I wish there was some way I could record the feeling of suspense and apprehension that hung in the air, filling our days and conversation once back in Angers, back to regular media access and surrounded by other politically motivated students. If there hadn’t been so much on the line, it would have been almost fun. Sort of how one can get way too absorbed in hoping their favorite contestant will win a reality TV show. There was a bit of excitement in deciphering the French newspaper each day and hunting for the article about the happenings at home.
The biased paper, I might add. It was a difficult process to vote “absentee” but so worth it. It was my first presidential election and a bit to my surprise I was filled with pride when the French asked me who I voted for and had a look of relief and satisfaction when I told them. As I mentioned previously, it was the second question I was directly asked by my host parents on day one only following an inquiry about my relationship status.
Each day closer to the election the tension rose. My fellow Americans and I were warned that if things didn’t go the way desired, to be prepared for a potential backlash from the French. Our host parents asked us each day “Are you nervous?” Meanwhile, I’d done what I could and occupied myself learning more about the French government and comparing it to my own. Facebook was blowing up with dramatic threats of action if things didn’t go the way people preferred and those were followed by grouchy posts about how everyone was posting about politics. And so the paradox continued while I, amused, mostly refrained from participation.
Being 9 hours ahead, the time of the announcement was rather inconvenient. Many stayed up and refreshed their internet browsers every hour, or set an alarm for approximately the right time to see results. I however crossed my fingers and went to bed. When I woke up I was greeted with a post on my Facebook wall from my best friend telling me I could contentedly and proudly return to the United States. I could come home. Not only that but I was able to hold my head high in my current country of residence, hosting what may have been one of the most relieved groups of people on the planet. It was a special feeling breaking the news to my host parents and international friends and watching their reactions was priceless. What’s more, in the paper that day there was the headline “Mariage pour tous” (marriage for all) as François Hollande, the president of France presented the bill that gay couples can get married and adopt children.
I am living through and witnessing positive progressive change and that’s a good feeling. I was slightly taken aback by the warmness that filled me that Wednesday and found that nothing could really bring me down. My smile wasn’t plastered on but those muscles did get tired.
To celebrate, my roommates and I enjoyed a bottle of champagne and the cookies provided by our host parents. We cheers-ed and chattered light heartedly as the anxiety of the previous few days melted away with the sweet white bubbles. By the end of the evening we’d sung the National Anthem (while our host dad hid around the corner to listen) and argued over the lyrics to America the Beautiful.
Dawn of the next day came with less tangible side effects of the news but our spirits still soared. I bought two newspapers whose covers hosted the face of our president as keepsakes and what would someday be fun historical evidence. That evening, I had the opportunity to speak on a local French radio station and be interviewed about the election. My classmate and I sat in the official studio wondering how in the world we’d not only get our thoughts together on such issues but express them in French. For most of the hour I let Maddie do the talking. As far as the topics covered we are more or less on the same page and her French is very good. I only chimed in to voice that I agreed or when there was a state specific question (because she comes from California). I’d like to take this opportunity to publically say, despite any insecurity, she did a very good job!
My world view is changing. I don’t think I’ll get used to opening Google Maps and having France be in the center of my screen instead of Oregon but my natural ethnocentric tendencies are subsiding more. I’m seeing better now than I have in any school class how my home country fits in the world. I’m witnessing its influence in other countries at the same time I’m seeing their own cultural pride still shining brighter. I’ve become more patriotic than ever before and at the same time more interested in learning about and experiencing other cultures than ever before. I suppose this is what “they” were saying would happen on a study abroad trip.
I missed almost all of the summer 2012 Olympic Games because I had limited access to a television, which made me a little sad. But then I remind myself that instead of watching other people interact internationally, I was in flesh and blood getting to sit around a table of at least 5 different nationalities discussing culture or discovering how these mysterious people that come from other places and backgrounds are just like me. We shared a love of dance and in our tights and leotards in the same class we were almost stripped of our varying backgrounds…no, that’s not it. We were all bringing our different lives together to realize that when it came down to it we are not that much different from one another. So similar, yet with endless amounts to learn from each other.
There was also the Colorado Shooting, of which I heard about through a Finnish dancer before I heard from home. It was nice to have two other Americans around to debrief with afterward but it was even nicer to have people from all over with whom we could have deep conversation following the news. I learned about historical events and the population’s reaction to such occurrences that were similar to the Colorado Shooting in other countries.
