Friday, 25 November 2011

An American in Paris (and Normandy)

November 24, 2011
Happy Thanksgiving!

The long weekend of the Paris trip was the first time I travelled alone in a foreign country. When I say this, I’m not counting the UK as a foreign country: by now we’ve acknowledged that, yes, they do speak a kind of English there; and have trains that run on time; and there is nothing like returning to our Manor on the hill and knowing that it is temporarily ours. England, we like to say, is practically our home.

But France is scary. In the words of the security guard I know as Grumpy: “I don’t like France. It’s full of French people.” Quite a problem if you, like me, don’t speak a word of fran├žais but do feel like eating.

Nevertheless, on the night of November 9th, there I was in Charles de Gaulle Airport—which, like all sensible airports, is at least an hour from civilization—trying to find a train. After a lengthy session of pacing the terminal, asking directions from employees who pointed me in opposite directions, and talking to random strangers—one of whom was convinced I couldn’t speak English, probably because of the horrified look on my face when I heard his accent—I boarded an intercity train to Paris. From Paris Gare du Nord (North Station), I took a very old Metro train to Lumiere, the nation nearest to my hostel.

Stepping outside in Paris for the first time, I was met by a man jabbering at me in French. I was sure he was hitting on me. (Myabe I’m paranoid, or maybe I’d just like to believe that a French man, even a creepy one, might find me attractive.) Walking along the dimly lit streets, clutching my directions, I thought about how I must look to people. A shivering stranger in a bright red coat with a poppy on the collar, carrying a Barnes and Noble shoulder bag with very obvious English text. (Oops.) I wondered if people thought I was American or English, or if they noticed me at all. It had been so long since I had been in America, and Indiana was the farthest thing from my mind. And besides, no one really wants to admit to being an American in Paris.

The more I travel, however, the more I realize that the rest of the world does not necessarily look down on you for being American. Not even all of France does. Granted, the woman at the restaurant where I bought my first sandwich did not take kindly to my “Bonjour, ham sandwich please, merci” routine. And according to the guide on my walking tour of Paris (but don’t quote me on this), there is a national council of some sort to protect the French language from the onslaught of English loan words—apparently, "le week-end" is not acceptable, though the people say it anyway. But there is a striking amount of both British and American influence on French life.

I noticed this particularly the next day, November 10th, when I went on a tour of the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Our tour guide was an Englishman who had made his career there. When he wasn’t giving tours, he went metal detecting with his sons; they still found ammunition, shrapnel, helmets from both sides. The only girl in our group, and the only one who knew nothing about military technology and next to nothing about military history, I felt a little overwhelmed. (To quote my notes from British studies lecture: “Stuff built—in GB? Pillboxes—reinforced concrete machine gun thingies.” And that was an epiphany.) But what struck me as it never had before was the scale of the war. Standing near the shore Omaha beach, as our tour guide drew squiggling maps in the sand, I tried to imagine how many people would have stood where I was standing, how many would have fought and died there.

As we all know, it’s impossible to imagine it, partly because we can never put names and histories to all the men. The American Cemetery, which we visited at the end of our tour, tried to do just that. The dead are marked by “crosses, row on row,” just as the poem describes. Some markers, of course, are the Star of David, but most are crosses. (And those seem to represent the only two religions you could be.) Each marker was largely identical, with the same four pieces of information: name, rank and division, state, and date of death. I thought it was particularly interesting that their state was deemed worth mentioning. Would a man from Indiana be that different than a man from Kentucky when they fought together on the same beach? Maybe not, but it’s a particularly American kind of identification, and I’m glad someone considered it important.

And, of course, the date of death. After a while, I lost track of how many crosses said June 6, 1944. You could fill rows on rows with the dead of D-Day. You could fill further rows with the unidentified men, remembered only with that famous phrase: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
The cemetery holds only a third of the Americans who died in Normandy; the rest are buried elsewhere, mostly in the United States. But those buried here are also on US soil, as the cemetery is owned and maintained by the American government.
Before we arrived, our tour guide had warned us that we might be asked to help lower the flag. Usually, he said, they look for a veteran, but there are fewer and fewer veterans coming, especially this time of year, and often they will ask anyone from the United States. He said it was a huge honor. And believe it or not, as our group was exploring, a young man with an American accent asked if we would be willing to help him. We weren’t actually lowering the flag, it turned out, but we did help fold it, a task whose difficulty you can appreciate only once you’ve tried it. I felt strange folding such a sacred object, on such a sacred day, one day before Armistice Day. I’ve never been much one for patriotism, and my own country’s version of Armistice Day is a poor excuse for a day of remembrance. But that day, I think I could feel the presence of those people we try so hard to remember, and, in France of all places, I felt proud to call myself an American.

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