“I’m going to be an adult!” my granddaughter shouted when we called to wish them a happy new year on New Year’s morning last week. “Yes, I know” I said, thinking she meant years and years from now. Then realizing that her exclamation carried a certain urgency about it, I blurted “When?! What do you mean?” “I mean this decade, the one we just started – I’m going to be an adult in this decade, and so is Luke.” Wait – she is nine and a half years old and her brother is eleven and a half. Surely their adulthood is eons away – right? But no, the age of majority varies by state in the United States and indeed for most of them, including Illinois where we live, the age is 18. That means in eight and a half short years for her and six and a half really short years for our grandson, they will be able to do all kinds of things that portend adulthood.
That can’t be, can it? What happened to the little boy and little girl who slept over at our house and ran into our bedroom, jumped onto our king sized bed to let us know it was time to get up. “What are we going to do today, Nana?” That was just a minute ago!
But they’re both at that age now when they are starting to blossom out in various ways – testing those wings. For him, friends, sleepovers, playing basketball and soccer, thinking of high school just a few years away. For her, it’s friends, sleepovers, ballet recitals and basketball. It’s with pride, laughter and fun, and a certain amount of bittersweet, that I watch this change: their exuberance (and ours) over what is to come, marveling at what they already know, wonder at who they will be, as we did with their father those years ago. We, and they, watch as they are hovering between being little kids and soon enough charging into teen age, and then grown up life still thankfully some precious years away. But there’s no getting around it, we, and they, are definitely heading onto the doorstep of being ‘tweens.
Wishing you all a very happy new year filled with the awe and joy of what’s next. Enjoy every fabulous minute with those you love!
Christmas Eve is once again here. I’ve documented how much I love everything about the holidays! Throughout my life good things have happened to me in the month of December. My son kicked off the month years ago by being born in December. There are the Slovak Christmas Eves of my childhood where for 20 years of my life we spent this evening at my maternal grandmother’s house. There was the magical Christmas Eve when we were surprised with the amazing news that we were to be grandparents for the first time! There was the beautiful Christmas two years later when we were told we were going to be grandparents again! In fact I wrote about some of our Christmas Eves a few years ago in a blog posting called, appropriately enough, “Christmas Eve.” https://revelinginretirement.com/2016/12/22/christmas-eve/
But the other night, my husband and I watched for the umpteenth time, the movie The Green Book, a biographical comedy-drama that won numerous awards this year. I loved the whole story but I particularly loved the character played by Viggo Mortensen, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York nighclub bouncer who takes a job as a driver for a black classical pianist, driving through the segregated South in 1962. This is a story based in truth about the friendship that is forged between these two men from very different backgrounds and experiences. But apropos of this blog post is the very last scene of the movie which captures the Italian Christmas Eve where the pianist joins the Italian family at their boisterous dinner that brought back for me all the memories of Uncle Tony’s Christmas.
Tony was not my uncle in a blood relative sense. He was the brother of my mother-in-law’s second husband. But he and his wife, Rose, were steeped in the Italian love of family and food, love of laughter and people in general and the celebrations with which I grew up. Tony and Rose were warm, fun loving people and we first met them when they were in their 60’s, soon after my mother-in-law married his brother. And that was good enough for Tony and Rose – my husband, son and I were family from then on.
Tony and his wife, Rose, were just simply wonderful people. The fact that they went out dancing every Saturday night into their eighties, tells you all you need to know about Tony and Rose. Tony was the oldest brother in a family of seven siblings and he and Rose hosted Christmas Eve every year and they loved it. I call this post “Uncle Tony’s Christmas” knowing full well that Rose was the driving force behind all the work that it took to put the dinner together. Their home in a working class town in far western New Jersey, on the Delaware River, is what back East we call a “half-double” – referred to as a duplex in the Midwest. It was a smallish house set up shotgun style where you walk in on the first floor and are immediately in the front room, adjoining a sitting room that morphed into a dining room when needed, followed by the kitchen in the back. In the front room and the dining room, various tables were set up and the kitchen table was set as well to accommodate the 30 or so people who would come to this narrow house for Christmas Eve dinner.
In this house, no one was ever a stranger. Everyone was invited to sit down to their table whether for an impromptu cup of coffee and cake or for the annual Christmas Eve feast.
For many Italians, the tradition is that meat is not eaten before midnight on Christmas Eve and the dinner is comprised of seven fishes – usually some variation of calamari, octopus, cod (baccala), shrimp, possibly a flounder or haddock, scallops, eel, and then some form of delicacy called stauka. I have grown up knowing Italian traditions but I had never heard of stauka before going to Tony and Rose’s home. Stauka (probably misspelled here!), I learned, is only eaten at Christmas and, like cod, is soaked for days prior to Christmas Eve to help remove the salt from the fish before frying. In the soaking process, it looks and feels like beef jerky. In the cooking, it takes on a sour, fishy odor that permeates the house. I call it an odor because calling it an “aroma” would be too kind. Stauka , it is thought, is actually a form of whiting or smelt. Unlike baccala, there is no red sauce to downplay the salt or the pungency of the fish. As you walk into the house, the smell of the stauka almost takes your breath away and makes your eyes water.
