French Gratitude in Port-en-Bessin, Normandy
Shortly after my grandfather, a World War II veteran’s passing over a year ago, I heard my mother first express her interest to visit Normandy. The French shores where my grandfather met war in 1944 called to her— to remember, reflect and honor her dad and a whole generation.
Like so many of our trips, it started with a spark. I shared that spark with Filippo and he graciously said he would come pick us up in Paris and take us up to Normandy. We had the perfect guide at our hands to pepper the journey with history and translate along the way.
And like many of our trips, this was last minute. Our relaxed travel-planning nature gravely underestimated how challenging it would be to find lodging in Normandy on the eve of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day.
After countless calls all over Normandy, Filippo started to sweat. By the time we reunited (in a cliché embrace in view of the Eiffel Tower), I had secured a few additional numbers for Filippo to work his third language charm.
Denied, denied, denied, and then in a final attempt to breathe life back into this trip, Filippo’s charm and perseverance struck gold; a lovely French couple offered to open up their home to the desperate.
So there, us desperate were, bumping down a one-lane country road, past charming French cottages, seemingly into the middle of nowhere.
Yet when we got to “nowhere,” it was nothing of the sort. The town where we would meet our French hosts, Port-en-Bessin, was vibrant and alive. American, British, and Canadian flags were strung across the streets and army green military vehicles from the 40’s filled the roads, as if the town itself were a decorated Christmas tree. How remarkable it was to be in another country and see even more fluttering flags than on Independence Day. That was all it took to realize what D-Day and the sacrifice of so many means to the people of Port-en-Bessin, of Normandy, and of Europe.
After meeting our hosts and settling in, we bundled up a bit and made the short stroll into town. The cafés and restaurants were lit with people drinking and dining to the sounds of motors and marching from the parade passing through.
We found a bar on the corner spilling with Brits drinking pints as the sun dropped behind the emerald cliff to the west. These friendly folks made fast friends and soon our party of three had turned into a table of six. While the friends and empty glasses multiplied, darkness settled, but one more surprise awaited us. In succession down the beaches there would be one fireworks show after the next. Our position in Port-en-Bessin was perfect for a front row seat.
A dozen or so different nationalities stood tasting the chilly sea breeze, fixated upon the show, but my interest was wrapped up in the 89-year-old witty Brit named Ken. Ken had liberated this village back in WWII, so you can imagine his celebrity on such a momentous occasion on the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. For but a moment he was away from his adorers, sipping his pint and trying to capture the glow ahead on his digital camera. Moments like this with some of the last living veterans would engrave this experience in Normandy in my memory forever.