Normandy: We left for home a day early in protest of the protests. (Wait, did someone say ‘home’?)

Sometimes you follow the news…and then sometimes the news follows you.

Sunday night we had plans to leave Normandy on Wednesday.  Those plans called for Bayeax on Monday, then Tuesday for the beautiful costal town of Honfleur, and then the long drive home on Wednesday morning.  But the citizens of France had other plans.

Sunday morning we were running a little low on gas, so I pulled up to a gas station in Carentan, where the pumps had a hand written sign taped over the display.  Roughly translated by Google, the signs said “This station commandeered for emergency vehicles.”  Odd.  We stopped at a few other gas stations in town…all closed, and finally just about coasted into an open one in Insigny sur Mer, about 15km away.  Hmm…What was that all about?

We had heard about the strikes in France but really hadn’t paid much attention.  French citizens across the country were staging protests to proposed changes of some of their social benefits.  We hadn’t paid much attention, because in my experience the average strike in the US consist of a couple of guys with beer guts sitting in lawn chairs outside of a factory.  They are generally distruptive to exactly nobody except the ones striking.  But I’ll give the French some credit here, they know how to strike.  Really.

The first objective of the strike was to barricade oil refineries, effectively starving France of gasoline.  We didn’t realize this was going on, but all the while we were in France, Normandy’s diesel supplies were shrinking.  In fact, by Monday when we drove past the same gas station where we had filled up in Insigny sur Mer again, it was out of diesel….and like most EU cars, The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van requires diesel.  It suddenly dawned on us the gravity of the situation…we had 800km to drive to get home and not enough fuel to do it, and no way of knowing when we’d be able to buy gas again.

We decided the situation called for hitting the road a day early,  foregoing our Honfleur trip (bummer).  That turned out to be a good decision.  The first gas station we passed on the autobahn that actually had some diesel left, had a line more than a kilometer long.  We drove through towns where traffic was snarled due to waits at the gas station extending far into the streets, further complicated by cars stalling in line.  It wasn’t for several hundred kilometers into our drive that we (luckily) found a gas station with diesel and some tolerable lines.  That was enough fuel to get us out of France…probably…

Unless, of course, we got mired into “Operation Escargot”, which we did.  Operation Escargot was an effort by French truck drivers to bring highway traffic to a stall by intentionally driving at a snail’s pace on major highways.  Based on the news reports we expected to run into such protests near Paris, so we drove well north to avoid the mess, but still found ourselves in stopped highway traffic in Reims.  We took a detour through downtown Reims (just cleaning up after a protest march, by the way) and were able to get out of town unscathed.  Fortunately for us the country highways of eastern France were wide open most of the rest of the way home, if an hour or two later than we would have liked.

We were just about to the end of our trip, just crossing over the French border into Deutschland, when an odd thing happened.  Melissa and I both voiced the same thought at the same time to each other: “It’s good to be home“.

Home? This place that we’ve only lived for three months?  Where we barely speak a word of the native language?  Where you can’t get mac-n-cheese or Ranch dressing?  Home, where you have to bring your own bags to the grocery store?  Home, where the Y and Z keys are swapped on the keyboard?  Where the cars are more expensive than our first house?


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Normandy: Utah Beach, St. Mere Eglise and Bayeax

Church at St Mere Eglise

With Omaha Beach fully explored but the kids still yearning for some beach time, we decided to make a stop at Utah Beach, just North and West of Omaha.  Utah gets fewer visitors, probably because it doesn’t have the notoriety of Omaha – only 200 American casualties on the morning of the invasion.  But it was still an important step in establishing a beach head, and  with the sun shining it was the perfect opportunity for the kids to find sea shells and capture some photos of Utah.

Just behind Omaha Beach lies St. Mere Eglise, a sleepy little town with a lot of Lore.  St. Mere Eglise was featured in the  movie “The Longest Day”. The story featured there is of paratrooper John Steele who got hung up on the church spire where he remained for hours until finally being taken prisoner.   The church remains at the center of St. Mere Eglise, and in an odd commemoration an effigy of Steele hangs from a prachute from the spire today.

Next to the church is a museum dedicated to the 82nd at 101st Airborne. It wasn’t big or impressive but it was kid friendly, and we’ll take that over big and impressive any time. (Photos of St. Mere Eglise and the Airborne Museum).