Christmas at Tony and Rose’s home was raucous and fun. Laughter could be heard from room to room. And it wasn’t unusual that a conversation that started in the front room would be yelled for a response from the kitchen at the back of the house. In the dining room, the four brothers – Nick, Sam, Tony and Joe – invariably reminisced about what things cost when they were children and what they currently cost. Tony in his usual exuberant way actually took off his shoe, pounded it onto the dining table between the manicotti and the stauka and said, “Hey Joe, what do you think I paid for this shoe.” The shoe stayed there until they finish the discussion and resolved the cost, maybe 15 minutes later. The rest of us just continued eating and ignored the shoe. My son, twelve years old at the time, eyes widened, looked at me and smiled across the table, stifling a laugh. I also smiled but passed him a look that said, “Just keep on eating.”
Now 38 years later, Christmas Eve is still the big family dinner for us. I have shrimp or calamari to begin the meal but cheat on the rest of the seven individual fishes by making a cioppino in which I use the six other fishes, and call it a day. Sometimes my mother-in-law and I make a dish of baccala for the small group of us who like the tradition, if not really the taste, of it. But the stauka is not represented at my table. There is also no shoe on the table but invariably my son will say at some point in the meal – “Hey, Joe, what do you think I paid for this shoe.”
I love and appreciate the elegance of a beautiful table setting for this lovely, peaceful, holy evening. But, really, in that staid setting, I wonder if one remembers for long what was served or what the table looked like. But 38 years later we remember the sensory overload, the fun, the no-holds-barred decibel level, and the warmth that was Tony and Rose’s Christmas.
Wishing everyone reading this a very Merry Christmas! Be joyous, enjoy each other and every moment and laugh like you mean it!
Our Christmas tree is decorated. Our main tree is a live tree bought in record time. My husband and I have devised a sort of game of picking out our tree each year. It is a decidedly unsentimental approach. We realized a number of years ago that we have an uncanny ability to choose just the right tree in virtually minutes. We don’t agonize; we don’t obsess. If it looks right, that’s it and we live with the results. This year I think it took a whole five minutes to declare the winner out of a field of hundreds and hundreds of trees. Some will find this process blasphemous but it never fails to make us giggle. Only once can I remember a tree bought using this methodology that did not live up to our exacting standards. Dear reader, if you have been following my blog for a few years you may recall the tree with a crooked trunk that fell over in our family room destroying some of my ornaments https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/12/17/christmas-tree-oh-christmas-tree/
Beyond the tree itself, which is a beauty, our ornaments are the stars of the show. Ornaments are still one of my favorite gifts to get or give. Look at this beauty from Poland gifted to me by a friend.
Our trees have gone from my quasi-country period about forty years ago when our tree was decorated by 100-plus red and white gingham bows. Sadly, any pictures I might have taken of the trees in that era are long since gone.
Throughout the years, my tree decorations have been either multicolored, or they’ve been one color. There was my Christopher Radko period using ornaments that I still love, still use and that never fail to make me smile.
About ten years ago, I decided that a more sophisticated look might be to use ample greenery throughout the house and use only white, gold and silver in my ornamentation scheme. Then more recently, I augmented that look with pearl and glass garland. Even more recently bouquets of chrystal branches have been poked within the real branches of the tree – sort of my version of hair extensions to fill in places where a hurriedly-selected tree was not as full as I may have liked it. But in the last five years, I realized that not all of my beloved ornaments fit that subdued color pallate and I’ve started to add a bit more color.
Christmas is a time when I get very reflective of the year gone by and the one to come. Over the years, we’ve collected ornaments from our various travels as well as those gifted to us by friends and relatives. The best ones for me represent the love of family and friends or a special place visited. Thus it is when I unbox and decorate the tree, I think about each of the ornaments and the people and places that capture a special place in our lives. Think of the loved ones now gone with whom I had a special, fun relationship – my father in law who teased me mercilessly about a real bird house brought into the house during my overly-rustic period. His response at Christmas that year was to buy me a porcelain bird house to hang on our tree.
Italian “confetti” distributed at a 50th anniversary party in Italy sent to us by my husband’s aunt and uncle, that became an ornament that year and has been hung ever since. This lovely anniversary “favor” below has a prominent place annually on our tree.
There are family pictures – of our son and daughter-in-law, of our grandkids – made into ornaments.
Ornaments that commemorate such destinations as Copenhagen, Slovenia, Bald Head Island, Santa Fe, London, Mount Vernon and the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama (bought at the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.).
My husband’s favorite ornament is one just bought in the regular scheme of things quite a number of years ago. He says it reminds him of a Faberge egg. No sentiment attached for him! He just likes it – and that’s OK.
