Don’t Give Up Before The Miracle

I am in Normandy with two friends for the week. I seem to be the only person I know who, until Wednesday, had not made a visit to the WWII beaches, the American Cemetery, and the Memorial Museum in Caen. Even though they’d already been, my friends insisted we had to spend one day visiting these memorial sites. So, on Wednesday, with the skies threatening rain, we set off. First stop: Caen.

Memorial for History and Peace in Caen

Once you hit the outskirts of Caen, there are numerous signs guiding you to the Memorial. It is a large rectangular building fronted by the flags of the many Allies and surrounded by green.

Inside the front doors is a huge entry way with a Boutique on the left and a Bistro for light snacking in front on the mezzanine. Below that is the ticket counter and on the right is a restaurant for a sit-down lunch and the auditorium that runs a film “1944: Sauver l’Europe (Saving Europe)” every 30 minutes.

We bought out our tickets, tucked all our belongings into a locker and set out for a journey through history that began with 1918 and how Europe and Germany were set up for the totalitarian take-over of Germany and the next World War.

The museum is designed so that the spaces are chronological. The exhibits take on the form of newspapers, photos, uniforms behind glass; short videos remastered from the 1930s and 40s; detailed explanations in English, French, German and Spanish on the walls. There are photos of Hitler that I’d never seen before and ordinary soldiers that have survived the years and give illustration to the explanatory words.

Map of HItler’s land conquests by the 1st of Sept, 1939.

I began by reading everything, looking at everything, soaking in old and new information. When I got to the area that detailed the extermination of the Jews, I had to skip those rooms. It’s the part of WWII I know most about. With the world once again on the precipice of vanquishing huge populations of non-white people, I can barely stand to voluntarily look at the past and it’s horrendous consequences. As I looked at the horrifying map of the trains that led to the death camps, I found it ironic that I loved a similar map of the paths of all the pilgrims walking to Compostale in Spain.

I moved on to the next rooms and realized I’d been in the museum for almost 90 minutes, reading, looking, absorbing history. I was exhausted. My brain went on strike and even though I had sat down at almost every video, my feet ached. For me, this museum would be better experienced as a two day venture. Being lucky enough to live in Paris, I could return.

A still from one of the videos

I walked to the end of the exhibit on the bottom floor and found that my friend, Susan, had come to the same conclusion. So we found our way to the Bistro – a large space with many tables that seemed to be able to accommodate everyone. Her husband joined us for a light snack: he had lasagne and salad and she had the most gorgeous bruschetta I’ve ever seen. At the Bookstore/Boutique, I bought The Longest Day, a film my mother had taken me to see when I was fifteen years old and had never seen again. I plan to watch it and “Band of Brothers”, the TV series that I’ve seen three times and never gets old.

We piled back into our rented Peugeot and headed for Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. There are five landing beaches on this part of the Normandy coast. Omaha and Utah beaches are the two where the Americans landed. Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches are where the English and the Canadians landed. In between Omaha and Utah is Pointe du Hoc.

As the rain came down harder, we told each other how great this was. “We are having the true 3D experience. When the troops landed on June 6th, it was raining hard.” Once we arrived at Omaha beach, stepped out of the car and into the cold, biting, stinging rain, we were miserable. The only way to get some respite was to stand on the side of the large monument memorialising the beach.

The side of the monument behind which we escaped temporarily from the fierce wind and biting rain.

Within five minutes, the strength of the wind and the sleet-like stinging of the rain caused us to re-access what we were planning to do. To see anything, we had to step back into the unkind weather. Susan’s husband, Dewey, suggested we give up on Omaha and head to Pointe du Hoc. “Anything that will get us back in the car.”

Omaha Beach
Ode to the Americans who risked their lives to land at Omaha Beach. English translation in the middle.

