What I Saw on My Summer Vacation

In celebration of thirty years of my wife’s profound ability to tolerate me, we went to France for ten days last month. We did the things we usually do when we go to interesting places. We got a very small and inexpensive hotel room (under the theory that we’re never there anyway) and spent all day walking from museum to café to art gallery to bar.

Paris last month had much of the aspect of a boom town. The Rugby World Cup was in play, along with thousands of mostly well behaved supporters. The plaza in front of Paris City Hall was partially covered with artificial turf. An enormous high-definition screen covered the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, broadcasting the equivalent of French ESPN’s interminable updates on the condition of every team and player. Further evidence of the importance of the World Cup to the city could be inferred from the price of beer. Anywhere that fans were likely to congregate was charging about fourteen dollars for half a liter. Of course, the price could have just seemed high to Americans, whose currency is only slightly more valuable than that of Zimbabwe.

We Americans quickly learned to embrace the spiritual refreshment offered by a glass of vin rouge, which was delicious, and cost only the equivalent of five dollars—two bucks less than one pays in most Minneapolis wine bars—and the tip is included.

The French could have been in a good mood just because of the full hotels and restaurants supplied by the tourist influx, but they seemed genuinely hospitable to anyone who had bothered to learn enough French to at least start a conversation. In general, if you made an effort, they were happy to switch to English when you ran out of French, especially if that event didn’t follow immediately after bonjour.

Their attitude extended to the tourists in the Louvre. Although the museum is peppered with signs prohibiting flash photography, the guards actually don’t seem to mind. That is perhaps because the Mona Lisa is now behind its own glass enclosure, and ropes keep the mob from getting close enough to admire the painting except through viewfinders set on maximum zoom. In fact, that seems to be how many find their way through museums: behind a digital camera. Someday someone will explain to me why, instead of stopping to look at a painting while you are three feet from it, you’d prefer to review a pale reproduction two weeks later on a home computer screen.

Normandy, two hours northwest of Paris by train, was also thick with tourists. Some stop in Bayeux to see the famous tapestry that narrates the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. But most are there for the cemetery at Omaha Beach. None of the boisterous revelry of Paris here; the European and American tourists are all struck silent by the manicured green field that stretches over the rolling plateau above the Channel. There are nine thousand marble-white crosses and Stars of David, but no physical signs of the battle. Like the panels of the Bayeux tapestry down the road, the visitor center’s tableaux offer explanatory vignettes of the Normandy invasion of 1944. But at Bayeux there were no choked-back sobs of the pilgrim who came upon the etched name of a young man he knew.

Up the road six kilometers is Pointe du Hoc, where the detritus of battle is everywhere. The craters from the D-Day bombardment still pock the cliff-top site of the German shore batteries. Barbed wire rusts at edge of the precipice. The shattered walls of the pillboxes jut up at irregular angles from the overgrown meadow. Steel reinforcing bars sprout from the wrecked concrete, twisted by the heat and concussion of the explosions into grasping shapes that mock the men who reached up their hands that day to heaven for help that didn’t come.

Unlike at the Paris museums, no horde pushes you along here. You can stand in one spot as long as you like and imagine every detail of the tumult that colored this landscape.

Tom Bartel now blogs at Travel Past 50.