On Gratitude

Looking around Bayeux, France, one would assume that their gratitude for Americans and the Brits was always on their minds. The town is relatively small, only around 13,000 people, and on the surface has all the trappings of a typical coastal French village: cobblestone streets, thin winding roads, and patches of colorful flowers and green spaces throughout. Yet for so idyllic a place, it had an unprecedented amount of touristy attractions: standard gift shops with postcards and magnets, menus translated to English, and people in the service industry who also spoke fluent English. None of those things meshed with my preconceived ideas about an idyllic French town in the countryside. One of the most striking visuals that I saw, however, were paintings on the windows in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. They all depicted the stereotypes of French civilians and Allied soldiers, with saccharine slogans like “thank you for our freedom” written alongside them. I swear, we left the hotel for a day and came back to a new painting in the lobby windows. But, this image contrasts with one idea that we learned about during class: the idea of French resentment towards the ongoing American occupation of the country after the war. 

An example of the various window paintings found in Bayeux to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

The idea came up a few times in class discussion and in my research paper. Our readings kept referencing an attitude best summed up by the phrase “thank you for helping! When do you leave?” Even the Musée de l’Armée in Paris included a video extolling Charles de Gaulle, in part for his efforts to regain French autonomy from the occupying Allied forces. Based upon these French interpretations of the American Occupation, one would assume that the window paintings and souvenirs that have popped up in Normandy to be little more than trappings for American and British tourists coming over for the 75th anniversary. In some sense, they are trappings made to make tourists from the Allied countries feel appreciated. And the Allies did make possible French freedom from Nazi Occupation. It is a double-edged sword, however; to expect the French people to remain eternally grateful and in debt to the Americans and British seems fantastical, as if wanting a younger sibling to continue idolizing you well past one’s youth. I don’t believe that either side is happy with the current system, however; the French miffed at continuing to keep up an air of submissive thanks, the Allied tourists upset with the artificial sentiment that inevitably comes with tourist traps. That’s no way to celebrate such a momentous anniversary.

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