Two For The Road – And Back

It was the seventh day Su and I were on the road; having stayed one night in Hotel du Gue de Beauvoir at Mont Saint-Michel, two nights in Hotel le Bayeux at Bayeux, and three nights in Comfort Hotel Alba at Rouen. By the time we reached Mayenne – which is the department where my friend’s house is – I had covered more than 1,200km in Normandy; not including an additional 300km we did through a guided tour from Bayeux and back; and we still had more than 40 km of unchartered country roads to cover before we hit Fontenaille. This last stretch was particularly illustrative as far as travelling by GPS is concerned. In short, it was blind faith on GPS technology. We could not recognize any landmark, roads or villages, or their names. It began to rain, for the first time in seven days, and it got rather heavy which was bad news because it affected visibility, but the good news was that it gave the car a good washing. It cleared up when we reached the nearest village – Saint Pierre Des Landes – and about 3km from home by which time I could barely recognize some landmark. Shortly afterwards, at around 8:15pm, we hit home, just in time for dinner.

Isn’t life between two people, sometimes called marriage, somewhat similar? Faith is what takes us through life many a time, with or without us knowing. It helps, indeed it helps a lot, if the two people trust each other absolutely and unconditionally; and in this particular illustration, the two of us had to rely on a machine completely even though it had failed them a number of times over the past seven days.

Now, in the comfort of a hotel room in London, getting ready for some other meetings and chores over the next few days before heading back for more chores and meetings, let me recall a few highlight, lest they would be buried in the heat of everyday life.

I would begin with the 69th Anniversary of D Day in Europe. We were in Rouen, and our hotel room on Place du Gaillardbois faces a monument commemorating the people died in the 1940 to 1944 resistance. At breakfast time, we saw school children being assembled before the monument by their parents or teachers, apparently for a session of national education. I don’t recall seeing anything similar in Hong Kong on Liberation Day, not even before 1997.

We started making our way for the D Day landing beaches tour after our afternoon tea session in leaving Cancale. It was shortly after 5pm and we reckoned we could be in Saint Lo if not Bayeux in just over one hour. Both cities are close to the landing beaches and are prominently featured in the guidebooks. We did arrive at Saint Lo around 6:30pm, after making one or two unscheduled stops on the way, and proceeded to City Centre. We found a dead city: there were no shops open for business; we could not find a hotel; and there was absolutely nobody on the streets, which were clean and orderly, indicative of town planning. Saint Lo was sacrificed after the Ally Landing and subjected to carpet bombing; so what we saw were all post war construction, which might explain the orderliness and tidiness.

There and then, we made our way to Bayeux and parked before the first hotel we saw at City Centre, aptly called Le Hotel Bayeux. It was nearly 8:30pm when we rang the bell for service. The manager Vito, an Italian, was extremely helpful and showed us the only two rooms left. We took the cheaper one, for the other one was meant for a family of five. Vito asked us to check with him before 8am for the D Day tours which normally start at 8:30am. To cut the long story short, we decided to go on a 4-hour tour which would start from our hotel at 1pm – all the morning tours were full.

We spent the morning doing what tourists do visiting the Bayeux Tapestry, the Museum of Baron Gerard and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame, among other attractions. We were pleased with all the visits, which we think, are all good value and rather educational. We returned to our hotel at exactly 1pm and there were already six men seated in a van with the driver-cum-tour-guide waiting beside it. We hurriedly boarded the van and the tour began.

Gisele Danin was our tour guide. She is a Brazilian, Hispanic, and speaks very fluent American English. She said she was on a trip to France when she missed her train and decided to stay here for good, after meeting a Danish man whom she married. Gisele can talk non-stop while driving and she is good at both. Before we reached the first scheduled stop, which is Pointe du Hoc – between the Omaha and Utah beaches – she managed to give her historical perspective and rundown on how Hitler rose to power and decided to take on the rest of the world at a time when the key leaders of the West were rather ill prepared for warfare of such magnitude.

Gisele also painstakingly explained how and why the beachheads were named as such: Omaha and Utah because they were landing sites for Americans who would be familiar with landmarks of the same names; Sword and Gold because they were card game terminologies familiar to the British; and Juno because the Canadians found the word easy to pronounce. Pointe du Hoc was assailed by 250 Rangers who were expert cliff climbers chosen from 400 American soldiers trained for the very purpose to go up the rock face which the Germans believed were unassailable. Their mission was to neutralize the capabilities of the bunkers which overlooked the Normandy coast. In the end only 90 of them survived and completed their mission.

It is difficult to describe the Omaha beaches and the US National Cemetery. One simply needs to be there, but I suppose most people would have conjured up ideas and perspectives of the places, after reading literatures on the subject and seeing movies such as Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, or Band of Brothers. The fact is, between 7,000 to 8,000 soldiers died on Omaha on 6 June 1944, many of them not having had the opportunity of firing a bullet. The beach is infamously known as bloody Omaha because so much blood had been shed there. Gisele said many American tourists came and took home some sand from the beach as a permanent and graphic memory of the War and out of respect for the soldiers who died there. Gisele also said that in the years she had been taking groups to such tours, she had yet to see any German or Japanese tourists, while people of most nations have been visiting in large numbers. As regards the Cemetery, where I took many pictures, all US Presidents after 1956 – when it was opened – had visited the place, except John Kennedy; and they are still discovering new names and even new bodies washed up to the shore every now and then. It looks like, next year, which will mark the 70th Anniversary of the Landing, would see a big celebration.

There are many other aspects and anecdotes of the landing beaches. Historians and biographers have spoken and written volumes ad nauseum; and no doubt, more are forthcoming. Some may say that Operation Overlord is an example of how a few world leaders can make decisions which have changed the lives of so many forever, for the better, while others would criticize the decision as ill advised, immature and unnecessary. I do not have an answer for that. Everyone who wants answers to such questions will have to find his or her answers. I started off referring to the Bayeux Tapestry which is a work of art on 58 scenes depicting events leading to the Norman Conquest in 1066. There are continuing debates on who commissioned the work, as there are discussions on who should have been crowned King of England, if not William the Conqueror. A lot of people died in those days; nearly a millennium ago, many with such brutality and violence, while armchair historians, writers and philosophers continue to surmise the implications of all such past events.

I must have gone off at a tangent again. Suffice it to say that Gisele did not take us back to the hotel until 8:15pm, so that what was billed as a 4-hour tour turned out to be much longer; and we had to stay one more night at the hotel. I would sign off here; and I hope to talk to you again soon.

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