The date was September 14, 2001, three days after the horrifying terrorist attacks in the United States. I was traveling in France when the massacres took place, and on this day the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach seemed an appropriate place to be. Solemn, reverent and a haven of solitude and reflection amid a world now filled with turmoil.
The soft autumn light was particularly radiant at the memorial where its manicured grounds sloped gently toward a cobalt blue, white-capped sea and a cerulean sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds. A place where infinity merged and timelessness prevailed.
Lengthening shadows angled from the graceful elegance of thousands of white crosses; their charcoal black silhouettes made even more distinct by the contrast of the brilliant green lawn.
The setting is landscape architecture at its finest. Here the harmonious unification of earth, sea and sky has been achieved to perfection. Here the elements of nature and human inspiration come together with dignity and grace in eternal gratitude to those who sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy and will continue to cherish through generations unborn.
Shortly before noon a ceremony began, unannounced and without fanfare. A small procession of men and women solemnly marched forward, forming a line in front of the 22-foot bronze statue symbolizing “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” They faced the large rectangular reflecting pool and the chapel in the distance. A few seconds later the chimes of the carillon poignantly rang out with our National Anthem, followed by three minutes of silence, a three-gun salute and the haunting music of Taps. And then it was over.
In a span of just 6 or 7 minutes, a sincere expression of sympathy honoring the brave and innocent victims that perished on September 11th had been observed. But it was the participants in the ceremony that made it all the more meaningful because the mayors from every village and town along the entire coast of Normandy had gathered in that hallowed place to pay their respects to the American people. An America that had been instrumental in liberating their own country from the grip of tyranny less than sixty years before.
Later in the day I continued my journey through D-Day history by traveling further down the coast toward the resort community of Arromanches. With the thoughts and images of what I had experienced at Omaha Beach still echoing in my mind, I stopped along the route to visit Longues sur Mer before going on to Arromanches.
Several bunkers, with the gun emplacements still intact, remain at Longues sur Mer, just as they were almost six decades ago. The emplacements rest high on a bluff overlooking the English Channel with their huge, dormant artillery pieces still pointed toward the coast of Great Britain.
Oddly enough, today Longues sur Mer seems, in some ways, to be a contradiction of itself. While the weapons are awesome in scale and serve as a powerful reminder of the world at war, the area is now a grass-covered park which is eerie in its serenity, placidly looking out toward the sea.
In truth, the entire region of Normandy is much the same way. Often the past thousand years of its history have been filled with conflict, but it is difficult to visualize such turmoil when you gaze upon the peaceful, rolling landscapes that become a prism of rich, dappled colors beneath Normandy’s ever-changing patterns of light. Pastoral tableaus of farmland dotted with stone cottages and half-timbered houses where the ravages of wars past now seem a distant memory. William Zinsser once wrote “death in battle is an old story here,” yet for all of its turbulent history, Normandy remains one of the most tranquil areas in France.
German artillery was a force to be reckoned with on that eventful day in 1944, but in the end, it was the hedgerows, the dividing lines that have defined property boundaries for centuries, that were the toughest barriers to overcome in the march to the interior.
On clear days, just eight miles inland from Longues sur Mer, you can see the silhouette of Bayeux Cathedral rising above the horizon of meadows and fields. Bayeux was the first town liberated after the landings on D-Day. It is also home to the famed Bayeux Tapestry, which was embroidered in the 11th century to document the history of the Norman Conquest of 1066.
Along the coast, just a few miles east, the last remnants of the Mulberry Harbors protrude above the waters of Arromanches. The massive temporary harbors were ingeniously designed to allow vehicles, machinery and other large equipment to penetrate the German defensive perimeter on D-Day before moving into the interior of France. The artificial harbors were instrumental in the success of Operation Overlord and the events that followed the invasion.
