Monday, July 9, 2012


Hello again!  Time is just flying by here, so before it gets any further away I need to update you all on our excursion to Normandy.  As usual, it was a great success, and I think one of the big highlights of the program for many stagiaires.  We spent much of the week discussing World War II in my culture class, but there is really nothing that compares to actually visiting some of the crucial sites, which is why this excursion tends to have the biggest impact on students over the course of the program.

This was a two-day excursion.  The first day focused on discovering the regions of Brittany and Normandy, and the second focused on D-Day and the American involvement in WWII.  Below is a map tracing our journey.

Letter H (which is covering A) is at Saumur from where we departed at 7:30 in the morning.  Most students slept during the bus ride to our first destination at point B, Saint-Malo.  You can see on the map above that the northwestern part of France branches into two arms.  The larger lower arm is the region called Brittany, and the northern arm is Normandy.  Saint-Malo is thus a Breton city, and that is where we stopped for lunch.  The stagiaires ate the picnics prepared for them by their host families, and then they had time to explore the city.  Saint-Malo is quite pretty--it's a fortified coastal city with an economy that largely depends on fishing and tourism.  It is also a port city and thus engages in sea trade.  With the exception of a short (but heavy) bout of rain, it was a pleasant and sunny day which offered a magnificent view of the sea from the top of the ramparts that circle the central part of the city.  We then headed for the main attraction of the day--the Mont Saint Michel--which, as you can see from the label C above, is nestled exactly between Brittany and Normandy (both of which, of course, would like to lay claim to it).

What started as a small abbey in the early 8th century atop a small but sharply rising island has become an immense monastery that attracts over 3 million visitors every year.  While the monastery at one time was full of life--a residence for monks and a popular destination for religious pilgrimages--it attracted less and less attention until the time of the Revolution when it was converted into a prison.  It has since been reopened as a touristic destination and has been named one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites.  The stagiaires visited the abbey in their small groups before we left for our pit stop for the night, Grand Camp-Maisy (point D above).  Here there was a youth hostel where we ate dinner and stayed for the night.  It was right next to the beach, so we even got to do a little swimming (for those brave enough to get into the cold sea) or play volleyball.

Our visits on Friday were all fairly close to each other, and although the weather in the north is notoriously rainy, we managed to get most of the rain only when we were in the bus.  Our visits were all rather sunny and pleasant.  It's really as if our stagiaires bring the sunshine with them wherever they go!  Our first stop, the Pointe du Hoc, was more or less right next to us.  This is a piece of land that juts into the sea and separates two of the five beaches targeted on D-Day (specifically the beaches Utah and Omaha, the landing sites for the American troops).  This was obviously a key strategical stronghold for the Germans occupying France and was thus an important target during the invasion.  The problem, however, was that it was very difficult to reach being that it is a very tall piece of land that drops straight down to the shore.  The 2nd Ranger Battalion was given the task of taking the Pointe, and although they met much resistance, they eventually succeeded.

We then visited two sites that are situated just next to each other at point F on the map above.  First was Omaha Beach, the site of the first attack on D-Day.  There were very few people around that day, and the weather was very calm and sunny, giving the beach an eerie serenity that shocked me, even though this is now my second time seeing and standing on the beach.  The assault here was a very violent one--of the first 3000 soldiers to land on the beach, around 900 lost their lives.  By the end of the day, the number rose to around 3.000.  We had discussed all of this in my culture class, but it was evident on the students' faces that seeing the site in person was a completely different experience.  They were all very quiet and pensive, and several remarked that it was incredibly difficult to imagine what had happened there.
Because of the many lives lost here, the small town just behind the beach was chosen as the site of the American cemetery dedicated to the soldiers in World War II.  Students could thus walk just up the hill to access the cemetery, which holds over 9,000 graves.  There is a small chapel in the middle, and at the front end, a memorial consisting of a statue, a reflecting pool, and the names of 1,500 unlocated soldiers.  It is truly an emotional experience which gave the stagiaires a lot to think about, and for many, it gave them a new perspective on their experience here in France.

The final stop was the Caen Memorial (point G), a museum which provides information, documents, videos, and various objects related to the war.  We had a large chunk of time for students to look at everything and see some of the videos, which worked well since there is a so much information to go through.  The museum covers all the major events and aspects of the war, including one of my favorite parts of French history--the Resistance.  Although France capitulated early in the war, and although the new Vichy government in the "Free Zone" of France collaborated closely with Germany, there was a large number of people that defied the fascist regime and became instrumental in Operation Overlord and in the liberation of France.
Those who could joined the general Charles de Gaulle in London to join the allied forces, and those who were stuck in France did what they could to impede German communication as well as transportation of arms.  At the end of the visit, we saw a film that consisted of footage from D-Day, showing on the left the Allied perspective, and on the right the German one.  At the end of the film, as the camera soars over the beach, showing the soldiers engaged in combat, it cuts to footage of the beach today, then back to the old footage.  The film lasted about 15 minutes, but it leaves a very heavy impression on you.  All in all, the stagiaires agreed with me that the museum is very well put together and very informative.

Afterwards, we hopped aboard the bus once again to return to Saumur.  Because it was such a somber and emotionally draining day, we watched a film called "Bienvenue chez les ch'tis," an excellent comedy about regional language varieties and stereotypes.  Most of the group slept much of the way, however, which was expected considering the journey we just had.  And that brings us more or less to today.  We are now halfway done with the program, but I feel as though these next three weeks are going to fly by since there are several activities planned.  I look forward to sharing those with you soon, along with many, many photos!  I have a large chunk of photos that will be added to the photo website soon, so stay tuned!

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