Monday, June 22, 2015

Normandy, France (part 2) Utah Beach on D-Day 71st Anniversary

To be in Normandy, France in the first week of June you enter another chapter of time. 1944 Vintage jeeps, motorcycles, and trucks from World War II are ubiquitous on the streets and winding village roads. Many people, including children and even dogs, are dressed in the l940's style with U.S., Canadian, and British uniforms. Women have their hair tied up, with bright red lipstick, and stockings with a seam down the back. There are American, French, Canadian, and UK flags of every size waving everywhere, with 1940's Big Band music being blasted on the streets. Emotions are high, with celebratory festivities, parades, ceremonies, and picnics. But there is also a somber air of honoring those who sacrificed their lives on the beaches of Juno, Spear, Gold, Utah, and Omaha.

Most every town and village in Normandy are remembering the D-Day invasion in the early morning of June 6, 1944. When my son and I came to remember my father-in-law who landed on Omaha beach, it didn't matter if we did not speak French. We danced, sang, and walked the shores and villagers with everyone else. Everyone, even the children, seemed to perceive that the simple act of remembering and honoring the past was important. The festivities were observed with purposeful meaning, but also mixed with fun and merriment. We would not have missed it.

About 21,000 troops landed on Utah Beach, with only 197 deaths on the beach--far less than Omaha. The paratroopers started landing at 1:30 in the morning ,and then amphibious landings began at about 6:30 am

Just before we all went to the beach to light the lanterns, we were able to listen to a U.S. veteran who landed on Utah Beach 71 years before. He said something I will never forget, "I did not want to get out of the landing craft that night. I wanted to crawl under the craft, and never come out. I was very scared. But I had no choice. I did it anyways. Let me remind you that war is terrible, and I still have nightmares about it. I pray every day that there will be peace in this world. "

Peter, my son, next to the replica landing equipment that was on Utah Beach.
Peter, with the curator of the Utah Beach Memorial Museum, as they prepare to light the lantern. On the night of June 5, the museum provided hundreds of lanterns (one for two adults). People were organized into groups, and the leaders of the group instructed hundreds of people how to safely light the lanterns, and push them to the sky.
They are lighting the lantern, to then be pushed up to the sky.
Peter is trying to help someone else push their lantern to the sky. It was not very windy, and some of the lanterns fell to the sand and in the water, reminiscent of that same night 71 years ago. I will never forget that night as I watched my son push up the lantern to the sky, in remembrance of his grandfather and all those who bravely landed on those shores. It was a night when the heaven and the earth touched for a few moments in time, witnessed by all the thousands of people that night.
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It was a night when the stars blazed with memory and light, reminding me of a Van Gogh painting, A Starry Night on the Rhone.
Some people on the beach about to push their lantern into the air on June 5 at Utah Beach. We all gazed as lanterns navigated their way into the sky. Some of them had a tough time floating away, and we all cheered as they ascended.

One thing that was so moving was that the paratroopers knew that if the sea landings failed, they would be in enemy territory--with no one to back them up. They jumped anyways. With about 70 pounds of equipment on their back, many of them drowned.

There is a mannequin with a parachute still hanging from the church today in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. In the early morning of June 6, there were 13,000 paratroopers that dropped onto the Normandy coast from the 82nd Airborne and 101st Division. One aerial bomb ignited a fire in the town square that night, with the church bells ringing to alert the town of the fire. Both villagers and German troopers helped in a bucket brigade to squelch the fire. Many paratroopers died that night because they were easy targets since many were awake with the fire. It was supposed to be a secret, quiet mission. Instead, the paratroopers were a surprise to the village in the middle of the night. They were dropped into enemy territory to soften the blows and obtain the needed targets, especially the Cherbourg port. Some were scattered in the countryside, and many drowned in the rivers. Within the week, they were able to capture and liberate the Cherbourg peninsula. There is a moving museum there in the town that chronicles their dangerous, brave feats.

In the early night of June 6, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne jumped from the skies all around the Normandy coast. This is a picture of John Steele who landed on the Sainte-Mere-Eglise  stone church. He is remembered in the movie The Longest Day.

The French are passionate about remembering to keep the memories alive, even now that many of the veterans are gone. 

Children in France are told stories that rekindle the past. Parents, teachers, and community leaders all join together to keep the history alive in the young. They want them to remember the young men who gave their all to liberate Normandy, and the rest of France.

Dogs were even dressed up for the occasion.
Some of my own children on Halloween in St. Louis, Missouri. Grandpa's World War II uniform was brought out on many occasions to remember. They loved to reinact on every occasion they could remember their grandpa.

Scottish bagpipers in Sainte-Mere-Eglise to remember the Scottish man, Bill Millin, who played his bagpipes on the day of the invasion. He was memorialized in the movie, The Longest Day.

