Monday, June 5, 2017

Normandy: World War II Tour, Part Deux

German bunker; now ours.
This World War II-themed tour connected England (Portsmouth) with France (Caen) with a seven-hour ferry cruise. Emanating from Cape May as I do, I didn't think the ferry cruise would be a highlight. Then I realized that this route over the English Channel was very similar to the route that the Allied forces took on D-Day 73 years ago TODAY! That realization cast a solemn note onto the cruise, but that shouldn't infer that the trip wasn't fun. It was! It was windy on deck, and very refreshing, and the enormous ferry was fun to explore.

We dined aboard ship, and the part of this meal I remember best was the eclair I had for dessert which had chocolate cream inside. We arrived in France rather late, so headed straight for our hotel in Caen, a city in Normandy.

The flags of the Allies outside the Caen Memorial
Bright and early the next day, we were off to the Caen Memorial. This huge modern structure featured a museum-like exhibit of artifacts from the Normandy region.

Book casualty of war
 Let me set the Normandy scene: Normandy is the region, and the beaches on which the Allied forces came ashore were Utah (American troops), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British and some Canadian). Each of these beach areas is a village with a French name known to the locals. Caen is a moderately-sized city which the Allied forces were heading for after taking the beaches. Although these battles were extremely bloody, the Allies did manage to reclaim the areas from the Germans as they made their way inland to Paris and points beyond.

At the Caen Memorial, we watched a compelling movie about D-Day and the events following. I don't remember how long the movie was, and I can't even estimate the time because I was so captivated by it. Somehow, the film-makers were able to tell this story without words. There were pictures and video clips, but no words. Sure this was a handy device to use for multilingual visitors, but honestly, the wordless movie was SO GOOD. It prepared me for the sites I would see next.

We jumped on our bus with a local guide named Mario who would tell us all about the area, D-Day, and the events following. Our first stop was Point du Hoc, a piece of land that juts out into the English Channel. Point du Hoc is a promontory, meaning that it ends with cliffs that fall into the channel. When the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group arrived, they had to scale those cliffs to get to the Germans hiding out in pillboxes, bunkers, and hidey-holes.

This is a 'pillbox' bunker
Only one or two guys would fit in this hidey-hole.
 We got to tour and inspect those concrete ruins, climbing on, in, and down into to see Point du Hoc from the perspective of the Germans. These concrete ruins were fascinating, but the craters really grabbed my attention. Point du Hoc was assaulted by explosives from Allied aircraft, but also from ships at sea. Those very strong explosives made craters that can still be seen today, 73 years later. The round craters were made by bombs dropped by aircraft, but the oblong or oval craters were made by missiles launched from ships. their flight would make an arc and then when they hit they would push the earth in front of them resulting in deep, oblong craters. They are huge!

HUGE craters!
Back on the bus, we toured through some cute French seaside towns sprinkled with tanks, vehicles, and other war-like artifacts. Having recently read through the Normandy chapter of Donald Miller's The Story of World War II, I was aware of the carnage at Omaha Beach 73 years ago. The vicious battle was here between the Americans and Germans, thousands of guys died, and dead bodies were lined up on the beach for retrieval. Yet, people were frolicking, and swimming, and playing in the sand as if it were any other beach. I felt the same kind of internal schism that I felt on the ferry. I don't resent the beach-goers, but I could never enjoy a relaxing day in the sand there as I do at home...knowing what I know. It was a moving thing to see this beach site, so similar to my own favorite beach in New Jersey, but not exactly.

Omaha Beach
Finally, we arrived at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The photographs you've seen of this place are no substitute for being there. It is huge. Hundreds and hundreds of crosses and stars of David mark the graves of Americans who lost their lives here 73 years ago.

The whole time we were there, I could hear the waves of the English Channel crashing--I hadn't realized that this cemetery was so close to the water. As sad as it was, it was beautiful, too. There's a chapel in the middle and a large memorial near the entrance surrounded by a wall in which the names of MIA soldiers and sailors are engraved. Now and then there would be a name marked with a brass rosette--this would be a person whose remains were found later. This site effectively illustrates the magnitude of those Normandy battles.
The cemetery chapel

The cemetery memorial
Having no relatives here that I know of, I went in search of the Roosevelt brothers that our tour guide Mario told us about. I remember learning their stories on a documentary years ago. Quentin Roosevelt was President Roosevelt's youngest son, and he died in France during World War I (1918). His family was given special dispensation (eventually) to have Quentin's remains exhumed and re-buried here next to his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He died at Normandy during the World War II battles on July 12, 1944. His grave marker is distinctive with its gold Medal of Honor designation. Mario explained that these would be easy to find as they sat at the edge of the second block of graves on the English Channel side of the huge cemetery. I walked right to them, and when I was there, a rope was tied around the area to keep people off, perhaps to let the grass get started growing in the spring.

