In my experience, Parisians fall into two categories- the nicest, most helpful of all people and the disgruntled, can’t be bothered to acknowledge you American’s who invade our city and have the audacity to assume that I speak English. I am fortunate to have met more of the first than the latter, but what an impression these few curdled individuals make. My first experience being more than ten years ago when I bought a round trip metro ticket that only worked half way. No big deal, really. But it was the attitude of the metro worker that frustrated me to no end. But the most revealing sourpuss I’ve met was an older gentleman in a camera shop just a week ago. I stopped to ask if he knew where the local theater was as online maps and my cell phone application had led me astray. I asked in my best French if he spoke English. I didn’t have to rely upon my limited French to understand his response. It went something like this, “Why do you ask if I speak English. Why don’t you understand French? You come to my country, my city, and…” The rest became incoherent grumbling. To salvage the situation, because I did need his help, I asked in broken French if he knew where the theater was. He pointed down the street and went on about his business. Sigh. Maybe the stereotypes were correct. But I reminded myself of the countless others I had met who had been so kind and helpful. One sour apple would not taint my impression of all Parisians.
And so I sat aside my bitterness and went on about my summer in Paris. It wasn’t until I visited the American Cemetery at Omaha beach in Normandy that I remembered this man. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept openly standing among the white crosses with the invasion beach in clear view. Why are cemeteries so beautiful? How does a place so ugly, where so much pain and suffering once existed, carry the cool summer ocean breeze across green grass as if just created by the breath of god? This is something every American should experience to appreciate our freedom and what so many sacrificed to free the world from certain tyranny. I think this old Parisian must have forgotten what these boys sacrificed for him.
Visiting the Normandy museum in Caen brought to fruition my perspective. I learned of the history of France before and during the occupation. I was astonished how easily Hitler invaded and caught the French armies unprepared. I was even more surprised by politics of some French officials and how these leaders encouraged the propaganda and occupation of the German forces. They just laid down and rolled over, something I found so hard to accept as an American brought up on the fundamentals of courage and perseverance. I learned of how the British defended their island against invasion and stood firm when greatly outnumbered and at a technological disadvantage. Way to go Churchhill!
Then came the Normandy invasion. So many boys. So many lives lost. British. American. Canadian. It is estimated that over four hundred thousand men died establishing a foothold in Northern France. As I walked among the crosses, listened to the names of the soldiers in the white halls of the memorial, watched footage of their struggle on the beach and through the countryside, I thought of what we as a country sacrificed for the French. I thought of what every American still sacrifices. How many precious moments have the grandchildren of these soldier never known? How many birthdays, weddings, graduations, have been less from missing someone who gave his life in Normandy? I remembered my own grandfather who died in his early fifties. He served in the Navy during the war on an aircraft carrier and was wounded during an attack when his platform was shot out from under him. There is still talk in my family that it was shrapnel fragments in his chest that contributed the cancer that took him when I was only nine. I was lucky, though. I had these memorable years to know him, so many more than those whose grandfathers never came home.
Am I bitter? Yes. Am I distraught? Absolutely. I say to this grumpy old Parisian man who questioned my inability to understand French- be thankful that I have chosen to spend my money in your city; be thankful that my grandfather chose to fight for your freedom; be thankful that American’s hold so dear the principle of freedom that we came to your aid and made it possible for you to speak your beloved language and not the German that would have been your legacy.
Here’s an idea. I want to take this grumpy old man and visit the American Cemetery in Normandy. Let him count the number of lives that were forever changed fighting for his country. Then, as long as there is a memory of someone who fought in the war, let him buy a drink for every British, Canadian, and American visitor he has the pleasure of meeting for the rest of his life. This would be a small token to represent that great debt he and his country will never be able to repay.
I’ve never been more proud to be an American than on this day. God bless you veterans and thank you ever so much for your sacrifice!