We drove about 8km along the coast and arrived at Pointe du Hoc at 4pm. Here, on June 6th, 1944, parts of the 2nd Ranger Battilion scaled the cliffs seizing German artillery hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches. They surprised the Germans who never thought they’d attempt the cliffs. They held on against fierce counterattacks. The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance.

After going through TSA-like security check, we entered a small building called The Sacrifice Gallery and watched a video with personal stories of the “sacrifices that made the Allied victory possible. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men that participated in the Pointe du Hoc mission on June 6, only 90 were still able to bear arms when relieved on June 8”–Brochure of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

You can imagine the scale of the cliffs by the shadows and the cliffs in the front view.

We began the walk along the point. We came to a bunker that was taken from the Germans and became the command post of the Rangers, medical aid station and morgue. We could see, 75 years later, the huge holes in the ground that cannon balls had made. These provided some shelter for the Americans. Because of the rain and wind, we didn’t make it far enough to actually see the scale of the cliffs. Photos showed the rope ladders that had been thrown up and the soldiers climbing to get to the top. It is breathtaking and heart pounding to see what was done by the Allied Forces to save the world from totalitarianism. 

I called this blog Don’t Stop Before the Miracle because so often in my attempts to break a bad habit or do something that seemed beyond my skill level, people would say to me: Don’t stop before the miracle. I took that to mean that I should just keep trying with the belief that I could succeed. As I walked through the Memorial in Caen and the beaches on the coast, I couldn’t help thinking what an example, at such a terrible cost, of continued efforts to do the right thing. At one point, all hope of the Allies winning the war seemed lost but, in the end, they prevailed. It was a miracle. And today I pray for our world and that a second miracle is in the offing. I will do my part.

A bientôt

Sara

http://www.abmc.gov

Parisian Dreams

I’ve written about the American Library in Paris in an earlier blog. Since that time, we have a new Director, Audrey Chapuis. I say “we” because I’m a volunteer there and am made to feel like an integral part of the library and how it’s run. Audrey started out as a volunteer just as I did. Now she is the Director, the first librarian ever to be Director of the library. She is out-going, charming and has become a friend.

I found an essay she wrote for the Literary Hub and asked her if I could share it with you:

The Timeless Appeal of an American (Library) in Paris

On the Literary Romance of the City of Lights

By Audrey Chapuis


April 15, 2019

Literary pilgrims to Paris, however ardent, tend toward crises of faith. A whole genre has flowed from the deflated hopes of writers who once believed the muse to be Gallic, living in a garret, and partial to Americans abroad. Of course, American writers don’t have a monopoly on disappointment about Paris. Tourists from around the world complain about the rude shock—now dubbed “Paris Syndrome”—of their fantasies crashing into the city’s prosaic reality. It’s a lesson in the perils of idealization.

For those of us who live in the French capital, it’s more complicated, as are most long-term relationships. I regularly cycle through devotion and disillusionment, witnessing how the city’s beauty and the ugly commodification of that beauty coexist, how its idyllic myths mingle with its sometimes bloody history. I’ve also come to see how the city is like any other, with the same simmering cultural tensions and socioeconomic issues as any metropolis.

Looking back, I’m sheepish to admit just how fervent my own Parisian dreams once were. As a girl growing up in Texas, I became—quite mysteriously to the Texans around me—a Francophile. I ate up stories of the Lost Generation and swooned thinking about bohemians lounging on café banquettes, waving cigarettes, and arguing about ideas. I read everything by Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, believing their entwined literary and romantic relationship to be the apotheosis of seduction. Teenage years in Texas seemed painfully banal in comparison. Bygone writers had Parisian bacchanals; we got keg parties in the woods. The injustice tasted more bitter than the flat Shiner Bock on tap.