The Roosevelt Brothers, Quentin and Theodore, Jr.
 It was a long day exploring the emotional sites of Normandy. I was just saying to a friend that I feel that I lived through World War II since I had such a strong connection to my parents who did. Seeing these parts of Normandy was meaningful to me and got me thinking of all I knew from them and all I've learned recently in preparation for this trip. It was a special day and was topped off by a lovely dinner in Caen, on a pedestrian street full of quaint restaurants and European beauty. This is what we fought for.

Caen street: Dinner!
Could this street be prettier?
Caen menu
Caen dessert

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The World War II Tour: Part One, London

The Imperial War Museum, formerly Bethlem (mental) Hospital from which the word 'bedlam' sprung as a synonym for chaos
 If you had told me before this trip, me, a Princess Di fan from way back and general royal-watcher, that a museum with the word 'war' in its name would be the highlight of the London part of this trip, I would not have believed you. But, I had just read Donald L. Miller's fantastic book The Story of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and that war was so firmly planted in my head that I was having WWII dreams. This museum was a fantastic compliment to my recent study of the war and my almost-lifelong interest in the homefront of that time. First I was mesmerized by the music of Glenn Miller from watching The Glenn Miller Story on TV with my parents, and then I became interested in the clothing of that time, and then I wrote an A+ research paper in 12th grade entitled, "The Effect of World War II on American Styles." It wasn't until recently, in preparation for this trip, that I delved into the details of the war.

So the Imperial War Museum (IWM) was fantastic, and I limited myself to the WWII floor. That was roughly one-quarter of the museum. I took many photos, and I'll pick out the best for this blogpost. (If you come to my lecture at Bucks County Community College on November 9, 2017, you'll see these and many more!) Walk into this museum, and the first exhibit you encounter is the atrium collage of aircraft and vehicles from various wars. It's overwhelming, and difficult to pick out the WWII artifacts. Most importantly, among the planes suspended from the ceiling, there's a Spitfire. That is the model flown in the air battle with Germany over London in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The daring Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots shot down many German Messerschmidts.

That's the Spitfire in the middle with the circles on the side. This is the Atrium of the IWM.
The IWM also boasts a thrilling display of a Japanese Zero plane. It's a bit beat up and British bullets were found in it when it was being prepared for display. The Zero had been in multiple battles--parts of it were patched-up.
Beat-up Japanese Zero plane
I suppose I should explain how I found myself on this World War II tour...a colleague at the college brought it to my attention: "It's experiential learning. That's what you write about, right?" Indeed it is, and I signed up for the trip straight away, keeping my fingers crossed that enough people would sign up to make the trip go. The leader, Jerry, did a lot of work spreading the word to history classes and the college at large. One needn't be affiliated with the college in order to sign up. At last we ended up with a group of 14: four young ladies, three young men, a dad with two college-age girls, an older fellow from the community, Jerry and his wife, and me. Most had never met, but by the end of the tour the group had come to know one another pretty well. It was a good group. We were blessed.

Back in the IWM, I was pleased to see displays on the British homefront. Unlike the US homefront, the British homefront was also at times the frontline. Nevertheless, housewives were encouraged to "Make-do and Mend" and to serve potatoes instead of bread.

This was just the tip of the IWM iceberg, but we had to move on to our next stop, Churchill's War Rooms. Our tour director, Christoph from Paris, led us through the streets of London, onto a bus, off the bus, and between two large, official buildings to the entrance. Just as we were to go in, a bus full of Beefeater musicians pulled up and the guys walked past us. We never saw the performance, but when we came out of the War Rooms, they were loading up their bus again.

I wish I could have heard them perform!
I was especially looking forward to Churchill's War Rooms underneath that big official building. This is where Churchill and his cabinet and staff worked during the air raids on London. Even his wife Clementine had a room here.

The Cabinet Room, just as it was left in 1945. Except for the blotters: those were replaced every day just in case there were any incriminating impressions left from cabinet members writing notes.
Clementine Churchill's underground bedroom
We would see more of London by walking tour and bus tour. We were warned months before we left that we should expect six to ten miles of walking each day. Really? That seems like a lot. But we did walk that much except for one day which I'll tell you about next time. In London we walked around St. Paul's Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and many other photogenic spots. My favorite was St. Paul's Cathedral, not only because Princess Diana got married there and I woke up very early that day to watch it on TV in New Jersey, but because during the Battle of Britain in 1940 when so much of London was destroyed and damaged, the gorgeous dome rose above the smoke unaltered. There's a famous black and white photograph of this scene, but I'll close with my own shots here.

