This past weekend, IES Abroad took the other students in the program and I on a field trip to Normandy. Like with all IES Abroad trips, it started with a taking a bus early on a Saturday morning. We drove to the city of Caen, which is near the D-Day beaches. I had visited Caen last summer when I was in France with my family for vacation. The city was heavily bombed during the second world war, and the only major buildings that were left untouched were the churches, a once-formidable castle near the center of town, and two stunning former Benedictine monasteries. Consequently, Caen does not have quite the same aesthetic appeal as Nantes, Bordeaux, or other French cities that were less affected by the war. The buildings are all slightly more modern, and the effect of Haussmann’s architectural renovations that created the picturesque streets of Paris before spreading to the rest of France is superficial if not barely noticeable. Nonetheless, Caen is a bustling little city with a rich history and plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops. Just like the first time I visited, the air was brisk and the sky was grey. The weather reflected the overall mood of the trip: We were about to learn about one of the world’s darkest chapters on the very soil where much of the action took place.
The first exhibit we visited was the Caen Memorial Museum. The museum was about World War II and was divided in three sections: before and during the war, the D-Day landings and the battle of Normandy, and the Cold War. In each section, there was history not only about France, the rest of Western Europe, and the U.S., but also about the rest of the world. For example, while learning about how the war unfolded, I watched footage of Japanese men training to become soldiers. I studied World War II quite a bit in high school, but had never seen such footage. I was shocked to realize that the majority of the men in the video were as young or younger than I. Overall, the museum was fascinating, yet emotionally exhausting. We finished our visit by watching a compilation of video clips taken during the battle of Normandy. The creaters of the film put an emphasis on the fact that while the landings at D-Day marked a major turning point in the war, the action did not stop there. The Allied forces would spend over a hundred days pushing the Germans back before liberating Paris and the rest of France.
The next day, we visited the remnants of the Mulberry Harbor on the beaches of Arromanches-les-Bains, which is a few miles east of the D-Day beaches. The harbor consisted of artificial ports that were constructed in England before being transported across the English Channel to France. The installation of the ports guaranteed a supply chain to the Allies once they landed in Normandy. All that remains of the ports today are cargo-ship container sized chunks of iron and steel strewed along the beach. The sea is in the long, slow process of rusting and eroding the metal. To me, the remnants are a reminder of the war and its long-lasting effects felt around the world. Our next stop was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where 9,387 American soldiers are buried. Although it was sobering to gaze upon the vast rows of neatly organized crosses and Stars of David, there was also a peaceful and calm atmosphere present throughout the area.
We finished the trip by walking around the Pointe du Hoc at the D-Day beaches. The Pointe - which is a steep cliff overlooking the beach - was assaulted and captured by U.S. Army Rangers during the Invasion of Normandy. Many of the German fortified defensive bunkers on the Pointe are still intact, and one could climb down and explore them. It was felt eerie to step into the dark, damp spaces and think about what it was like to be there during the war (no doubt unimaginably terrifying). Around the bunkers, there were large pits where bombs or mortars had landed. After walking around the site for a while, we got back on the bus and headed back toward Nantes. Although the trip was somber and a bit exhausting, I am nonetheless glad to have gone as I gained a broader perspective about the war and how it affected France.
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<p>Bonjour! My name is Keanan Gleason, I am from Albuquerque, New Mexico, but currently live in Iowa where I am a third year student at Grinnell College. I am double-majoring in Economics and French, and this spring I will be studying abroad in Nantes, France! I hope to get to know my temporary home by going on lots of runs, eating at various restaurants, and exploring with friends.</p>