In between scooping ice cream and my newspaper internship this past summer I watched Taken for the first time on TV. In the film, Liam Neeson is an ex-CIA agent who has to use his top-secret skills to rescue his daughter when she is kidnapped on a trip to Paris.
So naturally when traveling to Paris for Bank Holiday this past weekend, there were plenty of Taken jokes and Liam Neeson references (though after a while we got lazy: “Dude, all the good Liam Neeson jokes are Taken!”), but we managed to squeeze in a little bit of culture, too.
On Friday we did the typical touristy stuff: Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and The Louvre (“I just louvred the Louvre!”). Saturday we spent most of the day in Versailles where we walked more than four miles throughout the gardens before even entering the chateau. Ironically our guide for the day grew up in Dublin, so we spent a lot of time talking to her about some of our favorite places around the city, so that in itself was an interesting experience.
But my favorite part of the weekend was the day-long trip to Normandy on Sunday, to the memorial museum in Caen and a few of the beaches the Allied troops landed on during the D-Day invasion on June 6th, 1944.
We went on a tour with other vacationing Americans, and we were the youngest members by about forty years. During the provided lunch, Beth and I sat next to a couple from Boston who made jokes about our obvious age differences (“Are you ladies even old enough to drink wine with lunch?”) but then we began talking with them about our time in Dublin, the places we had been and the things we had seen.
“Wow,” the woman said, “you guys have had such a great education.”
I sort of smiled and nodded at the time, but driving through France toward Paris that night, I started thinking about what the woman had said, and how right she was. Studying abroad is all about collecting those little unforgettable moments, taking advantage of opportunities to travel and experience Europe because we will not have such freedom to do so again, and going to Normandy was something I had wanted to do since tenth grade when my favorite history teacher mentioned it was something he had always wanted to see.
This weekend I did that, and it is still a little surreal, even to me. I get such enjoyment from living history, and I was able to stand at Pointe Du Hoc in the craters left over from American artillery dropped in preparation for the Allied invasion. The wind was whipping as it would have on that day some sixty-nine years ago, barbed wire decorating the cliffs, and as I took a picture I thought of the crowd of people surrounding the Mona Lisa when I’d seen it in The Louvre two days before. It was weird, maybe utterly inappropriate, but the barbed wire seemed more poetic in that moment than Mona Lisa’s smile ever would, yet no one my age waited in line to see it.
The most profound part of that day was the forty-five minutes we spent walking between the white crosses placed in perfect rows at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. The first two memorials I looked at belonged to Jewish-American soldiers from New York State, where I live and spent a lot of time studying World War II, and after that I did not need to see any more graves. Instead I walked along the sidewalk to an area overlooking the beach below.
I spent most of my time in that spot, watching the water roll in toward the white sandy beach, and I thought of Buster Simmons, a veteran I met in high school. He was a combat medic in the 30th Infantry Division, and while he did not land in Normandy on D-Day, he lived through other horrific battles and helped liberate Jewish prisoners on April 13th, 1945.
Buster passed away this summer, and the last time I saw him he held my hand and sang Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, then kissed my cheek and walked me to the door. He was a gentleman, one of the most patriotic men I’ve ever met, and it was so rewarding to see the beach so calm and beautiful, knowing all Buster and thousands of others had sacrificed to make it happen.
If I had to venture a guess, Normandy will be the highlight of my semester abroad. As much as I love Liam Neeson—he is like a Jedi of all movie rescue heroes—I was able to spend the day with the memory of thousands of real-life heroes, many who never made it home, and that is definitely one of those unforgettable moments.
– Jillian Casey
Champlain Dublin Blogger Fall ’13
Professional Writing/Secondary Education
Class of 2015