Three shots of St Paul's Cathedral
And yes, we did hear the famous bells of St. Paul's:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Red Boots, A Blizzard Warning, and Mercedes Limousines

Purrrl, who can tell time, woke me up with gentle paw taps at 6:00 so that I could get ready for work. Purrrl did not know that the blizzard outside had already inspired work to be cancelled. When she woke me, I had been dreaming that I was in Cape May, carrying around a fat Psychology textbook with Hannah Arendt on the cover, and the neighbors I hardly knew were trying to get me to drive them somewhere in my fictitious extra-long vintage Mercedes. I didn't know where they had to go, but I had to get to class and I was frightened of them. Perhaps Purrrl woke me up because she could sense that I was in distress. I've never seen one of these while awake, but they do exist, with three rows of seats just like in my dream!

Purrrl and I walked into the kitchen where the tiny ice pellets from the storm were hitting that window with a racket much louder than the bedroom. Maybe that's what had Purrrl concerned. Cats act crazy during storms. Once I was fully awake, she settled down, and we both found our spots in the living room. I recognized the Psychology book from the dream. It was actually my thick World War II history book that I'm reading for a trip I'm taking in May. Instead of Arendt on the cover it shows two lines of soldiers trudging through snow in helmets on their heads and masks over their mouths and noses. I don't know why I wasn't carrying the actual book in the dream or why it was Psychology. I never studied Psychology (formally) for more than a semester, and I never studied Hannah Arendt at all. (Maybe she appeared because I'm currently binge-watching Transparent, and the Pfefferman Family is Jewish. I would be surprised if I made that connection, even subconsciously.)

The storm was supposed to be a big deal. We were supposed to get 10-18 inches, or 8-14", but what actually happened is that the snow alternated with ice and what we have now is a highly compact eight inches of heavy slushy stuff which the meteorologists say will freeze overnight and make travel tomorrow treacherous at least until it melts back to slush. I saw a stray cat walking across the back yard on top of the snow, and wouldn't you know, even twenty-pound Gladys could walk on top of it when we ventured out in the afternoon. Here's the proof:

It's as if she walked through a layer of thick dust.

I wanted to feed the birds, so Fred, Gladys, and I walked outside after watching a documentary about the Vikings. We felt adventurous. The birds got fed although the feeders had ice and snow in them and we couldn't get it all out.

We couldn't see it from inside, but tiny ice pellets were shooting out of the sky still. We didn't mean to linger long, but I wanted to shoot some photos and try out my new red boots, and Fred wanted to dig a canal next to the curb so that the melting slush can drain down into the rain grate which happens to be in front of my house. Gladys was in no hurry to go inside (she has that double coat from her ancestors' days on the Shetland Islands where Vikings explored) and seems to be suggesting a backyard picnic.

The red boots worked, and I was glad to finally have the chance to test them out. I think I bought them back in the fall. I ALWAYS wanted a pair of these:

I took some snowy photos...

A corner of Spring Lake (Hamilton-Trenton Marsh) and Sturgeon Lake beyond (from my back yard)
Another view of the frozen Marsh
And one more (this was a big reason why I bought this house 23 years ago.)
There have been some casualties:
Daffodil cadavers (I wish I would have thought to cut these before the cold weather returned.)
And then there's the pussy willow tree I grew from a stick that a lady gave me years ago at the public library. This tree is a source of pride for me and even made it into one of my essays because it looks like Hawthorne fairy trees I saw in Connemara, Ireland. And it happens to be in my Fairy Garden. Coincidentally. Or not.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dispatch from Bruce's River Tour: Philadelphia 9/9/16

Before we left New Jersey, I admonished Fred to leave his giant, multitool pocket knife home. "There'll be a security screening," I said, "just like at the Monster Truck show, and I'm going to be mad if we have to walk back to the car to stow your knife like we had to do then." I drove, because Philadelphia is mine, and because I have the working radio with the pre-set Bruce Springsteen satellite channel on it. We were headed to Citizens Bank Park to hear, see, and admire The Boss and the E-Street Band. Adele was appearing at the neighboring Wells Fargo Center, and together with New Jersey shore traffic, the traffic for these concerts jammed up I-95. We drove mostly between speeds of 20 and 40 MPH all the way to the Sports Complex. Usually this takes an hour. It seemed an eternity last night, but worth the effort for Bruce. I was hoping he would break his all-time concert-length record of four hours and six seconds, or at least his American record of four hours and four seconds set two nights before in Philadelphia. It would be quite a distinction to have attended a historic concert such as this, and I looked forward to bragging about it.

