This summer, exactly like one year ago, it seemed that every Greek island (and there are a lot of them) had one of my acquaintances as a summer vacation ambassador on its territory. The honour was unequally divided between July and August in favour of the latter. It was all predictable.
We were curious as well, and eager to get some decent sun tan and do nothing but bathe for a fortnight or so, and the Greek cuisine is so much tempting and … At this point I’d better stopped enumerating advantages of such a trip in terms of relax because there are too many of them. But somehow, against the main stream, we chose Normandy with its highly probable cloudy sky, rainy weather and summer temperatures reminding of Italian autumn. And everyone was like ‘Are you sure?‘ And we were like ‘Yes, we are, or maybe not, but we are going to do it all the same.‘ And we did. And right now no one could be happier than us about that decision.
In reality, neither I nor my husband had ever been to France before. And we planned a visit to the neighbouring country already last year going from Rome to Paris by plane and then moving for a couple of days to Normandy to come back to Italy via the French capital again. But we went to Georgia instead. The Normandy project got frozen for the entire year. And then we got a proof of the fact that to become edible and enjoyable every fruit has to be mature. This year we came up with a better plan for the so-long-awaited trip – France on the road. Obviously, with Normandy being its main destination.
You would ask me ‘Why not go to Provence? It is all about the sun and summer there.‘ ‘You are right‘, – I would answer. Of course, we took the option into consideration. As many others, too: the whole of France is amazing. But there was something special about Normandy, something so attractive and tempting, that having to choose we had very few doubts.
The trip from the Mediterranean Tuscany, wehere we live at the moment, till the cold waters of the English Channel was long but worth of its every kilometre. We started very early in the morning to reach Annecy in Haute-Savoie in the afternoon, have some rest there and start for Normandy with the first light of the alpine dawn a day and a half later. And then there were approximately 990 kilometres to run till Colleville-sur-Mer driving via Le Mans to avoid the traffic of Parisian outskirts. It took us more or less ten hours with various stops on the way for a coffee and a sandwich and some exercise for the tired legs and back. But who really cared for some minor pains and a bit of tiredness? There was the beauty of the Alps at sunrise to admire, the changing colours of the picturesque Burgundy landscapes, the quite of the Valley of Loire with the yellow of its fields and the blue of its sky in an hours-long embrace, greyish clouds gathering when approaching the sea, and then – the climax of the trip – the Norman countryside with its flower-decorated towns and villages sleepy and quite on those long summer days, its kettle-occupied fields and ancient tiny cemeteries by ancient churches reconstructed and rebuilt after the war, its colours and smells, its friendly gardens and tempting directions, its overwhelming charm.
The idea of the trip was mature. Now I know it for sure beacuse we decided to travel France by car. It was the best solution for our plan to stay far from big cities, live the countryside, close to the nature, away from noises and crowds. It was the perfect solution to be free to choose where and when to go, and when to come back. We were to decide, to chose and to change. Moreover, it was the only comfortable way to reach our bed and breakfast in Mandeville-en-Bessin, the place that became our home in Normandy and will remain such forever.
And now try to imagine it: a two-storied country house of light grey bricks, a court yard in front of it with a chestnut tree hundred years old, huge and protective, a pond with white swans and noisy ducks, an emerald field for horses and two donkeys – mother Praline and her newly-born son Starlight, the quiet, amazing fresh air thrilled with the sea breeze, the smell of rain and the flower-coloured fence, the room, spacious, cosy, welcoming, and the best breakfast ever: hot croissants, fragrant and light, crispy baguette, salty Normandy butter and home-made melon jam. Nothing could be better to start a day. I am still missing those flavours.
And it is now that we came up to the main reason of coming here, apart from the famous cuisine temptation, of course. The D-Day.