When I finally traveled to Paris on my own, I sought to right the wrong, not that I expected to find any modern bacchanals. I was content to chase the ghosts of the writers I loved against a picturesque backdrop. I checked into a dank hotel as close as I could get to Shakespeare and Company and mapped out my course to all the famous cafés where writers had once gathered. On my first night, I wandered shyly into a café and ordered a glass of white wine, blushing furiously at being alone and mumbling in a language I had only practiced in an air-conditioned classroom. The harried waitress in shirtsleeves and black suspenders set down my glass with such force that it shattered, sending wine and tiny shards of glass across the tabletop and into my lap. She blithely mopped up the mess without apology. I imagined she was disgusted with me and my Americanness and my solitude. Gertrude Stein wouldn’t have giggled nervously and then left a large tip.

By the time I moved to Paris, many years later, most of my romantic notions of the city had been swept away like those shards onto the sidewalk. The move, for my husband’s job, was practical rather than whimsical. And my status as “trailing spouse” threatened to extinguish any remaining flicker of glamour. The ugly term encapsulates the privileges and limitations inherent in the status: according to the state, the partner who follows is legitimate but secondary. Another applicable but contentious word, “expat”, so evocative of Americans in Paris, loses its sheen when one examines the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant. The gap is filled with questions of agency, means, and access to resources in one’s host country.

After a few months acclimating to life in Paris as a resident, I found a job as a reference librarian at the American Library in Paris, an institution established in 1920 which serves a diverse population hailing from over 60 countries. As part of my training, my coworkers joyfully produced artifacts and anecdotes from the library’s long history. I was shown Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s book reviews in the library’s newsletter and heard about Stein arguing with Alice B. Toklas in the stacks. Pulling volume after volume down from the shelves in the special collection, I saw books donated to the library from Sylvia Beach, Willa Cather, Janet Flanner, and Irwin Shaw. One colleague opened a cream folder to show me a letter from Henry Miller, dated November 21st, 1938, asking if the library had The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an English translation of Seraphina, Walt Whitman’s prose works, and “any book on Zen Buddhism.” Holding the piece of stationery with its jaunty Art Deco letterhead—“Henry Miller 18 Villa Seurat Paris”—I felt a jolt of exultation for my younger, more idealistic self.

Over time, as I learned more about the American Library and its place in the history of literary Paris, I recovered some long-repudiated belief in the city’s magnetic pull and inspirational force. Conjuring scenes of my old heroes in the library’s reading rooms made me swoon all over again, decades after their work first moved me. However, the most thrilling thing was not the library’s function as a monument to the past. Rather, it was the lively thrum of its present activity. Clearly not only ghosts walked here. Writers, readers, students, and scholars converged daily upon the place.

Writers don’t need smoky cafés or any other clichés of the writerly life, but they do need a comfortable space to write. They need access to books. They need quiet. And, perhaps surprisingly, they need community, just like the rest of us who might be floundering in a new city.

I recently became the director of the American Library, and I hear stories from people all over the world—“trailing spouses”, “expats”, immigrants, and Parisians alike—about what the library means to them. Again and again, the need for sanctuary in this beautiful but sometimes alienating city emerges. I hear familiar tales of disillusionment, and then reconciliation, with Paris after people discover the library. Some speak of forging deep friendships in book groups. Others remember carrying home teetering stacks of books to read to their children who are now grown. Many tell me about the experience of writing books here, comforted by the silence of the reading room and the company of others.

These stories remind me of the potential of any library to be a refuge for its public. Romantic notions of artistic communion pale in comparison to what libraries regularly do. Yes, libraries protect history, but they also safeguard the future by providing spaces dedicated to people learning and creating. Stalwart, they serve communities unbeholden to any fleeting cultural moment.

At the American Library, the rate of book borrowing is up, across genres and in every age group. The children’s area fills up during every Story Time. Literature-loving teenagers flock to Friday night festivities. Crowds congregate for evening author talks. Lapsed readers fall in love with books again as they wander the stacks, reminded, in a very tangible way, of the breadth of human knowledge.

And that’s more exhilarating than any bohemian bacchanal.

A bientôt,

Sara