Me waiting for the concert to start and making a rare political statement
 The concert started at 8:00 and a roar came up from the crowd. The woman next to me let out a shrill banshee scream, the likes of which I knew I would not be able to tolerate for four hours. I scanned the area for other possible seats. She beat me to it. She moved down a few rows with her mother and their Coors Lights. Mama turned out to be quite the dancer. "New York City Serendade" was the first song, just like at this August 2016 concert at MetLife Stadium...(not my video)...(I wasn't there)...

I sat in my blue plastic baseball fan seat for four hours, fascinated by the crowd interacting with their (my) idol, and Bruce metabolizing the crowd's enthusiasm and energy. After all of these years, and all of these (long) concerts, he still looks like he's having the time of his life performing "Born to Run" for us.

He descended into the crowd many times to interact with people lucky enough to be in the Pit Line. He collected homemade signs requesting songs and favors ("Dance with me, Bruce!") and smiled the whole time. At one point he brought a talented college student on stage to perform with him, and at another point a woman and her guitar-playing pre-adolescent daughter. Both young musicians got to play one of Bruce's guitars. Many fans got their wish to dance with (next to) their favorite band member other than Bruce. All of these requests were made known to Bruce via the homemade poster board signs which have become legendary at Springsteen concerts.

All our favorite E-Streeters were there: Max, Steven, Nils, Roy, Garry, and Sookie. And then there was Jake Clemons on the tenor saxophone, frequently taking solos indistinguishable from his late uncle Clarence's. Jake found his way down into the pit crowd quite a bit. From our seats, we could follow Bruce through the sea of people by watching the spotlight on him. When Jake was down there, too, there was a second spotlight. What an honor for him, I thought. It was as if he's no longer simply Clarence's replacement, but is now Jake Clemons, a full-fledged member of the band with his own distinct personality. And he sang back-up a number of times.

I've always dreamed about what I would ask Bruce if I ever got the chance to talk to him or even interview him. ("Dream Baby, Dream") I have my questions ready. I can't tell you what they are but I can tell you they have to do with the creative process, performing, and charisma. For example, "What goes through your mind when you walk out on stage and see thousands of people who not only paid lots of money to see you perform, but sing your words back to you? Does that ever stop being surreal?" I can't ask this one--"If you were to write a book, what would the topic be?"--because we are now eagerly awaiting the release of Bruce's memoir Born to Run to be released on September 27. (Yes, I've preordered it.)

Last night I watched individuals and couples around me swayed to the slower songs and danced like maniacs to their favorite Springsteen showstoppers. The guy next to Fred must be the maniac leader. His crazy-macho dance moves didn't fit the music most of the time, but it was impossible not to watch him. But watching him was at the same time uncomfortable. Quick: look back at Bruce!

Many of my favorites were performed last night. We don't often hear "Rosalita" and "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" in concert. I was thrilled to hear them last night. Before launching into my favorite boardwalk song, "Sandy," he asked, "Is anyone here from the Jersey Shore?" YES BRUCE, I AM! It's sad to think that every time I hear that song my own Wildwood boardwalk days are further in the past.

How appropriate to perform the song "Philadelphia" from the movie Philadelphia in the city of Philadelphia. Fred grabbed a few seconds of that.

 Bruce saved the very best for last. We didn't break any records for concert length, but a three-hour, 45-minute concert is nothing to complain about. It was a steamy, humid, HOT night, and the guy on the radio Springsteen channel said it was 106 degrees on the field. (I consider us lucky that we got more than two hours.) Bruce and the band ended the show with "Jersey Girl" which is a treat by itself, but when he brought a Gold Star Widow up on the stage to dance with him (requested by a poster board sign) there was not a dry eye in the park.

Performing "Jersey Girl"
 I know skeptics will say that Bruce and his advisors are simply master manipulators of fans and marketing geniuses, but I have proof that Bruce's allure is more than an act of manipulation. Fred, who I thought would balk at the length and volume of the music if he was even able to stay in or near his blue plastic seat during the whole concert, was enthralled the entire time. He took photos and the videos you see here. He took more videos you don't see here. "I can see what all the fuss is about," he said. Or he said something like that--my ears were ringing rather loudly still at the time of the quoted material.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Inishmore, an Aran Island

A dry-stone wall in Inishmore
 I regret not taking the time to write more on-location in Ireland, and especially on Inishmore. (Important Irish writer John Millington Synge lived there and wrote about his observations in 1907, before the ferries and airplanes and throngs of tourists.) That was the place in Ireland I was most looking forward to, because of its legendary remoteness and unspoiled Irishness. On-site, I might have been able to capture the environment more precisely. The reality is that tourists ferry over from Galway in the morning. tour the island, buy sweaters and miscellany, eat, and leave before evening. Every day there is like a New Jersey shore summer in miniature: tourists in, chaos, tourists out. Substitute T-shirts for Aran sweaters and it's the same kind of thing. (Not that this is a bad thing...)