Here is a picture of Jonathan, another son, in France at the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Reinactors have been coming now for decades to this coast to remember the past. I think they always will.

There are rein actors all over Normandy during the first week of June. In many villages, the rein actors have encampments, where they stay in tents for the week with their fellow comrades. Some of them came from Belgium, the U.S. and Germany to remember what happened 71 years ago.

More people dressed up in 1940's attire at the Utah Beach Museum.

As  a band played big band music in the background, many couples danced in front of the the Utah Beach museum. They were there, dressed in 1940's attire, to capture and remember a time that they knew liberated their country.

Flowers stuck in the sand on Utah Beach, among the seaweed--to memorialize and remember those who fell on those beaches.
The breakfast that we woke up to on June 6 in our gite (a French home that is rented out for holidays) We knew it would be a special day to remember forever because everyone around us, all these new friends, helped us remember.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

France (part 1) A French Village Celebration

Everyone is enjoying the day of building unity in the village. It is also a day to remember the past, and the people that came to liberate the village in 1944.
On our recent visit to Normandy, France to honor and celebrate at the 71st anniversary of D-Day, my son and I were invited to a picnic of a lifetime in the small village of Le Tronquay. The tranquil, beautiful village, spread out with winding hedgerows that encircle small fields with rows of apple trees and grazing cows is a place now I want to go back again and again in my mind. In the town centre of  Le Tronquay, next to the small Gothic church, there is a plaque that honors my father-in-law, as one of it's most esteemed citizens. First Lieutenant Shumway and his platoon of men from Company B helped to liberate the small village in 1944 in the push to Paris, about ten days before he was blinded.

When I jumped out of my car, Patricia, the village mayor, met me with kisses, a hug, and a t-shirt that matched everyone else at the tables, soccer field, and grill around me. I, in turn, pulled out a hat for everyone to wear that had a patch of the Big Red One on it, a division of the army that pushed back the Axis on that fateful day. People enthusiastically told me the weather was unusual this time of year--no cloud or drop of rain in sight. A hat to shade their face was exactly what they needed that day. At the picnic, old and young, were all dressed alike. It felt like my own family reunion when we all wear the same t-shirts.... 

There was a grill nearby, but most people had brought their favorite family recipes--with of course lots of bread and cheese that Normandy is known for. Many of the women went from table to table, carrying their homemade desserts, to share with eager friends. With each dessert being passed, people became more talkative with people who were their neighbors, nearby villagers, and friends. One older gentleman, who the mayor says like to be a leader of games, was out on the field leading a rope pull. Everyone lingered around the tables of food--catching up on one another's news. (in French)

In 1999, one French community leader in Paris promoted the initiative to have neighborly picnics and gatherings, after learning that an elderly person had died and no one knew about it until four months later. All of the 21 mayors in Paris advocated for the idea also, and it is estimated that now eight million people celebrated in their neighborhoods and villages last year in France. They call it "le fete des voisins immeubles en fete" (in English) In 2004, the idea has spread to all of Europe, Canada, and Japan.

It is traditionally held on the last Friday of May or the first Friday in June. In a modern world where we move frequently (even to other continents like me), I thought it was a brilliant idea to coalesce--to bring together people and enrich friendships in the communities we live.  We all need to feel like we are linked to a tribe, community, or village, besides our own immediate family. There is a pang or wish in all of us to belong. Who can underestimate the power of a picnic?

After the picnic and romping around on the soccer field, some of us went to honor my father-in-law that day. He was someone most of them did not know (a few remembered him when they initially inserted the plaque), but they understood he was an important part of their village history. They came to remember what happened in Le Tronquay 71 years ago. As we stood around the town centre that beautiful, sunny day, we listened to an American anthem while my son lovingly placed some flowers near the plaque.  The French Legion leader, in a booming voice, then began singing the French national anthem, with everyone singing around me. 

As I stood there in a new found community, with the beautiful French words being sung around me, I felt like I had just gained a new village inside of me. As we tearfully hugged and gave one another the customary French kisses on both cheeks, I felt so welcomed, so embraced. To watch my son stand in proxy for his grandfather, while others, who were strangers hours before remembered him also, was unifying. We will never forget it. It made me remember again how important it is to honor the past, belong to a village, and to embrace a straggling stranger who walks into your community. It's amazing how a picnic can change your life....

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    1. Map of normandy

Over 100 people from the village of Le Tronquay, France gathered together to "build neighborhoods." France has a commemorative day each year for villages and towns to come together--to grill, play games, share favorite recipes and desserts. Le Tronquay is a rural village comprised of about 780 people that is spread out. More and more of the older people are selling their farms since the younger generation usually do not choose to farm because of stiff regulations. But there are still a few brave young people who are carrying on the career of a farmer--even when they see the hardships of their parents and grandparents. Peter and I are sitting on the front row next to the mayor, Patricia. 
Grillers hard at work

The crowning dessert of the picnic were the macaroons. I was told that they are the hardest French pastry to make. The vibrant colors and delectable taste were unforgettable. 

