Hello History

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The last time I went on an excursion, it was an absolute blast and I took some of my favorite pictures ever. This past weekend, I went on another excursion with the University that I'm studying at in France, and we went to Bayeux, home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry (or Tapisserie de Bayeux), and then took a mini-tour of a few of the D-Day Landing Beaches and the American Cemetery in Normandy. Naturally, it was a day just full of history, which was basically heaven for me.

We began the day at 8:30 am to head to Bayeux. It's a very pretty drive, and only about a half hour away from Caen. I had stopped by the MacDo (the only place in Caen where you can get coffee to go) so I was incredibly hyper, much to the chagrin of my neighbor on the bus. I think my friends were simultaneously amused and pissed that I was so hopped up on caffeine so early in the morning on a Saturday. I digress. 

The week before, I had done a bit of research about the tapestry, and had written some notes in my little Moleskine notebook that I use when I'm out and about. I was carrying it with me, and when we went into the Bayeux Tapestry Museum (yeah, there was a WHOLE MUSEUM for this Tapestry), I was holding it so that I could reference my notes while I was looking at the actual tapestry. The professor that accompanied us on the excursion saw my little notebook, and exclaimed, "Voilà! Une étudiante serieuse! [A serious student!] Tu viens d'où? [Where are you from]?" I told her I was from Colorado, and she then exclaimed, "Ah! Bravo Colorado!" I was super embarassed but my friends from DU thought it was absolutely hilarious, even though I'm the only one in the group that's actually from Colorado. 

This tapestry (which isn't even actually a tapestry, as it's embroidered, not woven) is fantastic! It's basically just a really, really long comic strip about the William the Conquerer's Invasion (and Conquest) of England. It is dated aroudn 1077, and survived for hundreds of years, intact (mostly) and preserved in the basement of the Cathedral in Bayeux. I find it amazing that such an amazing tapestry from the Middle Ages was preserved in the basement of a church. It was also rescued several times throughout history, as it was going to be used as a banner during one of the revolutions, it was almost stolen by the Nazis a few times, and it was going to be cut apart and sold at one point. But it has survived, much like everything in this place, hundreds of years of war, violence, and pillaging. It's now beautifully preserved in it's very own museum, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site (hint: It's a big effing deal). Enough with the history lesson. 

Unfortunately, I couldn't take any pictures in the room of the actual Tapestry, but I took pictures of the pictures of the Tapestry. Enjoy the pictures. 












After seeing the Tapestry, I was even more excited and energetic than in the morning, and we were left to explore Bayeux a bit and find some lunch. We just ate at a little cafe, but we also visited the church and I got some good pictures. 

After lunch and some exploring, we headed back on the bus for a mini-tour of a few of the landing beaches from D-Day, which happened 70 years ago this year, and the American cemetery.

I completely underestimated how emotional visiting these places would be. I could describe them... concrete bunkers spotting empty fields, vast beaches, daunting cliffs... all of these are true. On any normal day, and if I didn't have any knowledge about what these places signified, they would just be beautiful beaches, beautiful cliffs. 



I could stand at the Pointe du Hoc and feel like I was at the edge of the world. 



I could stand on Omaha beach and let the waves and rocks tumble over my ankles as the blue of the sky stretched forever, and the blue of the sea melted together in the distance.



I could stand in a field overlooking Sword Beach and just be blown away by the vastness of everything. 



And I did. I stood in all of these places and just let myself be overwhelmed by the feelings. However, it wasn't just overwhelmed by the beauty of them, because they were truly beautiful. It was all the things you couldn't see... it was the history of the place, and every piece of broken cement, every marble statue, every grain of sand... they all radiated with historical significance. Not the type of historical significance that something like Mont St. Michel, or even the Bayeux Tapestry has. 

History became human.

When you read about wars in history books, or really about any historical event, you can easily detach yourself from it. It's easy for me to imagine these things happening when I read about them, or see pictures. It's a whole other animal entirely actually being in these places. 


That's something that strikes me every day here... history is not just an idea, it is very real. The United States of America, the country I call my home, is so young compared to these places... compared to the massive Chateau that sits in the center of Caen, or the tapestry that hangs unassumingly in a museum built just for it. But visiting these places where so much happened... standing in a bunker and imagining looking out at the ocean not even being able to enjoy or be blown away by the melting of the blue of the sky into the blue of the water, or the purple that is perpetually suspended over the horizon. Or not standing on a pristine beach where the rocks and the waves tickle my toes... but instead seeing a swath of red because your friends, people you knew and loved, were shot and laying on a beach as their blood literally rushed on the sand. I couldn't imagine... but then I could.

There were several points throughout the day where I found myself holding back tears, or where I just had to stop and think. History, so often an abstract entity for me, held only in books and the stories that are only relayed in my beloved museums... 


History is human, and flawed. It is bloody and gruesome and heartbreaking. It is full of terrible people doing terrible things, and I will never cease to be utterly terrified of the immense capacity that we have for evil.



But I will also never cease to be utterly awed by the capacity for beauty we have.

Because history, though human, is beautiful. And humans, though flawed, are beautiful too. 

As I looked out onto a sea of white marble crosses, stars, and crescent moons (predominately crosses, however) and listened to the peaceful waves break on the shore, and the wind whispering through the trees, I felt chills. Not because I found the American cemetery in Normandy creepy at all. I found it peaceful. I found it beautiful, that we can take so much care in honoring people who died in absolutely gut-wrenching ways. 



I felt peace in a place that made its name out of a place of war, chaos and ruin. 



I stared, overwhelmingly depressed, at the craters left by 70 year old bombs in the concrete bunker, and noticed that plants were now growing out of it. How appropriate that something that ended the lives of so many also created a place for new life to grow. 



So, after all of that, and if you are just reading the last paragraph of this post (and it's long, I wouldn't blame you), I leave you with this. History is not just contained in books that you have to read for the most boring class on earth. It is not just stones in a field, or crosses in a cemetery. It's real, raw, emotional, and changeable. Everyday, we are making history, and every day, we get to decide whether we make history terrible, or beautiful. 

Have you ever visited these places? What has your experience been? 

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