Saturday, May 25, 2019

Looking back

Two weeks in England and France led to many memorable sights.  A thing that struck me on a walk along the Thames was this memorial to lost submariners of both world wars, a poignant sculpture of Brits calmly accepting the cost of violent encounters under the sea as water demons tear their vessel's metal skin apart to transport them to the next world in the next instant, as befits careholders of the Empire.

Tracing the footprints of heroes on Omaha Beach was a poignant moment.  Seeing the other four D-Day beaches in Normandy made me ruminate on the brave American, British and Canadian young men who came to grapple with and ultimately throttle the Nazi scourge occupying Europe at the time.

Oxford was charming, and very hoary.  A town full of future leaders of the world.

Paris.  That one word says it all.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Paris

An  American in Paris.  That is what I was, not speaking the language, no guide books in hand, my friends having returned to America after showing me so much of both England and France so graciously, since I had never been overseas before.

The Arc de Triumph, the Left Bank and the Eiffel Tower were what I knew of Paris, and we drove by the Arc de Triumph on our way in, saw the Eiffel Tower from a bridge as we were returning our car to the rental agency and our hotel was near the Left Bank or maybe in it so, besides touring Versailles, which really isn't in Paris, and visiting a WWI battlefield, which would have involved intricate travel plans to get to and return in the same day, I was a blank slate on what I wanted to see and do.


I booked a tour of Versailles because I well remember from tenth grade history the phrase of L'etat c'est moi from Louis XIV's reign as signifying that king's godlike power and the teacher's discussion of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles reflecting France's greatness at the time, and perhaps we discussed the gardens at Versailles signifying the Sun King's opulence, heady stuff for a 15 year old about to break out in a love of history that led to a history major in college (that's why I ultimately became a lawyer).  (The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.)

As I waved goodbye to my two friends Eric and Rhea as they disappeared into the Metro station to depart for the airport, they pointed to a structure 400 meters away across the Seine and said, "That's Notre Dame."  I took that wonderment in during the next few hours and the next day I tramped from the Eiffel Tower to the Paris Opera, exploring the Place de Concord along the way, and took a tour of the hilly neighborhood of Montmartre and visited its Sacred Heart chapel overlooking Paris.  My last day in Paris I viewed the beautiful art in the Musee d'Orsay and took my tour of Versailles, which I think I will always remember as the highlight of my trip to Paris (that, and visiting Notre Dame because, horrifyingly, it burned extensively a mere two weeks later) and the next day I returned to the US and finally had my first cup of satisfying coffee in two weeks at the local McDonalds.  (Les Quatre Parties du Monde Soutenant la Sphere.)

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Normandy

Seventy five years ago, on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces (ABC--Americans, British and Canadians ) landed on five D-Day beaches and wrenched back Europe into light from the darkness it had descended into under Hitler.  Starting closest to Paris, on the most direct line into the heart of Germany to end the scourge of Nazism was Sword beach (british), Juno beach (Canadian), Gold Beach (British), Omaha beach (American) and on the Cotentin peninsula, Utah beach (American).  (Desperate moments on Omaha beach 75 years ago.)

The British were supposed to take Caen, the Norman capital with its important road junctions out of the confining bocage country and into open tank country, on the first day but they failed to do so and hard fighting lay ahead for the rest of the summer in Normandy as German armored reinforcements steadily came on to be engaged in a stalemate by the British and Canadians as the Americans loaded up a "right punch" to finally break out of Normandy at the end of August.  Certainly Operation Overlord was no sure thing, it was a close thing perhaps, there was no Plan B if the landings failed, and what I discerned from tramping over the beaches for two days was how far apart the beaches were and how, with a little luck and a better performance by the Luftwaffe, the Germans might have exploited the initial gaps between the five beachheads and driven the Allies into the sea in piecemeal fashion.  (The long walk in from the low tide point on Gold beach.)

The most success was had at Gold beach as the British Green Howards drove almost to Bayeux the first day and established a firm lodgment with some depth, although not as far inland as the plans called for.  The three Allied Airborne units sowed confusion in the German rear and prevented coherent counterattacks on the beaches, and the Americans poured ashore on Utah beach where they met negligible resistance thanks to an effective naval and air bombing that worked as planned there alone amongst the five beaches.  (A Green Howard at rest on the tip of the spear on the evening of the Longest Day.)