Our last stop on our tour of France turned out to be Bayeax.  It wasn’t planned that way,

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax.

but citizens of France had other plans (more on that later).  And we like to go where the people aren’t…so that worked out well for us, because Bayeax was basically completely closed for business on Mondays.  Nonetheless, we explored the town and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeax,

Normandy: Round tripping through Pointe du Hoc, Arromanches and Longues sur Mer

Scarred Pointe du Hoc Landscape

THE KIDS DIDN’T want to go to Pointe du Hoc. After seeing the beach for the first time it was hard to get them to think of something else…but in the end for all of us – even the kids – this ended up being one of the highlights of the trip. Gave Dad some cred again.

In 1944 large guns protected by concrete casemates had been placed at the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc.  The guns – capable of reaching both Utah and Omaha beaches – were taken out by the storied  2nd Ranger Battalion. Army rangers  scaled the cliffs  and suffered heavy casualties, only to find the guns had already been moved inland and wooden planks stood in their place as a disguise. The  Pointe du Hoc  landscape  is forever scarred with craters,  evidence of the massive naval and arial bombardment it endured in preparation for D-Day…shown in a few of our photos.  It also provides people (kids) a chance to observe (climb down into) craters and through some of the casemates to get a better idea of the combat conditions (play). Fun for the whole family.

On the other side of Omaha beach is Arromanches, a costal town on Gold Beach where the British navy installed a temporary harbor (Mulberries). The remains of the harbor are still visible from the coasts (photos), and Arromanches, a town of 500, now thrives on the visitors that come annually to see the remnants of D-Day.  On a warm summer day this would be a fantastic place to spend a day exploring shops or enjoying the beach.  On a cold blustery fall day,  I recommend sitting huddled in one of the pedestrian restaurants trying to keep warm by holding a piece of pizza and then moving back to the van as quickly as possible.  We elected to do the latter.

The last stop of the day was to Longues sur Mer, where a gun battery (photos) remains.  Unlike Pointe du Hoc the casements avoided destructions and the original guns are still in place.

Normandy: A Detour to Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel from the approaching causeway.

WHEN WE WENT TO Omaha Beach, we all learned a little lesson about ocean tides.  Now it seems Camden won’t ever let us forget.

Enter Mont Saint-Michel… This former church, abbey & prison – or maybe better described a small city – is built upon a rock out in the middle of the sea.  Legend has it that the original construction was comissioned as a church by the Archangel Michael himself.

But none of that interested Camden as much as the fact that Mont Saint Michel is located

Sign saying that today, this parking lot is safe. Little consolation to Camden.

in what  is considered to be one of the most dangerous tidal beaches in the world.  When the tide is in, the abbey is surrounded on all sides by sea water and is accessible only by a narrow causeway.  Several of the parking lots get covered by the sea.  When the tide is out, it reveals miles and miles of flat sandy beach.  In the days leading up to our trip Melissa read aloud a few passages from a Rick Steves book that noted that the tide is said to come in with “the speed of a galloping horse” at 2 feet/second (Horizontal speed…OK, faster than a pack mule, maybe) and that in the older times people would make the pilgrimage out to Mont Saint Michel and become lost in the fog and caught up in the tide before reaching the island.  Modern day stories abound of tourists who parked at the wrong place at the wrong time only to come back to a car in a nice salt bath.  So with all that in mind, to Camden visiting this death trap was tantamount to suicide.  We would all probably be sitting in Mont Saint Michel enjoying a pretzel and taking in the views when a tsunami-like wall of water would sweep us out of the abbey (hundreds of feet above sea level) and wash us all out to sea. We were of course in absolutely no danger, but the mind of a 5-year-old just doesn’t always accept that.  Now that we’re back safe and sound, I’m still not sure he believes us.

Despite the scary monster tide, this is really a stunning place to visit.  It almost seemed surreal.  The view of Mont St. Michel from the approaching highway is idyllic, and the panorama from atop the abbey is impressive.  We uploaded a few of the better photos.

Normandy: Omaha Beach & The American Military Cemetary

WE THOUGHT THAT on our first day in Normandy we would avoid the history and museums.  We figured we would be too tired from the drive to pay much attention, so we decided to just take the kids to the closest stretch of sand beach for their first real-life chance to dip their toes in the ocean.  We hopped in the van, picked a close town, and set off the see the waves.

View of the western sector of Omaha beach from the position of a concrete bunker.

In retrospect that was a little naive.  We picked the town of Vierville sur Mer as our landing spot, which turned out to not just be an inconspicuous stretch of sand but rather the western edge of Omaha Beach (lesson learned, there is no such thing as an inconspicuous stretch of sand in Normandy).    We walked out onto the beach to explore, and while the kids collected seashells I snapped a few photos of the beach and bluffs.  

Unfortunately for us, we picked a time when the tide was coming in. We were getting ready to  trek down to explore the rock-cliffs of Pointe et Raz de la Percèe – the Western edge of Omaha –  when we realized that there was some sea water sneaking up behind us on the beach and was about to cut us off from the shore, so we scampered back up to the parking lot to The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van. From the comfort of the van entertained ourselves by watching some other tourists  oblivious to the tide get stuck on a sand bar and have to wade in in their loafers.  Ah, that’s good entertainment.

As a side note, this was our kids first exposure to the concept of a “tide”, and the idea that water could come surging from the ocean unexpectedly, then trap and swallow you whole. That was enough to freak out safety-conscious Camden for the duration of the trip.  More on that later.

From there we took a drive through Vierville sur Mer and Colleville, ending up at the American Military Cemetery in Colleville.   There are no words to describe this place, and I wont even bother trying here…we’ll just share our photos and say that it was an incredible experience.  

American Military Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer

Later in the week we returned back to Omaha Beach, to sunny skies and low tides.   There has been too much already said and written about Omaha Beach and there are others who are far better experts than us.  My only comment, I’ve read time and time again how far the beach was, and how high the bluffs were. Standing there in person, it just seems impossible.  It seems like there is a mile of beach between the ocean and the bluffs, and the bluffs seem impossibly high, and the firing positions in the bunkers of the beach seem far too superior…it is simply hard to imagine the task at hand for the American GI’s that morning.  I’m not a good enough camera man to capture this completely, but nonetheless have uploaded a few perspectives of Omaha Beach.   The last photo in the bunch is a comparative between the church in Colleville-sur-Mer today as compared to June 6, 1944 as members of the Big Red 1 walk by.

A Week in Normandy

A  FEW WEEKS AGO Melissa and I stood in front of our wall-sized map of Europe (thanks Van Essens!)  and tried to figure out where our family could spent a week for a late fall vacation.  The kids are on the German school calendar and had two weeks off coming up in middle October, and it had been a long time since we had taken a family vacation together. So after some staring and hand wringing we pointed our fingers at Normandy and set about to make some arrangements.

Then only last Wednesday after an uneventful 9 hour drive in The-Stupidly-Expensive-Van we found ourselves pulling up into the drive in front of the French gite that would be our home for the next week.

The Gite – or French holiday home – was truly unique. It was located in the countryside (far, far out in the countryside) in the tiny town of Gorges, found only on winding roads through cow pastures and corn fields.   It was remote – too far for our big, loud American-sized family to disturb anyone (our closest neighbors were cows), which made it the perfect place us to operate out of for the next week.  It offered plenty of bedrooms, some really short doorways and hallways (head still bruised)  and a really cool perspective.

The road our Gite was located on was bordered by long stretches of thick hedgerows.

Here’s why…First, Normandy is a big, amazing place.  Most people like myself mostly associate it with it’s WWII war history, but the reality is that there is much, much more there than just war history. It has a deep and ancient history and is rooted in an incredible culture that started hundreds – thousands – of years before June 6, 1944.  Having said that, the war history is hard to ignore.

For example…this Gite we rented was located in the countryside  in the middle of a triangle between the cities of Carentan, St Mere Eglise, and Periers. War history buffs would recognize at least two of those town names because they were ground zero for the 82nd and 101st Airborne’s objective to link Utah and Omaha beaches for D-Day.  I stood for a moment in the front lawn of the gite and considered this: Had we stood there together on the eve of 6 June, we would heard the drone of C-47s high above, perhaps occasionally catching a glimpse as the sky is lit up by anti-aircraft fire.  We would have seen – from our bedroom window – men in parachutes float silently to the ground with M1s at the ready.  We would have winced as we saw a few of them sink helplessly into the fields across the road that had been intentionally flooded, or be cut down by defending troops who occupied the farmhouse just down the road (which had been de-roofed for a better view of the night sky).  We would have seen the paratroopers rally in bands and march East towards Carentan (indeed, there are photos of the paratroopers assembling in Gorges), taking cover among the hedgerows.  Later, we  would have heard the distant reports of mortars and artillery from Carentan as the paratroopers cleared the way for the invasion.  While it is true Normandy is full of history, that history is hard to ignore.

The road signs in this area read like Battle Histories

We saw a lot of stuff in Normandy, and will share the highlights in a few posts over the next few days.  In the mean time, here are a couple pictures of the Gite we stayed in and some of the surrounding area.