when workers were “en grève,” or on strike. This did not change our visit, but it was a good opportunity in fact for the students to learn about how and why workers strike in France. The students visited the abbey in small groups and although they didn’t seem to enjoy all the stairs, they certainly seemed to enjoy the view!
Afterwards, we left for our pit stop for the night, a youth hostel in Grand Camp-Maisy (point D above). We ate a delicious dinner of course complete with cheese and bread, and then let the students relax for the night. A large number of them took this opportunity to be “brave” and play frisbee together in the cold sea. Most didn’t go in much above their knees, but needless to say, there was a long line for the showers after! As cold as it was, it certainly made for a good memory. (Personally, I was content enough putting a single toe in the water. After that I was out!!)
The following morning we had breakfast in the youth hostel – cereal, yogurt, bread and (salted) butter – and headed first to the Pointe du Hoc (point E), a piece of land that juts into the sea, situated atop steep cliffs between Omaha beach and Utah beach. Thought to be unassailable by sea, it was the site where the 2nd Ranger Battalion climbed with specially made ropes and ladders to destroy enemy guns on D-Day morning and prevent counterattacks on the landing beaches.
Right after the Pointe du Hoc, we continued to the American Cemetery and Omaha beach (point F).
Because of the many lives lost at Omaha beach, the small town just behind the beach (located just atop the hill from the beach) was chosen as the site of the American cemetery dedicated to the soldiers in World War II, which holds over 9,000 graves. There is a small chapel in the middle, and at the front end, a memorial consisting of a statue, a reflecting pool, and the names of 1,500 missing soldiers.
We knew that going on the 4th of July would be especially moving for us all (instructors and students alike), but we were met with an opportunity that made our visit all the more personal and unique, something none of us could have predicted. Since it was the 4th, a French Organization called “Les Fleurs de la Mémoire” (Flowers of Remembrance) greeted all visitors that day. Existing since 2000, their mission is to honor each burial place with a flower. In order to do this, they gave each of us card with a soldier to “adopt” and a rose to place on his tomb. The card included the full name of the soldier, his burial site, his unit, his state of origin, his rank, and his date of decease. As you can imagine, this was a very emotional visit, and students supported each other very well. It gave students a lot to think about and for many, it gave them a new perspective on their experience here in France.
After placing our roses, we all walked down to the water on Omaha beach, the site of the first attack on D-Day. As previously mentioned, Kelly had discussed the assault in culture class - out of the first 3,000 soldiers to land on the beach, around 900 lost their lives, the number rising to around 3,000 by the end of the day. When we gathered together on the sand, we gave students the opportunity to sing the National Anthem together. A few others walking by were quite moved and stopped to take videos and photos. Afterward, many students silently reflected and tried imagined what had happened. It was almost eerie, given how calm the beach was. The students then had a little more time to visit in small groups.
At the end of the visit, we watched a powerful film on a split screen that consisted of footage from D-Day. On the left side, we saw the Allied perspective, and on the right side, the German perspective. I personally found that the end left perhaps the heaviest impression: as the camera soared over the beach showing soldiers in combat in black and white, it cut to footage of the beach today - calm and in full color - and back again to the old footage. In total it lasted about 15 minutes, but left impressions that will certainly stay with us all much longer.
After the film, we boarded the bus once more to return home. To offset the somber and emotionally draining nature of the day, we watched a lighthearted comedy called "Bienvenue chez les ch'tis," a film about regional language varieties and stereotypes. Many people slept the first part of the ride home, but everyone was fully awake when we popped in Mulan at the end. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if over half the group has already memorized all the words to some of the songs! I can't quite figure out why (maybe I missed the boat?), but it's fun to watch them get really into it! All the same, after quite the journey, students were welcomed home by their host families who were awaiting their arrival - just in time for dinner! (I also want to recognize Kelly for kindly offering some historical insights for this post!)