Technical Difficulties

The tour van wouldn’t start for the first twenty minutes of our D-Day tour. A technical malfunction of a small piece of equipment had caused it to lock up.

This gave me time to try to use one bathroom and finding it unsatisfactory to search out another and return back to the van in plenty of time.

Later during the tour, when we talked about the obstacles the Allied D-Day forces faced, the guide would humorously point out that they had encountered difficulties like we had that morning with the van.

Our problems were so small in comparison.

Today I have a technical trouble to report too. I’d hoped to share a couple of new photo albums. But slow upload times and a busy day ahead mean these will have to wait.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of me taking pictures during our D-Day tour. I was having some troubles with my camera (again so small in comparison to the events of D-Day but a problem that weighed on me nonetheless) which may explain my scrunched up face. Or perhaps that’s how I look when I photograph things.

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A Cough From Above

A cough. It’s become a trigger for me on my travels. I hear one, and I move to avert it.

I was in Clermont-Ferrand, France a couple weeks ago when I heard a loud, man sounding cough–the kind designed to clear phlegm from the lungs. I scanned right and left trying to place it.

Eventually I discovered the source–above me–a man on the boundary of middle and older age with his head out the window of a second story apartment (first story in Europe).

We locked eyes, and he nudged his neck toward me as if to say, “Yeah, I’m coughing at you. What are you going to do about it?”

I grimaced and made quick steps down the hill away from him.

A couple days later I woke with my own summer cold–a sore throat and phlegm lodged deep in my chest cavity where it remained for a day or two before I was able to start hacking it out.

Whether my sickness came from the cough from above or another of the many open mouth coughers I’ve tried to avoid on my travels, whose to say.

All I know is that having been coughed upon, I became a cougher. And so it goes.

What to Pack for Eternity

I walked away from my exploration of the Egyptian Antiquities section of the Louvre yesterday with two impressions: 1) I’ve taken the Christian idea of heaven for granted and 2) burying someone in Ancient Egypt sounds super stressful.

Re: the first impression. Growing up Christian, my sense has always been that my choices here on Earth determine whether I will make it into heaven, and if I do, then everything I need in the afterlife will be taken care of by God and the angels once I’m there. Although I’ve never been to one, I’ve pictured heaven to be like an all inclusive beach resort in the Caribbean (minus the problems of income inequality and other legacies of colonialism).

From the artifacts I saw and the audio commentary I listened to at the Louvre, the Ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife seems to be much more BYO and DIY. For instance, in one display there was a well worn chair, a mat, and a fly swatter that had been placed in tombs to be used by the deceased. In another room, I saw a picture of a princess depicted with the food she would need. Most curious were cases filled with servant statues–small replicas of a person meant to take their place in the work shifts one must complete in the afterlife.

With all that was required for life after death in Ancient Egypt, it seems to me that the pressure would be on the loved ones of the deceased to provide. What if the family had only one chair? Does it go in the tomb or stay in the house?

The living would also be responsible for making sure the deceased was mummified properly, which from my understanding of the audio commentary was how people made it into the afterlife. Whether there was some moral component or salvation on top of that like there is in Christianity, I’m not sure.

I don’t know enough about Ancient Egypt, and I have my childhood self to blame for that. When I was in grade school, I had a family member buy a book about hieroglyphics for me. I was determined to learn the material on my own, but I gave up after only a few attempts.

To think if I’d persevered, I would have been able to translate what I saw yesterday rather than relying on the audio commentary.

Regrets! I hope I don’t take too many of these into the afterlife.

Preparing for Normandy

I had a lot in common with the man sitting beside me on the plane to Paris this summer. We were both Midwest transplants now living in the South, we were both wearing compression socks, and we were both highly anticipating our upcoming trips to Normandy.

He would depart for his shortly after we arrived in Paris, and his tour would take him to several sites culminating in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. I still have some time before I make my way to Normandy for a day long tour of the five D-Day beaches, but I’ve been preparing for awhile now.

Like my general understanding of French history, my knowledge of what happened on D-Day has come and gone a few times over my lifetime. I’m sure I knew something about it in high school when I took AP US History and the movie Saving Private Ryan premiered (although I didn’t see it). I probably touched on it again in college when I studied abroad in Europe.

