Our Viking Cruise through Normandy

“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.” —Henry Rollins

Bonjour mes ami! This summer I learned how much the French people appreciate politeness. Did you know it’s considered rude to ask a direct question without first speaking a proper greeting? This is just one of the many tips I picked up from one of our Viking excursion guides. No wonder so many Americans, myself included, tend to get off on the wrong foot as tourists.

Yes, in some places, Americans are considered uncultured, rude, and self-centered. However, I discovered the people of Normandy are willing to overlook our faults. Many of them remember the D-Day Invasion of 1944. During our visit to Normandy I appreciated being greeted by scores of American flags. I saw flags displayed outside homes, on fences, or strung from rooftops across city streets. Our Viking cruise focused on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. In this post I will share how beautifully the Viking staff developed this theme through excursions and onboard lectures.

Our Excursions

My husband and I boarded our Viking longboat outside of Paris on June 4. We cruised on the meandering Seine River until we disembarked at Rouen. Then we traveled by bus to the American landing sites of Point du Hoc, Utah Beach, and Omaha Beach. Thousands of Allied ships comprised the largest amphibious invasion in history, known as “Operation Overlord.” In the wee hours of the morning on June 6, 1944 wave after wave of troops were cut down by German defenses perched high on the cliffs above Omaha beach. However, a few American soldiers managed to scale the cliffs shown below and by the end of the day an 80 mile stretch of land along the Atlantic coast had been breached by the Allies.

Two thousand American soldiers lost their lives at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Nazi gun embankments controlled the high cliffs above the water.

Today a beautiful memorial rises out of the water to symbolize the courage of the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives to liberate France. “Les Braves” was created by Anilore Banon and presented as a gift from the French people on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

“Les Braves”

The sculpture represents three elements: The Wings of Hope and the Wings of Fraternity stand on either side. The center of the work is called Rise, Freedom and inspires the world to stand strong against all forms of inhumanity.

Onboard Lectures

Our program director expanded the travel experience by inviting local guests on board to speak. While we were docked in Vernon, Monsier Castreau shared his memories of living in Vernon as a teenager. He experienced first hand the horrors of the Nazi invasion, the Nazi occupation of his community, and the eventual liberation by Americans. He remembers feeling hungry because the Nazi army ate most of what food was available. Monsier Castreau expressed his heartfelt appreciation for America. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience, many of whom were the sons and daughters of American soldiers who fought in France during the war.

I was honored to meet Monsier Castreau, who experienced life under the Nazi occupation of France.

Further upstream, at La Roche Guyon, we heard a presentation by Magali Clemencon, author and lecturer. Magali’s grandfather was a member of the French Resistance. Magali has interviewed and documented the testimony of 24 survivors of the Montluc prison, where the Nazi’s housed anyone deemed “undesirable,” like members of the Resistance, Jews, and Gypsies.

Author Magali Clemencon

Magali made a comment I will never forget. “It takes forty years for anyone who has experienced a deeply tragic event to be able to talk about it.” She shared that many survivors of World War II were unable to talk about their experiences with their children. For some, they could only speak about their past a few years prior to their death. Those who committed heroic deeds all say the same thing, “I only did what anyone in my position would do.”

I hate to imagine what the world might look like today if it were not for ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These special guests made history come alive to me. Through the eyes of strangers I came to know America in a different light and I gained a better understanding of my country’s contribution to freedom.This 4th of July take a few moments to reflect upon the freedoms we enjoy and the sacrifices of those who made it possible.

Utah Beach

In closing, I wish to thank Lionel Auber, our Viking Program Director who coordinated all excursions and onboard activities.

Many thanks to Lionel Auber for a memorable travel experience.

Our Free Day in Paris

“Repetition doesn’t create memories, new experiences do.” —Brian Chesky

Herb and I turned the faded pages of an old photo album with pictures from our trip to Europe in 1979. I pointed to a picture taken in Paris. “Look at us. We were just kids then. It’s hard to believe we backpacked through Europe for six weeks. We were brave.”

Herb nodded. “Let’s visit some of these places when we go to France next month. Most of our time is scheduled with Viking excursions but I’m sure we can arrange to have one free day.”

Earlier this year we booked a Viking River Cruise to visit the D-Day landing sites on the beaches of Normandy. This would be our first trip abroad in forty years and I was unsure of what to pack.

“I’m wearing the same sweater and jeans in most of these pictures,” I laughed. “I must have thrown them away when we came home. All of my clothes had to fit in one backpack. Now I’m having a hard time limiting myself to one suitcase.”

We talked about how different everything was in 1979. Forty years ago we didn’t have cell phones, navigation systems, or digital cameras. We used film to take photos. As newly weds, our tight budget constrained us. Whether or not to buy another roll of film was a big decision.

We pulled out our map of Paris and made a list of three places we wanted to revisit. I couldn’t wait to go. Everything fell into place and we selected June 5 as our special day to travel in our personal time machine to the year 1979.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame, 1979
Notre Dame, June 5, 2019

From this angle the iconic belfry towers look almost as they did in 1979. The church is under a huge reconstruction project as a result of the terrible fire in April. The entire area nearby the church was closed. The rainy weather added to the despair of the scene. For the latest on the reconstruction effort click here.

Luxembourg Gardens

Luxembourg Gardens 2019

On September 17, 1979 we celebrated our second wedding anniversary by getting dressed up and asking a bystander to take our picture. Herb must have carried his tie in his backpack. We didn’t see much of the gardens this year since we were in a hurry to meet our shuttle back to the Seine River to meet our Viking longboat. After snapping the shot on the right, we darted away to our third stop.

Hotel Gay-Lusac

We stayed here in 1979 because of the hotel’s proximity to Luxembourg Gardens. Here I am wearing my “uniform” and carrying my backpack. I used to cover my head with a scarf on bad hair days. Today the street is under construction and not nearly as romantic as I imagined.

My opening quote says it all. Repetition doesn’t create memories. It’s impossible to relive the past. You can’t recreate the magic because nothing is the same. Memories are better appreciated when they are kept in photo albums.

Stay tuned for future posts about the experiences we enjoyed and new memories we made in Europe this year.

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