I traveled onward to Arromanches and began searching for a place to have lunch. It was now mid-afternoon, and I knew my prospects would be limited. After 15 minutes, I located a small restaurant and went inside. The dining room to the right was filled to capacity with locals, but the bar to the left was virtually empty, except for a couple of employees who were watching the news on French television.
Being hopelessly monolingual, I gestured to the hostess about the possibility of getting something to eat. She glanced down at her wrist to see what time it was, and immediately I knew that the kitchen was officially closed for the afternoon. As I turned away to leave, the young woman suddenly held up her forefinger signaling for me to wait. Then she vanished into the kitchen.
Moments later she returned with a large man wearing an apron following her. She motioned to a table in the bar, and with a smile, she handed me a menu as she indicated that I sit down. As I took my seat, the dark-haired man with the apron spoke. “You American?” he asked in broken English.
“Oui,” I replied using one-third of my knowledge of French.
“You eat,” he said. “We open for you.”
And with those few words, he turned and went back to his kitchen.
Through hand signals, rudimentary gestures and occasional grunts and nods I managed to communicate my order to the waitress. So occupied had I been with the process that I did not notice that the proprietor had returned to the room. He was now standing behind the bar, rapidly scanning through various television channels with the remote. Finally, after a determined search, the Frenchman found what he was looking for. He called to me from across the room as he pointed toward the television. Then in a loud voice he shouted, “CNN!”
There so far away from home, so isolated from the uncertainty and terror my fellow countrymen were dealing with, came a small but significant act of kindness from a stranger in a foreign land whom I would likely never see again.
Between bites I caught up on the latest events back in the States. By 3:45, with my hunger and curiosity now satisfied, I paid for the meal. I thanked the owner for his hospitality with countless “mercis” and several “merci beaucoups,” depleting my French vocabulary in the process.
When I was ready to leave, the proprietor followed me to the door. Once outside, I thanked him one final time, and started to walk away, but he stopped me, pausing momentarily to point at the French flag outside his restaurant. It was tied to the pole at half-mast. The owner smiled at me and waved, and as I made my way down the street, alone with my thoughts, uncontrollable tears trickled down my cheeks.
The incident at Arromanches was the second time that day in which I had been overwhelmed with emotion. The first occurred at the conclusion of my visit to the Normandy American Cemetery earlier that morning. With thoughts of the noontime tribute forever etched into my memory, I had somberly, almost aimlessly, wandered around the memorial.
As I strolled past the “Statue of American Youth” for the last time, I noticed something that had not been there prior to the ceremony. There, resting at the base of the sculpture, was a single basket of flowers placed by an anonymous donor, and tucked behind one of the flowers, to hold it in place, was a picture.
The picture had been taken from the front seat of a car while crossing a bridge. It was obviously the work of an amateur. A tourist. Someone who had once visited the United States. It was a picture of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
But there was something even more telling about the tiny, unidentified tribute, for I knew that it had been placed there by someone who had probably lived through the Battle of Normandy in 1944. The answer was written in four words on the sash that draped across the basket. The words simply read, “We have not forgotten.”
It has long been my quest in writing about travel and tourism to seek out stories that have a heart-felt message. Stories with depth that extend beyond guidebooks and bring other destinations, cultures and points of view into perspective. Stories that provide a greater understanding of who we are as Americans by observing the world through new eyes.
Through it all I never fully understood the source of the passion in that search. Then unexpectedly it all became clear. Compassion validated my passion. It happened on an autumn day in September, 2001 in a place that has witnessed more than its own share of turmoil and grief. A place the world knows as Normandy.
Robert P. Taylor is the owner of Taylored Video Services, producers and distributors of videos for major travel industry clients. Taylor is a freelance writer for several daily newspapers including New York Post, Boston Herald, The Daily Oklahoman, Las Vegas Sun and others. He has traveled to and/or worked in more than 65 countries. Taylor was also a professional baseball player and shares a record with Cal Ripken for having played all 29-innings of the longest continuous professional baseball game in history (June, 1966).
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.