But most of what I knew then has been lost. So to prepare for myself for my Normandy tour, I’ve watched the first few episodes of Band of Brothers, I’ve listened to an abridged version of Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day audiobook, and I’ve visited the French Army Museum in Paris. On the plane, along with the man beside me, I watched The Longest Day, a 1962 film about the Normandy landings.

The films and the audiobook tend to jump around between different units, and my lack of knowledge of military terms (e.g., division, regiment, etc.) has kept me from following the storylines of any individual or group very well. But I have a sense of the larger picture now.

Here’s what I’ll be thinking about when I make my trip to Normandy and what I’m thinking about today on the 75th anniversary of D-Day:

  • The extent of the physical obstacles the Allied soldiers faced on the beaches like land mines, barbed wire, barriers, the terrain, and the sea itself. Laden down with equipment, the troops navigated these obstacles while under intense fire from Germans positioned above them. They had to pass fellow soldiers lying dead or wounded on the ground.
  • The magnitude of the Allied fleet that came to launch the attack: 7000 ships and landing craft with 156,000 Allied soldiers landing at Normandy.* There’s a scene in The Longest Day (that my seat mate on the plane had me watch for) where a German officer in a beach front barricade looks out to the horizon through binoculars and a wall of Allied ships appears before him.
  • The French citizens in the towns behind the beaches who were waiting to be liberated after four years of German occupation.
  • The problems that clouds and the weather introduced, making it difficult for the Allied air fleet to drop the paratroopers in their designated zones and to carry out an aerial bombing of the German defenses along the beaches before the infantry troops came ashore.
  • The extent of the casualties among the Allied troops: over 10,000 with 4,414 of these confirmed deaths.**

As overwhelming as they are, these numbers represent one day in a war that lasted years. Learning about D-Day has reminded me of all the things I don’t know yet about World War II. Like what else happened on the Western front and what happened on the Eastern front, in North Africa, and in the Pacific theater.

The horror of D-Day is overwhelming and to continue to follow it means coming to grips with even more horror–military campaigns, concentration camps, and atomic bombings.

Knowing history can’t change it’s course, but I find I’m scared to learn it. Part of me wants to hide from the horror, but there’s another part of me, a stronger part, that wants to honor the memory of those involved by learning their stories in Normandy and beyond.


*From BBC News article “D-Day: 10 things you might not know about the Normandy invasion”
**From the Wikipedia entry on Normandy Landings

Living Inside Our Simulation

Their glasses raised in the air, the three women held their arms fixed in a cheers pose while one of them captured the moment for posterity.

Did they even toast? I thought from a few tables away in a Barcelona restaurant catering to diners looking for healthy eating options and Instagram worthy plating.

I judged them as I’ve been judging most of the photo hungry diners and sightseers I’ve encountered on this trip.

Like the tourists who cruise from room to room in the Louvre with their camera fixed in front of them seemingly snapping anything that comes into view. I judge their lack of “experiencing the art” as I listen to in depth commentary on my museum app. After I’ve learned from the audio track, I take a picture like I’ve earned it.

I’m not above it all. The morning of the simulated cheers described above I’d woken up early to run along Barcelona’s beachfront. I’d biked the path the day before, and while I was biking it, I’d thought about running it. While I was running it, I thought about when I should stop to take the best picture.

Eventually, I came across sleek outdoor adult fitness equipment free to access–basically an adult jungle gym with two long sets of monkey bars, dip bars, pull up bars, a landmine, and other things.

I’ve been working on my pull up, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hang there for a bit. Literally hang. That’s what I do on the pull up bar since I can’t yet do a pull up.

So I hung, staring out into the ocean, hoping the setting would make what’s usually a crappy task (honing grip strength–i.e., making callouses) more fun.

But I found right away, that instead of “being in the moment”, I was caught up in the process of making the moment. While I hung, I thought about how I should take a picture. I thought about how I might write up a social media post about it. Instead of living the moment, I was creating the moment and processing it through the potential lens of others.

I was aware that I did not want to be doing this, but I couldn’t stop myself. (In general, I have a hard time stopping thoughts I’m trying not to think. Maybe you can relate.)