All of us were in awe of the macaroons--such a gift to all her neighbors.

Another lovingly made dessert that is traditional to Normandy is called tergoule--a rice pudding that I have been told is a comfort food in France. It is slowly cooked for five hours in the oven.

William, a young father, with his darling children. Lauren, the little girl, was at my side the entire time.  I vowed to learn more French next time I came so I could talk to "my little friends."

Here are some of the people we met that took care of us in France. Bernard, the man to the far right was 13 when the Allies came to the shores of Normandy. He is here with his wife, Collette, and his son, Jean Francoise. Mitch, a World War II documentary photographer came up from Provonce to remember the veterans.  

The plaque that is in the town center in Le Tronquay that honors my father-in-law.

Peter putting flowers near the plaque, in remembrance of his grandfather. To the right is a memorial to the soldiers who died in World War I. 

Some of the villagers of Le Tronquay, as we remembered together what happened there 71 years ago. Viva le France!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Jordan (part 3) People of Jordan

On our recent trip to Jordan, we explored a crusade castle, Petra, the Dead Sea, and numerous Roman ruins. Centuries blurred and melted as we traversed some of the same paths as dusty camel caravans that have criss-crossed this ancient, arid land. The ancient and the modern interweave in Jordan; in one moment you feel like you could be walking in a scene from a thousand years ago. And then you spot a Bedouin shepherd with a cell phone to his ear.

Yet as I left Jordan, I realized again for the thousandth time the power of people--who were strangers to me only a few hours or moments before I met them. Visiting tourist spots opens your eyes; meeting new friends opens your heart. In a place so far from the familiar and known traditions of my life, I have found remarkable warmth, kindness, and hospitality. As we talked and conversed with people in Jordan, with more friendship than curiosity, the resounding universal principles of life, like compassion, love, and forgiveness became transparently real. Once again we understood that families that may look different than our own are really so very similar. We all really are so much the same. As Meryl Streep says, "It's finding what is apparently different, then finding myself in there."

In the next few weeks most of us expats are making an exit for the summer season from the climbing temperatures in the Middle East--to go home to our other homes. Hopefully, I have learned a few things this year in Qatar. If I could choose one lesson, I would hope I have absorbed what my Jordanian neighbor asked me to do when she met me last fall. She said to me, "Don't make boundaries with me. I can learn you to drive. I can help you in any way I can." Yes, Abier, you have opened a new world to me. I have willingly, resolutely pushed away the boundaries that confine and restrict the ability to "open my sky."

I will miss the prayer calls that stream from the minarets five times a day, the steamy heat that surrounds you, almost enveloping you, but mostly I will miss the people. Yes, the sights I have seen this year are grand, beautiful, even breathtaking. But it is the people who have tread across my heart--hopefully a heart with a lot less boundaries than when I came.

One of the best parts of going to Jordan was going to Famtuk's home in Amman. Famtuk has four children, and takes care of his ailing mother who has Alzheimers. He comes home every night after his long hours of working to feed his aged mother. His children each take their turn too. When we meandered around the roads up to his neighborhood, we had several visitors come to visit us. The older gentleman wanted to welcome us to Jordan, and tell us all about his family, and hear about our own.

Peter with Famtuk's six year old son in their olive grove that surrounds their home. Everyone in Jordan has olive trees to make their own olive oil.

On the rooftop of Famtuk's house. You could look out and see the Dead Sea from the their roof.

To be loved so readily, so immediately, is such a gift that has been given to me again and again this year in the Middle East. I have felt at home because as my Jordanian neighbor in Qatar tells me, "You know we really are on the same page. We are so much the same." When I realized that a woman who wears a burqa could be one of my best friends, my life has changed. The principles, experiences, and life stories that we have are startlingly similar.

Our Australian friend learning how to wear a men's headdress or keffiyeh,  I love to view others learning about other cultures, erasing misconceptions, and prior judgments. 

One of the best moments of the trip was dancing in the Roman amphitheater in Jerash. My son, Peter, heard some bagpipes playing in the ancient theatre, and we went over to hear the musicians playing. To hear them play "Amazing Grace", and then break into Arabic dancing music was hauntingly beautiful. The boy with the blue shirt danced with me for about thirty minutes--a regular Fred Astaire. I will never forget the happy, breathless smiles as we danced together--merging cultures and hearts. My little 12 year old dance parter kissed my cheek at the end. It did not matter if we did not speak the same language; the dancing and music was enough to unite an unpredictable group of people in a bond that lasted almost an hour.