Tragedy ensued on Omaha beach as the first wave was slaughtered, and off Juno beach as SS troopers systematically executed Canadian POWs in cold blood at Ardenne Abbey.  But our forces prevailed and it was very poignant to spend two days walking in the footsteps of heroes and giants on the beaches and battlefields and in the cemeteries there.  (The Price. The Canadian cemetery, one of many Allied cemeteries in Normandy.)
 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Bayeux

Bayeux in Normandy, France, is the town from which King William the Conquerer launched his invasion of England in 1066 which culminated in his victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  In town is a famous 950 year-old tapestry, 70 yards long and consisting of a few dozen sewn cloth panels of thread, linen and wool depicting the events of that momentous year from the victor's viewpoint.

It's a beautiful medieval village with narrow, winding streets, some paved with cobblestones, with joined buildings just past the narrow sidewalks which give the byways a canyon-like appearance. Residents engage in the very French way of life by buying food or wine for that night rom open-front stores on their way home from work, walking most likely.

A farmers market comes to the public square every weekend top provide whatever else the residents might need, because it sells everything from clothing to live fowls to fresh fish to wines and cheeses or even cooked foods.  My two friends and I were there to visit the five D-Day beaches nearby on this 75th-year anniversary of that stupendous battle.

Bayeux mostly bears no scars from that battle which raged in Normandy all summer during 1944, because it was captured intact by the Allies in the first week of fighting before it had a chance to be devastated by the shelling conducted by both sides during their battles that demolished many Norman towns and villages.  In town we enjoyed evening meals in local restaurants, nighttime views of the town's tremendous chapel, morning forays along the main street in search of coffee and afternoon walks past the butcher shops, produce shops, pastry shops and fish shops lining the business district.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

London

The two full days I spent in London were a whirlwind of activity.  The first day I toured the Churchill Wartime Bunkers beneath Britain's Treasury Department, rode in one of the fabled Black Taxis in London, ate lunch at a teeming outdoor market, visited historic Trafalgar Square, took High Tea at the Portrait Gallery and went to see the production of Company starring Patti LuPone at the West End that evening.


Things didn't slow down the second day.  I took a long walk along the Thames to go see all the statues around Parliament Square, visited the Supreme Court building and passed by Big Ben, had lunch at the Temple Gardens Hall, toured the replica Globe Theater, saw an all-female-of-color production of Richard the Secondhand walked by St. Paul's Cathedral when it was all lit up.

This was an exhausting pace but well worthwhile for the limited time we were in London.  There is so much history there, I saw pockmarks from a bomb dropped by a German zeppelin in World War I, a statue commemorating heroic first-responders during the London Blitz, the aforementioned Globe Theatre recreation, Parliament, the Thames and more.

The next morning we got up early to take a 6:30 a.m. chunnel train the Paris, and oddly, we had to show our passport to leave London.  Whenever the Uber driver made a turn or crossed over a street I always felt panic because at first glance it seemed he was driving down the opposing lane with oncoming traffic due to the insane way that British drivers drive from the wrong side of the car.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Oxford

Back in March, I went, with two friends and former running buddies from California, Eric and Rhea, to England and France for two weeks.  Eric graduated from Magdalene College in Oxford so he was uniquely qualified to escort us around Oxford, and he lived in Paris for a year so he spoke passable French.

We spent two full days in Oxford, a lovely old English town with centuries-old buildings, narrow winding streets flanked by walls on both sides and more than two dozen universities.  Oxford wasn't bombed in World War II, reportedly because Hitler planned to use it as the Nazis' capital city when the Germans occupied England, so all of its old, beautiful buildings remain as they have been for centuries.

I attended two concerts in the Sheldonian Theatre, ate plenty of meat pies in pubs, including venison, perambulated several of the colleges including Christ Church, watched crew rowers on the Cherwell River and did a ton of walking.  I attended a worship service at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin which dates back to 1280.

After an informative multi-day visit to an old English town, viewing its attractions and artifacts, including the university library where the ancient manuscripts are locked onto the shelf by long chains and several colleges' eating halls, we three boarded a bus bound for London.We had a full planned schedule of events to attend and places to see there.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Over There.

A few pictures from my recent (and first) trip overseas, to England and France.  (The killing ground on Omaha Beach in Normandy.)

Oxford was a very picturesque English town, an hour north of London.  (Having a draft at a pub on my first night in Oxford with my running buddy from last decade, Bex.)

London is a great city, with a lot of history in it.  (Trafalgar Square.)

Paris is Paris.  (An American tourist in the City of Lights.)