In American Soil

Two weekends ago, I went back to America.

Don’t get too excited, it was not the America where all my friends and family live – it was the American soil in France, where soldiers died in the final battles of World War II on the D-Day beaches.

I used to dislike studying WWII. It was boring and seemed irrelevant to high school (read: self-centered adolescent) Anne. Coming to Europe changed it all for me: here, I can see the conflict in the dilapidated buildings of bombed-out Northern cities, in the ubiquitous remembrance plaques and war memorials that stand on street corners. It became harshly real when I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland. I recently met a French person who had worked in fields as a lookout for buried land mines. Everybody here has ancestors, relatives, friends, and favorite places that were impacted by the nearness of the world war battlegrounds. Being American in the war was a privilege, simply because – at least at a national level – we could choose whether or not to get involved, when, and for how long. Europe did not have that choice.

The day dawned appropriately: somber gray rainclouds hid the sun and an icy wind whipped around us as we strolled through the American Cemetery, searching for connection with the dead bodies by finding people from our home states. We stumbled upon some anonymous graves. I wondered if there were families that never found their loved ones. 




After the cemetery, we hiked down the hills and through the dunes to the beach. We touched the sand where hundreds of American, British, and Canadian soldiers had fought to stay alive as they were fired on by waiting German troops. We took windblown pictures with the flag.




And, on the way home to Lille, we stopped by Arromanches – the Canadian beach – for a 360 degree film about the Allies’ role in the conflict. We didn’t spend very long here due to the icy wind and rain (the “Normandy goodbye”)…but there were nice views nonetheless.


It was important to be reminded of the USA’s place and participation in the world. In the grand scheme of the war, we played a small part, but that part was essential. In the world, we play a small part — but that part is likewise essential. I felt humble and necessary. Global events can overwhelm even the most powerful countries, and if I’ve learned anything from all my meanderings in the former war zones, it’s that we must learn about how they happened before so they will happen differently, and never “again.”

In American Soil

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.




As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.


We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an apéro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana’s expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.





On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn’t dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I’ve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.




Saturday night was spent with Dana’s family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I’ve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice — Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can’t handle the stench…

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It’s our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else’s cultural language if they aren’t from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I’m back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I’ll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope 😉

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel