Tuesday, April 26

On The Shores of Normandie

These last few weeks have been very educational.

After leaving Rennes, I spent a few days in Brest, which is in the extreme west of Bretagne. It was interesting in that it didn't really feel like Europe. After the Allies had taken back most of France in 1944, there were about one thousand Germans still holding Brest. In order to get them out, the Americans completely leveled the city. After which, they rebuilt everything, but in an American style of architecture. So basically, I could have believed that I was somewhere in either the U.S. or Canada without much problem, ignoring of course the people. For some reason, the feeling in the city reminded me of Timmons (Ontario). I have no idea why. As well, the locals still resented the Americans for the way in which they drove the Nazis out. In a way, I understand how the Brestians (? [I don't know what to call them in English or French]) feel, but at the same time, they came across somewhat as being ingrates. At least the older ones that had lived through the whole thing and gave a damn one way or the other.

Something else that I found out is that there exists a small separatist movement in Bretagne, being at it's strongest in Brest. Seems that the Bretagnians [refer to comment on Brestians] are in fact Celtic (I saw some of them playing bagpipes on the streets !), even having a language that somewhat resembles Gaelic. Of course, the language is pretty much dead, but there's a movement to revive it that's gaining momentum. Very similar to mainland Scotland. And just like the Scottish, they were conquered and assimilated [but by the French] back in the day, with resentment being retained more and more the farther into the region you go. Still, it's much less pronounced then the separatist movement on Corsica.

After leaving Brest, I spent a few days in Mont St. Michel. Apparently this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, second only to the Eiffel Tower. True enough, when I got there, I could barely move for all the tourists. But I have no idea what all the fuss is. It was at best a mediocre church, complete with admission booth, tickets (5€ [$8] a pop!), and a crusty security guard checking everyone before they went in. The whole thing seemed nothing less then obscene [after all, this is a _church_]. I was told that they still do masses there, but of course, to go to one, you have to buy a ticket...

My next stop was much more enjoyable. I ended up in Bayeaux, which is the closest major town (and train station) to the landings of the Allies on D-Day (June 6, 1944). There are three major sites: An American, a British, and a Canadian. Unfortunately I didn't manage to see the British.

To start with, I stayed in another monastery [or convent, I'm not really sure which]. Run by nuns of the order of Saint Benedict, it's main purpose is to act as a sort of hotel service for travelers. On the first day, I met three other people that were going to Omaha, the American landing. The first was from America, the second from Argentina, and the third from New Zealand. So we all rented bikes and cycled 25 km west to the beach and graveyard.

I've read about how many Americans died retaking France, but still, seeing the number of tombstones at the grave site was shocking. I'm told that there are about 10000 soldiers buried there. One of the things that left a deep impression was that after walking through the tomb stones for about 15 minutes [stone crosses with inscriptions of name and date of death, as well as rank and home town] something seemed seriously wrong. I only saw 4 stars of David! This I cannot understand for the life of me.

I met one other memorable person that day. The others were staying at the hostel, and after we went back there, we met another American. Whereas the guy that had gone with us to Omaha Beach was from California, this guy was from Arkansas, and the differences in culture showed quite clearly. He had just gotten back from a tour of duty in Iraq (yes, he's a soldier), and was quite loud and boisterous. For instance, it was very obvious that he liked the Argentinean girl. His way of flirting was a little less then smooth, though. Her name was Julianna, but in Spanish, the j is silent, so it sounds more like Yulianna. He kept telling her how wrong that is. She didn't seem very impressed. And later, he managed to work into the conversation that one of his fantasies was to see a girl driving a tractor wearing nothing but a straw hat... And of course, he was very much Pro Dubya. The reason that he left such an impression is that people like that hardly ever travel outside the U.S. (I forget the exact numbers, but most Americans don't even have a passport), let alone come to France.

The next day I hit the Canadian beach, Juno, but had to go on my own, as I didn't find anyone else that was interested. Again, I learned quite a bit, such as about the failed attempt to take Dieppe [A port town not far from where the Allies were ultimately successful]. The attempt was made in 1942, and instead of being a joint effort, this was a project for the Canadians alone. It turned into a complete disaster. About 1000 soldiers died, which is to the best of my knowledge the worst loss to our army ever.

Through talking to the locals and hanging out in museums, I've learned more about World War II then I expected. Plus, cycling about 50 km a day was a great workout, even if it left me sore as hell. I've met a few people that were cycling through France, and now I realize that they must have buns of steel. Those seats freakin' kill after about two or three hours...


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