From Paris, With Love

I remember as a small child watching Rick Steves travel the world on TV with my Grandma. It was the closest at the time that I would ever get to travel the world. I particularly remember Paris being a city I always wanted to visit. It has such a romantic quality associated with it. I dreamt of walking down the Seine and sitting in front of the Eiffel tower. From the writings of Montesquieu and the stories of Hemingway to the paintings of Van Gogh and Monet, Paris is portrayed as the intellectual and artistic capital of the world.  Hemingway himself once said that “there is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”

Hemingway is right. From the moment our bus crept into the city of Paris I can’t help but feel as though I fell in love. London felt like home, Normandy felt like a vacation, but Paris felt different. Strolling the grand streets of Paris in the rain just feels right. The lifestyle seems much slower certainly than it was in London, where Londoners raced in and out of the Underground. Dinner is really an experience to socialized and experience dinner, rather than spending your time on the phone or on the road. The Parisians, seem to me anyway, just to enjoy life. It really is unfortunate Parisians and the French in general are typified as being rude, because that wasn’t my experience for the most part. Plus, in a city that seems bursting at the seams with tourists who don’t speak the native language, patience really can be a virtue.

Of course, it’s quite possible I allow my own romantic notions of the city to cloud my judgment. My first night in Paris I sat and just gazed at the Eiffel Tower, which is far more impressive in person than any photograph or movie. I could have sat there forever disregarding the constant bombardment of people attempting to sell me alcohol. Walking along the Seine is truly amazing. It is far more beautiful than the Themes in London and much more peaceful. In fact, Paris has quite a few more people than London, but it just seems less claustrophobic than London.

Paris just feels much older as well. Walking underneath the city in the catacombs was an interesting experience, but it also really made me appreciate the age of the city. It really is a wonder that it has survived many wars and violent revolutions. In particular, it came out of World War II relatively unscathed at least physically; psychologically it is a different story. Even today, the French struggle to reconcile their collaboration with the Nazis and their part in World War II. The French still play up the myth of the resistance as being integral into the war effort, while glossing over the Petain government. This was especially true in the museum to the resistance. Additionally, Charles de Gaulle seems to be remembered as having had a large part in liberating France, as though it was the Free French fighting alongside the Americans and the British that liberated them. They are proud people, but their memory of the war is certainly a perspective that I do not share.

However, it doesn’t cloud how I feel about Paris or the French people. It is a beautiful country with beautiful cities steeped in a proud and rich culture. Hemingway also said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

I agree, even though my stay in Paris was brief; I do believe it will stay with me forever.

Sleepy Villages Hold Dark Memories

Today Normandy is a beautiful quiet and quant countryside with sleepy little villages. It is quite the contrast from the bustling streets of London. It is hard to imagine the destruction that was levied here nearly 70 years ago. Pictures and movies like Saving Private Ryan seem not only from another time, but also a completely different world.  Omaha beach, in particular, was an area of intense fighting for the Americans unlike the relative ease of Utah beach to the west. However, my experience between them was vastly different. The emotion that ran through me as I looked out at Utah Beach into the English Channel was intense. I did not realize that the 4th Infantry Division, a division that has a long history and whom I served with during the Iraq War had been the first to fight to secure the Utah beachhead.  With all of the monuments and the museum it felt like a solemn place. I thought about the young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944, and I couldn’t help but think of my own friends who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Iraq War. Even though it was solemn for me, it felt appropriately beautiful and peaceful.

In contrast, Omaha beach, the bloodiest conflict for the Allies on D-Day felt very different. Today there stands a monument and sculpture to the Americans who gave their lives on the beach, but it is far from what Ernie Pyle describe as a “shoreline museum of carnage.” Perhaps, I was expecting more, but besides the monuments and a few bunkers there are hardly any remnants of the intense battle fought there. Instead, it has become a resort town, where many people come to vacation and play on the beach. I still can’t decide whether it’s appropriate or disrespectful to the thousands who gave their lives on those beaches. After all, they fought for each other, not necessarily to liberate France or end Fascism.

Near Omaha Beach is the American Military Cemetery. It is a display of youthful vibrancy and perhaps arrogance.  It really is a beautiful cemetery, at least the part that we were allowed to walk on by the powers that be. It was strange that in a place so grand, the graves were so simple. A Christian Cross or Jewish Star of David stood to denote the religion of the fallen. Inscribed on each was the rank and name of the individual, the unit in which they served, their date of death, and the state from which they entered service. In contrast the British cemetery felt so much less grand, but so much more personal. In addition to the information the Americans had, the British put the age of the fallen and the option of a quote from the family. One of the most touching to me was of a 27-year-old British soldier that read: “He gave the greatest gift of all, his own unfinished life.” The scale of World War II forces us to talk in terms of abstract numbers, and as result it dehumanizes the conflict. But here in Bayeux lies Private E.W. Burlington, age 27, and his fellow soldiers and sailors whose stories we know nothing about. May they rest in peace and may we never forget their memory as people in a terrible conflict.

Across The Pond

London is a fantastic city. It is incredibly rich in history, architecture, and—well—people. This is my first time “over the pond,” as the locals say, and I am quite impressed. My only impressions of London come from the American media and British TV shows such as Dr. Who and Downton Abbey. The media get it right about half the time.  For example, the British do speak in strange accents to our American ears, and sometimes I wonder if we truly are speaking the same language. There have been many occasions on my short trip here where I wasn’t exactly too sure what was being said to me. Even when I did understand what was being said little idiosyncrasies are readily apparent. However, what surprised me the most was how many French speakers I came across as I strolled through London; people from all parts of the globe find their way to London. It truly is an international city.

London is also a very clean city.  Even the subway areas were very clean. There is definitely a different way of doing things here, but it is hard to put your finger on exactly how to describe it. Restaurants often close between lunch and dinner. Many establishments close by 11 at night, but London doesn’t ever seem to sleep. Tourists and Londoners can be found packing in the local McDonald and Burger King after a night of theater in the West End or a evening out a the pub. No doubt, being confined to the more touristy areas of London has clouded my opinion.

The famous landmarks such as Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey and the Tower Bridge are even more magnificent in person than they are in pictures and TV. What surprised me the most is the history that lurks around every corner. Monuments and statues seem to grow out of the city for every significant event of the British Empire. Newer buildings tower over the old, but not so much in a way that detracts the eye from the greater beauty of the city. I imagine, or perhaps I just hope, this might be a similar experience to one a tourist would have 1000 years from now in New York or Washington, D.C.

Perhaps, its the common history shared between our two nations, but I can’t help but shake the feeling, as foreign as London is, that it feels a bit like coming home.