A friend just posted on Facebook: The best things in life are the people you love, the places you’ve seen, and the memories you’ve made along the way. Revisiting memories through our ornaments on our tree really kick starts the meaning of Christmas for me! I hope your ornamentation, however you choose to do it, bring you much joy and happiness this season.
There’s a certain level of comfort that comes from vacationing at the same place numerous times. Lecce in the Puglia region of southern Italy or, to a lesser extent, Rome come to mind when I think of that. How familiar they’ve become, so many parts of the city we already know and yet there are so many places yet unexplored for one reason or another. Our familiarity with Lecce brings a sense of ease wrought only by being in a place where we have developed a certain history of our own and have locals to guide us.
At the end of our trip through the Battlefields of World War I this summer https://revelinginretirement.com/2019/08/28/our-stay-on-the-western-front/, our son, daughter in law and grandkids traveled on to England while my husband and I left for Lecce in Italy where my mother in law was visiting her family. Our short trip to Italy this year was a last minute add-on so that we could escort my mother in law back to Chicago.
Lecce https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/08/08/lecce-and-la-sicilia/ is the principal city in Salento. Salento, a designation that I’ve only heard being used for about the past ten years or so, comprises numerous towns, villages and cities. Salento is a geographic region at the southern end of the province of Puglia, or the “heel of the boot,” a sub-peninsula of the Italian Peninsula. In Salento, arrid land is covered in wild flowers and thousand-year-old olive groves, unique architecture, surrounded by picture postcard beaches and the turquoise waters of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Since 1980, we’ve been to Lecce at least eight times. It’s my mother in law’s home town, the place she met her husband during World War II, the place where she got married and the place she left while still in her teens. https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/02/10/90-candles/ Her large family – her two sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and their families – still live in the area. When we go there, we have the benefit of being with these relatives who are all native Leccese. From them we know about the best places to shop, to eat (when not eating at their homes), what concert is being held in the ancient amphitheater in the center of town. But there’s no mistake about it, the primary reason we are in Lecce has always been to be with the family so any deep exploration of the region has been sporadic and only done when it was something we could fit in.
This year we found pockets of time in our ten-day stay to get a taste of what we have yet to see throughout Salento. My husband and I took the opportunity to venture around a bit. Our time was so limited or maybe our planning so poor that we sometimes felt like the Clark Griswold family at the rim of the Grand Canyon: taking in the site for about 5 seconds, our heads bobbing appreciatively (“Uh-huh, Uh-huh”) and then leaving! So I can only characterize the nature of our travels during this trip as providing the basis for research for our next stay in the area.
Such was the case with our trip to Alberobello to see the Trulli houses that we’d read and heard so much about. The 1500 or so Trulli beehive-shaped homes made of local limestone can date back as far as the 14th Century. One story I heard as to why they are built the way they are is so that the homes could be easily dismantled centuries ago when the local financial police would canvass the area, searching for people who had not paid their taxes. I have no idea whether that story is true but it survives to this day. As we drove the hour or so distance from Lecce, I thought we would have a pleasant day meandering through the hills, have lunch, some wine, take in the scenery. That was not to be, unfortunately, because we went on a major holiday called Ferragosto, in the middle of August, the major tourist month, when everyone is off of work and families are enjoying beachtime. We started out at 9 a.m. – too late to get a parking space anywhere in the town. So we drove around as best we could through the narrow streets to see what we could see. I got the impression that the town was lovely but a bit overcommercialized. Still, it would have been interesting to see what the inside of a trullo looks like – and maybe find out the true story behind the legend. Next time.
The beach we normally go to near Lecce is San Cataldo on the Adriatic Sea coast. It’s characterized by some as not the most beautiful beach in Salento but I think it’s pretty enough and it’s ideal for our grandkids when they are with us because the sea depth increases gradually making it perfect for the kids to be in the water safely.
One amazing discovery this year is that the sea of San Cataldo hides the remains of Port Hadrian. The original structure dates back to the second century B.C. and is now almost completely underwater. The emperor Hadrian apparently ordered the reconstruction of the small port already existing in previous times where Octavian had landed a few decades before, following the death of Julius Caesar. I’m always astonished when I write things like that – the antiquities here are incredible. The port had apparently been neglected and was recovered during the Fascist era. You can see remnants like this throughout Salento.
The downside of San Cataldo is that it can be very windy. But on this trip I learned a little something about how to read the wind and then determine which beaches might be best to enjoy on any given day. For example, with a southerly or south-easterly wind the sea in San Cataldo will be calm. With a northerly wind, the sea will become extremely rough and lying on the beach becomes a virtual sand blast. If the winds are coming from the north in San Cataldo, a better choice for beach time that day might be on the beaches of Gallipoli where the sea is likely be calmer.
The peninsula of Salento has over 50 beaches to enjoy. In other trips we went to the towns of Otranto and Gallipoli, where we walked the streets and back alleys but never swam their beautiful shores.
I had also been told about the beaches and vistas at Santa Cesarea Terme, on Salento’s eastern coast, about an hour and a half drive south of Lecce. This year we had the time to go. The beauty of the drive down was spectacular. It was August but, like our trip to Alberobello, it was the middle of the week so we thought we might be able to beat the crowds. What we found in this case was that it was still bit crowded but manageable. The deep blue sea jutted out from rocky coves. Unlike San Cataldo, the water was deep even close to the shore. But it was literally a picture perfect location. My one problem was navigating the rocks down to the sea, frankly because I had on the wrong shoes. Again, poor planning or just not knowing what to expect. I should have had my water shoes, instead I had on flip flops, the soles of which were too slippery to climb rocks.
On other days during our stay, we took a guided tour, along with some cousins, of the ancient walls of the city of Lecce. We considered ourselves pretty familiar with the old churches and cathedrals in town, but on another day, we decided to have a knowledgeable guide take us on a walking tour around town and inside some of the major baroque churches. Time well spent.
We have always said that you don’t get to Lecce by chance. It’s far enough from the major tourist areas of Italy that it takes deliberate effort to get there. We knew that certain celebrities from Spain, Germany and Britain have long known about southern Italy, including Lecce. But significant on this trip were the number of English speaking people we met all around Lecce – Canadians, Americans, English-speaking Europeans. Lecce had generally been undiscovered for most of the 40 years we’ve been going there. Now Lecce, and Puglia and Salento in general, are being written up in magazines, newspapers and apparently on ads on European TV as a new kind of paradise. The owners of the guest house in which we stayed told us that normally Lecce has about 100,000 residents, but during summer months, especially July and August, that figure increases to about 400,000. In many ways wonderful for the local economy but, selfishly, our well-kept secret is a secret no more! Seriously, southern Italy is worth going – it’s still a pretty untapped jewel!
Memories are made of small moments and large ones. A favorite memory of my childhood is the trip I took with my grandmother and cousin to Chicago to visit my aunt. There are so many parts of that trip that I remember in detail to this day. Along with the memories is another little side note that little did I know that I would eventually live most of my life, not in the Pennsylvania of my childhood but in one of the very Chicago suburbs that I visited all those years ago. So when we had grandchildren I wanted to be sure that we would have similar times shared with them – new adventures, new and different places, new things to learn. And, happily, we have been fortunate to be able to travel with them many times since they were born. This year’s trip, however, was an experiment in holding their attention for six days about a pretty serious topic – the beaches of Normandy and then five days spent visiting the battlefields of World War I.
We had experience planning a similar type of vacation a few years ago. Since my son and my husband are also both avid runners, two years ago for my husband’s 70th birthday, my son came up with the idea of going to the PreFontaine Classic, held annually in Eugene, Oregon. It is one of the premier track and field meets in the United States. Initially my daughter in law, our grandkids and I were going to join them. As the planning took shape, however, we realized that this was going to be a relatively short trip over Memorial Day weekend that year with running events happening back to back. The kids had limited interest in track and field at that point, and we were going to be together later that summer visiting family in Italy, so we thought it might be best for my husband and son to take that 4-day trip without us. And it seemed to work out very well.
As we proceeded with planning this year’s trip, the thought again occurred to us that trudging through fields and landmarks of events that they had not yet studied in school might not capture the interests of our grandkids, ages 9 and 11. We took note that their studies of the American Revolution had sparked an interest so there was the hope that introducing them to the events surrounding the First World War might leave them with memorable impressions about what they were seeing but also about history in general. For kids whose vacations usually involve swimming, skiing, or hiking, this one, most assuredly, was going to be another type of vacation. And unlike the trip two years ago, this one was going to be their summer vacation. Maybe more importantly, we really wanted them to be part of their dad’s milestone birthday celebration trip.
We proceeded to research things other than the battlefields throughout the trip that we thought would engage them. We went through books, plowed through Google and also asked our guide, who is very familiar with the area, to recommend some entertaining spots for kids. Also being a retired teacher, he had a good sense of how to engage and hold a child’s attention, but also knowing when the subject matter would be too serious, too vivid, or too in-depth, for them to participate. We knew that we could be flexible in that my husband and son and our guide could go out on their own on certain days and my daughter in law and I could be with the children and entertain them with sites in whatever town we were along the way. For example, the first day out during the World War I part in the city of Arras, my daughter in law and I stayed back in the town with the kids as the men went on to the Somme area. We arrived on a Friday evening in the charming city of Arras with its Flemish building facades, and settled in to enjoy the large town square, called the Place des Heros.
The kids had ample room to run around, then enjoyed the bocci court that had been set up in the center of the square. The next morning, Saturday, the square had been transformed from a plaza with wide open spaces to a very large, active French market, jammed with stalls, selling everything, including toys, gadgets, clothes, French food delicacies, flowers and live roosters and chickens. My daughter in law and I and the kids took total advantage of sifting through all they had to offer.
We followed up the market with a tour of the majestic town hall, originally built in 1502, exploring the labyrinthine network of quarry tunnels used by soldiers during World War I, and then we soared up many stories to a spiral staircase to the Gothic bell tower which offered an expansive view of the entire city! The trip up the narrow, curved staircase was an adventure in itself since as we were going up, other people were coming down! In between taking in the tunnels and going up to the bell tower, there happened to be a beautiful bride on her father’s arm going up a long staircase in the town hall to an area on the second floor where presumably her groom waited. My granddaughter was excited to see the bride with her beautiful gown! The one disappointment in Arras was not being able to find any gelato (or even an ice cream shop) after dinner, which is always an end-of-evening staple for my husband and the grandkids!
Upon leaving Arras, the next day we went on to the Flanders and Ypres area in Belgium, memorialized in the John McCrae poem, Flanders Field. Here, the children, my daughter in law and I stayed with the tour during the morning where we walked through battlefields, saw the remnants of 100 year old artillery, had lunch (along with my husband and son and our guide) in a lovely outdoor cafe and then went on to an amusement park while the guys went on to the battlefields around Ypres.
I didn’t know what to expect when the park was recommended by our guide – maybe a sliding board and some swings? No, what we found was a full scale, pretty amazing amusement venue with a giant roller coaster and other major rides. The only thing I would have changed is that I think we should have gone to the amusement park earlier because we didn’t have enough time to see and do everything.
Next was Chateau Thierry in the Valley of the Marne. There were woods and craters that the kids could wander through. But, since this area was part of the Champagne region, we also planned for a side visit to the Pannier champagne vineyard. This was undoubtedly the kids first visit to a vineyard! They listened to the short introduction of the hostess, the film shown to us about the process of bringing the grapes to the bottle, the walk through the cellars and, my granddaughter brought the glass up to her lips, took a sniff, and, thankfully, at this tender age, she was not a fan of the bubbly!
Next, we went on to our final destination, Verdun, whose history goes back about 30 centuries. A quaint city, 85% of it was destroyed during the war, and subsequently rebuilt. While the guys went on to the battlefields, we wandered the historic heart of Verdun, climbed to the top of the monument dedicated to victory and to the citizens of Verdun and visited an art museum dating back many centuries. But, frankly, by this time, the kids were pretty tapped out so we found a cafe and had a nice, leisurely lunch.
What did they like or not like about our trip? My granddaughter told me that she liked seeing the tapestry in Bayeux while in Normandy and also the many craters we saw.
They seemed horrified and fascinated by the Ossuary at Douaumont. My grandson loved the giant roller coaster in the amusment park we went to; my granddaughter, not so much.
I feel so blessed to be able to travel to the places we’ve seen around the world and, now to share some of those experiences with our grandkids. For anyone reading this who may be planning a trip like this with their kids or grandkids, I don’t want to leave the impression that they were always fascinated and mesmerized. There were undoubtedly times, maybe many times, when they were bored since this was a long and mostly serious trip. But following this part of their vacation, my son and daughter-in-law went off on their own for a couple of days in Paris, where the kids got to enjoy some sweets at Angelina’s, then it was on to London, via a trip on the Chunnel, for a few days before returning to Chicago.
I believe there is no amount of reading or classroom study that can compare with actually seeing a place, talking with the local people, learning about their culture and how they do things, first hand and in person. Even before they had kids, inveterate travelers themselves, my son and daughter-in-law always said that when they had kids, they wanted to show them the world. I hope our grandkids enjoyed the lighter parts of this trip, but maybe more importantly, that in coming years when they do study these historic places and events in school, or even when someone mentions something that we saw – a town, a monument – that they will remember interesting facts about it and that they were there. I don’t know how many times my granddaughter had been watching something on TV where they show something familiar from one of their trips and she’ll say, “We saw that!”
And you will think that this is just too coincidental for it to be real but trust me this just happened! As I’m writing this, my grandson is watching a rerun of The Simpsons. Its an episode where Grandpa Simpson is imparting his wisdom to the family and he says something along the lines of “And let me tell you something about D-Day, the troops were landing on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, Juno Beach………” To which my granddaughter eyes bulged and she exclaimed to me, “We know this!”
As for my son, I asked him if this trip fulfilled what he had been hoping to see and learn, he responded with an enthusiastic “Absolutely!” In fact, he is now listening over the course of many days to a 15-hour podcast about World War I.
Happy and safe travels, everyone! Until next time….
Before we arrived at the First World War battlefields, our trip actually started with a stay in Normandy, where on its beaches during World War II the greatest amphibious landing in history took place on June 6, 1944. My husband and I had gone to Normandy for five days twelve years ago for his 60th birthday. On that trip, one of our most memorable, we stayed at the Chateau du Sully, situated between Bayeux and the D-Day landing beaches. We had not hired a guide 12 years ago, just visited the various beaches and sites on our own: Honfleur, Utah and Omaha Beaches, Aramanches, Pointe du Hoc where the troops struggled to make their way up the iconic cliffs and sealed their place in history, the American cemetery and its museum, the Roosevelt Cafe on Utah Beach and its radio room used by the GI’s as a communications bunker (all their equipment is still there as it was), and, then took an unrelated side trip to see the Bayeux tapestry.
Since our son and daughter in law had not yet been there, Normandy was added to the itinerary of this current trip, an easy drive from our arrival point in Paris. Easy, that is, except for the fact that their flight was cancelled in Chicago and they had to wait until the next day to catch another flight to France. We had our Normandy guide set up for the second day of our stay. Unfortunately, our son and his family missed that day. We took the tour with the guide because we could not reschedule for the following day. My husband has studied quite a bit about the Allied Landing and the invasion. In addition to his knowledge, my husband also took copious notes when we were with the guide which he could then impart to our son and his family.
The valor, tragedy and drama of D-Day have been well documented in classrooms, on film, in books. The challenge: The Allied troops were charged to pry Western Europe from Hitler’s grip and free the occupied nations. The troops had a clear mission and were committed to seeing it through. Even today, when one says that a relative landed on the beaches at Normandy, it evokes an immediate sense of courage, reverence and honor for that individual and the event in which he had participated. The people of France and more specifically Normandy, living with the aftermath, the sites, and among the remnants of that fateful time, remain aware of the magnitude of what occurred. Twelve years ago when we visited, we heard the story of an old man who was a boy in Bayeux during that war, encountering a visiting American. The old man handed the visitor a brochure about the site they were about to see. The American thanked the old man for the brochure. But the old man said, “No, thank YOU!” to the visitor who represented the Allied forces that ensured his country would be liberated from tyranny.
What struck me this time was the fact that Omaha Beach is now considered a recreational beach. I was somewhat taken aback by that. Would we make Gettysburg recreational? My mind scrolls back to the newsreels, the books I’ve read, the movies I’d seen about the horror of the invasion. It’s not hyberbole to see this as hallowed ground, that civilization was saved on these beaches. To me, it’s sacred. As I looked around, though, I became aware that if this is a recreational beach, it was a solemn recreation. No beach blankets or neon colored umbrellas dotted the landscape the day we visited. Small numbers of people quietly walked the beaches, or stared out at the surf, possibly envisioning the terrified boys scrambling out of their landing craft to face the enemy, their crossfire and, very possibly, death 75 years ago. I was reminded by my family that time moves on, and it is a beach after all, and that it was probably OK, possibly even part of what the troops fought for, that kids fly kites here, that maybe families swim here.
I was overcome the first time I saw the massive panoramic view of the white crosses and Stars of David blanketing that hallowed ground in the American Cemetery.
This current visit was no different. The scars on the earth from the artillery are still visible. Since this year is the 75th anniversary of the beach landings which essentially ended in Germany’s defeat and foreshadowed the ultimate end of World War II, it was still gratifying that the French people recognized and honored America and its allies for ending the German occupation. Throughout this stay in the Normandy area, we saw the American flag being flown alongside the French flag. We saw store and restaurant windows decorated with messages of thanks. It was heartwarming to see that the enormous sacrifice of “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” and the solemnity and significance of what happened there had not been forgotten.
In addition to the beaches, we had gone to Bayeux on that first trip to see the Tapestry but didn’t spend any time roaming the town itself. This time, Bayeux was our first stop and our base for our visit to the Norman coast. We stayed for three days. Bayeux was the first town liberated after D-Day. As we explored the town in our brief time there, my daughter in law and I were both enchanted. She characterized it as simply one of the most charming towns we saw on the entire trip. Yes, some stores down certain streets are dedicated to selling kitschy souvenirs and tee shirts. They also sold sweatshirts (of course emblazoned with “Bayeux” on the front) which were a blessing to me since, although there had been an unprecedented heat wave in Paris, it was pretty chilly by the time we got to Northern France at the end of July and early August.
In Bayeux, the incredible Bayeux Tapestry was a must see again for my husband and me, and a first time visit for our son and his family. The Tapestry, measuring twenty inches high and almost 230 feet in length, depicts through meticulously embroidered linen the struggle for the throne of England between William, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, the Earl of Wessex in 1066. The details down to the tiniest facial expressions captured by the artisans a thousand years ago are truly something to be seen.
Our Normandy guide asked us if we had seen the cathedral, called The Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux. We said that yes, our hotel was just down the street from the cathedral. “And you saw the light show?” he asked. “I think we did; we saw the church lit up at night,” I responded. “But did you go into the courtyard for the actual light show on the trunk of the tree?” No, we had not seen that.
So that evening, we first took in a Vivaldi concert inside the cathedral. Following the concert, we joined an ever increasing crowd in the courtyard outside the church. What we found was an enormous tree, called The Tree of Liberty, whose branches extend over the entire large courtyard. It was planted over 220 years ago during the French Revolution.
When it was sufficiently dark, the show began. There, on the trunk of the tree were moving lights, symbols, music and dialogue sequences depicting various aspects of freedom.
Such disparate events as the Allied Landing, the liberation of women, the French Revolution, the visage and quotes of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama and a montage of the 1967 Summer of Love shown against the backdrop of the anthem of the time: “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” The show was so enthralling and seamless that we and everyone else who was there stood for the better part of an hour and a half, rarely taking our eyes off the massive tree trunk. It was beautiful, thrilling, emotional, all in all spectacular! And so unexpected!
Twelve years ago when we went to Normandy I came back with the impression that the French countryside looked exactly as I expected it to look. Stone walls, lovely little cottages with flowered window boxes, large agricultural fields, growing produce and housing cattle of various kinds.
I had guessed to our guide this trip that tourism was the paramount industry in this part of France. He said actually both agriculture and tourism were primary. And as you see the productive fields, the prevalence of agriculture becomes apparent as you drive around on the narrow roadways. A stroll around Bayeux also showed us a perfect tableau of French breads, people casually munching their baguettes, and a gorgeous, gigantic rainbow.
All in all, Bayeux was a lovely surprise to us, a respite from the reminders of war.
Last November, our country and the world observed the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. World War I – the war that probably should not have happened, the war whose aftermath reassigned European borders, eliminated centuries-old monarchies, established the United States as a world power and led an embittered German corporal to launch a campaign that would lead to him being the chancellor of Germany, and all the horror that evolved from that.
Last December, we celebrated our son’s fiftieth birthday. My husband and son have been avid readers of history for a very long time. We had a party on the weekend of his birthday but we felt that this birthday called for more of a marking, something more special. In our house, wars and military history had been a source of fascination for a very long time. Being history buffs, the one thing that my son and husband had talked about over the years was a trip to the sites of the World War I battles. So with the convergence of these two milestones -the armistice and our son’s birthday – the idea of traveling to the sites of the First World War emerged and soon the planning was underway.
For us as a family, including our grandkids (this, not the first venue one necessarily thinks of when vacationing with a nine and eleven year old – more about this in a later blog), this was not going to be an average vacation. It wasn’t going to mean just setting an itinerary, buying a plane ticket, taking some guided tours and ooh-ing and aah-ing over things that we saw. This was going to be an epic, emotional journey. I’m an avid reader of many things but I’m not much of a student of military history. If I’m going to read about a war, I would rather that it be the letters, shared with me by a friend, between a son and his mother written from the Front in 1917. This humanizes the story for me. Very aware of the gap in my subject matter knowledge, if we were going to hire a credible guide, I knew I was going to need to turn myself into a credible participant. This adventure we were going to embark upon required homework, reading up and trying to become familiar about this complex topic. I knew in broad brush strokes that this was a war for which there does not seem to be much concensus about why it was fought, but ultimately it was responsible for an unthinkable number of deaths. In addition, the ramifications of that war and its aftermath were the underpinnings of the the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. The United States was a latecomer to World War I, having joined its allies in April 1917, but was essential to ending it and indeed, this war seems to have solidified the United States’ place in the world. More than 2 million U.S. soldiers fought in the battlefields, under Major General John Pershing’s command.
Our planning for this trip continued for about six months. We hired our guide to be with us for the five days that we would be moving from place to place along the way.
This is not an essay to explain the reasons for this war, nor to introduce the time and thinking leading up to it. For that I’ll refer you to books on the subject such as “Guns of August” (1962) by Barbara Tuchman and “The First World War” by John Keegan. A wonderful remembrance article in the Smithsonian (October 2018) elicited the following observations about how the war came about: John Keegan in his aforementioned book called the war “a tragic, unnecessary conflict.” Some described the war as one of “defense and self protection” given that Germany was threatening to overtake France. Philosopher Bertrand Russell apparently commented that “Anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety percent of the population.” Trotsky apparently remarked that “for people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness, the alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise.” Boredom, was that the cause? Others cite diplomatic incompetence, hubris, or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Some lay the cause in the lap of Kaiser Wilhelm with his “insecurites and military fetish.” Twelve years after the war ended, British military historian Liddell Hart made the case against the Kaiser bluntly, “By the distrust and alarm which his bellicose utterances and attitude created everywhere, he filled Europe with gunpowder.” All of these perspectives are still matters of debate today.
We hired a wonderful well-versed, very flexible guide who stayed with us for the five days of our journey. By training, he had been a math teacher in England, but spent much of his time becoming a military historian and author, specifically regarding World War I. He was extremely well-informed not only about names, dates and places, but background and idiosyncratic vignettes that happened during the course of the war. In the five days, our Itinerary included France starting with Arras and the Pas-de-Calais, the Somme Valley, the Marne Valley; West Flanders and Ypres in Belgium; back in France, we visited Douaumont, Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry, and finally, Verdun and Argonne Meuse (which my son characterized as the most “raw” of all the sites), all areas where the most important fighting took place. This sounds like covering a lot of ground and we did, but it was very manageable, moving from place to place. We actually stayed in only 2 different hotels along this part of the trip and drove between the sites on a day to day basis. Again, here is where our guide was invaluable since he set the daily itinerary to make sure we made the best use of our time and he knew the roads so there was no backtracking due to getting lost.
As we proceeded along the Front, I was taken with the beauty of the countrysides along the way, the sloping hills, tranquil rivers and villages. All is now indeed quiet on the Western Front. We visited on beautiful, peaceful days, looking at the very places that endured such mayhem, chaos and tragedy 100 years ago. Belleau Wood is now a serene meadow with its 100-year old trees. When we visited, birds were singing overhead.
The Somme Valley, now idyllic, is also the site of the bloodiest battle of the Western Front. In fact the Battle of the Somme which began on July 1, 1916 (The Battle of Albert) is characterized as the darkest day in the history of the British Army. Nearly 60,000 men would become casualties by sunset that day. And indeed at the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme, listed are the names of 72,104 British and South African men killed there who have no known grave. All in all, there were 620,000 British and French casualties at the Somme, with another 600,000 killed or wounded Germans .
In 1914, some of the first clashs between the Germans and the British happened around the town of Ypres, in Belgian Flanders, which would remain a battlefield for the rest of the war. We toured the battlefield of Passchendaele where another 70,000 British soldiers were killed and 170,000 wounded. These are staggering numbers. In the center of Ypres, on a Sunday evening we observed the Last Post military ceremony at the Menin Gate, which every evening at 8 p.m. honors the British soldiers who died in and around Ypres with a very moving bugle call.
In Douaumont, a magnificent edifice, the Ossuary in Douaumont, holds the skeletal remains of 130,000 soldiers killed during the Battle of Verdun and who could not be identified. Walking around the outside, you can see at ground level, windows showing the bones of the dead. You see the sheer volume of those who could not be identified.
Why were there so many unknowns in this war? One explanation could be that early in the war, the soldiers wore metal dog tags, but it was found that, if injured, the metal tags often tore up soldiers’ chests, creating another wound with which to deal. It was decided to change to cloth dog tags which of course disintegrated if the soldier was left for a time in the wet fields. Some, if they were identified at all, were identified through their battalion insignias on their headgear or sleeves.
Arras (pronounced Ar-RAS) today is a charming city. Its center is a lovely large town square called the Place des Heros, encircled by Flemish facades, restaurants, shops. The Battle of Arras was originally intended to be a diversionary assault on a larger French offensive. But the battle grew in size and scope and essentially was involved for the full expanse of the war.
Again, the sheer number of graves we saw was incomprehensible. Also striking was the vast amount of crosses and Stars of David with no names. I can’t adequately describe to you the enormity of this – field after field of gravesites. It seemed around every corner, no matter our location along the Front, there was a monument and a sea of graves.
More than 61,000 Canadians (Canadian War Museum) gave their lives during the First World War. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in Northern France is one of the most impressive we saw. It is dedicated to the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian soldiers who were killed there. Carved into the walls of the monument are the names of about 11,285 Canadians who died in France and whose final resting place was unknown. In addition there are 30 other war cemeteries within a 12 mile radius of this Canadian Memorial. It is said that even today if those fields were excavated, more bones would still be uncovered. But digging is not done because uncharged munitions would also be found.
I have to say that what also struck me about the various monuments we saw, was the magnificence and the sheer beauty of them. These were not afterthought monuments. They are majestic, breathtaking structures, showing the will and commitment of the country to honor the war dead that once the architect was chosen, the vast amount of money was found to build them to bring the monument to fruition.
When I could no longer stand it, grave after grave, in my frustration and naivete I asked, why when they knew that the war was so ill conceived didn’t the plug get pulled to stop the carnage, to end the war (sounds like Viet Nam 50 years later, doesn’t it?). It seemed it just strung along until finally, due largely to the food shortages caused by the Allied blockade, the failure of a Spring Offensive and the loss of its allies in mid to late 1918, Germany surrendered and the Armistice finally was signed on the 11th day of November, 1918 at the 11th hour.
What had I learned about the Great War? That it seems a war that had at best a tenuous mandate for occuring at all. That from 1914 to 1918, millions of men fought each other across a brutal 475-mile long “No Man’s Land” that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. In 1919, France, like many other European countries, suffered from the ravages of WWI. Many towns and villages were completely destroyed and devastated. Interestingly, a number of the monarchies who advocated for the war, sewed the seeds of their own demise. At the time of the Armistice, the reported number of dead varies but seems to be between 8.5 and 10 million military lay dead. No military historian am I, but having gone on this trip and having heard how this war came to be, how it unfolded, seeing the size of the craters from the bombings, the unspeakable misery of the trenches, the poison gases, and, most importantly, those acres and acres of cemeteries with the unimaginable loss of life, I cannot forget.