We left Paris on a crisp bright May morning. This was the only day-long excursion we booked in advance. We were going to visit Mont St. Michele in Brittany. The trip would take us four hours one way, in a northwest direction to this 850 year old Abbey mountain.
Our route took us through the hills of Normandy, north and west of Paris. This was the precious ground, the holy ground that over a million Allied troops were to fight for in the weeks after D-Day. It all looks so gentle and peaceful since those times, 70 years ago, when the troops headed to liberate Paris. It took them two months to reach this city. It took us just hours to pass through. We wanted to visit the beaches, Omaha, Juno and others on another excursion but found the cost too prohibitive. So, we simply passed through to make a more affordable trip to this beautiful Abbey.
The photos that are inserted below were shot from the bus window. They are not the best quality…how could they be when you’re moving so fast along a motorway? But these fields, hedgerows, stone farm houses and small villages were not picturesque in 1944 like they are today in 2014. No, each hedge, each small field experienced death and conflict. The Germans were defending the French soil. The Allies were intent on freeing France from the tyranny of Nazism.
The very soil that now grows the famous Normandy apples trees, feeds the cows that provide the succulent cheese…were all fertilized by the blood of an occupying army and the blood of an army of liberation.
I look out the coach window and try to put myself in the head of a GI who was lucky enough to make it past the deadly sands of the landing beaches. I tried to visualize myself crawling, walking and slogging my way south to Paris. I tried to tap into the collective memory of any one of the thousands of soldiers who saw the same sun that I was seeing…the same clouds that I was watching…the same stone buildings that were still standing. I tried to go back in time to be that lonely, frightened, homesick young man. Then the thought came to me that, perhaps, if by some twist in time, I became that soldier…would I make it across the next patch of green pasture? Or, would I feel a sudden pinch in my temple or chest…fall to the ground, and watch the blue sky bleed away into the whiteness, leaving a child, widow, mother and father to grieve for me back in America…and honor me when the flags come out? Yes, when the flags are put on the vet’s graves, by tradition on May 30, the day before my birthday.
The coach lurched and I found myself balancing my iPad mini on my knee. I turned away from the fields of death, now so very beautiful, said a heartfelt prayer for those who made it to Paris and eventually home, and for those who did not. They are still here, under one of the countless white crosses in the American Cemeteries around Caen.
I went back to my solitaire game. I was in the present moment again.
But, was I? Really?