The France of Our Grandfathers

Omaha Beach. Dunkirk. Le Havre.

Place names that ring through history. Of fallen heroes, of legacies cut short, of dreams never realized, and lives miraculously extended.

To walk in these places now is to walk among the ghosts of the dead and in the footsteps of those who walked away unscathed.

How awful a place. Riding low on the low tide and praying to see the next day, or stranded on an open strand half-a-century ago. Watching the cloudy sky and hearing the drone of airplane props only after the bombs had already begun falling.

I wanted to see the France of our grandfathers. Those who fought and survived and never talked about it, even when we asked them, “What was the war like?” Those who volunteered for a tour in the Pacific even after they had already served their time in Europe.

It was’t easy for me, standing on the the indifferent dock in Dunkirk and looking to the sea, imagining the Luftwaffe strafing the beach because it was their job to kill those young men. Or to stand within the defensive bunkers of Normandy, looking out on endless waves of American warships, come to liberate what, in our minds, we had already liberated.

Or, running through the relentless surge of the English Channel, glancing up at the low cliffs of Normandy and imagining myself a young man charged with righteousness and retribution to fight and kill to save a country and a people I had never known.

This is the responsibility of world travel.

To channel those who have stood in these places before us. To absorb the millennia of countless experiences, looking out over these foreign shores and accept, if not fully understanding, them all. Politics and religion and personal loss be damned, we are a human race.

And these places are holy for us all.