When I started my trip, I decided that I would collect a few patches for my pannier. On my last trip, I got a start and ending patch (Seattle-Banff). I thought I might do the same on this trip. When I left Amsterdam, I had a tailor sew on an Amsterdam patch and a Dutch flag on my bag because they looked cool. I did not think much of this, until several weeks into the trip when folks in Belgium and France kept assuming I was Dutch. In Normandy, I took the Dutch flag off with my pocket knife.
It is an odd time to be an American in Europe. If the conversation goes beyond my bike and what the hell I am up to (and most often it has not), it turns to concern over American politics, questions on the electoral college, anger at the current Administration and the war in Iraq. While I am well-informed, I think I may be too cynical to be a decent representative of our country. I shake hands, smile, and say, “Yep, I agree we are screwed. I am so sorry.”
I thought I would be nearly alone at the National Cemetery above Omaha Beach because of my week in the nearly deserted cemeteries of Flanders. I was surprised to find it crowded and almost boisterous with tourists. I felt angry at the intrusion, that this bluff and beach is the most sacred of American of ground. The intensity of anger surprised me. I am normally, a rather far-minded fellow. I did not want to hear German. The German flag flying above the rented cabin on the beach was sacrilege. The men fishing, the folks strolling, the kids playing on this beach of death. It made me feel ashamed of us and of myself. Because the world goes forward and of course it was right.
At the cemetery, I was equally surprised at my disgust for the monument, engraved after the flush of victory, detailing the conquest of Germany in the most heroic terms. Were these men who died here heroes or victims of governments out of control? How do you consol the thousands of loved ones at home with them buried here on a foreign shore? If not for timidity, could Hitler and his rise to power been avoided? When and where should we acknowledge our government’s own role in the death of innocent civilians such as those killed in the fire bombings? I could not make an answer. I still can not.
That night, I played Boule with a Swiss teenager who did not speak much English. We managed and he taught me a couple tricks to improve my game on the dusty patch above the beach we played on. His family was obviously at the cemetery that day or would go on the morrow, walking around the graves of the American boys far from home, speaking in German. It is not like I could identify the dialect, like I could say there is good German or bad German. I don’t know what impression it made on him because I could not speak German to ask him. I hope he felt a sense of wonder and pride in my country, despite the things our government has done or is currently doing that we should be ashamed about.
I never did find an American flag to sew on my bike. I will find one when I am back. I’ll sew it on the front bag so I don’t have to worry about vendettas from behind. So perhaps I’m still a bit cynical and playing it safe, but I’m not ashamed of being American. I only wish I had a bit more skill to share my concerns as our country hurtles forward with a stories of heroics and liberations. I’m working on that.
I feel fortunate to have gotten here.
Pictures from the D-Day Beaches of Normandy