Normandy: We spend a day in 1944.

Leslie and I celebrated Independence Day in Normandy, wearing red, white and blue. We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, where paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division spearheaded the D-Day invasion on the night of June 5, 1944. We walked on Utah and Omaha beaches where the American army poured out of little flat-bottomed boats and helped take back a continent. We stood on sacred ground in the American cemetery in Colleville, surrounded by the graves of those who died in that operation, some of whom never made it off the beaches.

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This dummy shows where John Steele got hung up on the church steeple. Except it was actually on the other side, which is not as viewable as this side.

This was kind of a “bucket list” trip for me. I had brief affiliations with the 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division during my time in uniform, and I thought of this as similar to a pilgrimage. Our excellent guide, Francois, told us the 1962 film “The Longest Day” was filmed mostly in places where the historic events took place, such as in Sainte-Mère-Église. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a solider, Pvt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the steeple of the town’s church. He was stranded there with German soldiers shooting at him. There’s a dummy hanging there now — in the wrong place. Francois explained that the movie showed Steele, played by Red Buttons, dangling from a steeple overlooking the town square. But in reality, he was on the other side of the building. A minor distinction — except to John Steele.

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Looking across the English Channel from Utah Beach.

We went to Utah Beach, where Francois apologized that we arrived at high tide. The invasion happened at low tide, and he wanted us to see how far the soldiers had to move across the beach. We had to visualize how they left flat-bottomed Higgins boats — named for their American inventor — and made their way inland. He said this landing had success in part because aerial bombardment was more accurate than in other sectors, and because most of the Sherman tanks made it onto the beach to support ground troops.

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Looking west from Pointe du Hoc. The cliffs you see are similar to what Rangers had to climb to accomplish their mission.

Pointe du Hoc is a spot between Utah and Omaha beaches where U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder of Texas, had to scale 100-foot cliffs to destroy artillery emplacements that were part of Germany’s impressive Atlantic Wall defense. As Francois explained, the Germans had removed all the 155mm howitzers (big cannons) to protect them from Allied bombardment. But two Rangers found the weapons hidden in a wooded area and the mission became a success. We saw the craters from Allied bombs, and we climbed over and through what’s left of the concrete German bunkers.

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A German observation post at Pointe du Hoc.

The views from this place are incredible. We could see other cliffs in the distance and got a feel for what these young men had to deal with. Casualties were heavy. Of the 225 Rangers who hit the beach that morning, 80 were killed in the assault and only 90 were still able to continue at the end of the day.

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A French lifeguard watches over a peaceful Omaha Beach. See the yellow buoy to his left, just past the waves? That was where the beach began the morning of June 6, 1944. American GIs had to make it that far without being shot. Many didn’t.

The American army met the stiffest resistance at Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment was less effective and most of the tanks didn’t make it to shore. Francois described how bomber pilots were instructed to fly above the clouds to avoid antiaircraft fire. Only a small percentage of bombs reached their target, and the landing force walked right into a devastating crossfire. Because the assault happened at low tide, some of the landing craft hit sandbars and deposited soldiers too early. Many were forced to traverse a distance of three or four football fields, sometimes wading in neck-deep water wearing full combat gear. More than 1,000 men died on this beach.

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Some of the more than 9,000 graves at the American Cemetery in Colleville, France.

We ended the day at the cemetery, which is literally American soil — given to the U.S. in gratitude by the French government. Thanks to Francois’ excellent driving, we arrived just in time to see the 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony. Every day, two American flags are lowered and “taps” is played as the second one comes down. I’ll admit I got a little choked up. After the ceremony, I was able to stroll the main walkway and look down the rows of white crosses, with a few Stars of David in the mix too. They’ve been gone for 74 years, but as a U.S. Army veteran I still see them as my brothers. They make me proud to have worn the uniform.

Next time, Leslie fulfills a childhood dream.

UPDATE: Mexico has been knocked out of World Cup competition, but France won its quarterfinal final match against Uruguay, 2-0, so they’re still in the hunt. We’re pulling for France, but no, the World Cup winner won’t determine where we’ll be living six months from now!

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Our guide, Francois, explains a map in the 82nd Airborne Division Museum in Sainte-Mer-Eglise 
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Fighting in the town of Sainte-Mer-Eglise destroyed the church’s stained glass windows. This is one of the replacement windows, showing American paratroopers as angels protecting Mary and the infant Jesus.

Montpellier: C’est très bien!

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Just a few of the many good things about France: Great cheese, bread, sausages, tapenade, and of course, wine!

Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.

France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).

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One of our favorite produce vendors.Most of this good stuff is grown in France, but some comes from Spain and Italy.

Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.

There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.

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There are fountains everywhere, like this one in Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I jog nearly every morning through the esplanade.

As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.

Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)

Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.

Au revoir!

MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:

And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):

We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it:

 

Now, some still photos you should see:

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There’s a carousel on the Place de la Comedie that dates to 1889. It’s even a double-decker. Leslie wouldn’t let me ride it.
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One of the horses on the 1889 Carousel du Comedie.
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An example of Haussmannien style, made popular in Paris by architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-1800s. Locals called this building “the diving helmet” for obvious reasons.
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Montpellier has expansive newer neighborhoods, too. 
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I’ve mentioned it several times. Can’t believe I haven’t provided a photo of the Arc de Triomph. A little smaller than the one in Paris. This is the entrance into the city’s historic center.
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The area known as Antigone, modern buildings in classic Greek architecture. If we return to Montpellier, this could be a target location for a modern apartment.