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American Cemetery Part II: An Adventure in Normandy

For the past month, we have been living in Caen, France. We selected this site because of its proximity to Bayeux, from where it is possible to take a bus to the Normandy American WWII Cemetery. Finally, this – this – location in France would be our opportunity to visit an American war cemetery, as opposed to our prior letdown in Nimes. We cross-referenced between Google and the American Battle Monuments Commission website, and this looked even better than the WWI cemetery we attempted to see in Nimes-but-not-actually-Nimes. Now in Normandy, we would have the opportunity to witness not only the graves of many American soldiers, but also the site of American entrance into the European theatre of WWII: the fateful Omaha Beach. According to the cemetery site, the graves were set atop a cliff overlooking the very expanse of sandy dunes and shoreline upon which so many lives were lost on June 6, 1944.

We left on a Saturday, as this was the only day that appeared without a forecast of rain. According to Google, the regional Bus Vert Schedule, and several other American accountings of the same journey, we could take the 12:30 bus from the Bayeux train station, then exit at the Cimetière Américain stop in Colleville-Sur-Mer. To return, we could catch the same bus at 4:50 back to Bayeux. Already before departure, this gave us some pause. The timetables indicated we would be at the cemetery between 3 1/2 and 4 hours, which does not sound like a desirable amount of time to be left outdoors in mid-February. However, the American Monuments site boasted a brand new $35 million visitor center, fit with films and displays detailing some of the lives laid to rest within the cemetery. At the very least, this center would provide a reprieve from the dreary, uncomfortable, coastal winter weather. According to the internet, everything would be just fine.

Let’s just fast-forward to the bus ride from Bayeux. This was a promising affair, as we drove through the rural French countryside. We passed cows outfitted in thick fur to fend off the cold, homes built from stones the color of sand, and eventually, as the bus dipped and swerved through rolling hills, we could see glimpses of the English Channel.

The bus turned. We passed a ranch-style hotel and creperie, with red trim like icing on white paneling. American and French flags were waving in the wind: a happy omen. Then, the road became more narrow – more trail than road – and finally we circled through a roundabout with three potential exits, one labeled, “Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.” The bus sighed to a stop, and the doors opened. I walked to the front to confirm the return time with the driver. Pointing to the time in my bus schedule, 4:50, I asked, “Retour, oui?” 

He seemed a bit confused as he leafed through the timetables. He then turned off the bus and unbuckled his seatbelt to look at the timetables posted outside along the Cimetière Américain bus stop. He looked between the times and the asterisks and the fine print. Finally, after I watched his irises perform multiple rotations, he came to a conclusion. “Oui, c’est bon!” 

Hmm…okay. We waved goodbye as he buckled himself back into the driver seat, and the bus was gone. We walked through the gates and cemetery sign, only to find a rather expansive parking lot flanked by construction. There weren’t many signs indicating the actual direction of the cemetery, but we figured that the main road was behind us, so the destination must be forward.

We walked through the mostly empty spaces, through yellow tape, and through sections of mud yet to be filled in with concrete.

Eventually we saw an ambiguous grey block, jutting out from the ground alongside a path swooping away from the parking lot. This looked like a building of sorts, and at this point it was our only hope for clarification. We approached.

A typed sign was taped to the inside of a glass door, “THE VISITOR CENTER IS CLOSED FOR MAINTENANCE AS OF FEBRUARY 7, 2019. PLEASE SEE THE TEMPORARY WELCOME DESK NEAR THE PARKING LOT.”

According to the website, wasn’t the visitor center a brand new, $35 million renovation? My mind kept emphasizing the word I surely had read on the American Monument website, “completed.” The website was so proud of this recent milestone, and I had read no warning about the potential for closure. Why would this brand, spankin’ new center already need maintenance? Approximately 70% of the structure was covered in glass (the rest an unappealing, drab slate), so we peered inside. A few security guards loitered around the front entrance, and a plaque in the middle of the 2nd floor read, “COMPETENCE.” Huh. Well, there went all hopes of a warm respite during this 4 hour marooning.

We back-tracked towards the parking lot and found the temporary welcome desk. Calling this structure a mobile home would be a compliment. It was a 15’ x 8’ tan box with one slitty window and a door. Inside was a man in a suit behind a desk, a security guard, and a table with monument brochures that we had already obtained from shelves outside the permanent-yet-closed visitor center.

Uh…” I began awkwardly.

Both men peered at me.

Is there a toilet nearby?” I couldn’t think of any other questions to ask in this tight, haphazard environment.

Oui – just outside, straight and to the right.”

Merci!”

Fast-forward, halfway through our cemetery visit. The space was mapped out like a rectangle, and the graves were divided into square plots within. One end of the cemetery contained a memorial with maps of the aerial and nautical beach invasions, plus a bronze statue of a nude man, svelt and twirling. The sculpture seemed a bit ostentatious to me, and I couldn’t imagine that this particular work of art would be selected by disillusioned, departed veterans to express their collective, war-torn souls. I wished I had a way to communicate with the buried men and ask for their thoughts. I suppose there wasn’t any way to consult with them before the erection of this memorial, yet I doubt it would have been difficult for the site planners to venture a guess as to their general preferences. Oh well; the maps were interesting.

After walking through some graves, we encountered a small chapel with both English and French inscriptions on the exterior. Walking inside, we found an altar and several rows of pews, all of which were roped off. Yet another warm place eluded us.