And finally the storm and Hurricane Sandy. Experiencing this from abroad almost made it feel more real than being home but on the opposite coast. I’m not sure how to explain why. We watched French news reporters talk about what was going on at “home” and New York felt a lot more like “home” than if would have had I actually been home. It was heartwarming that whenever there was more news, if someone knew we were American, they asked with concern about our families and wanted to know if we knew people that lived in the path.
On Saturday the 10th, we had an excursion to Normandy. It was well timed in that patriotic period. We got up at 5am to start this long emotional day. The first stop was a World War II museum. There were a lot of people, a lot of things to read and look at, and as usual, not a lot of time. I was frustrated with having been rushed through the museum and then having an extra half hour of time after lunch with access only to the gift store. Looking back, I should have gone quicker through the first two world wars and the holocaust sections since I’ve studied those a lot and focused more on the D-Day rooms to prepare for the rest of the day.
The second stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial. Being America, this was a really moving place to visit. On the way, on the bus, one of my professors jabbered at us about things he felt to be culturally and regionally significant. Such as (bet you can guess) …cheese and, naturally, the cows that produce the cheese. I guess cows are really important in Normandy and “The most beautiful cows”. Most people blocked him out, put in their headphones and napped. I took this as a chance to practice listening comprehension since the quality of the bus mic was not ideal. However, I became a lot more distracted with things out the window and zoned out a bit. Until we arrived. And we came around the corner to see the beaches themselves and the rows and rows and rows and rows of graves.
Actually, a friend of mine in the AHA program wrote an excellent blog about her experience here and instead of re-describing the impact of the cemetery, I’m going to include an excerpt of her writing (in quotes) with my interjections.
“When we arrived at the memorial, the first thing we saw was the beach. There’s a wall up, keeping visitors from entering, and a plan of the attacks, allowing visitors to get a general idea of what happened, and how vast the attacks really were.” I appreciated this. “We followed a path overlooking the beach, still laughing and chatting.” At this point, I was still really appreciating the beauty of the coast line. “We turned a corner, and a hush fell over our group. A picture can’t capture how vast it is. The graves are identical to those at Arlington, and they go on for ages.” –Rebekah Coble. This is the moment I looked back at the, still beautiful, but now sickening beaches. I briefly flashbacked to the film we’d seen in the museum with footage from the beaches. Those very beaches. My friend’s description of a hush falling is well put. I think we all had slight stomach aches.
There was a memorial at one end of the cemetery that played the American National Anthem, which touched several students.
In the middle; there was a little round chapel.
Then finally on the far end, two statues overlooking the grounds.
Getting close enough to the graves you could read the home state of each fallen soldier and I was careful to walk at the foot of each grave.
Picking my way delicately through the graves and seeing “Oregon” on several crosses became too much and I went back to the path and marveled a bit longer at the beaches.
The bus took us to Omaha Beach where we had 20 minutes to go stand on the famous land. I, feeling sentimental, drew a picture of a peace sign by the waves and collected some sand to take with me.
Beaches are powerful to me in general and good places for contemplation. I appreciated that the weather was nice because had it been gloomy as forecasted, my mood would have struggled a bit more.
Much like the day I went to Dachau, as if my emotions hadn’t had enough the end of the day was the most powerful. The final stop was La Pointe du Hoc. What struck me was how little this site has been changed. I knew it was a difficult place to attack and had been a site of struggle, but getting there and seeing the cliffs the soldiers climbed was really impactful.
What’s more, the humongous ditches and bomb shaped craters from attack remained, full of mud and slightly grassy, but terrifying man made dents in the dirt nonetheless.
The dismal crumbling bunkers remained as well. It was horrifying to go inside and think about their original uses. In my friend’s blog, she talked about hiding in the bunkers in the rain storm and the impact that had. “While we were wandering around, it started raining, so we went into a bunker to seek shelter. That was the worst thing I did all day. It was only raining, and the bunker was small, cramped, dark and dank. With our phone lights, we were still tripping over things and running into each other. It was terrible. Then I realized that soldiers had been there, not only when it was dark and cramped, but in the midst of a war. That was the most powerful realization for me.” – Rebekah Coble. I enjoyed reading how she spent the rain storm because I had a different experience having chosen to stand out in the rain, getting soaked and watching the water.
The visit was concluded with a full and double rainbow.
It was beautiful…..
This well timed excursion was meaningful to say the least. I was grateful to be among other Americans on the visit and to see firsthand such a significant historical site. Finally, as Bekah put it, “It was truly a naturally beautiful place, but devastatingly so.”.