I tend to travel by surprise. A journey, as suggested in Guiliana Bruno’s Atlas of Emotion, is a complex experience of the voyeur, multi-layered and circuitous–the act of seeing, in contact with geography, art, architecture, and emotion.
Headed north and east, along the N13 toward the town of Barfleur, I notice a sign, with some surprise, for the American Cemetery, the memorial that marks the Norman Invasion by the Allies in 1944.
I am familiar, of course, with the significance of D-day and have been to Arlington National Cemetery. My own father is buried in the Black Hills National Cemetery in South Dakota in recognition of his naval service during WWII. But, not being a Word War II buff and carrying some cynicism about war memorials, I hadn’t planned to visit the cemetery, didn’t really know exactly where it was. Instead, I am in search of the landing place of a fictional invasion in a long-ago story.
I momentarily resolve to stay the course to Barfleur—it is already mid-afternoon—but something tugs at me, and I slow down. Can I follow the Roman War campaign as told in the 15th century and yet not honor the slain of the terrible battle of the 20th century—fought by my own father and his generation? I turn off the highway yet again, toward Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Omaha Beach.
As soon as I turn onto the entry roadway at the cemetery, there is a clipped, green orderliness that contrasts with the weathered stone buildings of the surrounding French villages. It is a bit of Arlington, Virginia transported to Normandy. While driving from Bayeux, it rained but now the clouds have cleared and the sun is clear and warm. To the north is the beautiful, sparkling sea—impossibly calm, belying it ever held such turmoil or nearly disrupted the D-day plans with storm.
For some reason, I expect the cemetery to be visited mostly by Americans, part of a particularly American tourist twist—travel abroad yet only visit American sites, in service to a kind of narrow nationalism. But as I walk around the cemetery, I am surprised to hear a medley of French and British English, with only a scattering of American English. And I am surprised, too, at the impact the cemetery has on me, and the connections between the long-ago story of Arthur and this memorial on Norman soil.
This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor, and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.
–Colonnade inscription at the Normandy American Cemetery
The living presence, yet poignant absence, of the young men, Allied and German, who fought against each other on D-Day is palpable, welling up from the land, substantiating the breeze. When I see the beautiful, yet empty beach and the infinity pool that is part of the memorial, it feels right to have taken this circuitous way.