Today I climbed a hill in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and I faced the same problem when I arrived at the top: capture the moment versus be in the moment. I started first with capturing it. I took as many pictures as I wanted. I thought about texts I would send David describing my summit. And then I sat down and relaxed into what felt like “the moment” I should be experiencing.

Going forward I’m going to follow a similar strategy: document first then let whatever happen. Because I like taking pictures and I like sharing. And I think those are part of what make a moment and an experience now in our culture.

A toast is no longer just words and a clanking of glasses. It can also be a picture of arms held aloft accessible from anywhere if the user chooses to share it so.

Here’s my hilltop:

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And my pull up bars:

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Remembering Enough to Never Forget

I was walking toward the Bastille Market on a Sunday morning in Paris searching my mind for information that’d been lost.

What the heck is Bastille Day about again?

I celebrated it once on July 14, 2008 when I lived in Ferney-Voltaire, a small French town outside of Geneva, Switzerland. I celebrated it again last year in 2018, watching the elaborate Eiffel Tower fireworks display from a street in Paris. On both occasions, I’m sure I’d done a Google search to learn more about the holiday.

Still, nothing appeared in my memory besides the general category “Bastille, the storming of.”

When? Why? Who?

I found the answers to my questions a week later at the Army Museum in Paris. Making my way slowly from room to room and sign to sign, I read about the military history of France from Louis XIV through World War II.

I learned about how the French came to the aid of the Americans during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) and then had their own revolution overthrowing the French monarchy a few years later (1789-1799).

I read about Napoleon’s wars–how power went back and forth between French royal families and Napoleon and his heir. There was a brief moment where I might have understood the succession of rulers, the Republics, and how it all fit together but it didn’t last long.

I moved on to the World War I and World War II sections of the museum. I learned about the toll of trench warfare in the first war and the extent of German occupation in France during the second. I watched video clips from D-Day and the liberation of Paris. I observed how tall Charles de Gaulle was in images of the latter.

When will I forget that he called on French people to resist German occupation despite the armistice agreement between France and Germany? When will I forget how tall he was?

Since my trip to Europe last summer, I’ve been fascinated with history. What frustrates me about studying it, though, is how quickly the facts and figures fade from my mind. I know it’s not possible to retain everything. But I want to be able to remember enough to never forget the price so many have paid for freedom.

Memorial Day in the United States came the day after my trip to the Army Museum. I remembered well this year.

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Note: The July Column at the Place de la Bastille. The storming of the Bastille took place during the French Revolution in the late 1700s. The July Column commemorates events during the July Revolution (Second French Revolution) in the 1830s.

11000 Virgins and a Sock in My Shoe

My first day at the Louvre, of what will hopefully be many, I stood in front of a reliquary bust of St. Constance in the Italian sculpture section.

The look of the figure attracted me first, but it was the description translated into English that held my attention:

“[O]ne of the 11,000 virgin martyrs, companions of St. Ursula.”

Now the idea of a virgin martyr didn’t shock me. Growing up Catholic, I have read about the lives of more than a few. But the number 11,000 was a couple orders of magnitude higher than I would expect to be martyred in a single episode.

Page 1 of my Google search results substantiated my numerical suspicions. The Wikipedia page for St. Ursula suggests ways the figure might have been misconstrued in Latin. However, despite evidence of artificial inflation, the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 companions remains.

By the time I was standing in front of the bust of St. Constance contemplating the ranks of her martyrdom, it was late in the afternoon, and I had made peace with the sock gathered around my midfoot in my right shoe.

Earlier in the day, I had not been so tranquil. My first hour walking around Paris Saturday morning was spent reaching down into my shoe tugging at the sock so it would come up around my heel. I tried folding the little bit of extra material on the end of the sock around my ankle but nothing helped.

That sock wanted to be inside my shoe. So eventually I just left it in there–swapping the repetition of the heel slip for the steady discomfort of the midfoot bulge. Letting go of the struggle turned out to be the remedy. Rather than waiting for the sock to slip, I let it stay there and teach me its lessons:

  • Don’t trust a new sock with a long day’s journey.
  • Find a way to sit (or in this case stand) with discomfort.
  • Even an expensive sock can let you down.

I returned to the Louvre two days later and visited St. Constance again. She looked the same as did her story. But my interpretation of it had changed…as had my socks.