Later, we moved towards the cliff to overlook Omaha Beach. Two footpaths leading to the beach were roped off for security reasons, though I could not distingush any hazards from my eagle eye view.

We couldn’t go into the visitor center, we couldn’t sit in the chapel, and we couldn’t go to the beach site. We walked back to look at more graves. We saw one cross that looked more decorated than the rest, and so we approached. It turned out to be the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Teddy’s son.

At this point, I noticed men on the footpath to our left pointing over my shoulder. Then I heard shouting. A security guard was storming towards us, waving his arms into “X” formations. What on earth could we have possibly done? The guard alternated between x’s and pointing to the path to our left. Fine, we will go.

We exited the lawn and entered the footpath, and at this moment the  guard caught up with us.

This section is closed to allow the regeneration of grass. All other sections of the cemetery are open, but this one is closed.”

That’s fine, but you didn’t have to yell at us.”

He then left us alone. We were stunned by this dramatic, gestural reproach. Looking back, I realized that we were supposed to heed a small piece of white rope around the perimeter of the grave plot in question. No signs, no indications of closed graves at the entrance of the cemetery, and of course, no prior warnings online. Also, as captured in the above photo, the grass looked perfectly lush.

What if we had a relative buried in this closed plot? It’s not like a visit to a French American Cemetery is a regular occurrence for most Americans; it is likely a once in a lifetime experience. And yet, here we were, chastised by a Frenchman in a security suit for attempting to read the names on American graves. Cosmopolitanism is trendy and all, but can the national dynamics here really be ignored? To be told off in a cemetery where our country, 70-80 years back, saved the French after their own surrender.

Needless to say, we headed towards the exit. Our watches read 3:15 or so. We thought we may be able to find a place to spend our final hour and a half, perhaps a place with coffee. Didn’t we see a creperie a little ways up the road?

We walked through the parking lot. We walked through the wooded trail. We decided to pass on the creperie, as it was connected to a hotel and the distinction between hotel and restaurant was unclear. Maybe there would be something else in the small town we passed while riding the bus? Behind a cluster of rolling hills, we saw a church steeple. French towns are usually developed around a central church, so we headed towards the steeple.

The church was an isolated affair; not a soul in sight. A banner partially covered the enclosing wall, with a photo of American troops strutting in front of the same church’s crumbling self in 1944.

We continued up the winding road. We saw a sign for the Omaha Beach campground and tennis courts. Omaha Beach now housed granola-lovers singing tunes around bonfires.

We continued up Colleville’s narrow road, flanked by stony homes revealing not a muscle of movement inside. Every couple minutes, a car would roar past. We could always see the drivers’ eyebrows slightly arching at the site of two people walking through this ghosttown, “huh, what are they doing here?”

As you can likely infer, our remaining hour in Colleville was rather miserable. At a later point we attempted to follow the signs to Omaha Beach campground, but the road seemed to continue longer than would be practical for our return to the bus.

Along the central road in Colleville, we found another stop for the Bus Vert; La Marie. The bus was listed for arrival at 4:54, just four minutes past the American Cemetery stop. We stood and waited. And waited. The anticipated time of arrival came and went. Fifteen more minutes passed. The bus wasn’t coming. Damn it.

When initially looking at the bus schedule while planning this trip, I noticed a discrepancy in the 4:50 return route. In the heading above the schedule, the company lists a TA, which means toute l’année, or all year. However, there is also a (2) in the heading, which links to a disclaimer stating that the return route is restricted to spring and summer. I tried to find clarification for this contradiction online (how can something be labeled as year round, yet reserved for only two out of four seasons?), and all sources indicated that the TA should override the (2). Even the Bus Vert driver thought that the TA should override the (2). Evidently, all were wrong.

Well, we were stuck. We were in a rural town where it was impossible to find a cafe, let alone a WiFi signal from which to look up a cab company. All roads pointed to the hotel and creperie, the ranch-style building with red icing, the cheerful-looking lodge that we saw before this entire episode fully unfolded.

We were freezing. We were tired. We were cold. We hoped beyond hope that this option would work out.

After 15 or so minutes of walking and grumbling, we were back at the hotel creperie. Here, courtesy of Google maps, is what it looked like as I approached the entrance, save for the blooming trees and blue skies.

A man sat at the concierge desk, and luckily responded with a “yes” when I asked the dreaded, “parlez vous anglais?” Thank god.

The hotel owner, a woman in her 50s, soon appeared and offered to drive us to the SNCF station in Bayeux. It would only cost €20, which was a blessing considering our current location in the middle of nowhere. In her car, the French woman told us that she had a small side business taxi-ing Americans between Colleville and Bayeux, in addition to her hotel. When we recounted the tale of our absent bus, she seemed both amused and unsurprised. The drive took about twenty minutes, and soon we were on a train back to Caen, vowing to never re-attempt this trip for the rest of our lives.

At the end of the day, I have three sentences of caution for any other bright-eyed travelers who long to see Omaha Beach and its corresponding memorials.

1.) Do not trust the descriptions of openness and completedness on the American Battle Monuments Commission site.

2.) If there is a hint of confusion on your Bus Vert Schedule, assume the least convenient between the two contradicting proclamations.

3.) Just because a bus driver drives along a specific route, he does not necessarily have a deeper understanding about the route schedules.

The end.