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