Look Left! First Days in London

David Corrigan, Nick Gelder and I arrived in London early on Wednesday morning and made our way to the heart of the city by bus from Luton airport. We checked in and began to explore the city and stake out some areas that we would like to spend more time in. We have had quite a bit of free time in the past three days, and we have been able to see much of what the city has to offer in both contemporary and historical terms. The food here has been amazing. It is very similar to the food home, but we have all noticed a difference in portion sizes. The first morning, Emily Cunningham and I found ourselves getting up three or four times to refill our water glasses at breakfast. The variety of food that is offered at breakfast is also different from what I am used to. I saw people eating baked beans and tomato slices alongside eggs and bacon. The city itself is much cleaner than the large American cities I have toured, including New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The people are generally friendly, but they tend to keep to themselves unless directly spoken to.

We headed out around nine on Thursday morning for the Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Museum. We took the Tube south and walked a little ways before we got to the museum. The war rooms were sealed immediately after the war and weren’t reopened until the 1970’s. They’ve since been renovated to their original specs and are an incredible resource in exploring the war from the British perspective. We had an audio tour and overall I really enjoyed the experience.

The Churchill museum was especially interesting because of the complete picture it gave of the former Prime Minister. I had expected all Brits to worship Churchill and his leadership during the war, but this was not at all the case. Winston Churchill is certainly well respected and remembered fondly, but the museum made sure to provide the whole picture of his political career. Churchill came dangerously close to dooming his run for power several times and was called a radical by some. His leadership during WWII was also called into question several times, especially concerning the amount of power he wielded in the decision-making process. The English are critical of the former Prime Minister and do not hesitate to recognize his faults, but they are also extremely proud of their role in WWII and credit Churchill with having been crucial in their success.

Friday morning we met a little before nine and took the tube to Euston Station where we caught the train to Bletchley Park. It was about a forty-five minute ride out of the city. When we got to the Park we listened to Vince Hayden’s site report on the breaking of the Enigma code and Alan Turing. Professor Steigerwald then talked for a little bit about the air raids on London as retaliation for the accidental RAF bombing of residential Berlin. We had a guided tour through the park grounds that was a little hard to focus on since there was a lot of construction going to prepare for the restoration of the park that would conclude in June. The museum was interesting and the mansion on the grounds was a conglomeration of several different types of architectural styles, which made it a bit of an eyesore to the locals.

We learned that a 19-year-old woman named Mavis successfully broke a coded message that allowed the Royal Navy to turn an Italian ambush on its head and end all Italian naval operations until the end of the war. We also learned that Alan Turing was the father of the modern-day computer, because he first theorized that a computer could be created to do all things number based, the idea upon which modern computers were created. Bletchley had about 8,000 employees by the end of the war, 75% were women and most were young women.

I got the feeling that a prominent theme in the British interpretation of the war is the righting of past wrongs. The Churchill War Rooms and Bletchley Park both had large exhibits to take a more critical view of their past attitudes. Churchill’s ambition and goals were called into question in the Churchill Museum, and Bletchley Park had exhibits devoted to recognizing the 6,000 women who contributed so much to the war effort and who went unrecognized until the 1980’s. Bletchley also had a lot of exhibits about Turing, who was prosecuted for being a homosexual; and for that reason, his achievements for the war effort went unrecognized until the recent pardoning of his conviction and apology by the government.

The British also take great pride in the alliance they shared with the Americans during the war. The Churchill museum had many references to the close friendship and collaboration between the Prime Minister and Franklin Roosevelt. Bletchley Park has exhibits on American code breakers who came to work at the facility and their contributions to the war effort. This affinity for the Americans comes with distaste for the Russians and their role in the Allied strategy. I got the feeling that the British resent Stalin’s harsh demands for scarce men and materiel and the lack of communication between the two countries.

London has been an amazing experience even though it is also the most expensive city I’ve ever visited. The people are lively and pleasant and the food has been delicious and widely varied. The city is accessible, and it has been amazing to see the monuments I have only seen pictures of. I love London, and I look forward to exploring the city even further before invading Normandy.

Parking Lot Party

I have almost completed my European adventure, and I am so glad the last leg of my journey took place in Berlin. The city is completely different from the other three we have visited, and the culture is also markedly different. There are not nearly so many people walking around the streets of Berlin as there were in Paris and London. Tourists do not seem to be commonplace, but many people here speak excellent English. The population of the city is incredibly friendly and welcoming, much like the cultural atmosphere of Columbus. The city is clean and organized in a way that ensures efficiency in everything from ordering food to getting around on the trains. The food had been absolutely amazing and is very similar to the meals my mother made for my family and me when I was growing up.

There are historical sites all over the city, and a lot of evidence of the events that took place during the Second World War. The contemporary culture in Berlin is intertwined with the city’s involvement in the Great War. It is impossible to discuss the contemporary culture of Berlin without talking about the German attitude towards their country’s history. The city is bright and lovely, but places like the Topography of Terror are a sobering reminder of the destruction and death that took place 70 years ago.

