Hi Chris - I've traveled for years visiting historic places around the world, including these same Normandy sites that you and I spent the last week seeing. But this was different in a way difficult to articulate - it was as if a veil lifted to allow the past to physically permeate and mingle with the present.
Young vibrant Allied soldiers once again filled the streets and cafes. Military vehicles rumbled in endless convoy through the Normandy landscape, jamming the narrow country roads and filled with purposeful young American GIs far from home. Old black-and-white war photos that I've studied for years suddenly burst from the pages of the books - I felt something a war correspondent may have felt. Photo opportunities everywhere. And yet, even by adjusting my camera settings to black-and-white in an effort to duplicate war-era photos, there was no way to capture what I was seeing and experiencing. I wanted to talk to these soldiers, to hear their story, to find out where they'd come from and where they were going. But they all seemed so busy and focused which intimidated me a bit. I didn't want to interrupt their work.
To be quite honest, it's had a very confusing effect on my mind. Last night I dreamt I was there in the most real way imaginable. Actual experiences of the past week mixed indistinguishably with historical events from 1944 in fitful dreams. The way it was after the initial furious battles to secure the Normandy area, when troops and personnel poured through on their way inland. I feel like I've been there and seen it and It fills my eyes with tears for reasons I don't understand. I wanted to thank everyone I saw, but of course it wasn't them - they were just re-enactors, which in a strange way made it more painful. There was no one there to thank.
Yet there was. Several times during the past week, an actual World-War II Allied soldier appeared. Not in uniform or driving a Willys jeep, but carefully stepping with a cane or being gently pushed in a wheelchair, almost unnoticed among the hordes of re-enactors and restored miliary equipment. I wondered - are they honored by what this commemoration has become? Or does it demean the sacrifices they and their comrades made? Those few that I spoke with felt honored and respected by the events.
As for you and I, sitting at an outdoor cafe on a cobbled street in Bayeux, Normandy on our last night, four young Dutch men overheard us speaking English and timidly asked if they could buy us a drink. When we offered to instead buy for them, they replied, "No, we buy for you - you saved our country."