Fortress Europa Day 6: Normandy

From yesterday: Today, we planned quite a day for ourselves, visiting Point Du Hoc, the American Cemetery at Normandy, and the German Cemetery. We left this morning at nine on a bus that took us to Point Du Hoc, a memorial for the American Rangers that climbed a cliff-face to remove an important German gun emplacement. The Germans moved the gun emplacement, but tricked American reconnaissance into thinking the artillery remained there, so Americans rappelled a steep cliff on the banks of the English Channel, only to find prepared German soldiers and no guns. The Rangers took heavy casualties, but killed the Germans in the area and held their position, unsupported, for two days. They began the mission with 250 special-unit combatants and ended the operation with only 90 men. The memorial stands on the edge of the beach and the actual monument looks extremely phallic, but the cool part was the pillboxes and other intact German defense bunkers we got to visit.

After that, we boarded our bus and headed over to Normandy beach, which is actually 25 kilometers away from Bayeaux. We ate lunch at a small cafe in the area, and I ordered a salad (je voudrais un salade vert) as I ate sumptuously at our banquet breakfast. Then, we embarked as a group and walked for a long while on the actual beach. Everyone took off their shoes and meandered the 5 kilometers to our end destination, the American Cemetery, as seen on “Saving Private Ryan.” The beach walk was great, but rather long, and the sun kissed my face passionately. The weather blessed us the entire day: extremely bright, around 55 degrees and the water broke blue and calm. A perfect day for an invasion.

The American Cemetery is something out of a cemetery designers dream. The iconic white marble crosses line up in perfect rows, casting uniform shadows across the perfectly spaced graves. Many used the word “immaculate” to describe the scene. The professors assigned each student a Texas veteran buried at the grave, gave us a rose, and we found their grave and honored it with the rose. I honored Manuel K. Gates, 22 years old and from somewhere in Texas. Normandy spoils us, as it gives great perspective on different forms of commemoration and cemetery design. Many of us, burdened with this knowledge, liked the British Cemetery in Normandy more than the manicured American Cemetery. We found the American Cemetery too tourist-oriented and veneered; it seemed that the US government overshadowed the dead with their obsessive maintenance. Can I say it was too beautiful?

At this time, it was 4:30 or so, and we had already walked more than 4 miles in the bright sun. Still, after we toured the Visitor’s Center/museum at the Normandy Cemetery, we boarded the bus and took off towards the German cemetery. It resembled the British cemetery in that it was more quaint; in fact, a German youth group maintained and upkept it, which flabbergasted me. What American youth group runs a cemetery? It was a totally different idea of death though, and humility was the theme. Also, it had loud religious overtones, with giant black granite statues of Mary and Joseph, represented all the families the war destroyed. Small, chubby Saxon crosses marked the graves, over 21,000 dead in the cemetery, which was actually 1/3 of the land allotment of the American cemetery, which held only over 9,000 dead. The museum was smaller and under-funded, but in my opinion it respected and honored its soldiers more than the American cemetery, which seemed the like the chain-restaurant version of a cemetery.

We got back on the bus and finally drove home, all of us red in the face and dogged. We came back around 6:30 and began to prepare dinner, which we didn’t finish till 10:00. Late in the evening we ate, and the professors joined us because it was Mother’s Day and we wanted to honor them and share stories. While some cooked dinner, everyone else read, slept, danced to music, or talked. The chillest night so far, and the dinner was the best of the homemade ones we’ve eaten, so I’m a happy camper.

Fortress Europa Day 6: Normandy

Fortress Europa Day 3: Normandy

Sorry for the delay, the wifi wanes and crawls here.

We started early this morning as we had to be packed and out of the hostel by 8:00, and close to nobody packed anything the night before. Seeing as how I was in London for only two days, I had little packing to do because I unpacked next to nothing. We headed out of the hostel, our stomachs unsatisfied by the meager breakfast, and lumbered like bison towards the Metro, baggage in tow. Businessmen and women stuffed the subway and the group had to split up into small contingents of scared foreigners. Normans individually pushed their way inside the tube and we all miraculously ended up at the right place, the Eurostar station.

               We waited at the Eurostar station and took care of last minute British Pound disposal by either buying useless things, excess food, or trading them for Euros (which surprisingly few people did). We boarded the train and rode for two hours. It was cramped and not as romantic as the Hogwarts Express, but the construction was the same with the small enclaves of four seats, two facing two. I tried talking, then reading, then sleeping, all to no avail. The dimensions of the train squished me into listlessness, so I mostly sat idly for the trip.

               We got off and were in Paris: it was fantastic; everything I hoped it would be and more. Sadly, we only passed through Paris on our way to Normandy. We boarded a bus and the 25 of us were driven for an hour and a half until we reached Monet’s Gardens. Monet, the famous French painter, drew many nature scenes of his ornate home garden, and so his estate became famous for its aesthetic foliage, and now it acts as a tourist hotspot. People from all over the world were there, and the garden really looked surreal. The flowers were huge and vibrant, and it reminded me constantly of Alice in Wonderland. The pictures don’t do it justice, and they don’t pay homage to how kooky of a character Monet himself was. His house is part of the exhibition, and it stuns as much as the garden because he painted every room a different color and filled it with Japanese art. Literally, only Japanese art. The famous picture of the wave crashing over a Japanese boat? Dozens of pictures just like that were his only decorations. Inexplicable.

               We got back on the bus and drove two hours until we reached Bayeaux, which is essentially “Normandy.” We stay at Bayeaux and travel to Normandy, and I’m not mad because the digs we have here are cushy. The guys have practically their own house, and the girls are in two groups and have two guest houses. We have delightful beds and kitchens and normal things! Quite an improvement from the hostel. The professors bunk right next to us in a house to themselves, and they’re almost all here. We got to eat dinner as a group tonight, and we spent most of the night walking or talking as a group. They guys bond more every day, and the jokes become funnier as everyone comes out of their shell. Things really just keep getting better in every way.

               Tomorrow we have a late start, and then we head to a museum, followed by grocery shopping in the afternoon. We’re finished by 4:00, and then we have the night to ourselves. I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep tonight, as starting tomorrow we begin 9 days of revelry in Normandy.

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Our chateau
Fortress Europa Day 3: Normandy

Fortress Europa: Day 2 (London)

Day 2 proved eventful and jam-packed, starting early with a meager breakfast in the hostel cafeteria. They served cereal (sans sugar) and bread a.k.a. toast, with peanut butter and jams. A nice breakfast, but sparse considering the day we had ahead of us.

We set off early for St. John’s Cathedral, an Anglican church famous for its longevity and the fact that it alone survived a Blitz raid of the area in 1940. All the surrounding buildings collapsed while St. John’s remained standing and almost wholly intact. We visited and saw the beautiful Romanesque church, and–since it was an old church–it had to have a crypt of famous dead people in the basement. Included in the death party were the likes of: Admiral Horation Nelson, Christopher Wrenn, and Duke Wellington. The church was in a state of repair because the Dalai Lama planned to visit next week for the London Jubilee, an annual event corresponding (conveniently) for the Olympics, as they hope to cash in on tourists.

The tour lasted three hours, and after the group splintered for lunch, and I went to Apostrophe where I ate a delicious vegetarian sandwich and a pear and chocolate tart. Following that we ventured to a boulangerie for the rest of the party to buy scones, then boarded the metro to head to the Imperial War Museum.

The Imperial War Museum attempts to show Britain’s colonial involvement and military conflicts over the past century, with a heavy emphasis on World War II and the Holocaust, as it serves as Britain’s only official Holocaust museum. Taking pictures was disallowed in most of the interesting areas, so I only got a few snapshots of some planes and historically significant tanks in the main gallery. I spent most of my time in the Holocaust and World War II sections, and I spent the rest of my time considering the fact that England has been involved in a conflict every year since 1855. Not good.

The museum was great, and my group  of around 8 spent around three hours there before returning to the hostel. After the long metro ride and walk to the hostel, all the guys fell asleep for about an hour, as everyone knows museum-viewing is inexplicably tiring. We awoke and went to an Indian restaurant to celebrate Andrew’s 20th birthday and has a fantastic time until the check arrived.

The waiter duped us in traditional foreigner fashion, inviting us to eat items we assumed free that actually cost many pounds. Long story short–and I mean long story (we settled the check for around an hour)–everyone paid close to $40 minimum, and Andy in particular ended up covering the loose ends with a gratuitous payment of around 50 pounds ($100).

Everyone seethed quite a bit following the dinner, which was a shame because the food was marvelous and the conversations were hilarious. We went to a pub nearby and everyone drank to forget the injustice done to us. Fun fact: I ended up paying around 22 pounds, the equivalent of $44  for a nice, but supposedly cheap meal of Indian food.

The bar proved cathartic and everyone had fun during the night and we forgot our suffering. We’ve trekked back to the hostel and need to wake up early to board the Eurostar and head to Normandy. Tomorrow will be a day mostly of traveling, which I welcome as a day to read and relax after two days of no free-time or relaxation.

Overall, a fantastic day and I was pleased to visit St. John’s especially, the newer, Anglican version of the Vatican. Tomorrow we see Monet’s famous gardens, which made many a cameo in his paintings, and we will arrive in France! the place I look forward to the most.

Bad picture of St. John’s Cathedral
From the top of St. Paul’s
St. Paul’s
Imperial War Museum
Fortress Europa: Day 2 (London)

First Day in London

Today proved to be long and crazy, despite my best efforts to plan every detail and have a smooth trip. I took off yesterday for London around six in the evening, and arrived in Heathrow around nine in the morning. During the flight I read Kerouac and watched “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” so my mood was deep and thoughtful. I stayed up the entire flight and thought I was cooler for not sleeping, a decision I now regret.

Just kidding.

When I landed, my phone refused to connect to the Wifi and I freaked out. I needed to contact the two girls with whom I was meeting, Abigail and Anne, and I could not. I panicked slightly, and then cooly decided I had to set off on my own. Right after making that decision, I ran into them, which proved to be a blessing. We got out tube tickets and sped to Gloucester Station on the metro train. We arrived around noon, starving and tired. We had planned with our professor to meet at our hostel around 12:30, so we scored a quick bite and sat waiting for her.

And waiting. And waiting. And she never showed.

We couldn’t get into our rooms until 2:00, and the rest of our group was busy exploring London with our professors, so we became a little despondent. I suggested we walk around see some sights ourselves, and Anne and Abigail agreed, so we went to Hyde Park and walked through the gardens. They were fantastic, and I took a lot of pictures.

We got back at 2:00, got into our rooms, and napped accidentally. Around 3:30, one of the Normans, Andy, walked into our room and woke us up. They had arrived! I met up with most of the Normans and we took off to Harrod’s, a famous British department  store. Imagine a European Whole Foods combined with the swankiest fashion and lifestyle designers merging into one giant store of opulence. We walked around and took pictures, and I got a little trigger happy around the produce, which was high, high quality stuff. A real treat.

After that, two friends and I went to a pub to get a beer, and I drank my first beer in Europe, a Guinness. It was tasty. We talked for about an hour and like food, the beer proved to be wonderful because it gave me an opportunity to talk to two guys I really like. After that, the whole group met up in front of Harrod’s and we boarded the metro. We went to Leicester station so half of the group could go see “Chicago,” a play for which they bought tickets before Anne, Abigail, and I met up with them.

The other half of the group walked around looking for a restaurant, and we found an amazing, three-storied, century old restaurant. My only requirement for our dinner place: fish and chips. They had them! and the fish was great; the chips, on the other hand, would have done better with catsup (vinegar = overrated).

Following our tasty dinner, my half of the group boarded the metro and zipped back to the hostel. We hung out a bit making plans, and then we decided to hit up another pub. I decided not to get another beer, because I really wasn’t feeling it, but I got a soda (which breaks the record for most overpriced drink in Europe), and had a great time hanging out. Then, the sleepiness hit me. I became catatonic and said nearly nothing for the last 20 minutes, and I knew I was going to sleep well. However, it is one of the Norman’s birthdays–Andrew! We bought some champagne and are going to throw a little soiree when he and his half of the crew comes back.

The first day was great, but not quite yet over. I found out later that our professor never met with us because she had broken her hand, and is in America. She joins us in a few days, but until then, we have just two professors. Neither of whom, I should mention, I have seen. The students, so far, have completely decided our agenda. Today felt like a pure vacation, with no adults, no guidelines, and nothing we had to do. What a day!

Prince Albert Memorial in Hyde Park
Beautiful fruit

Fish y Chips