July 28, 2007

Another night in Paris and a trip to the Normandy coast

Upon returning to Paris, I rode the bus from the airport in the middle of nowhere back to the city. It was late- maybe about 11:00 or later by the time the bus arrived in central Paris. I hopped off the bus and was about to head for the subway when I saw the two guys from Notre Dame. Remembering how difficult Paris could be for an unseasoned traveler, I offered them my assistance in getting to their hostel. They immediately accepted my offer and we headed for the subway.

The metro was a couple of blocks away from the bus stop. After crossing a few streets and heading underground, it became apparent that the Metro ticket office had closed for the day. The subway was still running, but there was nowhere to purchase a ticket to ride. Fortunately, I had purchased a pack of 10 tickets while previously in Paris, and I managed to rummage through my bag enough to find 3. We caught the next train and I showed the two Notre Dame guys where to get off at their stop. All they seemed to know that their hostel was 'near the Louvre'. I took them that far, but because I didn't think I'd be able to get back on the Metro, they went off on their own. I'll just assume that they made it just fine.

The hotel for that night for Clay, Charlie and I was on the other side of the city. As I stepped out of the subway, I realized that I had never seen this section of the city before and had no idea where the hotel might be. After some searching, I found my way into hotel, which was poorly marked (of course). So much so that the address I had was actually for a hotel on a neighboring street. When I walked in that building, the receptionist acted as if this happened all the time- and sent me down the street. After dropping off my stuff, I headed back out to the subway stop to grab the guys before they had to search the neighborhood too.

The next morning we left for Bayeux, which is a small town on the Normandy coast. In order to spend a decent amount of time there, we had to leave on the first train out. After a train change in Caen, we made it to our destination. To our surprise, the town wasn't exactly on the coast, nor was it a very walkable place to be. There were a bunch of signs -in English- advertising cab companies and tours. We had French-speaking Charlie and his cell phone with us, so we chose one almost at random. The tour guide picked us up about ten minutes later and off we went.

Our first stop was the American Cemetery. The newly completed visitor center was full of World War II artifacts and exhibits. A lot of it was similar to exhibits I had seen elsewhere in London's Imperial War Museum or in many different American museums. We left the visitor's center and headed for the cemetery, which was one of the most immaculate outdoor locations I've ever seen. Even Arlington cemetery in Washington wasn't this perfect. The landscaping was professionally done, with a tree lined path along the beach and into the cemetery itself. Even the grass was at uniform height throughout the area. We stepped into the main area, which consisted of a arc-shaped monument and reflecting pool on one end and a mausoleum on the other. A path led between the two major features at each end of the cemetery and off to either side were rows and rows of grave stones. Each was an identical white cross or star of David that was precisely in line with other stones in every direction. Nothing looked the slightest bit out of place. The rows were a perfect parallel to the way soldiers would stand in uniform on the parade grounds. We spent several quiet minutes among the graves, appreciating the loss of life that was sacrificed for such a noble cause. Unfortunately, time was becoming scarce.

We went back to the cab and the driver took us to Omaha beach- arguably the most infamous place on the Normandy coast. We walked through the sand and to the water, then looked back up at the cliffs. I could only imagine how daunting of a task it must have appeared for a soldier landing on that beach in 1944. Standing on the sand and seeing the entire continent of Nazi Europe ahead must have made the mission appear impossible. By 2007 however, the concrete emplacements of the Atlantic Wall had been removed as well as the tank traps, land mines and thousands of German soldiers defending their seized territory.

From the beach we returned to the train station and rode back to Paris, taking with us an appreciation of a landmark battle that could only be attained by seeing the site in person. When the train arrived in Paris, we had get across town to catch another train to Bordeaux. It was in the Monparnasse station where we were supposed to meet up with Sean.

Sean was flying in from Chicago that morning and planned on meeting us in the station. We had approximately 45 minutes to find him or we'd miss our train. Sean was nowhere to be found. We scoured the platform for 30 minutes trying to find him, but to no avail. With about 90 seconds til departure, we took off down the track and jumped aboard the TGV to Bordeaux, only minutes before it left the station. We frustratingly tried calling Sean, but with no answer.

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