The frank and forthright attitude of the Germans was instantly noticeable upon arriving in Berlin. I thought that learning about WWII from a native German would be an awkward and dodgy affair, but I was surprised to find our guide to be honest and complete in his telling of the story. Every guide we have had has openly acknowledged the atrocities of the German state and expressed support for the education of future generations on the topic.

The Germans are very aware of the role their country played in the destruction that resulted from the Second World War. They have used the last 70 years to come to terms with their past rather than creating a victim state that only focuses on the positives. I have gained a lot of respect for the contemporary German culture throughout my stay in Berlin. The people are friendly, and the city is exploding with life. Berlin has shown what a united and self aware group of people can accomplish, even with a past that holds some of the greatest atrocities in human history.

Under the Eiffel

Tonight is my last night in Paris, and I have seen an impressive amount of the city in the last four days. We visited everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Catacombs and hit every cafe in between. You’re bound to stumble upon an iconic piece of history no matter what metro stop you get off at, and the Paris pass makes it easy to explore each one. The city is full of people and bursting with a culture that is completely different from the one I left in Columbus, Ohio.

The city itself is gorgeous, and I especially loved the little bakeries filled with macarons and giant cookies that sit nearly at every corner. The food has been the same as we experienced in Bayeux, and I have to say that I’m looking forward to a little more protein and starches in our meals in Germany. The metro station comes to mind first when thinking about smell, and I have to conclude that Parisians love their dogs but don’t always love cleaning up after them. On the topic of Parisians, I have to say that they were the most disappointing part of my trip to Paris. I loved the city itself and the history that is visible everywhere, but the people tended to be unwelcoming at best and actively rude at worst. The cultural fracture was very evident in our day-to-day operations. We did our best to conform to French norms by speaking their language and respecting their way of life, but we definitely missed a few key cues.

My favorite site in Paris is definitely the Eiffel Tower. We sat on the lawn in front of it and relaxed on our first and last night in the city. The sparkles that take place on the hour at night make the experience seem surreal. It seemed as though there were people from all over the world who came to sit and drink champagne and enjoy a cigar by the national monument. The cultural divide seemed far less pronounced there, and everyone was in such a good mood. I especially enjoyed viewing the tower from the Seine and sticking my feet in the water.

Overall I enjoyed my time in Paris, and I loved the beauty of a city so rich with history. The people were different from the Midwesterners I have grown up around, but the charm and serenity of a walk down the Champs Élysées at sunset overshadowed any feelings of unease. Paris is a unique city that has seen sieges, occupations, and full-scale revolutions, but it has come out beautifully all things considered.

The eyes of the world are upon you

It is almost the end of our stay in Bayeux, France and soon we will be heading east to Paris. We have seen an incredible number of museums and monuments in the last few days, and the experience has been truly amazing. I was struck most by the differences in the remembrance of the dead by the Germans, Americans, and British. We toured cemeteries for each country and discovered that they were not what we had expected at all.

Our first visit was to the German cemetery in La Cambe. The place was incredibly solemn and somber with black crosses and a large hill topped by huge statues of the Virgin Mary and Joseph. The headstones were a reminder that the group of individuals called upon to defend the Norman coast consisted of teenage Hitler Youth and men over the age of thirty. I was fascinated to walk through the grounds and read the names of the fallen enemy. I also appreciated the air of reconciliation and the plea for peace that seemed to surround the place.

The second cemetery we visited was the American Cemetery at Coleville. This was probably the most disappointing part of Normandy for me, personally. We had to go through security to enter the grounds, which included emptying our pockets and going through a metal detector. We finally got to the cemetery and wanted to start the rose laying ceremony for the 13 Buckeyes buried on the grounds, but ran into some trouble. The section A was roped off and we were unable to lay the roses on the actual grave site. I was very disappointed by the policies of the superintendent and the inflexibility that was shown to us. The entire cemetery had an air of arrogance that I did not think did justice to those buried there.

The British cemetery was the biggest surprise of the trip thus far. The entire grounds were so serene and so moving that I felt as though I could walk through for hours, reading the various headstones. The messages from loved ones were so sincere and so sweet and a few almost moved me to tears. I felt especially touched at one headstone of a soldier whose wife wrote him a brief, but sweet message about how she had lost the love of her life and father of their daughter. The whole atmosphere was conducive to reflection and remembrance. The British cemetery was absolutely beautiful and my favorite of the three we visited.

The willingness of the British to allow German and Italian soldiers to be buried alongside their own, as well as the willingness of the French to give the Germans a burial site for their dead speaks volumes of the importance of reconciliation. Every exhibit we saw in France stressed the importance of peace for the future and disgust for war. The simplicity and beauty of the British cemetery was deeply moving and allowed me to look into the lives of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. Touring these sites has been very eye opening in my understanding of how the European continent has dealt with their losses during and after the Great War.