One of the Galway-Inishmore ferries
Western Ireland, Connemara and County Galway specifically, and the Aran Islands, have an interesting ecology. If not for people, the parts sticking up from the ocean and bay would be mainly bare rock. But over the centuries, people carried sand and seaweed from the shore and placed it by hand on the bare rock. This has actually made a fertile soil, but it takes hundreds of years. Also interesting about this place: fuschia, the same plant that my mother carried inside to protect in cold weather, fuschia grows outside in the ground all over the place in western Ireland.

Windswept Inishmore remoteness
There are probably some people who sign up for the Inishmore excursion thinking that they'll find ancient Irish civilization and culture untouched and intact on these remote Aran Islands. I can't speak for the other two islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, but on Inishmore frequent ferries and tourism have erased most of the remoteness. We heard the natives speaking their native Irish language (known elsewhere as Gaelic) to each other, but English to us. There is only one ATM on the island, and many of the shops do not accept credit cards, so there is a taste of ancient civilization, I guess.

The fort on the cliff: Dun Aengus
Most people board those ferries, I suspect, to see the island's wild scenery and ruins.

Check out those cliffs behind me! The wall behind me is part of Dun Aengus.
Foremost is Dun Aengus, a fort built on a cliff which dates back to around 1100 BC. At some point, probably around 700-800 AD, the fort was strengthened. Fortified.

Really tall dry-stone walls at Dun Aengus
What we saw this summer were the remains of a structure surrounded by three concentric half-circle, dry-stone walls, taller than those we saw throughout the Irish countryside. Don't climb on these walls: the stones are just placed on top of each other without benefit of mortar, concrete, rebar, or any other support. My guidebook says that the one kilometer walk from the visitors' center to the fort is "slightly strenuous." Indeed it was. I never felt that the walk was beyond me, but I did feel compelled to take extra care over the rough rocks that make up the last section of the hike. (Where is the nearest hospital? How would an ambulance get to me? A broken ankle would be embarrassing.) This is a place for sneakers or hiking boots, not for flip-flops or ballet flats. Luckily I was wearing my blue sneakers with the memory foam insoles. They were nice. I think I'll wear them tomorrow.

Looking back on the walk to Dun Aengus with Galway Bay in the background. The rocks in the foreground make for some tricky hiking. Yes, we walked from that building you can kind of see the roof of, but the van was parked even further out on the road.

We were transported to Dun Aengus by one of the many minivans...
that exist on the island to move tourists around. For ten or fifteen euros, we got a ride and narration to Dun Aengus, a few hours to spend there and at some quaint shops, and the a ride around to see more of the island's sites.

There are sweater shops all over the island, but they also sell postcards, books, and other souvenirs. In a few minutes, those picnic tables would be crowded with thirsty tourists.
Another way to tour Inishmore!

We saw The Seven Churches which is actually remains of two old churches, ruins of some fifteenth-century monastic houses, and some old gravestones.

The Seven Churches site
There's a seal colony down the road, but some overly-seal-friendly tourists ruined our chances of seeing the seals by moving too close to the seals' beach territory. The seals went into the water and all we could discern from our van were possible seal heads bobbing in the water.

One of the two ruined churches at The Seven Churches
Back at our starting point, Kilronan, the only town on the island and location of the ferry pier, we enjoyed lunch and a little shopping. I bought a second Aran sweater (I needed a green one) at the touristy Aran Sweater Market even though I've been told that they're probably not actually made on the islands, or even the larger island of Ireland, and they're not made from wool of resident Irish sheep. (They sell yarn, too.)

LOTS of sweaters and free shipping for 100+ euro purchases
 If I look into my crystal ball, I'm reasonably sure I see another trip to Inishmore or one of the other Arans, but with a brief stay at an inn so that I can see the place without mobs of tourists. I'd like to experience some of that remoteness and some of that extreme Galway Bay weather I've heard about.

Rent a bike or take a minivan tour of the island.
 If I can get my cycling legs back, it would be charming to tour the island on a rented bike as our friend did the day before our day trip. My crystal ball shows nothing about a third Aran sweater, though.

Bonus Aran Island shots: