Over the years the reputation of the United States in Europe has fluctuated, beginning from the origins of this nation as an independent democracy. Most notably in my lifetime, was first, the way the world rallied to our side after 9-11, and then later, how we systematically proceeded to again lose the respect of our European friends. Our country is standing on the threshold of falling off a cliff in the eyes of the world with the recent financial mismanagement that is occurring in our government and our leaders’ apparent inability to do what is required and put their personal agendas aside to compromise. Compromise is needed.
Anyway, I don’t want to be on a soapbox, I only mention it because, like me, you may be tired of hearing the doom and gloom about our country and world opinion (or at least AAA credit ratings). I want to share with you a European moment I experienced several years back.
In the summer of 2004, shortly after the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, I went on a WWII tour from London to Berlin (although we started in Berlin and went backwards) with my daughter and a group from her high school. The following is an excerpt I wrote for a communications class at the College of Mount St. Joseph in November of 2004 in which I shared my experience at the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery —
During our nearly two-week trip through Europe, the Beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery is where I found most of what I had, in my naiveté at the time, hoped to find in Europe. I had been fore-warned that sentiment for Americans in Europe was not what it had been, and that as American tourists it was prudent to leave anything that would identify us as such in America. But that negative characterization of Americans was simply not powerful enough to counteract the positive image I have grown up with of the American hero and sometimes savior. If there is anyplace one will find an American hero in Europe, it is in Normandy.
It was beautiful the day we visited Normandy. It was sunny and puffy white clouds dotted the sky. The wind that rustled through the trees felt cool on my skin and made everything seem fresh and clean. It caused the rows and bunches of red rose bushes planted around the American Cemetery to dance and sway gently.
A walkway leads from the parking area, between the precisely aligned rows of crosses and Stars of David and the memorial statue, to an overlook of the beach there. A serpentine stairs cuts a path down the hillside to the beach below. My young companions eagerly took to the stairs – but I stayed behind to walk among the graves.
That morning we had been to Omaha Beach where the Americans had landed on D-Day. I had stood on the sand that absorbed the blood from so many young men on that devastating but world-altering day sixty years ago. I had faced the hill where the soldiers met the formidable power of the Nazis, replaying scenes from “Saving Private Ryan” in my mind—although it’s all very different now, and peaceful.
I had been to the beach, but at this place, at this cemetery, I wanted to meet the men who had died there. So I began to wander alone among the rows of crosses and stars, reading the names of the young men who never lived long enough to realize what their courage and sacrifice bought for the rest of us. Many of the young men buried here may have been no older than my own sons were at the time. And I thought of all the telegrams that bore the worst of news, to their mothers back home. I was engulfed by a mood of reflective sorrow and gratitude.
And then a group of noisy school children arrived. At first I was a bit disgruntled that their chatter and childhood energy would ruin the reverence I was experiencing in this place. And then my curiosity was piqued as I noticed that they all held something in their hands. As this disordered group dispersed out among the graves I saw what they carried. The little French children each held a small bouquet of flowers to place on an American stranger’s grave in an American cemetery in France.
The children were the living presence of the sentiment that Jacques Chirac expressed in his speech delivered on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2004, when he said, “America honors its sons who died so young in the name of freedom. They are now our sons also” (1).
There is no question that the men buried there are honored, revered, and seen as American heroes, still, to this day. This is what I had hoped to see on a WWII tour, and this is what I found at Normandy.
Chirac, Jacques. “A Debt of Gratitude.” American Cemetery, Normandy. 6 June 2004.
Vital Speeches of the Day. 70.17 (2004): 520-521. Academic Search Premier 6
Oct. 2004 < http://libezp.msj.edu/login?url=http: //search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,uid&db=aph&an=13682448>.