Now I can reveal it: one of my husband’s dreams was to see the beaches of the Normandy Landings and the American Military Cemetery. I, being a USSR born and brought-up, saw Operation Overlord differently. In our books on history at school we did study it but always as something of secondary importance to the Soviet victory in May of 1945. My husband taught me a different lesson making me change my mind and see that period of the World War Two for what it really was and still is: an act of immense heroism and patriotic sacrifice, not less important that the one made by my own ancestors, an act of major relevance for the victory in 1945, something that changed the history and us all. The lesson was taught and learnt there, in Normandy, no better place for such a commitment.
The first thing we did was going to Omaha Beach. An immense beauty of the gold sand liberated by the low tide. Shining in the beams of the morning sun, it was all about fun and recreation with numerous open air activities. And then there was the sea, dark and uneven, seemingly bad-tempered at times, with the wind blowing furiously on that stripe of the land enclosed between the cliffs embracing the beach on both sides. The sea was all around us with its persistent smell and salinity, it was everywhere though far, sending sea gulls as messengers and singing in a low whisper. And then there was the knowledge of what happened there, in that exact place more than 70 years ago. The understanding that gave place to imagination teased by my husband telling me facts and describing the events of those times. The discrepancy between the magic of that place, its beauty and charm and the cruelty it witnessed was overwhelmingly growing minute by minute. It was so strange to think how such beauty could have been involved in so much cruelty. The tragedy was not a sketch anymore, but a drawing in well-defined and determined pencil lines.
And then it became even more retrospective. When you climb the hill on the way to the American Military Cemetery passing by numerous bunkers of the Nazi defensive lines and monuments erected to commemorate the names of the fallen in the Battle for Normandy, involuntarily you start comparing the beauty of the flowers in blossom, the vastness of the surrounding fields and forests around to what it might have been at that time. And you start thinking it was exactly the same. The same and simultaneously so different: the beauty of the nature in the ruin of the bloodshed, defaced by hatred and violence. And it seems so unjust, it is so wrong.
And then all those white crosses against the immense and limitless background of the sea melting into the sky. It all seems so surreal, so bizarre. And even if you see the limit to that field of crosses it still seems way too far, almost unreachable. I could not help wandering around reading out loud the names on those crosses, military ranks, places of birth and dates of death. A story behind each of them, a joy, a hope, a farewell, a future never possible, a destiny, the geography of the entire country, a map to sacrifice and loss.
It is curious how one’s mind can’t stop elaborating: reading a name I couldn’t help imagining a face, a story, a happy moment, the moment of death. The more names I read, the more difficult it was becoming to grasp the devastation of that nightmare. But the worst part was the date: during the landing, immediately after, several days later, a few days before the victory. Every death – a separate story to tell. And there’s no way to figure out who you should cry first: those gone immediately or those so close to be back home. At a certain moment I was so moved that it became impossible to stay longer on that perfectly cut green grass. Heading to the exit of the Cemetery, we came across a group of Americans staring their visit with a guide from the cemetery memorial. The national anthem followed the sounds of the commemorating trumpet. Every member of the group put his or her right hand on the heart and started singing. And crying. Moved by emotion. So was I was asking myself: what are they thinking of right now? Maybe some are visiting their family members today, lying here in the French ground, others, maybe, remember those gone forever in different wars, some thinking about the duty and the honour being proud of what a feat their fellow-citizens and allies managed to carry out on this land, some, like me, imagining how it all happened and having difficulty to understand why. And then, once the anthem was over and the tears were wiped away, I could hear them laugh. As if confirming: live goes on. That’s all about the love of life and the fighting spirit, the American in-born positivity.
And the sun was shining over the peaceful Normandy once again.
Every inch of that land, with all the monuments to the soldiers gone, dead, disappeared, with all the museums dedicated to the D-Day and Operation Overlord, with all American, British and Canadian flags waving from roofs and gardens, numerous cemeteries and images of allies all around, all of this is so alive, so recent, seems to be still there even if gone long ago. The memory still lives in Normandy. And it should not go anywhere, ever, teaching all of us that same lesson:
No Mission too Difficult. No Sacrifice too Great. Duty First.
My special thanks go to my husband Machs Gut © for the inspiration for this trip, for his support and beautiful pictures of our Normandy days.